Tag Archives: Roger Cohen

#stopmindborders — the New Neo-Greek recovers his conscience

13 Aug

I hate to throw the term “New Neo-Greek” at you readers who have just started to grasp what “Neo-Greek” means.  I should have explained more explicitly earlier, but I think some of you sort of understand.

The “New Neo-Greek” is first and foremost the Greek of the Crisis.  That should explain most of it.  In an old post titled: “Un Verano en Nueva York”  I wrote, about a conversation between me and one of my favorite waiters on earth at Bar Jamón in New York:

“So a Greek and a Spaniard get together,” the joke goes — and of course these days they compare notes on how fucked up their respective countries have become.  I tell José that I think Spain is salvageable but that Greece seems in danger of just slipping off of the face of the earth at some point soon.  He’s not so confident.  He says people in Spain are “learning to be poor again,” getting used to a life with “un plato de alubias” — a plate of beans — a proverbial Spanish expression for just-bare-subsistence poverty.  He’s probably around thirty and he says bluntly that his generation in Spain is destroyed; that they’re going to hit their late thirties and early forties without any job experience and that unless you’ve got family money, your only option is emigration, like “old-time Gallegos” we both say in sync.  (Galicians in Spain are like Epirotes in Greece, the archetypically emigrating region, so much so that in much of Latin America all Spaniards used to be collectively referred to as “Gallegos.”)

My heart goes out to him and I respect his straight-eyed stoicism and I think he’ll be ok because he seems strong.  As hard as I try, though, my heart doesn’t go out to Greeks of his generation nor do I respect them.  I think they’re cry-babies who would be scared shitless – or worse, think it beneath them — to work in a bar in New York the way José does and that they deserve – richly — to relearn the cultural lessons of emigration and being poor again.  Three decades of illusory prosperity created an unbearable type of human being in Greece, a nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be – and I’m talking about Athens more than the provinces…

I’m pained by the genuinely poor and the old and the sick and the heroin addicts who are suffering and dying in Greece…

But that urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class, twenty-five to forty-five-year-old demographic in Greece…they can just go back to washing dishes in Chicago again like our grandfathers did as far as I care.  Let ‘em start from scratch; see what kind of culture they can come up with this time.

Well, I have to now admit that I was a little unfair.  The “nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be…” still exists, of course, but they have been completely marginalized by a new awareness: of tradition, of “politesse,” of civilized behavior, and of a humanism that I’ll accept the charge of cliché for, but which suddenly seems to have become Greeks’ instinctive birthright again.

As far back as 2015, Roger Cohen wrote in the Times:

Greece has made me think about everything statistics don’t tell you. No European country has been as battered in recent years. No European country has responded with as much consistent humanity to the refugee crisis…

More than 200,000 refugees, mainly from Syria, have arrived in a Greece on the brink this year, almost half of them coming ashore in the island of Lesbos, which lies just six miles from Turkey. They have entered a country with a quarter of its population unemployed. They have found themselves in a state whose per-capita income has fallen by nearly 23 percent since the crisis began, with a tenuous banking system and unstable politics. Greece could serve as a textbook example of a nation with potential for violence against a massive influx of outsiders.

In general, the refugees have been well received. There have been clashes, including on Lesbos, but almost none of the miserable bigotry, petty calculation, schoolyard petulance and amnesiac small-mindedness emanating from European Union countries further north, particularly Hungary.

I might have put off explaining what the “New” Greek is like all at once then, and just kind of refer to it here and there in different posts, because I didn’t feel like there was any one thing that I could hold up as evidence.  Then this #stopmindborders campaign appeared and I thought I had to jump at the opportunity.  I think maybe Greeks would have responded to the migration wave that came into the country in the last few years with decency even if the country weren’t in such a crisis, but it was the waking up from amnesia that Cohen refers too that played the greatest part; Greeks suddenly remembered that they were once one of the planet’s great emigrating peoples.

