Owning your own life

In the course of working on translating and transcribing our Arabic interviews with Manar Aeid, I gradually discovered her penchant for summarizing a complex, powerful or subtle issue in a short, amazingly translate-able phrase.

An obvious example occurs in the blog post “Between Two Deaths“, where Manar answered my question about how it felt to be climbing into an unreliable raft with three children, knowing that many people hadn’t made it to the other side.

Her answer, ‘I felt like we were between two deaths, the death behind us and the one in front of us’, was more eloquent than any explanation I could have imagined before she actually uttered it. It’s one of those phrases that, if you like language and enjoy eloquence, immediately makes you think: why can’t I come up with something like that?

Another example happened a few weeks later. In the course of transcribing an interview, we were trying to guage the speaker’s intentions regarding his expectations of life in the Europe. That led to my asking Manar what her take was on this question. Having lived, however precariously, in Greece for about two years, what was her perspective on this?

Again, her answer encapsulated ideas with a striking precision, but at the same time intimating the many nuances behind the answer. What she said, after thinking for a few moments was this: “It’s not just the war, or the government. It’s something bigger. I feel like here it’s OK to feel like you own your life. At home, most of us rented our lives.”

After mulling that over for a few moments, I asked her to say more about it. Her’s what she told me:

“Nothing is 100 percent. This isn’t about everybody, and our lives back home were fine in many ways. But there’s still a difference. Here, you feel like it’s your life, you make your decisions, you try your best, you succeed or not. If not, you try something else, you change things. Back home, most of us, even if we were living OK, we didn’t feel that way. You know how, if you buy an apartment, you can change whatever you want? You can paint it a different color, hang different pictures, choose the furniture? But if you rent an apartment you can’t do that. You don’t have the right to change things. You can live inside it, but you have to accept the way it is. That’s how we felt inside our lives.”

Who took Greece down? (Austerity, Part Three)

After I published my reflections on the economic austerity regime imposed on Greece by the EU (see ‘Helen’s Story’ and What Does Austerity Look Like (Part Two)) I received a couple of thoughtful and very interesting emails from an old friend from high school days. (When you start a blog like this one, this is exactly the result you dream of!)


My friend, now retired, had a long career in international diplomacy and inter-governmental organizations. She understands how countries operate, how they compete and how (and why) they cooperate.


Coincidentally, she and her husband have also had many years of experience in Greece and have seen the country from close-up since well before it joined the EU. It was from that perspective that she addressed my posts.


My friend’s take on the Greek disaster generally places less blame on the EU and more on the Greeks themselves. Whereas I tend to let my ideological perspective lead my conclusions more – always a tricky proposition, at best.


That said, her description of the situation faced by friends on the islands is sadly similar to what I encountered in Athens:
…First of all, we were in Patmos soon after Greece began using the euro, and the immediate reaction there was dismay that frappes, cigarettes, and all sorts of small, everyday items had skyrocketed in price.  We had the same reaction, a kind of shock.  We used to take taxis frequently to go out to distant villages at night for dinner, but when the price went up to about 8 euros each way, we had to give that up.  The EU built a new harbor for yachts, which was great for the super-rich tourists who moored there and only left their boats to eat in a fancy restaurant once in a while but otherwise contributed little to the local economy.
…And then there were all the new regulations that weren’t suited to a small island with such a small economy.  So a lot of Patmians expressed right away that joining the euro, and probably even the EU, was a mistake for Greece.
…(And) “our Patmos family,” who owns the small hotel, are very open with us about their problems.  Dad has lost a lot of his pension, the ever-increasing taxes on the hotel business combined with the EU requirements such as lighting on the outside stairways, railings, all sorts of little regulations, customers who insist on paying with credit cards even though our family there can’t get cash from the bank and need it desperately, Mom has serious health problems and they have to take the boat to Athens whenever she gets sick and the hospitals are in disarray….  The saddest thing is that we have been going there since 1993 and saw them work their tails off to make a decent and secure life for the whole family and to be generous with their customers at the same time and then to see it all gone.  If you are older, how do you look back at your life and come up with a meaning for what you put into it?


