“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/
“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/