More at some other time.  Watch all the campaign’s videos though (mercifully subtitled); they’re really moving and worth the time.  Their motto is: “The greatest borders are the ones we build in our minds”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Annia Ciezadlo’s “Be Like Water” in Guernica — Mytilene and the refugees

20 Dec

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 6.49.52 PM

It was Mytilene’s (Lesbos) karma, I thought, from the beginning of the refugee crisis, to become the portal for the whole tragic flood of humanity that’s entering Europe right now. At the time of the ugly and brutal Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey of their respective minorities that was decided by the Treaty of Lausanne and began in 1923, Mytilene was the only Greek island off the Aegean coast that had a large number of Muslims, probably more then one quarter of its population. Chios (Sakız), and Samos had very few, almost none in the case of Samos, while the islands further south, the Dodecanese, had already been given to the Italians by the victorious Entente/Allies and so the ancestors of the some 5,000 Turks (Greece’s Turkish minority that we tend to forget about) that still live in Kos and Rhodes were exempt.
Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 6.47.26 PM

Across exactly from Mytilene is the Turkish town of Ayvali (Ayvalık). Ayvali was one of those products of the Ottomans’ improvisatory policies for managing the multiple ethnic and religious corporate groups that constituted the empire, and usually worked; in the 18th century, the coast of the Anatolian Aegean being underpopulated and underutilized economically, a grant was given to Greeks to settle there that didn’t just encourage Greeks, but excluded Muslims from settling there, to make the area even more attractive for Greek settlers.*


And very soon, Ayvali grew, out of its seafaring activities and the fertility of its hinterland, into a prosperous and what is, architecturally, still a beautiful small Greek city, the object of much nostalgia in the Greek genre of Anatolian martyrology, but more, the symbol of what Patricia Storace calls “the voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with their former paradisiacal life on the Aegean coast.

[It’s also made Ayvali, the neighbouring island of Cunda, Tenedos and Imvros to some extent, newly fashionable for White Turk hipster tourists, since their parents’ generation didn’t get a chance to turn it all into Bodrum or Benidorm.  They’re the Aegean coast equivalent of Pera/Karaköy and like neighborhoods in Istanbul.]

So the two regions came to fit into each other like a Yin/Yang symbol, and when the Exchange came, most Ayvali Greeks were settled in Mytilene, while the Turks of the island were shipped just across the water – the often treacherous channel were so many refugees today have drowned (it’s a great error – popular and tourist-based — to see the Aegean as a benign sea), and settled in Ayvali and its neighboring villages.**


Mytilenioi, a population of around 80,000, in a country sunk into the deepest economic pit of any country in the European Union, have seen over 400,000 refugees pass through their island in 2015. And yet, despite a few outbreaks, the islanders’ acceptance of this flood of humanity has been exemplary: full of patience, humanity and humor even – as Roger Cohen reported: Battered Greece and Its Refugee Lessonwith a deep empathy that I had thought from the beginning was due partly to so many of the islanders’ descent – only one or two generations – from refugees themselves.

When I’d say so here in Greece, many responded to me with the usual Greek cynicism: our deepest, most tragic flaw, that no one is ever doing anything in good faith. Yet at least one Greek journalist and blogger, Michalis Gelasakis,had the same idea, posting this photo of old Greek women on Mytilene cradling and feeding the baby of a Syrian refugee woman:

Mytilenies and refugee baby GelasakisΓιαγιάδες στη Μυτιλήνη ταΐζουν το μωρό μιας προσφυγοπούλας. Πιθανό και οι ίδιες να είχαν φτάσει κάπως έτσι στις βορειοανατολικές ακτές του νησιού.”

“Grandmothers in Mytilene feed the baby of a refugee woman. Likely themselves to have arrived like this in North-East Coast of the island.”

