“Τί μας βρήκε”  

(“What found us” a Greek expression)

After the fires that destroyed Mati on Monday July 23, and claimed the lives of 97 confirmed victims, people talked for weeks of what went wrong, what could have happened, what did happen. I knew people who knew people who died. Someone I would nod to in the hallways at work, a familiar face, died. A lot of animals died. A lot of trees burned. I took notes, hardly able to process the tragedy. I live a 15-20 minute drive away. This is what I did w/ my notes:


You’ll go to yoga after buying a kilo of apricots

They’re going for a euro a kilo at the end of today’s market day, Monday

At 2p.m., the vendors are hawking the cheapest prices, and the winds are manic

Sometime in the middle of the night

You wake to the charred-air smell, feral winds — somewhere there’s a fire

Sometime in the middle of the night the sound of a text message on your cell —


You’ve made it a habit of not watching the news, so you hear it this way or rather

You smell it

See it too — the sky’s diffused early morning orange


In the pharmacy someone is gesturing, when we start thinking of

Our televisions & houses, we’ve lost everything! And the pharmacist nods

Her products are overpriced but she agrees with the gesticulating man,

Says her father said first the neighbor then my family

At work people’s office doors are open (those still at work since it’s July)

Here you hear the Business Dean’s assistant is missing

Someone in the library made it to the water, saved hours later

There were boats from Rafina, Rafina wasn’t burning

You see the images from your desktop, the dog that looks sad

On his rock, all the dogs, all the cats — the rodents, the caterpillars, all

The worms you imagine burned, so you leave your desk, tell your Dean

You’re going to see if you can find any animals alive


And she says, do you plan to do bring them all back to your apartment?

You don’t know. You just leave. You buy dry dog and cat food, and 12 bottles of water


The once-blue road signs are burnt blank, some heat-bloated like caricatured letters,

The earth’s smoking. You park the car on the roadside, a church in front of you


Further on, police removing roadblocks, you keep going on Marathonas,

Then turn — the stench in your throat, see the carcass of cars on a side street

You have a melon with you, cat and dog food, and 12 bottles of water


An older woman was looking at me. She was walking down the side street, or crossing & re-crossing from one side to the next, as I was moving slowly in the car

She came to my side talking in mid-sentence, gesturing, … all picked up, he hasn’t Stopped but all the cuttings were sitting in the streets… It was that time we prune —

Everything was piled up now he’s picking it up… we left and repeated, as if I had not heard her, we left. The house is okay but we left it. We had some awnings

For the children so they wouldn’t be under the sun, those are gone… I nodded, moved on up the street back to Marathonas, waved as she continued down the street

There were no animals, the sky still grey, smoke-hazed

There had been no alert

No church bells

No alarm

No sirens

No warning

… Oh my god our arrogance!


Later I listen to the news, endless interviews, the mayor of Marathonas, the head of the fire brigade, the head of the fire fighter volunteers: It could have been

Stopped & not cost a single life had it been caught in Kalitechnoupolis — some addled man was burning trash, he was always burning trash, but it was the winds that day

Their direction, a lack of communication. It could have been stopped if water had been dumped on that trash. The winds were going at 80 kilometers…

Planes couldn’t fly to dump water… The winds kept changing direction… Her husband called from Rafina to say the fire was in Voutsa; she was in Mati with their son, her

mother too, the police were now on the Marathonas road directing traffic toward the seacoast as the flames came down the mountain, as they reached Marathonas

Skipped the asphalt at 80 kilometers an hour, maybe at 100, who knows, cars jamming

the side streets into Mati, trees burning houses burning streets burning people screaming burning


People can’t stop talking about what happened —

When will we understand our houses and TVs won’t save us?

This State…

Why weren’t people evacuated?

It went so fast

Of course there was no rain when we needed it…

Now the rain floods Marathonas, mud slush coming down the burnt hillsides, ash, dead branches, debris

Now is all about what went wrong

The mayor in his ironed white shirt, his loosened black tie looked like he’d come out of a club when they interviewed him that night

Speaking fast he was saying no none, no human effort, could keep up w/ the pace of the winds, though police had misjudged

Sent traffic into the jammed streets of Mati, smoke-blinded, gagging, people were screaming, some left their cars, trying to find the sea

Did your house burn too? The reporter asks, and the mayor w/ longish hair laughs Of course it burned, thankfully it burned!