I’ve cherry-picked from her emails her descriptions of the situation on the island of Patmos, where her family has been going for decades. From a purely descriptive point of view, her observations resemble very closely what I saw in Athens last month.


The more complicated question is ‘why’? And, if any finger-pointing is to be done, who should get the blame? There, we encountered some differences of opinion, although more of emphasis than of substance.


My tendency is to blame the EU, and, behind it, the neo-liberal order for which it functions as the enforcement agent. In this scenario, Greece was simply collateral damage in the battle to enforce the hegemony of the great financial interests of Europe and the US. For more on this point of view (and if you have some time to devote), I recommend the following interviews with Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former Finance Minister and the person who carried out negotiations with the EU for the first year of the Syriza government:

Boiled down to its most essential single point, my argument was that the Greek worker, pensioner and small businessperson are being reduced to penury in order to make German (and other) bankers whole. Most of Greece’s debt was originally private – i.e., Greece could have renegotiated those debts individually with its private creditors. The EU recapitalization of the Greek debt paid off all those creditors and pitted Greek taxpayers directly against German taxpayers, while leaving the bankers and the big financial houses untouched by what were often scandalously irresponsible loan policies.


This resembles  – and was closely related to – what happened in the crash of the US economy of 2008. A huge deal was made of small mortgage holders who may have taken out loans they couldn’t repay. A concept of ‘moral hazard’ was trotted out to explain why no mercy should be given to these people. Meanwhile, the moral responsibility of the institutions and individuals who knowingly offered these junk loans was rarely mentioned – and then usually in ‘left-wing’ media.


My friend’s response to all this was not to absolve the EU, but to point out properly that Greece had played an important role in its own demise. Primarily, she faulted a traditionally corrupt and overly bureaucratic regime:
At the same time, I reiterate what I wrote before.  It isn’t all the EU’s fault and the Greeks know it.  It was always incredibly difficult to start a new business in Greece with the intricate bureaucratic regulations, and the corruption, in the government especially, was rampant.


She also urged us to continue to focus on the human stories, rather than on political and economic analysis:
It’s better to do what you are doing and get away from the blame game and focus on the human plight that we are all in and what we can do about it.
At the time, I completely agreed with this approach. Since then, however, I’ve come back to the idea that there’s a larger story to be told, that the politics and the economics matter precisely because that’s where we come to understand what we can (or can’t) do about it. From that point of view, it matters crucially whether Greece dug its own hole or whether it’s been the victim of an EU mugging – or in what proportion the two are true. The stories we’re telling are the result of these questions, and to not look further is to ignore that fact and to deprive ourselves of a way to understand the bigger game that’s being played with all our lives.

Between Two Deaths – بين موتين

How do you feel when you are lifting your child onto a desperately overloaded, leaky, half-deflated rubber raft with a sputtering motor, with everything you had built in the life behind you destroyed forever and the very real possibility that some or all of you may drown in the coming hours?


This question came up with my colleague and co-translator, Manar, while reviewing one of the Arabic-language interviews from last month’s shoot in Greece, where our interviewee was describing just such a moment. Refugees from Syria themselves, Manar and her family have faced this moment also. I asked her what she felt as she passed her children across a sea of people into the raft that was supposed to take them from Turkey to Greece – a 12-mile journey that has cost the lives of hundreds of desperate people in the last few years.


Manar answered without hesitating, an Arabic phrase that caught me up short then and kept coming back to me in the days after I left Greece and joined my son for a bike ride in Switzerland and France. I’d look at him, pedaling next to me, and think about what I’d have done in Manar’s situation – or that of thousands of other parents who have stood on the same shore and made the same enormous gamble with destiny.


Refugees arrive on Lesvos, 2015 (photo: Zaphiris Epaminondas)


What Manar told me was, ‘We stood there, and I felt we were ” بين موتين” – between two deaths. Behind us was death, and everything we had was gone. And in front of us was death. I knew that we might all die, or – much worse – that only some of us would get to the other side. But we had no choice. This was our only road.”