And now, to confirm my own sentiments, comes this stunning article, “Be like Water” in Guernica by Annia Ciezadlo, a Beirut-based journalist, that weaves together the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange, Indian Partition, Mytilene’s place in the current refugee crisis, Homer and ancient concepts of hospitality, all in one tender, moving piece:

“Philoxenia: love for the stranger, the traveler, the guest. Who might be a god or goddess in disguise. Or Odysseus, returning from his travels in the guise of a beggar in order to test the loyalties of his servants.”


“Old man, the dogs were likely to have made short work of you, and then you would have got me into trouble. The gods have given me quite enough worries without that, for I have lost the best of masters, and am in continual grief on his account. I have to attend swine for other people to eat, while he, if he yet lives to see the light of day, is starving in some distant land. But come inside, and when you have had your fill of bread and wine, tell me where you come from, and all about your misfortunes.”
[My emphasis]

—Eumaeus, the Syrian [how did she find this idea?], to the disguised Odysseus; The Odyssey, Book 14

I know that the people of Mytilene – and their “philoxenia” or even more, their “philotimo,***” have done us proud as Greeks, and deserve a collective Nobel peace prize for 2015, while the rest of Europe has acted more like Eumaeus’ dogs.

Read Ciezadlo’s beautiful tapestry of a piece – now…


smyrna-TOPGreek refugee ship leaving Smyrna. September, 1922. Image source: Drexel University College of Medicine, Archives and Special Collections.

Be Like Water

By Annia Ciezadlo
December 15, 2015

The Nonviolent State of Iraq and Syria. The Republic-in-Motion of Lovers Not Fighters. The Government-in-Exile of People Who Just Want to Go to School.

“I came to Mytilene, believe it or not, for vacation…”

The rest  here.


*  Yeah, the Ottomans did odd shit like this, to keep everybody happy and for the most part it worked.  Like Ayvali and its environs, for example, in Istanbul in the 17th century the Porte granted the mostly Chian shipyard workers from the tershana in Hasköy on the Golden Horn/Keratio, the right to establish a village around the pre-existent shrine of St. Demetrios on the hilltop which the gulley up through Dolapdere led to, and where no Muslims, weirdly, were allowed to settle.  This was the nucleus out of which the legendary Greek neighborhood of Tatavla grew, and which, due to its rough, working class character, was an intimidating place for Muslims to enter until the end of the Empire.  Except for its famous Carnival, when everyone was allowed.

The same would happen in highland regions of Greece, Epiros especially — where remittances from emigrant locals provided the wealth to pay for it — where autonomous privileges were bought from the Ottoman authorities in return for a modest amount of self-government and the right to not have Muslims settle there and not be subject to Islamic proselytizing of any sort — violent or otherwise.  “…και παππού σε μέρη αυτόνομα μέσα στην τουρκοκρατία…” as Savvopoulos once sang.

** The truth is that refugees from neighboring Mytilene were probably outnumbered by Cretan Turks in Ayvali, like along much of the Aegean coast left empty by departing Greeks, along with Ayvali, Smyrna itself and the neighboring peninsula of Karaburna.  The irony here is that many of the Mytilene Turks that came were Turkish-speaking, while the massive flood of Cretan Turks spoke Greek, so that much of the Aegean coast remained Greek-speaking, albeit Greek of a markedly different dialect, until a couple of generations or so ago.  And despite the disappearance of the language, of all the Turkish exchangees, it’s Cretan Turks who have most preserved a solid identity and group consciousness.

*** Philotimo: a complex word I’ll have to explain in another post, though I give it a go here:

“Honor” is a bad translation for “φιλότιμo,” which means honor and amour propre and sense of dignity and reciprocity, all in one complex structure of emotions and social acts. Basically, “philotimo” is the sense of self-respect that’s intimately tied up with the upholding of your obligations to others that held Greeks together for centuries. All readers here know I’m a fanatic opponent of reading Classicizing virtues – or Classical anything — into Neo-Greek society, but the importance of “philotimo,” I feel, even if just discursive, even if only in its lapses, is a millennia-long constant.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: