Rebetiko, the blues of the Greek refugees from Asia Minor, and of Turkey, is alive and well. A “Byzantine blend of the Turkish rhythms brought by the immigrant Greeks uprooted from their homes in Asia Minor with the contemporary Greek music of the twenties and thirties,” it can be heard Monday nights haunting the corridors and the JCR (Junior Common Room) of SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London. I went to listen to the Rebetiko band this week and was amazed at the quality of sound and soulful singing.
The band SOAS Rebetiko describe themselves as follows:
“The Famous SOAS Rebetiko Band plays Rebetiko music of Greece, a broad genre of urban songs and instrumental music which developed in and around the major port areas of Eastern Mediterranean — Smyrna/Izmir, Istanbul, Syros, Piraeus and Thessaloniki.”
I listened to this music growing up in a community of first- and second-generation refugees from Asia Minor, in Athens, and hearing it being played again, reminded me of the depth of feeling expressed through it; through the songs of loss and mourning, but also resistance, survival and life affirmation sang by the refugees.
Publisher on hiatus
The waiting for Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree is getting longer. Voxhumana-books has gone on hiatus. My publisher has been seriously ill for some time, and is now no longer able to continue with the work. I am very sad about Philip’s fight with cancer and wish him all the best.
I will keep you posted about the book when I have more news. Meanwhile, I hope to see you around this blog and twitter (@stellapierides.com) for short stories, haiku and other forms of prose and poetry.
In the years after World War II, a Civil War raged in Greece until 1949 which proved to be one of the worst disasters that befell Greece. Greek against Greek, the Right fought with the Left a war of the utmost cruelty.
This war left many wounds in Greek society. Memories of it still scar the Greek psyche, even across several generations, influencing the current social and political climate.
An important aspect of this war, and the horrendous atrocities inflicted during it, often by members of the same family fighting each other, has been the silence it generated. The trauma robbed people of the words to describe what happened to them, or what they did to others. Whole families stopped communicating; individuals refrained from speaking about the period of the war; history books omitted important events that took place as if they never had happened.
Over the years, the situation slowly changed, especially after the fall of the military Junta and the opening up of the political system in Greece – though even now sections of Greek society insist that there are still many unspoken matters that need to be talked about and worked through.
In my story Postcards, I allude to the period of the Greek Civil War, and to this silence, symbolized by the fighter/husband: he stops using words/language when writing to his wife and instead communicates through drawings in his postcards.
You can read the short story “Postcards” here
The Acropolis and the violence
Giorgos Seferis, the Greek poet and Nobel laureate, 1900-1971 (born in Smyrni, lived everywhere else, almost), wrote:
I woke with this marble head in my hands;
It exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down.
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream.
So our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again.
Seferis was expressing an important element in the Greek identity, an element which weighs heavily on the Greek psyche. But while this has been written about, there are other “marble in the hands” issues in modern Greece. Take the recent “reporting” on the demonstrations, discontent, and rioting that has been taking place in Athens in the last year. The last event to make the news was the one that took place on the Acropolis.
The Persians sacked the Parthenon while it was still being built on the Acropolis of Athens, along with the rest of the city in 480BC. The Athenians raised it to the ground – I should say: rock – and then rebuilt it. There had been temples on the site earlier, and more were added later. It served as a mosque after the Ottomans took Athens in the 15th century. The Acropolis survived millennia of attacks and war damage, including being bombarded by the “Venetian Army” when it was used as a weapons arsenal by the Ottomans. Only last year, 2009, the new museum was opened at the foot of the Acropolis. And now, the Acropolis is being used as a place of protest. Culture Ministry employees, protesting about working for 22 months without pay, barricaded themselves inside, not allowing the tourists in until their demands were met.
A sad story, for the tourists were reported to have been unimpressed by the protest. They had travelled a long way to see the ancient site and were understandably disappointed. Sad for those Athenian workers too, those seeing no other way of exercising their legitimate right to protest and no other venue. Perhaps they thought this was going to make the world sympathize with their plight: after all, what would you do if you hadn’t been paid your salary for twenty two months? Sad, also, that the violence continues.
