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.



About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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1 Response to The Children

  1. CZarc says:

    Thank you for this glimpse into things there. With all the absurdity of American politics playing out now here, the story of the migrants and the tone deafness of the leaders of the EU has faded from media coverage. An ugly irony at that.

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