Thankfully? Asks the reporter, Yes thankfully, the mayor gives another short laugh, Otherwise, they’d think I started the fires


 I can’t talk about this anymore, someone says at work

At work we’re not talking about it

It being the fact of Katia, that she had most likely died in the fire with her 21 year old son, her mother and husband

Still missing — someone went to check the hospitals — any news? I ask tentatively

No news. No news… the person in the Xerox room is almost dismissive

She was probably in that group of 26, huddled together in the lot, meters from the sea

 I don’t remember who said it but it was finally said

Like Pompeii, a friend writes from the States. Like Pompeii families were caught, with minutes to decide — even seconds weren’t enough

A young 13-year old athlete jumped hoping she’d find the sea but it was a cliff

A grandparent taking care of the two grandchildren, babies really, wrapped them in wet cloths and gave them quickly to someone I’m staying with him she said

And pointed to her husband who was too old to run

A man with a dog who had just given birth tried to get them out of the house but the dog wouldn’t move, so he went down into a basement room, and waited

And lived

There are people so much more important than any of us, says Elina days later, days later the stories accumulate, we hear too of a young husband who grabbed his child

out of the car

And ran

And left his young wife behind

You mean he didn’t even grab her hand? We watch him on TV the day after looking at a metal carcass on the side of a charred street, expressionless


The air is still acrid. I was looking for what might be alive

Found a still-live electrical wire, the wood column like a smoldering match

Wind siphons its sound through the stripped trees

The silence had a color and smell

The only body that seemed to be moving



Days after

The hot water on my hand the burnt shrimp in the oven the closeness of the pine branches to my balcony the wait for the elevator in the basement the low-ceilings of the ferry the smell of the grill the press of people in the corridor the heat the heat the heat the heat of anything near my skin… has me weeping

It changes you, someone says, these situations, these fucking situations

The words brittle, charged, sometimes impossible, sometimes matter-of-fact, as in the words of the young husband who said, I didn’t look back, his expression blank but for the — on his back the child he grabbed, placed on his shoulders & swam & swam & swam & was finally saved. But not his — she was — where he didn’t — back where the fire would have burned —



It’s the volunteer with the bad teeth I think of, the small animal she described in the midst of the empty landscape, it came running to us and I cupped some water in my palm for it, then it ran off, confused. It was trembling, that small, tiny thing looking for some life, some way to survive

 9 days later

People in the cafés in Rafina are talking about it

What if it had been a Sunday?

What if it had happened at night, & everyone was sleeping…

Because it happened in the late afternoon, on a Monday

Because it was as tragic as it was

What if

The man who had called his wife had said leave! instead of going to find them in his car, what if they had not gone into three cars, and tried to leave in those streets, they

In that group of 26, caught in the flames, hugging

What if

The government had warned people, all those churches, someone says, in the villages we ring the bells

What if

The man had not grabbed A’s arm, and said Not that way, you’ll burn & separated her from K, who did burn

Alexandra wants to throw a rock at the television

What if someone took some responsibility for once! These ministers are so cynical, no one even cried!

What if the state had actually used the alert they bought after the 2007 fires in Zacharo, what if people got an SMS, which would have cost nothing?


A reporter was talking to a homeowner in one of the destroyed yards. I was in my car. I’d just spoken to the woman who kept crossing and re-crossing the street

The yard was charred and a young guy, maybe the owner’s son, was cutting away at the black stems of what had been a garden, he looked at me and I looked at him

And then I drove away






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Op/Ed: Greece’s Exodus is the beginning of its travails in the desert (by John Psaropoulos)



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Are there any Greeks in this publication? (3)

Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics

A few weeks ago the Times Literary Supplement published a letter about its abysmal coverage of modern Greek literature.  The correspondent complained that they “rarely list Modern Greek poetry and prose.”  I was not surprised that no other letters on this topic followed, since they would have been in vain.

I have been reading the TLS for half a century, and know well its low esteem for new writing in Greek. Furthermore, I have seen this esteem evaporate since Classics Editor Mary Beard and Editor Peter Stothard adopted their infamous anti-Hellenic policy some twenty years ago.  Dame Mary assumes that nothing ever admired as Greek deserves its reputation while Sir Peter has declared that nothing of interest has been coming out of Greece.  (I know, I have invited both of them to lecture on campus.)

There is a problem, of course.  Greeks may be downgraded or ignored but Greece cannot be…

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done by people acting as a group.

“a collective protest”


a cooperative enterprise.

“the anarchist collective and bookshop”


“When in doubt I’m told, write what I know. So I peel my eye to the moment, my love of it. I wake from a dream about running I interpret as the desire to get there.”

Layli Long Solidier, Whereas


I’ve been thinking about collectives. I wanted to post something because I was teaching a ‘writing for the social media’ seminar in Freiburg & thought to do an assignment w/ my students. Then time got the better of me, weeks later the seminar’s over, the creature in the White House continues to spread nightmare, the news more foreboding, and I’m back in Athens.

So collectives — a way to manage something together; Hannah Arendt in a late interview was talking about the power of the ‘we’ in “Eichmann was Outrageously Stupid” — that he represented “a new type of criminal,” the functionary who wants “to go along with the rest,” so not evil in the classical sense of the fallen angel with Iago-esque vengeance. But more like a machine. And this is where Arendt’s famous notion of the banality of evil comes in. Though the point of the human is that it isn’t a machine. Nevertheless, this is the reality: Eichmann as representative of “a very dangerous gentleman” who wanted to say “‘we,’ … wanting-to-say-we like this were quite enough to make he greatest of all crimes possible. The Hitlers, after all, really aren’t the ones who are typical in this kind of situation — they’d be powerless without the support of others.” Arendt describes this kind of “going along” is what “involves lots of people acting together —” that this is what produces power. “So long as you’re alone you’re always powerless.”

