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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The porous [boundary

Border: noun

  • the part or edge of a surface or area that forms its outer boundary
  • the line that separates one country, state, province, etc., from another; frontier line: You cannot cross the border without a visa
  • the district or region that lies along the boundary line of another

Touch: verb

  • to put your hand, fingers, etc., on someone or something
  • to be in contact with (something)
  • to change or move (something)

It’s raining. Lighting breaks the night. The people in tents are getting wet. Amalia just got back from Xios. Soaked people kept coming up from the beaches, she said; she and others helped strip the bodies of wet pants, shirts. The people didn’t care what parts of their bodies were being touched as she helped them into dry clothing, undressed and dressed them, made tea. Alicia tells me to bring a sheet or blanket to cover the concrete where we’ll go for a few hours to entertain the kids. One girl keeps holding my hand when I get up to get something from the car. A woman watches me as we cross the street. The children are gathered on the blanket drawing and painting, like birds around thrown seeds.

“These are the people who didn’t drown,” Alicia says, the people who continue to let go of the known for the all-too-physical unknown, in tents, using towels and blankets for make-shift spaces to sleep. This physicality starts to obsess me; there are borders of geography, fenced and walled check-points, and the borders, too, of physical need, of hunger, getting a period, being sick, needing to pee, giving birth, – I lay on my sheets after a visit to the port, my sheets never felt more comfortable, and cry – I pick up packets of sanitary napkins to give to a volunteer group at E1. Another day I open the shopping bag with the colored makers and chalk and offer a Kurdish woman a packet of them. She shakes  her head but thanks me. Two Syrian women, one in pale lavender and another in brown, seem so strangely ethereal, their hands clean, their hijabs made of what might have been silk. They could have been going out, or leaving someone’s house after a visit but they are walking across the port’s concrete from their tents. Their unruffled faces are a mystery to me – what will they look like in a month? Another woman is sweeping up trash beside the ground covered in some blankets. I use our broom, hers is straw; we gather the trash. They had come over from one of the islands on one of the boats. I’m appalled to learn everyone pays regular passenger fees. The Greek state is absent here too. Amidst the humanitarian efforts, are activities of a dark tourism. The sorting, feeding, and sustaining is being done by volunteer groups, some very efficient and organized people.

Rebecca Solnit‪ asked this question in a March 5 FB post: … Once the socialist cultural critic Raymond Williams said that, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing”. Where do you stand on this?

These responses resonated:

Ruth Wallen‪: … It is fear of feeling that leads to paralysis, getting stuck in despair. Most importantly we need to cultivate our ability to feel fully, to act from sadness which is inevitable if we open our hearts, but also from the gratitude and possibility that comes simultaneously if we feel our own aliveness.

Annie Shattuck‪: Despair is almost always reactionary – (Sasha Lilley’s great work on Catastrophism reminds us just how this is so). I think people misunderstand hope. We attach to it, as if hope means a certain outcome. Hope does not promise anything. It asks us to be present with what is, and to imagine and then to practice what could be.

Yassin, who might have been 16, helped us clean up. He was in good spirits and spoke some English. Alicia gets the kids to share markers and chalk and reuse some of the pipe cleaners she’s brought which they are so happily blowing their bubbles through. Alicia has made a concoction out of suds. This second time I go to the port there are less Syrians, more Kurds, the men get involved too, drawing and writing, especially flags and names. One woman paints the colors of the Kurdish flag on a pastry she’s shaped out of play dough.

A young man comes over to say it’s kind of us to make the children happy but that this isn’t solving the problem, the toilets are a mess and the borders closing, that “Europe is treating us badly”; he has come alone from Turkey, his brother is in Jordan. He is hoping to make it to Germany, studied engineering, and is 32. A Lexus jeep pulls up and an elderly couple come out; the woman has a bag of croissants she hands out to the children, only one or two of them take the croissants and she wants to know why they won’t take them. “Because it’s not really food,” I tell her. Alicia saw Yassin some days later at another help point; he was in less hopeful spirits, and began to cry. On the metro going home a family of Syrians are on their way to the Larissa station where they were told they could get a bus to the Macedonian border. The man translates the Arabic into English on his phone for me so I understand what he is asking. They are a large group, two elderly men, a younger man, the man’s wife, and their two children; they are carrying carefully folded blankets tied together and backpacks. If it wasn’t for the blankets and the question of directions, they looked as if they could have been on their way to any city in Europe for a vacation.

Annie Shattuck is right “Hope does not promise anything. It asks us to be present with what is… to practice what could be,” this family, like so many traveling to a now-closed border are carrying their hopes to a place where

  • the line that separates one country, state, province, etc., from another; frontier line [will tell them…] You cannot cross the border without a visa

we can only hope they will manage to touch people

  • to change or move (something)





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“How will I ever eat fish again, or swim in the sea, but I will eat fish and swim in the sea,” says Katerina.


How do you speak of days imbued with the halcyon sun as dead bodies wash up on the Aegean’s shores?

Or write when the writing never quite expresses what you are trying to express? I think writing, like our speaking, is a way to outwit chronology, dodge the banalities of cause & effect, and complicate effects. The causes are too big, too concrete anyway. So why waste time and spirit discussing the corruption, the compromise, the evil Arendt already described as banal. Anyway apart from the very concreteness of death, there are gradations of “dying to live” to crudely paraphrase Lorca.

I stopped writing the blog, or maybe it was a pause because I’ve been trying to channel the writing elsewhere… and then last night Grigori called, an ex student who, like other ex students, is now a friend, and he wanted to know why I had not blogged in awhile.

There’s always so much to do I tell him and he agrees and tells me that he is out of work but looking for work as he studies to be an ophthalmologist after his degree in English. We talk of other people out of work, and Natasha who will go to study creative writing in Scotland. I am suddenly feeling less burdened, happy to hear of this. It’s been a long time. It’s been months of not very good news all around.

I suppose I want to speak beyond what’s happening here even if what’s happening here has larger resonances than what’s geographically happening here. I think I want to speak less about “inside voices” with its connotation of entrapment, and more about sensations of living in precarity, to be conscious in that space as Katrina was saying. Being conscious and alert is its own challenge; one Katerina considers a privilege of being alive.

As I was cleaning beets in the sink, cutting off their roots and watching the pure burgundy spread over the white basin, I thought of the beheadings going on (not an invited image…). Cutting the beets had me reluctantly imagining what must take place when another human being is objectified in that pure totalitarian moment of an executioner’s unquestioned purpose. It’s war’s horror, that we kill each other to maintain an ideology, national purpose, border … the worst of history seems to boil down to that Freudian paradigm … how much easier to project onto some Other than deal with your own crap. Someone described one of the terrorists in last November’s Paris attack as slick, outfitted in leather. I’d read it somewhere in a newspaper, and think it was someone renown who happened to be there. Fascism is all about looking good and keeping that image intact while you dis-member those who threaten the delusion. Whole races have been wiped out for the sake of such. I’ve been teaching the Puritans and they were as fanatic as any group with their errand, I don’t think the Native Americans had a chance in that typology. But turning others into an object of projection is the mindset that allows refugee bodies to drown in the thousands.

There was a man at the stop lights today, his arm withered to the size of a twig and one of his front teeth strangely longer than the rest. He smiled and smiled when he asked for any change I might have and when I shrugged that I didn’t have anything he kept smiling and I was mortified. People don’t usually want their borders touched. They don’t want to be unsettled. I couldn’t stop thinking of him, that he didn’t stop smiling. Ruptures are never invited but you can’t deny them because they’re devastating. It’s Martin Buber’s whole premise in I and Thou, the reciprocity of a subject-to-subject relationship as opposed to an I-It exchange that makes a thing of the other, one we can detach from.

So here’s a poem titled so simply “Love” by Czeslaw Milosz that Anastasia posted, if only we could remember that simplicity, because we really are a mess. I wish Grigori would call me more often.

Love means to learn to look at yourself

The way one looks at distant things

For you are only one thing among many.

And whoever sees that way heals his heart,

Without knowing it, from various ills—

A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.