I still think about this often. I think about it from the point of view of any parent who has spent years shepherding children along the path to adulthood, protecting them from danger when necessary. I also think about the political dimension. Why have so many thousands of people found themselves forced to cross in dangerous, unseaworthy boats, having paid enormous sums to criminal operations run by smugglers, and often after physical mistreatment and abuse? Why have so many died, so many been injured, so many been left for days drifting at sea? Why were there no ferries – the very same ferries that already exist to transport tourists between the Greek islands and the Turkish mainland? At the height of the crisis, tourists from the US and Europe would often be the ones to spot these refugee rafts from the safety of their deck chairs. It is true that the crisis ramped up very suddenly. Nevertheless, months and now years have passed and no such provisions have been made – why is that? It certainly would not require unusual efforts and vision to put such a policy in place.


We had glimpses of a disturbing answer from several of our interviews. At the beginning, because our interviewees were not involved in making policy, we saw them as allegations, not necessarily true. As we began to interview policy-makers we found more and more evidence that the lack of a creative response to the dangerous water crossings, like so many others having to do with the refugees, is not the result of a well-meaning but inadequate effort: it is the result of a clear – although rarely public – policy of the European Union. We interviewed Vassilis Papadopoulos, former General Secretary for Migration Policy, and asked him about how the EU-Turkey agreement of 2016 represented the policy of the EU towards the refugees and determined the conditions of their entrance onto European soil. His answer cast a lot of light on my questions:


What Does Austerity Look Like? (Part Two)

What does austerity look like? (Part Two)

There’s another, disarmingly simple way into the austerity story. Yesterday, walking up one of the neighborhood’s main commercial streets, I noticed I’d just passed several empty storefronts in succession. Empty storefronts aren’t unusual, but three or four in a row caught my attention. I realized that I’d been walking by these places for the last three weeks without understanding their significance. I decided to walk the immediate neighborhood and try to get a sense of how many places were out of business.

What I discovered astounded me. It’s easy, in the bustle of a street full of pedestrians, with Athens’ crazy traffic and 6″ wide sidewalks, to never notice what you’re passing. When you look more carefully, what you find is stunning.

Zafiri’s neighborhood, Xalandri, is among the wealthiest areas of Athens. Proportionally, it has suffered far less than most from the effects of austerity. Yet, even in Xalandri, the effects are enormous. Here are some photographs that encompass an area equivalent to about 3 or 4 U.S. city blocks:

Austerity in Greece is hundreds of thousands or millions of people with no hope for today and no expectation of a better tomorrow. It is towns and cities with shuttered, empty businesses on every block. Greece has always been a nation of small shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Other than the big shipping empires, it has almost no big industry, no multinational headquarters, no vast industrial zones. Austerity has preferentially killed these small economic engines, reduced their owners to penury, and, in doing so, hollowed out the Greek economy from inside. The shell still glitters, but the hopes of millions of families for a better future – the hopes that underpinned the whole thing – have been dashed.

I’m not an economist, but to me this defies common sense. It seems intuitively obvious to me that reducing a country to poverty is not a policy likely to ensure the repayment of debts. Destituting a large part of a country’s population, the vast majority of whom have had no connection with the economic problems that led to the crisis, looks to me like a form of economic warfare with untold numbers of innocent casualties.

When I arrived in Greece three weeks ago I couldn’t really find the signs of austerity. Three weeks later, they’re inescapable.

Helen’s Story – What Does Austerity Look Like? (Part One & Coda)

What does austerity look like? (Part One)

At first glance, not like much. If you’re a casual observer, just arrived in Athens and looking for a place to eat, austerity can look like this:

Or even this:

The streets are lively and verdant, and the Mediterranean sun still makes everything look just a bit better, especially if you’ve just arrived from 6 months of Portland rain.