So collectives again — they can go both ways, or in Arendt’s words, “This feeling of power that arises from acting together is absolutely not wrong in itself, it’s a general human feeling. But it’s not good, either. It’s neutral… simply a phenomenon,” so I think of all those following orders, caging minors, building camps, of the debt/loan experiment that leached Greece so it could stay in a union of European states — these groups with their ideas and purposes for a system, whether of law, ideology, economy or a mélange of these, meant to keep or put in place a mechanism of power… maybe this is what I want to write about, of the bodies caught in mechanisms, the body as threshold.

When in Freiburg I lived in a collective where I shared time and meals but didn’t always have the language to say the things I wanted to because I don’t speak German. I also spend time with refugee families and have learned language is broader than the merely literate as communication is achieved in multiple ways that include how we move our bodies, touch, gesture, sing. Layli Long Soldier has Arthur Sze’s words as an epigram to the beginning of Whereas “No word has any special hierarchy over any other” and I think yes but also that it’s been precisely the ability to prioritize meaning according to specific interests — such as following orders in the Eichmann sense, upholding DT’s “Muslim Ban” in the legal discursive sense — that sabotages and redacts the singular body and its singularity of experiences.

Giorgio Agamben talks a lot about biopolitics, a term first used by Michel Foucault; this “growing inclusion of man’s natural life in the mechanisms and calculations of power,” is discussed in Agamben’s theorizing of “The Camp as Biopolitical Paradigm of the Modern” or “… as the ‘Nomos’ of the Modern.” He points out, “What happened in the camps so exceeds the juridical concept of crime that the specific juridico-political structure in which those events took place is often simply omitted from consideration.” Rereading Agamben is helpful if chilling. He suggests that we take a step back to look rather coldly (in the Yeatsian sense … “Cast a cold eye…”?) And ask the question: “What is a camp, what is its juridico-political structure, that such events could take place there? This will lead us to regard the camp not as a historical fact and an anomaly belonging to the past (even if still verifiable) but in some way as the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living.”

So “the hidden matrix” of a collective might be anything from FB telling me “Community means a lot” and “What we do together matters” as they file away my data, and tell me how many times I’ve clicked on the heart emoji for love, to DT’s wish for a Midas touch on everything he can get his hands on. Once exposed perhaps a matrix can be taken apart. As Arendt reminds us it takes functionaries to keep systems in place. But there is also the molecular level. I love the expression and sound of “molecular.” Molecular as in atoms and their production and behavior in relation to the chemistry of bonds that, to continue the metaphor, cluster to make larger elements of themselves. As bodies, as with living cells, we are not predictable in the way machines can be programmed to be. I think this is our hope anyway.



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Squat Days

“There weren’t two worlds, but only men trying desperately to deny other men. But it was that above all which was impossible:”

Georges Perec, “Robert Antelme or the Truth of Literature”

I see Mohamed sitting on a chair in the corridor. When he sees us coming into the building he greets us. It’s been awhile. Some of us were last here in early August and then left the city. I ask about Rakia, his young wife, who is pregnant, and of course Asma, who we nicknamed “the squat baby”. She was 7 months old when they’d arrived but had her second birthday in July. I remember her as the baby with the frown. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any child that young with such a consistent frown and thought it a sign of her wisdom.


I wrote the above 3 months ago. It’s now the end of another year and one of the things I wanted to finish before it ends is what I’d started to express in this blog – the images, feelings of time spent at the squat – it seems unlucky to leave thoughts unfinished when they have to do with particular moments – that just hastens time’s thieving. Anyway the 2017 squat days were very much a part of this year. One of the qualities of living off-the-grid, as a friend put it, means a certain intensity imbues aspects of life that are often taken for granted. It also changes those qualities. “The basics” – water, food, shelter – treated/received as gifts. In the midst of a July heat wave there was running water and some fans. We brought plastic basins and filled them up and everyone got in them. In the bathroom there was a faucet that seemed never to stop running. Rosha took me by the hand to show me – I could fill the pails faster that way which we were using to turn the basins into pools. The fans in the rooms also helped with the heat. Azize apologized that hers wasn’t working when I sat with her. I tell her I’ll bring a new one, and she says they’ll fix this one. It needed new wiring – she showed me by holding up the plug and wire. The kids were coming and in and out of the room continuously. They used the wide hallway to jump rope and skateboard and play. They took turns running Asma in her carriage up and down the hallway that was now cool as opposed to its frozen tang in winter; winter had the classroom doors closed (what were once classrooms) keeping in the heat with floor heaters and blankets. Everyone played with Asma; she was Salahé’s favorite, Salahé who has 4 children of her own would buy her a single candy from a kiosk down the road, Maedeh told me she did this every morning. Then from being pushed in a carriage and held, we saw Asma suddenly walking, making unsteady, determined steps toward the sheets we spread in a corner of the playground for the drawings, paintings, puzzles and other things we brought for the couple of hours we were with the kids. She was still frowning.