Then he wants to use himself and things

So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.

It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:

Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

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The Lament Tax

“…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.

Roza Eskenazi

Markos Melkon








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FUTURES, Poetry of the Greek Crisis


There are lines, stanzas, voices from Theodoros Chiotis’ newly published anthology FUTURES, Poetry of the Greek Crisis (Penned in the Margins, 2015) that will trip you up, scramble linearity, impoverish the predictable, and upset expectations. Out of the harrowing there is also an(other) sense of the world.

“It is this absurdity that tears apart the insides. All this outside invading the inside of the house and then the inside of Mr. Krak. The wires brought it in, the telephones, the voices, the screens. And then Mister Krak so full on the outside becomes transparent and no one on the street recognizes him.” Thomas Tsalapatis, from “Transparent”.

This from Emily Critchley’s “Through an Internal Externalized/Spill/It Bumps Around the World/Tries Not to be Stupid’ (Catherine Wagner):

“I’m learning about people & how to be political not emotional./I’m learning nothing really loving – I see that – everything abstract.//I’m learning to hold onto people,…”

And from Universal Jenny’s “Now I Will Write Using Words of the Left”: “First lesson/Insurrection, four stares, transmit/Collective memory, don’t talk to me about work, don’t/The Afghan died, ..// Second lesson/Overflowing, state of precarity, I offer my help…”

I’m not sure how these lines stood out as I sat to write about Chiotis’ anthology, but they share a sensibility of invasion, of something “outside” (Tsalapatis) disrupting the consciousness of the speaker; a syntax of integrity, or syntax and integrity, are somehow reconfigured. These are poems that voice what has been broken up by “apostasy’s ripping the feathers/from underneath” (Critchley), “the paraffin grit of Molotovs” (Philipou), a “glistening/in the tufts of the teargas/disseminated by the innards of rallying cries” (Mainas).

Collected in four sections, the section titles – ADJUSTMENT, IMPLEMENTATION, SINGULARITY and ACCELERATION – reflect the vocabulary of a supposedly bloodless fiscal war; at the level of what Chiotis calls “Bankspeak”, the terms resonant with “an eroding agent in how we think of ourselves and how we think about language.” Yet Chiotis’ juxtapositions of such terminology with the poems, their “nervous and psychic energies” of “exhaustion and fatigue” but also of new scales of meaning, show how “These poems investigate not only the blind spots and cognitive bias we all have in a time of crisis; but also incite and excavate the voices that were previously silenced.”


There is another consequence to this organization of the poems, that includes, also, several graffiti images – the breaking up of the textual with the visual and the splitting up of some titles reenacts the shock of precariousness when the familiar is no longer an expectation — we’re forced to pay attention. It makes for more active reading. It also makes for an engagement with the texture of upheaval. As Tryfon Tolides writes in “On Suffering” – “You are less distinctly connected to the other and more to all/ others. Like chaos, which isn’t separated from love… The day goes, a winged statue with head and one wing missing.”


The variety of poems in Chiotis’ anthology, from prose vignettes to formal verse, from acclaimed voices to those who have published very little or hardly at all, effects both “strangeness and difference” to use Chiotis description of his work of translating some of the Greek poems into English. Strangeness and difference is also a way to describe an experience of assault. Violence will break apart and ruin, but within this context there is a world of the lived and engaged that provokes a multivalence of consequences. These years of austerity and what they did, and continue to do to a small country, known, from antiquity, for its resilience and extremities maps now “the vertigo/of the unknown/” which Katerina Iliopoulou writes in “South” is what “lets the journey happen”. Strangely too, a title like “Futures” for these poems that bear witness in so many different voices, to the crisis in Greece, is slyly hopeful in its irony.


There will be a poetry reading, and discussion of FUTURES, Poetry of the Greek Crisis, Wednesday, 2/12 @ Deree College (Faculty Lounge, 17:30). Alexandra Halkias (Sociology Dept. Panteion University) will be introducing and curating the event. Ask at the gates for directions to the Faculty Lounge in the main Deree College building.






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