Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: When Refuge becomes Refugee

In a stupor of grief and dreadRefugees in tents
Have we not fingered the foulest wounds
And let them unhealed by our hands?

“Why Is This Age Worse…?”
–1919 Anna Akhmatova (trans. Stanley Kunitz)

It seems a long time since the picture of a drowned 3-year old Aylan went viral in September 2015. Much was made of the dangling “Velcro straps on his sneakers”, that Aylan was dressed like any child going to a playground in a red T-shirt and blue knee-length shorts – the Turkish guard who picked up the tiny body looked away as he carried the child. How hard it would be to look. And he must have looked when he first picked up the drowned boy. It seems a long time because there have been so many bodies since, and so many of them children. There have been meetings and discussions in various parliaments in Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Germany, and of course Brussels, and some horrid policies have passed through them like Denmark’s law (passed in January) in which the government is now allowed to seize assets of “asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.” One wonders who decides on what is or isn’t “non-essential” or of “sentimental value”. Similar laws are now in place in Switzerland and southern Germany.

Young refugeesTo be a refugee means the refuge of what once provided the rituals of stability, like home and shelter, no longer exist, that larger threats than those of the risks of being a refugee are being fled. “I don’t want to touch that one” says a friend, “too heavy”, “too complicated” – what will happen if we let ourselves touch the bodies being washed up like the Turkish guard who lifted the dead Aylan from the sand, if we help the luckier to dry land? They will touch us too, the pain and mess of these displaced lives will be real and, especially, there will be names and faces connected to their tragedies. I am about to say something to a friend and warn her that it is unpleasant, and she says, “are you sure you want to tell me” and really means “I’m not sure I want to know” because once told, she cannot, as she tells me “unknow it”; phrases like “the immigrant crisis”, “the Greek debt crisis” desensitize, the particulars are conflated, the faces and names lost. It is more efficient that way, apparently, when dealing with numbers (think of pyramid schemes of debt, think how all the added 0s of the billions lent, and the billions now owed in the Greek financial crisis that are not being addressed in “real terms”; i.e. the IMF – imagine even the IMF – is calling it unsustainable, that the debt cannot be paid back when the economy itself is being cannibalized though there are very real people starving on the streets and homeless as a result); so the question is what are we, or what is “Europe” trying to be efficient about. History has given us some very dark examples of the efficiencies of regimes wishing to keep themselves untouched by groups considered threats to an idea of citizenry and/or belonging. Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life theorizes the biopolitics of “The Camp as Paradigm” in a chapter that addresses the separation between “humanitarianism and politics” as “the extreme phrase of the separation of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen.” I want to say what Clarice Lispector says in The Passion According to G.H. that “till yesterday” there was a way of “fitting into a system.” That now that system is broken and the privileged do not want to “use an unprotected heart.” Perhaps Europe has lost its heart.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, says “the distinction between protection and the right to a better life has got blurred” having been part of a renegade contingency of Central European and West Balkan countries, including Hungary, to react to the immigrant crisis by being among the first countries to close its borders to refugees (and so removing themselves from the Schengen agreement of an open border system – that founding European Union dream that promised the free flow of populations). To Angela Merkel’s credit who, initially anyway, sought a joint EU solution for the crisis, responded that “When someone starts to define limitations [to immigration], others have to suffer. That is not my Europe.”

drawing of houseAs we entered the port for an activity session with some of the refugee children, we all noticed that there were twice as many tents as there had had a week ago; before the borders closed a lot of the volunteer work involved giving activity kits and baby carriers to mothers on their way north. Once they closed hundreds, and in the case of Idomeni, thousands were now stuck (read Phoebe Ramsay’s updates “On the Ground” on her Facebook page). Tents were everywhere, on any open space of pavement or grass, “Welcome to Europe” Alicia said. “Look at this….” Yes, look at this. Look at the woman using cardboard to sweep away the banana peel, cigarette stubs, and used tea bags from the space around her tent. Look at the children quietly returning crayons after doing their drawings, giving their drawings of houses and homes to those of us who sat with them, look at the boy who shows me there’s a hole in one of the sheets at the shelter and would like to know if there are any sheets not torn that he could have. Listen to the teacher from Aleppo who asks if we could bring some white board markers for the lessons she’s giving in the shelter, look at the fact that the toilets are overrun, that someone has thrown out a doll that looks perfectly fine, look at the boy who is downloading music on his phone, tell me where the border might be between them and us, or you and I?

Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: The Center of the Sundial

Gnomon

From the Greek word meaning one who knows,
it’s what we call the center of the sundial
whose understanding comes to us in shadows
that are its voice, and ours, the saint of all
who speak and can’t quite say what they are meaning.
How do they know, you ask, they who stand
inside their bodies, by their words, by things
that must be larger than the shape they’re in.

