“…I was thrown out of Smyrni and all I do is cry… I smoke hashishi and play the outi in café Aman…”
(from “Prosfigaki”, or “Refugee” by Markos Melkon)
The Greek “Amanedes”, or laments, prefigured Rembetika music, which, like the Blues, were born out of extremities of loss, displacement, grief; these songs carried the soul of a people; they became so popular in the 1920s and 30s that, Gail Holst-Warharft tells us in the Kimon Friar lecture she gave at Deree College, «The Asia Minor Refugees and their Influence on Modern Greek Music», there was discussion of taxing them. After the lecture I asked her if maybe I’d misunderstood but she said yes, in the 30s, there were editorials considering a tax. Kemal Ataturk made the laments illegal, as they were «not European enough» in his «Europeanizing agenda» for Turkey that included outlawing beards. So the lament came to Greece with the influx of refugees during the Asia Minor catastrophe, and the subsequent population exchanges mandated by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Whole villages were uprooted and generations forced to move and resettle in places where their histories were unknown and foreign. The “Amanedes” was the music that told their stories.
How does one tax a lament? Not particularly first world to think in these terms, but after what’s been happening in Greece, unsurprising that a government, or in this case the troika, might find opportunity in a people’s pain. The taxing, for example of meat, which was then shifted to education, and now has settled on wine – expresses some of the disastrous fumblings to find ways to squeeze money out of a dying economy and repay an impossible debt. To try in all this to keep “positive” assumes agency, that there are choices that will at least attempt better conditions. It’s the story of the refugee, and the tragedy of the crisis of Syrians and others gambling their lives to reach a shoreline into better lives.
That Greece is the entry point is another irony. There are constant updates on what’s happening in Lesbos for example. A lot of people are involved. There’s another a darkness to this, as there perhaps always is when people’s lives come with a price tag. The stories are amazing and devastating; that one would get into a boat, and leave everything behind for some unknown tomorrow says a lot about the pull of sheer life as the example of someone like Aysha would suggest, a pregnant mother of two and a professional who left everything she’s ever known in Aleppo to make her way to Europe.
The refugee crisis has generated a lot of discussion about essential realities worth defending, and fighting for. Germany continues to call the shots, but some in that government have realized the precarity. Still, Greece is slowly dying in its debt impasse, there’s a malaise and sense of hopelessness that is palpable and also a radical reassessment of assumptions of certainty or safety.
One thing about inconsolable grief, it makes visible the human costs that can’t be compensated. Maybe this is part of what Ataturk didn’t like about the laments, the rawness of pain is a reflection of our vulnerability. And the chorus in any tragedy is always a collective voice, it warns and mourns and tells the story: “Aman, Aman” Roza Eskenazi repeats, a Greek-Jew, who made her name in the 20s and 30s. She was a legend in a world of mainly male Rembetika singers and musicians, her haunting refrain of “Aman” (“mercy” or “alas”), is a dirge of loss, of the excesses — hashish, wine, cocaine, beauty – that, alas, tax the broken in song.