When we were back in September Asma and Rakia were gone. Maedeh’s family would also leave for Sweden at the end of the month. Rakia’s husband had stayed behind, unable to join them. As Afghans they were not given the same relocation options as other groups like the Syrians. Rakia would make it to Germany. She gave birth to her second daughter last month in a camp. The squat, certainly the hallway on the ground floor, felt emptier. Rosha was also in Germany, and her mother also left behind. There were distant relatives in Germany her mother explained. One afternoon at the squat she came out to the playground to show us Rosha waving into the cell phone showing us she’d painted her nails blue.

Then in November the drains backed up. Alicia pointed out it’s one of the reasons the school was abandoned in the first place. Portable toilets lined one side of the playground and there was a distinct acridity in the air. It cost 80 euros every two days to have the toilets cleaned. The municipality had sent someone to check out the drainage, a pipe that ran outside the building was being checked when one of the neighbors came out and told them to stop, that this would force the people from the building. Incredibly, or maybe not so incredibly, the workers left the job unfinished, and the water that was flowing so effortlessly in the summer all but stopped. The outside sinks went dry where we did tooth brushing stints, and where women carried out stacks of plates, cups and bowls to wash.



A desk was pushed up against the downstairs bathroom where Rosha had taken me in July to fill up the plastic basins. Kastro started a campaign to clean out the pipes, he and others in the squat would do it. I found him in the playground last week in plastic gear and rubber gloves. It was going to cost 1,200 euros for the municipality to come back and fix the pipe, but they wanted the current drain cleaned out first. They were finding amazing things in those pipes: shoes, jumpers, forks, spoons. He also lit a cigarillo, smoking as he told me they’d raised some of the money from the produce they harvested on the land near Corinth where a group from the squat have been working since last spring. You can contribute here.


Meanwhile I’d been reading more Perec. I went back to his essays several times this year, reading him, rereading Agamben. Both writers reference the Nazi camps as reminders of some of the less overt legacies of that holocaust. For Agamben in “The Camp as ‘Nomos’” he notes further to the question of how “such atrocity could be committed” is how “juridicial procedures and deployments of power” manage to “so completely” deprive human beings of “their rights and prerogatives that no act committed against them could appear any longer as a crime.”

Think of these families in their displacement. Think of what is happening in some of the “hot spots” – as the refugee camps are called, of the camp in Moira . Think of the ways the Trump administration is cutting away support for vulnerable groups, “vulnerable” now one of the 7 terms whose use is being “forbidden” as policy analysts put together the 2018 budget proposals for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) – is that # deliberate, one of God’s 7 deadly sins?

Here’s Perec on the divisions of “barbed wire that divides the camp from the innocent space of the German countryside [that] is supposed to separate two worlds.” —

“Everything gives the SS guard away. Unable to do everything, he can no longer do anything. He is possessed. He remains powerless before language, and before memory. He has no power over Sundays, or over sleep. He can’t cancel the nights altogether. He can do nothing against the west wind, against the West, against the planes flying over Germany, against the sound of the guns. He can’t halt History.”

Despite Trump’s power he too has given himself away. One hopes history’s examples of its excesses will again prove themselves impotent in the face of what Perec describes as “a new relationship between the deportee and his own body, with his singularity, with his individual history (his past and his memory, his present, and his possible future), and with others.” One hopes we will come upon these divisions and see in the example of the refugee a new mapping where “the sharp light of a more universal system” provides possibilities that overwrite “the system of the camps, the system of the exploitation of one man by another…”

For those in Athens tomorrow there will be a party to raise money to help solve the pluming crisis at the 5th Lykeion. Come to Archarnon 24 after 6pm.

Related stories & links:

“Nurzai’s Odyssey” https://thesewaneereview.com/nurzais-oddyssey/

“The Parts Don’t Add Up” http://www.slagglasscity.org/soapbox/section-12-cracks-in-the-sidewalk/parts-dont-add/

“The Unhoused” https://blog.superstitionreview.asu.edu/2017/07/13/guest-post-adrianne-kalfopoulou-the-unhoused/

“Crossing Borders” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/144785/crossing-borders

SURF (Syrian United Refugee Fund) https://syrianunitedrefugeefund.org/2017/07/26/refugee-village-for-freedom/




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Are there any Greeks in this book? (1)

Important insights by Vassilis Lambropoulos on questions raised in Zahi Zalloua’s book re “The Palestinian Question”

Piano Poetry Pantelis Politics

Comparisons of Hebraism and Hellenism are often marked by an extraordinary void,
the absence of any modern Greeks. While such comparisons always refer to Jewish figures of modernity and cite Jewish writers, Greeks of the last three centuries are absent both from these surveys and their sources.