Bruce Bond

Graffiti in Greece

Photo provided by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

On Sunday, September 20 (2015), there’s going to be another election in Greece. We just had an election this year, in January, one that had felt hopeful and brought in Alexis Tspiras’s SYRIZA party. There had been euphoria for the anti-austerity changes it promised. Less than 6 months later, SYRIZA called for a referendum. There had been little headway with the Euro group, who essentially wanted previous (austerity) agreements to continue despite the fact that Greece’s economy had shrunk to a level of no-growth & unemployment had risen again. Youth in the 20-30 age range were the hardest hit; unemployment was at a staggering 51.8% in May 2015. But the Euro group wanted Greece to be an example, too. Even if things were not working out, as Tsipras said in a meeting after he buckled to the Euro group terms, after 61% of the country had voted “No” or “OXI” to the measures (or perhaps because of this), Europe, and particularly Mr. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, refused to cut any of the unsustainable debt. Famous economists the world over were speaking of how much better it would be for Greece to leave – but then what – large ideas have a tendency to have very concrete body counts when they fail.

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To be in the midst of “things/that must be larger than the shape they’re in…” is what it often feels like to let the body succumb to a terror and also, a gift; the unknown moment of a certain nakedness, experienced as the wager of crafting a piece of writing, or any art that will transcend the moment in hopes of becoming more than itself, as William Carlos Williams famously expressed it in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” —

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I had hoped not to write incessantly about Greece, to speak so constantly and obsessively about the facts of its and others’ failures, but the moments one finds oneself in aren’t always moments of choice. Perhaps Greece, too, didn’t believe it would find itself in such a dire situation. Its leadership certainly was negligent (to be very generous about it), and in Tsipras’s case, dangerously naïve. But the history of humanity is more about its failures, the grand gesture that meets with the flawed reality of fact, than it is about the successes of those ideals. It seems as if every so-called ideal or success has been built, since antiquity, on the backs of those who sacrificed. If not the outright slaves, then those who, willing or not, were sacrificed. The tragic heroes are those with enough compassion and sense of the collective good to take it on themselves to admit to the mistake. There is Oedipus, who swears he will do all it takes to rid his city of the plague only to discover he is the source of the scourge and then, heroically and nobly, puts out his own eyes… Gnomon, “the one who [now] knows” … There are others, too, Antigone, and Hamlet. While mistakes have been made in the building of the Eurozone, no one is sharing the responsibility. It seems easiest (apparently) to scapegoat Greece, to sacrifice it perhaps.

Graffiti in Greece

Photo provided by Adrianne Kalfopoulou

Meanwhile, Syria has exploded and refuges have poured into the country since August. A crippled economy is doing what it can, and Germany is taking in the largest percentage. It (perhaps) is also finding itself in the midst of “things/that must be larger than the shape they’re in…” Maybe they want to show the world they’re not always stingy and vindictive.

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But back to Greece. John Psaropoulos has a pre-election piece in Al Jazeera. He calls it “An Election without Aspirations.” It’s poignant to hear the resignation in the words of a woman who forgives Tsipras’s “negotiating stumble with Europe’s debt-collectors, saying ‘it was clear that he wasn’t ready, but there were interests in Greece and abroad that wanted him to fail.’” Kostas Lapavitsas, who is part of the Popular Unity party, says,”Greece has become already a marginal and insignificant country in the monetary union and the EU. Why? Because it’s going nowhere economically. It’s a beggar, fundamentally, and it has terms dictated to it. We want to reverse that.”

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In Greek tragedy the reversals and catharsis have come when those in power have their fallibilities revealed, belatedly, sometimes forcefully made to see them. It is already very late and no one has taken the responsibility for seeing… none of the governments, including SYRIZA, have taken the mistakes seriously enough to pay the collective costs. But this includes the Eurozone members too. As Williams has told us:

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“Try not to make things personal,” someone said at work, at the beginning of the year’s faculty meeting; it was said with humor, and in light of the political climate. A 23% VAT tax was put on private education. Removed from meat, which went back to being taxed at 13%, and now put on education. It was another absurd mistake. It was going to hurt language schools as well. People could barely afford to pay tuition let alone tuition with an added value tax. Another large chip in the country’s dismantling. Another example of blindness or plain idiocy in the country’s leadership… I want to close my eyes and just smell the tang of the fall sea, let “the center of the sundial” come to me “ in shadows”… it forces its own recognitions. Anna Akhmatova in 1919 in her poem “Why Is This Age Worse…?” (trans. Stanley Kunitz) tells us “In a stupor of grief and dread/have we not fingered the foulest wounds/and left them unhealed by our hands?//”