We knew war here too once

From the Guardian. Photo by Argiris Mantikos.
From the Guardian. Photo by Argiris Mantikos.

By now you’ve probably seen this story—I like The Guardian’s version, by Helena Smith—of a Greek man who swept in to save Eritrean refugees whose boat capsized, “disintegrated” is how he put it, dissolved as if it were made of paper, off the coast of Rhodes. My friend Martha, who has a house in Rhodes, commented that it was fortunate the refugees were close to shore and that it was morning. Greeks in the cafes took notice quickly, many hopped in small seacraft or swam out to rescue. Wegasi Nebiat, whose parents “paid $10,000 for a voyage that would see her walk, bus, and fly her way to ‘freedom’,” has her sights are set on Sweden, not Greece, and the choice of Greece as an entryway to Europe was likely purely geographical—all those islands one could get a toehold on, then catch a ferry to Athens and be on your way—but this story fits into a longstanding narrative of travelers coming to Greece for a greater freedom than they have at home. In the earlier days of the 18th to 20th centuries the travelers were coming from the West—Britain, the United States—seeking relief from stultifying customs, sexual repressions, gender constraints. Greece, a place less free than their restrictive homes, gave them a comparative sense of liberty and license. Does Greece continue to be seen as a beacon of hope, a land of freedom, for the newcomers, those whose travel, if we can call it that, is forced?

We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli
From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.

When I returned to Athens last week the first thing I did, still in the fog of jetlag, was race over to the Athens & Epidaurus Festival to catch the final performance of We are the Persians! A documentary drama that spliced passages from Aeschylus’ Persians and Suppliants into real-life stories of recent refugees and immigrants to Greece from Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, it created a stirring and sobering look into their lives, in which the terror of war and daily uncertainty of life in a destruction zone has been replaced with the terror of interrogation, prolonged precarity, and the tedious humiliations of prejudice.

From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.
From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.

Directed by Yolanda Markopoulou, the play was a production of Station Athens, an art therapy organization for refugees and asylum seekers in Athens. Station Athens opens a portal to escape momentarily the relentless fight for mere existence and, using the meaning-making tools of theatre, film, and photography, transform memories into stories to be shared with one another and audiences hungry to know the hidden lives and inner worlds of these invisible men who work the margins of the streets.

From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.
From We are the Persians! Photo by Elina Giounanli.

Packed into the black box space on 260 Pireos, the theatre audience was tangibly sympathetic and, from what I could tell with my limited Greek, fully embracing the plight of the men.

The island of Kos, barely two miles from Turkey.
The island of Kos, barely two miles from Turkey.

This summer the island of Kos is the epicenter of a series of daily stories about the waves of refugees who, having paid large sums for the chance, make their voyage under cover of night, clinging to unseaworthy craft—in the starkest of contrasts to the holidaymakers on Kos making the reverse trip to the coast of Turkey paying very little for a breezy cruise on sturdy ferries.   The Daily Mail has taken the crass road of fearmongering in their stories of the “Holiday from hell” in which your vacation will be ruined by the presence of Syrians paying to sleep in crowded conditions in an abandoned hotel (or, as that paper puts it, “bedding down as they plot their route to Britain”). The Guardian has presented a warmer, more sympathetic vision of the situation. In response to a woman from Germany who complains that tourists “come to get away from the terrible news of wars and whatnot, not to see it” and concludes, “they shouldn’t be allowed to land,” one of the “elderly fish sellers on the harbourside scolds her: ‘Lady, you’d rather have bodies on the beaches? Tsk. We knew war here too once.’”

P.S. Who has the right to live?

 Anthropologist and Fulbright scholar Heath Cabot spent several years working with people “seeking to live tolerable, even ethically engaged, lives in ways that are often undone through forces outside their control.” She shares her discoveries in the book I next need to read, On the Doorstep of Europe: Asylum and Citizenship in Greece. In a lecture last night at the Athens Centre, which drew a crowd hailing from many nations, former asylum seekers alongside privileged expats and mobile travelers, all eager for an answer to Greece’s “other crisis,” she said that this was the central dilemma, the guiding question, of her work. And of our time. Who has the right to live?

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