Most recently I was intrigued by the subtitle of a new book by Zahi Zalloua (Professor of French and Interdisciplinary Studies at Whitman College),” Beyond the Jew and the Greek”, and tried to find out who are some representative figures of the two archetypes in it.  This subtitle is explained in the “Epilogue: “The figure of the Palestinian, traced in this study, declines the phantasms of the Jew and the Greek: the Jew and the Greek conceived either as figures of exemplary wholeness or monolithic entities” (131).

Already the “Introduction” refers to Marx, Dreyfus, Adorno, Levinas, Derrida, and Oz
as well as non-Jewish…

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Border Lives

–always some kind of map stretching be-/yond these lines: history, politics, progress… Memories dimmed to the quality/ of ancient murals… I find a new road I never knew existed or, is it an old/ street deprived of its landmarks?//

Jane Satterfield, “Landscape and Departure”


It’s Sunday and I’ve gone to the squat again, and it’s March, which means it’s been a year since many of the refugee families I’ve grown close to moved into the abandoned school building. Tonight there are different groups in the playground area, some cooking, some playing ball. I’m using the jump rope and the kids are taking turns. Last March we began visiting the squat, Alicia who started our “Central Athens Volunteers” group would often begin with stories and songs now most of the kids know by heart, like Four Little Monkeys jumping on the bed. Heniah sings it sometimes when she sees us. Last March there were people sleeping through the hallways, at the top of the steps, on the steps, people who had made it as far as Greece and Athens. I remember one scene when we had brought a slew of flip flops, one the young girls took me by the hand to show me her father asleep on the floor, to see if one of the pairs would fit his feet. They were the wrong color, probably better for a woman, he woke up and laughed, and gestured that it was okay, he didn’t need them. The intensity of how some of the children will ask for things for one of their parents, one of their brothers or sisters, someone besides themselves still stuns me; one young girl last week who might have been 12 put on my shoes when I took them off to sit on our spread sheet, and walked off with them laughing and showed me she wanted a lipstick for her mother in exchange for them because we had brought some and then ran out. One of the boys, maybe he was also 12 or 13 who was wearing a pair of sneakers that were torn was called over by some of his friends and shown the runners Alicia had brought because the pair didn’t fit them and his shoes were clearly a mess. I am taken with how the kids respond, always happy for the things we might bring them they also ask for someone else too. It seems basic enough until the realities of what dis-member them makes apparent the systemic disease of our time – that the dream of a Europe (let alone a world) in which populations could move between countries, and find refuge from the threats to their lives is fast shrinking, hostage to the neurosis and pathologies of the desires of the dominant. As I write this I realize it’s redundant to speak of neurosis and pathology and “the desires of the dominant” since desires that insist on dominating are by definition neurotic, if not pathological.

As northern Europe closed its borders last March, Greece in its own crisis of austerity found itself in yet another space of adjustment. Maybe Greece will be, as it has so often been, peninsula that it is, another crossroads for change and influence. Here where the borders are porous and the economy now devastated, maybe like the person who has lost everything, Greece will become the place for new narratives of survival. Like the refugee the country is also a body of the unexpected as institutions of power and hegemony are in their own crisis. These do go together. That is, it’s not by chance that Greece is where it is, nor is it that an institution like the UNHCR is feeling defensive of its protocols. Like any refugee, down to the grit of life, the answers are as basic as the questions. And this most recent story, of which there must be at least hundreds, is indicative. Fatima, a 26 year old Afghani woman on the run with her mother from the brutality of her father’s home, a powerful mullah in Kabul, is emblematic of how systems more wedded to their power than the constituents to whom their policies are meant to represent, become, like any hegemony, more interested in defending that power than the realities (and lives) its policies were created to protect.

Nadina Christopoulou, who was the Vice-President of the Council of Refugees, and is the co-founder of the Melissa Network in Athens is telling me Fatima’s story over the phone. She repeats her incredulousness at the way the UNHCR has reacted to Fatima’s tragedy. That they are so “wedded to their categories” while having such power; that the cost of resettling Fatima and her two sons in one of the countries they are proposing, such as Sweden, as opposed to Ireland where she has family, would be more costly, and that this “most humanitarian of institutions” is in fact being quite inhuman. Ireland has now backtracked on the EU “family reunification” policy that allowed for refugee families to reunite. It seems like a larger political agenda, if not a reflection of a general climate of paranoia. Brexit is now a reality. Hungry is hideously unapologetic about its Nazi sympathies. It voted to remove a statue of the Jewish, Marxist philosopher György (Georg) Lukács from a Budapest park. Trump is putting forward his nightmare agenda, and as Masha Gessen says, there are specific rules for survival under an autocracy, one of them being to take seriously an autocrat’s intentions, outrageous as they are.

Outrage is the moment we are living in as borders imposed on our humanity are dismembering us; and it is happening in very concrete ways. In her risk for a better life Fatima lost her legs in the accident when the van the smugglers were driving crashed in Serbia. Her mother Nadia, lost her life. Nadina tells me that when she went to visit Fatima in the Serbian hospital Fatima still didn’t know her mother was dead, that when she found out she had lost her legs she said it didn’t matter to her as long as her mother was alive, “because she is my legs”. When she learned Nadia had been killed in the accident, the woman who had made it possible for them to escape her father’s household, a man whose authoritarianism had resulted in her sister’s self-immolation, Fatima woke up in a country where she was now a cripple, with her mother dead, and her language inadequate. Perhaps Fatima is an example of where we have arrived, of what we have left to us, and how we might begin again.




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The Kindness of Strangers

kiss me, for where else

do we carry home now, habibi,

if not on our lips?

Zeina Hashem Beck, “Naming Things, for refugees, September 2015


I dislike the idea of essentialism. I want to believe we always have that choice of an alternative. Not to be bound by the essential. Yet I live in Athens and have been involved with the lives of refugees. The smallest gestures become magnified, and essential. It started with short trips to the port with other volunteers when the borders closed, now there are weekly or twice weekly visits to a squat. Even the larger questions of justice and inequality are subsumed by board games, requests for flip-flops, socks, and hair dye. Fatima asking for shoes, Narghes saying she wants a pair also. Abude insists I come with him to see “the mountain” in a schoolyard where there is no mountain in sight. But he is determined to show me, and takes me by the hand to point through the green awnings a group of Spanish volunteers put across the playground to shelter it from the sun. “You see it?” he wants me to see. And yes, there’s a hill behind the schoolyard that is now occupied by Afghan and Syrian refugees. He was taken there with two of the Spanish volunteers and says, nearly ecstatic, “From up there I could see all of the city!”


Perspective is newly important. Maybe that’s what’s become essential. A part of me, the privileged and educated part of me wants to use that privilege and education to say we can be more than our essential selves. Tell that to someone who barely makes it to a shoreline, I say to myself, someone who makes it with an essential body still intact. The request for a comb by a girl whose teeth are dark with rot, who so carefully makes sure the colors stay within the lines of the drawing she’s made teaches me something else about perspective. That so much has to do with anyone’s priorities. Roberto Bolaño chose to finish his 2666 opus rather than interrupt his work for a kidney transplant he fatally put off. So for Bolaño the more essential impulse was his work, his own teeth weren’t in the greatest shape either.

It seems like almost every time I take the car to the squat (and I take it when there’s a bunch of stuff I’m lugging), I get a parking ticket. Kastro, a Syrian Robin Hood, who has lived in Greece for some 25 years and who finds abandoned buildings for the refugees to squat, says it’s a certain police person who writes tickets at the drop of a hat. He suggests I leave a note on the windshield saying I’m helping out the refugees. I also park right in front of the school building and still get a ticket. The police person is cunning he (I just assume it’s a he), has carefully folded the ticket and left it on the opposite side of the windshield where I have the note. I’m of a mind to wait it out next time, and introduce myself. It’s not as if I’m parked on a sidewalk or anywhere that’s a hindrance, it’s just that that time of day, apparently, cars are ticketed.


I am thinking of tickets and also of the kindness of strangers, and how our traveling is dependent on both. There was a rather sour ticket collector on the train from Basel to Zurich this summer who very haughtily informed me that he didn’t know what kind of ticket I’d handed him; it was a Swiss Air ticket, which was essentially an airline ticket but instead I was taking a train (rather than a plane, Superman). He looked at me coolly and said “Swiss Air doesn’t exist anymore” and that he’s never seen “such a thing,” “thing?” I said equally coolly, adding that whether or not Swiss Air existed I’d paid for the ticket and that maybe he should call his supervisor to take a look at it; the supervisor is much nicer and asks me to explain the ticket so I tell him it was purchased in Athens and that it’s a Swiss Air ticket, “whether that exists now or not” I add, to which he quickly interjects with “yes, it exists”, and after which his frigid colleague asks for my passport and tells me it will be an extra 12 francs for the train, which was fine. I found myself saying to the much nicer supervisor that I was grateful for his politeness, he nodded and wished me a good day.

At the squat I meet new people whose presence gives yet another perspective to my life. Mar has come from Barcelona on her own dime, and she is there to do art with the refugee children. It’s her second visit, she’d spent almost 2 months at the squat, and working at Hotel Oneiro, another shelter, in the summer, and is back this fall, staying nearby where she has to work 3 nights a week for her room and board. Some of the children have become very close to her, and Rama’s family regularly invites her to their corner of space where they make tea and offer her some of their food made on a small burner. She tells me their story, a mother with 7 children, and the mother alone. One day Mar took Rama and his sister Ella to the sea where they swam for the first time since the crossing. The sea was terrifying to Ella, but she got over her fear, and Mar says, was thrilled to be swimming. The children keep in touch with her, someone usually has at least one cell in the family, and “WhatsApp” is the favored cell phone ap. Abude just missed Mar by a couple of days because his sister who is 25 thought they needed to go to Thessaloniki to process their papers. Abude’s mother is in Holland. He is 11, and became very close to Mar in the summer. They talk on the phone and he says he is sad, that the camp where they are staying isn’t good, that the children are wild and he misses the squat.