In case you’re not sure what I mean by ‘austerity’, I’m referring to the economic stranglehold placed on Greece by the European Union. Essentially, Greece has been forced by the EU to declare bankruptcy. A large part of Greece’s national assets have been privatized and/or turned over to the EU, and severe economic controls have been imposed. Greece no longer makes its own economic policy: entire ministries are no longer even run by Greeks. A large contributing factor to the situation the Greeks are in was the 2008 real estate crash in the U.S. So, in a very real sense, the Greeks are being asked to pay for the sins of the American banksters who also brought the U.S. economy to the brink of ruin.

I’d done quite a bit of research on all this before coming. I knew a lot of facts and figures: unemployment numbers (astronomical), suicides among suddenly destitute pensioners (thousands), the vast amount of debt that the EU has imposed on the Greek people in order to keep Europe’s banking system afloat (and, not coincidentally, shake a warning finger at Italy, Spain and France). But for days I didn’t see those facts and figures as I looked around me. We’d pass tourist buses emptying their vacation-goers onto the sidewalks and I’d think how easily one could come here and not notice anything amiss. I, myself, was having trouble finding the cracks in the façade.


Then I met Kyria Eleni – Helen, as she introduced herself to me in South African English.

Helen sits on a wall beside the church, dressed as my old Swiss aunts used to dress, very dignified, very proper. On closer inspection, her clothes are threadbare. They were bought in another era, when she could afford quality. She holds a plastic cup, but she keeps it half covered. She could easily be resting and having a cool drink by the church. She speaks to passers-by, but in such a quiet, timorous voice that most pass by in the bustle and never notice.

I’ve spent some time getting to know Helen. Her perfect English has made the task much easier. In getting to know her, I’ve found a window into what austerity has done to Greece.

Helen was born and spent her childhood on one of the Greek islands. From her description, her family was upper middle class. In her youth, the entire family emigrated to the thriving Greek community in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived for another three decades. In South Africa, the family owned a string of shops, and prospered. Over the years, they sent money back to family members in Greece to establish shops in the Athens area. Helen finished her schooling in Cape Town, married and had a son.

In the mid-eighties, she and her husband returned to Greece, where they took over the family businesses that had been set up with the money sent from South Africa. For about 15 years, things went well. Again, the busineses prospered and the family lived a secure, predictable life.

Not all of their subsequent problems were the result of austerity. It would be fairer to say that austerity sealed their fate, pushed them over the final cliff. A few years before the austerity regime was imposed on Greece, Helen and husband began to experience competition from larger supermarket chains that were moving into Athens neighborhoods. They were forced to close several of their shops, and tighten their belts economically. At the same time, their customers were also falling on hard times. They started allowing long-time customers to buy on account, but were in turn forced to take loans as their revenues sagged.

Then Helen’s husband passed away suddenly. In Helen’s view, the stress of business was what killed him. Helen and her son were left to try to save the family business, and they might have succeeded, were it not for the EU and austerity. When austerity came, suddenly no one had any money. Pensions were cut drastically, bank withdrawal controls were imposed, credit was impossible to find, and shops and businesses began to fail by the thousands. Almost overnight, all their options disappeared, all their loans came due, everything that had been put aside vanished, and in short order they lost their business and their home and found themselves on the street.

Kyria Eleni from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

John went through a divorce at about the same time, and now he and his mother share a small apartment with no furniture, no water and no electricity. He explained to us how his education, his business experience and, above all, his age, made his prospects for finding a job even worse.

Yianni from Bill Megalos on Vimeo.

Meeting Helen had an interesting effect on my ability to see things around me. Where before I hardly noticed them, now I see the beggars in every square and neighborhood. Mostly old people and often, like Helen, in clothes that used to advertise their solid, normal lives and now, worn and threadbare, illustrate their complete destitution.

Coda – 3 July 2017

On my last day in Athens I walked up to the Xalandri square to say my goodbyes to Helen – and John, as he happened to be there with his Mom. We chatted for a few moments about my plans to bike in the Alps with my son, Kiran, and to spend some time in Italy. Then Helen suddenly exclaimed, ‘I was forgetting, I brought something to show you.’ She reached into a pocket and brought out a photograph and handed it to me, saying, ‘this is me back before all this happened. This is how we were, how we lived. This is how far we’ve fallen.’ Here’s the photo she showed me: