2017 CRACKS IN THE SIDEWALK
EDITORIAL BOARD SELECTION
an assemblage by Adrianne Kalfopoulou
These were the anonymous lands that you called home,
because they needed to be called something, if only for a moment.
—Geoffrey Nutter, “The New Atlantis”
Embedded in the word refugee is refuge, a place of specificities, a space like home, which includes a sense of the familiar and tangible, until these locations are also (dis)placed.
The refugees in Greece, caught in the impasse of a closed border since March 2016, have had to relocate hopes of finding their way into northern Europe; the Afghans in particular have been told they don’t have the option of seeking asylum, their escape from their war-torn country not, according to the European Union (EU), analogous to those of the Syrians. The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was one of the first countries to reject the Afghans after the March 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey effectively closed the borders out of Greece.
According to the Danish Refugee Council, the number of killed and wounded civilians in Afghanistan last year was the highest since 2009. In recent months, several countries that lie on the route from the outer borders of Europe to the rest of the continent have built fences or introduced border controls, which aim to reject a certain number of nationalities.
“I visited Lesvos in Greece last week and have met some of these vulnerable people that now cannot continue their search for safety,” says the council’s International Director, Ann Mary Olsen.
I have befriended several Afghan families in Greece. They have come, like other refugees, to occupy an abandoned school building in central Athens. Being together with Syrian, Kurdish, and some Turkish refugees, is new to them, as these groups have not mingled historically. In what was once an abandoned public school building some 400 people who would not otherwise live together are now living together. There is this about survival and its necessities in an urban metropolis: one discovers new ways to be.
The writing of political theorist Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her work about the rise of Naziism, whose On Totalitarianism, provided groundbreaking observations regarding the leveling apparatuses of totalitarian regimes, reminds us intimacies are rooted at the heart of every human situation, the heart being a porous border, and a mutable location: “… the intimacy of the heart, unlike the private household, has no objective, tangible place.” Unlike the constructions of nationhood and government the reality of refugees reminds us that what is built can come undone, and in the undoing, the interfaces of the devastated and possible are also sites for beginnings.
“When FYROM closed its border for the Afghans, [it was] yet another symptom of what we see happening many places in Europe. People have the right to get their asylum case processed—and not be rejected based on their nationality. It is not borders that need protection—it is the refugees,” says Danish Refugee Council director Olsen.
The young Somali-British poet Warsan Shire has made her poem about “Home” famous with lines like: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark… I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language.”
Another language spills over in the Athens squat, where phrases are repeated that are new to me, such as tashakor, “thank you” in Farsi. Tashakor, tashakor, says Azize, who is from a village near Kabul. We communicate in gestures, half phrases, language pieced-together with nods and smiles. It makes for a space that bridges what we don’t know how to say. I have brought tea bags and some honey, but Azize is especially happy for the blond hair dye. And while I am the one who has come from an apartment of my own and a full-time job—the kinds of things they have escaped their devastated land to find—I am the one who feels nurtured. I sit for the tea they offer me on the five-blanketed floor that has become a living space. But there is a surprise because Narghes, who is 13, wants to use the tea set someone gave her as a gift. She tells me to wait as the boys are playing a dart game next to us. She wants this to be a special moment between us, the girls, including Henieh, who is age four. So I sip my tea slowly, and when the boys leave, Narghes brings out the tea set.
We are now in this frame where what lies outside its borders, what could undo the tenderness of the moment contained here, is forgotten. Only the present fits in and it is a refuge; this present which Homi Bhabha has theorized in The Location of Culture is where the subject finds itself “in the moment of transit…” What lies in the “beyond” of this present is “unknowable, unrepresentable…”
While Narghes pours the tea into her dollhouse tea set we enact a homemaking ritual, precarious for its liminality, in a space that was once a school room, which is now where families sleep, cook, eat, and live out days, weeks, and months, freely using the electricity and water that has not been cut off by the municipality. There is an unspoken understanding that if the refugees did not have the option of occupying these abandoned buildings in central Athens they would be on the streets, and so far the municipality has accommodated their needs. Like Narghes with her tea set, a home is made of what’s been found and given. The present therefore is not part of any sequential temporality but a reflection of what Bhabha calls our “proximate self-presence,” which reveals our “discontinuities… inequalities… minorities.”
Like cities in wartime, resources have become scarce in austerity-ravaged Athens; its gutted economy makes for a renewed appreciation of the existence of the refugee squats, of alternative and collective ways to share resources.
The city’s shuttered stores and buildings, left to deteriorate as a gradual consequence of the financial crisis that began in 2009, have visibly altered the city; these are the spaces that are being reinvented by the refugee communities. People who didn’t expect to be here, some of who still hope to leave, have nevertheless, out of necessity, transformed these parts of Athens. Now, too, a group who were once students in this particular school building comes each Friday to cook a hot meal for the families. They ladle out soups and stews from large black pots on burners they’ve set up in the playground, also thankful that their school building is no longer rotting, but is instead sheltering lives.
“I don’t know what we’re doing,” one of the volunteers says of our small group who visit the squat. We do various activities with the children. She continues somewhat critically to say here we are with our coloring books and packets of crayon and magic markers, and here they are with their experiences of near-fatal voyages, living on handouts and floor spaces partitioned by layered blankets. It is a question of scale and perspective, of what Bhabha describes as the interstices of broken certainties. A place “in-between” what was once known and is now unknown, which will “take you ‘beyond’ yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction,” to a present which keeps changing the subject, which keeps the subject in motion.
Warsan Shire writes, “They ask me how did you get here? Can’t you see it on my body? The Libyan desert red with immigrant bodies, the Gulf of Aden bloated, the city of Rome with no jacket.” A city with no jacket, Rome no less, with its history of Empire, and the fact of Empire’s oppressions is collapsed to the fact of someone without a jacket. The metaphor reconfigures a hierarchy of values bringing down edifices of history that make of an emblematic city a body inadequately clothed, a personification of vulnerability. The detail signifies what, in the poet’s personal imaginary, is resonant, what was captured, say, in the mind’s or camera’s eye, of the fleeting (and fleeing) movement that got her here.
“And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them,” the philosopher and urban essayist Walter Benjamin wrote. “Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers.” His famous angel of history is something of a conundrum, as he would like to “awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed…” but he is fixated on the wreckage, the “pile of debris before him [that] grows skyward.” As a storm is blowing into his open wings, pushing him forward with his back turned to the future, Benjamin famously notes, “This storm is what we call progress.” This storm—“can’t you see it on my body?”—has no borders, but for the names the body will give it. Radical displacement can signify presences that subvert the circumstances that have diminished its victims—the debris of devastated cities, the emptiness of abandoned spaces—which are also unexpected, porous sites. It’s a question of how we name the parts that move us.
hums, I will make love
to you in a bed of blood and faith,
will show you her lips,
hide her teeth, her money-scented
breath, the rust of her tongue, the children
underneath her fingernails.
—Zeina Hashem Beck, “Naming Things (for refugees, Sept 2015)”
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Homi Bhabha, “Border Lives: The Art of the Present” https://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/bhabha/location1.html
Walter Benjamin, “Theses On the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn, Schocken Books, New York, 1968.
Danish Refugee Council “Closing of borders in Europe is the wrong way to go.” News Archive. https://drc.dk/news/news-archive/closing-of-borders-in-europe-is-the-wrong-way-to-go
Warsan Shire, “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Centre)” in Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth; mouthmark series, U.K., 2011.
Zeina Hashem Beck, “Naming Things,” in 3 Arabi Song, Rattle, 2016.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou has had work in journals such as The Broome Street Review, Hotel Amerika, Harvard Review Online, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She’s a poet and essayist who lives in Athens, Greece. Her latest book publication is Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living (2014). Her third poetry collection, A History of Too Much is forthcoming in 2018. She blogs @ “Greece, Voices Inside” and occasionally tweets @akalf1.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 3 • September 2017
Photographs by Adrianne Kalfopoulou
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