It’s so strange how these visits have somehow taken over our lives. Alicia sometimes says she doesn’t know what we’re doing, and Mar has come back on barely enough money for her ticket. I leave work once a week and generally feel like it’s a matter of time before someone asks me why I’m not at my desk. After the children draw we ask them to write their names; they’ve taught us certain words in Arabic and Farsi. Ramaz drew a picture on Friday and wanted me to take it because the children tear up her drawings and she wants me to keep it from being torn. I am learning more of their names: Amal, Niaveeh, Hania, Asiel, Ismar, Ibrahim, Hamsa…I am learning that their presence has become as essential to me as our sporadic visits may be for them. Simone Weil writing in 1949 says in “Uprootedness and Nationhood”: “One may say that, in our age, money and the State have come to replace all other bonds of attachment.” Her example was to fight that, and ours too. This is what Mar wrote in her Facebook status update today:


Many of the kids in the shelter had lost a part of their family or they are separated by stupid borders. One of the activities that I make with them is to talk about their family links with the help of paper dolls chains in order to know their situation and to reinforce the idea that sooner or later they will be reunited again. When Tabarak arrived to the 5th school squat in early July, she told me that her father and brother were in Holland and her mother, little sister and herself had been stuck in Greece since March. Yesterday, after many months of bureaucracy, she took a plane to Holland to restore her family links. The night before she told me she was scared about flying… she didn’t realize how brave she is. She survived a war, crossing a death sea, living in extreme conditions in refugee camps… and she never lost her smile or her tenderness. She is one of the most loving, smartest and sweetest persons that I’d ever met and she is only eleven. Good luck, habibi. See you soon. ❤

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Abeer’s Classroom

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

“Dover Beach”, Mathew Arnold


Abeer came up to me with a wide smile and clasped her hands. She said she had news. We had become friends to the extent that she had singled me out in my not always frequent visits to the shelter. Early on she had been pleased two rooms in what might have been a basement of the once abandoned school building the Syrian and Afghan refugees had occupied, was now available to her. Three families who had been using the floors to sleep on had moved out. She was determined to turn the space into a classroom. When she told me this maybe a month ago, the aqua-blue walls with their patches of holes and chipped floors looked pretty dismal. She said she was going to cover them with paper and asked if I could find her some, adding she wanted the paper to be colorful “… if you have some paper for me with lots of color.” She repeated the desire for color when she asked for tacks, “colored pins,” she said, “lots and lots of them to put all over” she gestured, stressing that this would make her students better learners. She was very proud that the students had made a banner on their own with a strip of yellow crepe paper, something we had left behind from an activity. The banner read. “Learning is Fun”. She asked me to help her tape it to the wall. “If learning is not fun there is no learning!” she exclaimed. She said sometimes they were in the classroom till very late, sometimes past midnight.


Another time she asked for “thin paper” which I realized was Xerox paper. I brought her blank paper that wasn’t what she wanted and she repeated the need for “thin paper” so when I did bring her a packet of it she was clearly pleased. She also wanted to know if I could buy ink for the one printer that was in the building. Alicia was getting some donations and other volunteers were crowd sourcing. Sometimes the children and mothers would descend like birds when someone brought something, which was what happened with the flip-flops; people were still wearing closed shoes and it was getting hot. Once we started to bring a few pairs everyone wanted them. I was taken by the hand by one of the young girls and shown a sleeping parent (this was the case with two fathers) so I could see the foot size.

I would think the way we were all thinking that no matter how we felt these realities were extremities we were barely any part of, though Abeer had immediately assumed I would find ways to get her what she needed. And when I did, the list grew; she would ask how much the ink cost; when I said 26 euros she asked if I wanted money. I use the phrase “first world” too often, but I was learning what was not first world was not so much about the accouterments of comfort, though it’s clearly that too, but something to do with a relationship to time, what we do with time when we have it or don’t and how we measure the quality of it with a kind of patience. I really have no ability to imagine what happens when an entire life, let alone a city, is dismantled and have no idea how my own behavior might change but I saw what had been classrooms in the building where some 400 refugees were squatting turned into living spaces, where tents were set up in the rooms, and families living their lives there adjusted to what was offered, how they might or might not accommodate themselves. There were the ongoing necessities – food, water, etc. There was an outbreak of chickenpox, some of the children pointed to their spots and made gestures to show they were itching. A local pharmacy gave us powder for them.


In crisis, time shapes itself quite literally around inhabited physicalities – a body forced out of its home, a body at sea, on the run, shacked up where it finds shelter, becomes a part of its circumstance – once rain flooded the basement floor of the classroom Abeer was setting up, she treated it with as much concern as leaves blown into a room. “What happened!” I’d said one morning, as she was in conversation with another woman, she nodded, “We will bring the mop” and went back to her conversation. Another time I asked if it didn’t tire her that she did so much realizing as I spoke that there was something ridiculous about the question. She used the word “powerful” in a sentence that I don’t remember entirely. She meant she was keeping strong. Beyond the tasks at hand which had to do with her always very specific requests for the classroom – biscuits for the students she wanted to give as rewards, white board markers, colorful pins, a dictionary – we had not said much to one another. I only knew she was from Damascus, and had taught elementary school children there. I avoided questions more personal than someone’s name, where they were from, and if they had family with them. And then Abeer announced that she had her papers. It was then I learned she had two daughters, 18 and 20, and a husband who had made it to Germany.



“I have my ticket,” she said smiling with her hands clasped, “I bought it yesterday, a direct flight to Berlin.” She was very proud to have bought her ticket. I hugged her and she hugged me back. She told me that day she was going to “go to the market to buy gifts.” She has not seen her family in over a year. She has certainly witnessed tragedy. She had put a classroom together in the midst of this, and explained that she needed “to do something”, and couldn’t “only wait.” I offered to drive her to the airport which, like the requests for her classroom supplies, she accepted and let me know I was saving her “about 50 euros” because her bags were too heavy to walk with. I know when I drive her to the airport we will talk more and I will learn things about her life we had not had a chance to talk about and I’ll feel both the exhilaration of her survival and the melancholy of the losses that made it possible, that every time I go back to the shelter the classroom will remind me of the tenderness with which she shaped it out of what she found.




Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! …


…we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.





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The Children

“The opposite of irony is nakedness” Lia Purpura, “Brief Treatise Against Irony”


I was down at the Syrian shelter, or what’s being called ‘Syrian House’ a squat where some 400 people have made a shelter out of an abandoned school. It was the day before Greek, or Orthodox, Easter. There weren’t many people around and things were quiet. It felt peaceful in what’s been an un-peaceful time. Part of a clutch of sporadic volunteers, as Alicia has named the group, my own forays to the port, and now to OM street haven’t been consistent but I find myself spending some part of each week even if for a few hours doing something with the kids or helping out. Some combination of fascination and resistance draws me to these lives. It is perverse too that their uncertainties make my securities feel less consequential.

The children gather in the cement courtyard where they make masks of paper plates, jewelry out of ribbon and pipe cleaners, blow soap bubbles and balloons. There are the grabbers, the organizers, the quietly observing, the politely shy, the eager, the careful, the impatient, the cunning, and any combination of these, and they are learning to repeat words in English as we learn some few words of Arabic. There is a semblance of routine, and real pleasure too when the kids manage concentrate on their activities. I get to know Aktes, and repeat her name until she looks at me in a way that I realize I’m not pronouncing it right so she writes it for me and it is Aqdas, the vowel and consonant combination different and lovely, like Fawat, the young boy of 16 who keeps me company when I spend an afternoon sorting through piles of children and baby clothing. As the children carefully glue their colored feathers on scraps of paper, or draw and write their names I think of the precarities of their surroundings, the homelands they’ve left, and tragedies they’ve seen, as they put care into the detail of a feather, or trace the letters of their names – am I being melodramatic or is this the human drama played out in the flux of structures bent on ignoring the human for that fashionable and scary idea of the post-human – In her treatise against irony Lia Purpura speaks of how irony “prepares for, in advance… [and] won’t admit to heart (too messy, percussive)”, when nakedness, its opposite, makes itself “available to the eyes of others” – and herein lies the rub when you’re in a vulnerable high stakes space – the eyes of others could be in a recognition of our shared lot or the cool look of the privileged drawing lines to border off what might erode presumptions of convenience with all their self-referential language that include “responsibilities to oneself” or “keeping Europe European” as one idiot minister said in one of the European parliaments.

Clarice Lispector might say “ – You see, my love, see how out of fear I’m already organizing, see how I still can’t deal with these primary laboratory elements without immediately wanting to organize hope. Because the metamorphosis of me into myself makes no sense. It’s a metamorphosis in which I lose everything I had.” For the genius of Lispector or the artist more generally or anyone willing to risk a loss of ballast for greater freedoms the wager that will cost you everything is not news but when entire peoples are displaced and dying in their efforts to find refuge and governments are being tone deaf, you wonder at the depths those fears and self-interests, and you know history has been dark with those fears and self-interests that in the end destroyed those self-interests too.


Planks with piles of clothing lying on them in the basement of the building was where Fawat showed me I could help out on Saturday. He was keeping me company by playing various kinds of Urdu and Pashtun music on his phone. He was explaining to me what some of the lyrics meant too, “This is a really ancient song,” he said in perfect English. He used the word “ancient” as opposed to “old” several times. An English class was going on upstairs, and I could hear people repeating the words: “Economy”; “Society”; “Exclusion”; “Seek Unity”; and then the teacher was linking them up into phrases, “We seek unity not exclusion”. While I was sorting tiny baby jumpers from underwear and clothes for older children Kasha, a young mother came in looking for something for her 2 year old, she said she’d been up since dawn and had 6 children she was shaking her head, “everyone wants mama mama mama…” I nodded and laughed and she smiled.



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