And yet, the people of Athens, and of Greece must be equally disappointed that their social, political, and financial predicament is not being put in the context of the unique Greek experience and history, but is instead too readily compared with ‘that of Western European countries. Brendan O’Neill, in an interesting article in Spiked, writing about the riots at the time of the killing of the Greek teenager, argued that the Greek problems were not simply due to the credit crunch (the pet idea of the Press) but stemmed from a historical crisis of legitimacy. Without necessarily agreeing with all the points O’Neill makes in this article, one might say that by putting the situation in a wider, complex historical perspective, O’Neill went beyond the usual media fascination with violence and money. Sad that this kind of writing is not found more often in the media. Because absence of interest in what lies beneath the “news” is a form of violence too.
16 October 2010
In Oberammergau they waited for ten years – they prepared for several. And finally, this year, 2010, they performed the Passion Play all summer. For those new to his event, it is laid on by the villagers of Oberammergau once every ten years, to fulfil a vow made by their ancestors in 1633. They had pledged to stage the Passion of Christ in exchange for protection from the devastating plague, wars, and poverty that had been raging in the area in the 17th century.
Now, the last performance of this decade’s Passion Play, the 109th of the season, has taken place; more than half a million people from all over the world attended this year’s production.
The costumes have already been mothballed for the next set of performances in 2020! The performers have been allowed to have their hair cut (after a year of growing it long in order to appear “authentic”), and the village to relax for the time being.
There is cause for celebration and merriment. The village has done well in this climate of global depression and economic unease. The performance was excellent and the hospitality unique.
A sad note, however, must not be left unheard. The animals that took part in the performances will be returning to their usual, mundane jobs. This would be unremarkable if it did not involve a heart-breaking separation. According to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the camels (Campari and Opi) and the black horse (Garko) – who starred in and enriched various scenes of the play, strutting their stuff nonchalantly on stage day after day – became infatuated with each other. Now however, they must go their separate ways: Campari and Opi to their home farm in Schwabmuenchen, and Garko back to his job of pulling coach-loads of tourists around Oberammergau.
Date: 5 October 2010
A few days ago I visited Bremen, Northern Germany, and was fascinated by the
number of statues, photographs, and references to the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale The Bremen Town Musicians.
In this tale, four animals: a donkey, a dog, a cat and a cock, having worked hard for their human owners, but getting on in years, are facing redundancy, abandonment, abuse, and slaughter. This unsavoury predicament brings them together and they decide to set off for the town of Bremen to find work as official musicians there.
Before reaching the town, however, they come across a house in the forest, as one does in fairy tales, and agree to try to scare away a gang of robbers feasting inside it. The dog stands on top of the donkey, the cat on top of the dog, the rooster on top of the cat, and each making its own, unique cry – their concerted braying, barking, meowing, and crowing – they crash through the window inside the house and scare the robbers off. In this remarkable way of co-operation, the four animals repel an attack by the robbers during the subsequent night, and settle to live there for the rest of their lives.
(I took a picture of this sculpture from the street; it is made of papier mache by Gaby Bertram of scrap-pap.de)
I wonder why this fairy tale has become so important to the city. Might it have to do with a wish for all kinds of people, of all backgrounds, ages, ethnic origins to live together happily, like those seemingly incompatible animals did in the story? I hope so anyway.
Readers of this blog will know about my novel Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, and my interest in the ways people (in this novel, mainly Greeks and Turks) come together – or not. It seems that having a sense of shared humanity and a common purpose, and project helps: this Grimm tale shows us how.
In any case, I had fun walking around and finding depictions of the animals to photograph.
The protagonists, young students of the National Theatre School of Drama, mostly middle-class, politically conscious and wholly devoted to their art, work tirelessly in the face of adversity in the Athenian capital. The portrayal of the young, the intensity and aliveness of Athenian life, the wonderful development of the culture centre in the centre of historic and multicultural Athens, aptly named Technopolis, made me feel proud of my Greek roots. And yet, however much I enjoyed the movie, I felt there was something missing: something about the context, the place, the area was lacking. There were interviews with a few locals, but overall, I was left wondering who was the art therapy for, who is in need of it and why? An unfair question, perhaps, or even an irrelevant one. And yet.
Of course one answer to this question might be that it is the young generation addressed in the film that needs it, the generation of Greeks facing high unemployment, debt and deficit, of a politically traumatized youth, but this too did not seem enough to help understand my unease. In addition, a more complete answer might be that the fans need the art therapy too: “There is no better time to offer your fans an artistic therapy against the period of an economic crisis and fear from the forthcoming social shock. Told in the style of Fame Story…” the GR reporter wrote about the film. Of course…and perhaps!
I followed my usual pattern when in doubt: I googled Gazi. Taking its name from the Public Gas Works, which existed there for over a century, Gazi was, for most of its existence a poor area, where poverty, prostitution and immigration went hand in hand. And then I came across an article in Balkanologie about the people of Gazi.
The author of the paper, Dimitris Antoniou, wrote about the late immigrants to the area who arrived from the 1980ies and 1990ies onwards: Muslims from Northern Greece, from the Western Thrace migrating internally to Athens. Influenced by the Treaty of Lausanne, as well as the Greco-Turkish volatile relations and tit-for-tat policies, these people had found it hard to settle in Western Thrace, with scores migrating to Turkey, other countries, as well as to Athens, whenever possible. Antoniou followed their settlement patterns in the capital, their struggle for survival from earning a living through establishing cultural and religious associations to working out a distinct identity as a group.
Five years after the publication of this paper, I cannot find any further information about the people described and how they fared in the face of the massive redevelopment of the area.
Given the importance of this area as migration destination of Muslim Thracians, I now wonder what impact development has already had or might have on this group of people. Would it lead to the complete demise of this community in the name of progress, or might there be a new way of helping to engage and support the community in its search for and expression of its social and cultural identity? Would there be a way that the arts and crafts flourishing in the Gazi Technopolis might aid the survival of this community? That could also be a form of art therapy!
(Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gazi_Technopolis.jpg)
I just read The Hungry Tide, a novel by Amitav Ghosh, published in 2004. It has taken me a long time to find out about it, as well as its author, but, as they say, better late than never.
Such a well-written, well-researched, good read! But the added reason I bring it here is that it includes, among a number of other topics, the story of a Bengali refugee group, settled on Morichjhanpi island of the Sundarbans, forced to flee by the newly elected government of West Bengal, and the massacre of 1978-79. I have an interest in refugee groups, their experiences, itineraries and development – a refugee group appears in my forthcoming novel, Alexandrias’ 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, as well as the one I am currently working on – and Ghosh’s story describes one such group, in a different part of the world, in a sensitive and engaging manner. In such a manner, in fact, that one might say that the refugees find a home and a voice in Ghosh’s novel. While they flee one way, and then the other, like the ebb and flow of the tide, they are given a presence, a ‘stable’ place in history by Ghosh.
He writes in English, weaving fact and fiction into a wonderfully clear, informed and at the same time enchanting tale.
While the refugee group is an important pivot to the story, the ebb and flow of the tides in the Sundarban islands off the easternmost coast of India, and the ebb and flow of language and silence, are the true stars of the novel. The main characters, an American Indian female researcher, an Indian male translator and an Indian male illiterate fisherman, carry the tidal shifts and currents between language and the areas around it, those places which inhabit the heart and the elemental areas of the psyche shared by all humans. This shared humanity provides the ground for the – unfortunately often undervalued – capacity to communicate with one another. “…Words are just air,” a character says, “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.” (see also my comment: http://bit.ly/aGNY1P)
Ghosh’s achievement in this novel is to illustrate this ability through the relationships between these three characters and someone who, through his diary, is telling the tale of the refugees, using political, philosophical, and religious themes linked with passages from Rilke. In this novel, history, politics, poetry, biography, religion and myth are brought together in their varying forms of narrative language and yes, narrative silence, to tell a seamless story of incredible beauty.
More than that, however, the novel – through its metaphorical and symbolic richness and its assumption of the perspective of the American Indian scientist and the Indian translator, while contrasting them with the different qualities of the Indian fisherman’s discourse, and its unfortunate reception – reaches further into the colonial and post-colonial waters and invites critical reflection.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially for the outstanding achievement of bringing together so many strands, including the horrific tale of the refugee group, loss, history and a love story with so much humanity and humility.