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.”
…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?
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:
Varoufakis and Noam Chomsky at New York Public Library
Varoufakis on the Rubin Report
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.