Paying My Debt to Greece

Last year I had two unforgettable trips to Greece. I was invited by my dear Greek friend, Vangelis, to see a Greece that I knew existed beyond the flashy and idyllic images of the clear skies, white-painted buildings, and turquoise blue seas, with the bougainvillea flowers sneaking on one side of the picture as we often see on marketing and touristy guides and postcards. Undoubtedly these Santorini-style images that have become the only thing we associate with Greece do exist and they are breathtaking, but they do not tell the whole story. In fact, those Santorini-style images do more harm than good to Greece these days, because they carefully and masterfully disguise the scab of the wound that is ready to bleed with the first fingernail scratch under the shiny Greek sun of confrontation.

Today I want to share with you my love story with Greece because I feel that I have a debt to pay to the Greek people and their warmth and hospitality. My debt is humanistic not monetary. It is an attempt to capture a fracture of this beautiful place and its people who are currently, like most people in the Middle East and the world, fighting for their dignity. I have no money to pay Greece to help it out of its crisis manufactured and orchestrated by the EU oligarchs, but I have my words, senses, and observations to share. After all, I have always been in agreement with John Steinbeck’s much-needed words today: “Anything that just costs money is cheap.”

As soon as the plane was about to land in Athens, I felt my blood flowing again, rushing to fill out each and every cell in my body; even cells that have long dried up under the long, cold, and harsh winters of exile. I felt my heart and mind beating in harmony like African drums, as though reminding me that Greece is still one of the few places on our lonely planet in which one doesn’t stay alive by bread alone, but even more so, one stays alive by taking strong actions against dehumanizing acts of injustice, poverty, exploitation, and the capitalist mafia gangs trying to control each part of the world through different discourses and under different banners. They control Europe under the attractive and falsely uniting banner of the “European Union”, the Middle East under the convenient banner of “fighting terrorism”, Africa and South America under the false and misleading banners of “democracy and development”, and many other banners under which the most hideous crimes are daily committed against humanity. Indeed, a closer examination reveals that all these banners are just different logos for one and the same goal, which is to ensure that the overwhelming—and overwhelmed—majority of people are imprisoned, disabled, and deprived of their fair share of bread, sun, and dignity.

After a turbulent landing in Athens, as though preparing visitors to make them worthy of their upcoming journey, I experienced friendliness from the moment I entered the airport as the passport control officer immediately greeted me in Greek, as if welcoming me home, before even looking at my passport. The last time I felt such warmth was in the city of my childhood, Kirkuk. My Greek friend met me at the airport with Plato’s Symposium and a book of collected poems by Yannis Ritos in one hand and a rose in the other hand.  The rose was neither for hospitality nor for romantic reasons, but rather for I had once shared with him how much I loved Gilbert Bécaud’s song “L’important C’est La Rose” [The Important Thing is the Rose], because I heard the song for the first time on the radio during the First Gulf War when Iraq was being bombed to death and destruction by the so-called “civilized” world, while the singer was in the most ironic way telling us that “the important thing is the rose”.

Given the circumstances under which I first heard the song, I can’t help tearing up every time I listen to it as I remember how much the roses should matter in this world, but they sadly don’t.  The rose was the first and most meaningful way to enter Greece and to connect my Iraqi memory with Greece’s own history, wisdom, and struggle for dignity that hasn’t ceased to inspire the world to this day.

The next day, as we started walking around the age-old streets of Athens far away from the tourists’ gaze, two things became clear to me: first, a strong sense of pain and despair visible on the faces of many Greek people fighting their daily harsh battles to earn their bread, without compromising their souls that have been forced into a Faustian contract offered and determined by EU bankers and oligarchs. To this day I can’t forget the images of the homeless people begging for morsels of food outside McDonald’s in Athens; or those poor people dismissed by police to get out of the tourists’ sight lest they disturb the sightseeing of the fair and lovely Europeans visiting Athens.

Second, and equally important, I sensed in the air a strong determination to say “no” to this ugly reality. It is perhaps a form of disillusionment similar to that experienced in many Eastern European countries the moment many people realized that they have lost whatever benefits they had under the former communist regimes without winning anything in return under the draconian, capitalist EU system of exploitation.

These two images were intertwined and imprinted on the faces and moves of the people in the streets, in a way that resembles how the dry heat of Greek summers reduces the land into yellow dried weeds and rocky areas from which spring fig trees, bougainvillea and oleander flowers, and on which you see the cypress and olive trees standing proudly and stubbornly to challenge the heat and fires of indifference as they wait for the first drops of autumn rain.

Despite—or perhaps because of—the human pain and struggle, Greece always seems to have just enough to feed and take care of its wild street cats of all shapes, colors, and sizes. In every corner you see these cats relaxing, laying, playing, lurking, and observing with their glowing, wild eyes permanently present at every corner, every street, every alley, next to the age-defying doors and the big plant pots.

I was deeply touched when my friend shared with me that vets from Athens are sent regularly to check on the health and well-being of these cats. These cats act as not only a reminder of Greek people’s hospitality and relationship with their environment beyond what is human, but also their wisdom and uncompromising attitude against injustice. Like these cats, many Greek people still have the mind of their own and will not allow anyone to own them, unless in their own terms, as they have proven to the world in their most recent referendum. Like these cats, Greek people’s relationship with power perhaps resembles what any healthy relationship—even romantic ones—should look like, as George Sands beautifully captures it: “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.” That’s what their most recent “no” is about. They want to be treated with a genuinely democratic and fair way, not a Guantanamo-style democracy and humiliating bail out terms. They ask not to follow or be followed, but to be honored by the capitalist system trying to crush and suck the life out of them the same way Greek olives are crushed and turned into olive oil.

As the night started to slowly cover the old streets and narrow alleys in the city, I took one last look at the cats settling into their spots to sleep, old women holding hands of children or loved ones walking back to their homes, old and scratched wooden doors that looked like they have been knocked on and opened countless times throughout history. I felt a cool breeze that filled me with a strong sense of hope and anticipation. My eyes suddenly caught a vandalized sign on a door in a tight corner near Thrasyllou Street, which seemed like an intelligent twist of Charles Bukowski’s famous line “find what you love and let it kill you.” The line on the vandalized sign reversed this to make the meaning even more intense: “find out what kills you and love it!” This twisted line speaks volumes about Greece’s current situation to which Greek people are responding out loudly to the world: we have found out that freedom and dignity may kill us these days, but we love them and we are ready to let them kill us, if that is what it takes!

After a few days in Athens, we headed to the mountains of Trikala of Corinth, and Lake Doxa in western Corinthia. The breathtaking and magical scenes of mountains, wild flowers, dried and colorful thistles and thorns, small villages garnishing the top of the hills and mountains; prune, apple, cherry, and walnut trees on the roads with fruit-filled branches reaching out to the hands of the passerbys to pick; clear, cold water springs on the road to quench the thirst of the summer heat; and the many friendly faces passing on the road greeting us with: “γεια σας!”

The most memorable time to me was during our visit to the peaceful, serene, and incredibly tranquil St. George Monastery in Feneos. Everything in this mountainous place reminded me of my childhood in northern Iraq, especially the old churches and monasteries in the Iraqi mountainous areas of Mosul, Duhok, and Amadia, where we used to go on spring picnics sponsored by the church when we were kids. At St. George Monastery, the quietness of the place and the pleasantly overwhelming scents of incense and candles reminded me of my father’s Assyrian Church of the East, where we used to go to Sunday school in Kirkuk to learn reading, writing, and speaking ancient and modern forms of Aramaic. A

fter spending some time meditating and lighting candles near the altar at St. George, I went upstairs using an old wooden ladder. On the top there was a wooden cover. As I removed the cover, I found myself in what used to be a shelter where they hid children during wars and disasters to keep them safe and educated. I went up to the shelter room without noticing a sign in Greek asking visitors not to enter!

As I sat on the floor, I was immediately struck by a deafening silence and peace that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It was a silence that took me back to so many places and moments in my life like a flashback. On the wall, I saw a blackboard with hardly visible chalk writings on it. I was later told that that very blackboard was used to teach the children to keep their minds active while sheltered.

Before leaving St. George Monastery, we went to its small visitors’ center where monks sold handmade products. I was told that they use the money they make from selling these handmade goods to maintain the building. At the entrance to the room there were samples of rose-petal jam made from the rose gardens around the Monastery. There were also beeswax candles and creams made from beeswax, honey, and olive oil to “heal wounds”.

“Can some wounds ever be healed?” I wondered. I immediately picked the wound-healing cream to apply it on my countless wounds of war and exile. As I was getting ready to pay, one of the monks came into the room and greeted us. He spoke in Greek and my friend helped interpreting. As soon as he knew I was an Assyrian originally from Iraq, he immediately started reciting important events in our history. I was amazed at how much he knew about my people and the long history of our church in the Middle East. He knew much more than many Western people in Europe and Northern America who would ask me such insulting questions as: “Is Louis your real name, or did you change your name once you came to the US just to fit in?” “Are there really any Christians in Iraq? Are you really a Christian, or have you just converted once you came to the US to blend in with the rest of the society?” And many such ignorant questions that one doesn’t know whether to simply ignore those who ask them, or to sympathize with them and forgive them for they don’t know any better.

The monk at St. George went on and asked me whether I spoke Aramaic. I said I did. I added that having grown up in Kirkuk, I also spoke other languages like Turkmen. He immediately switched from Greek to fluent and flawless Turkish and told me that he was in fact a Greek from Istanbul whose family was forced to leave following the Istanbul riots of 1955. We chatted a bit in Turkish, which was quite significant, considering both of our histories, geographies, positionalities, and backgrounds. The monk refused my payment for the candle and wound-healing cream. He also picked up a jar of rose-petal jam and gave it to me, saying: “This is my gift for the Assyrian people of Iraq!”

I asked if I could take a photo with him for memory, he said that they never take photographs. I was so touched that a man living in the far mountains of Greece, without media, newspapers, or even photographs knew so much about the diverse history of Iraq, particularly the rich and significant history of its Christian minority. I left St. George Monastery feeling grateful that somewhere in this big world, in the middle of the mountains of Greece, there were people who still know and care about what is going on in other places.

On our way down from the mountains, my friend stopped at the farm of one of his friends to pick up some farm-fresh vegetables and eggs. The farmer and his wife looked kind, generous, and hardworking people whose faces and hands reminded me of the sun-burnt face and the rough hands and arms of my father, also a farmer. They immediately invited us to sit down and offered us a drink.

As the farmer started complaining about the lack of sales and the shortage of funds to maintain the farm, I asked out of curiosity whether he had felt any significant difference in his life before and after Greece had joined the EU. He responded: “Before the EU, whether I had a good year of harvest or a bad one, I would sell most or all of my produce, because people bought local foods, and this allowed us to sustain ourselves either way, though some years were financially better than others. Now, many people buy cheaper produce that comes from other places and we are unable to sell much of what we produce. As you see, we are also on the way to the mountains, and because the number of people going on vacations who used to buy our vegetables and fruits has significantly decreased, we have suffered a huge loss.”

He sipped at his drink and then laughed and said half-jokingly: “Before the EU, if my wife asked for a new pair of shoes, I could simply tell her I couldn’t afford it and she would just wear her old pair of shoes for longer. Now if she asks me for a new pair of shoes and I tell her that I can’t afford it, she would suggest that I just put it on my credit card!  This is why I solved the problem by destroying all my credit cards!”

Everyone in the room laughed. After a lovely visit for an hour or so, as we got up to leave, the farmer and his wife took photographs with me and put some tomatoes, cucumbers, and fresh basil in a bag as a gift. They refused to take any money for it. I felt sad to leave without giving something in return, so I just gave them the beeswax candle I got at the St. George Monastery to thank them for their kindness and hospitality.

My last night in Athens was bittersweet. As much as I loved every second in Greece and with Greek people, I felt sad that I was about to leave a place that truly felt like a home for me. I went for a long walk on Hymettus Mountain in Athens. I picked up a few wild and sweet black figs, and took one last look at the city of Athens that was starting to turn on its lights for the evening while looking at her wise and intense face in the blue mirror of the Aegean Sea. The next day I left Greece with a thousand sounds, images, scents, and faces that will live on in my memory as long as I breathe. I left with the taste of sheep-milk yogurt, herbal teas of fresh herbs picked from mountains, thyme honey from Kithira, black and yellow figs, wild thyme intensifying the taste of the fresh salads, the fried goat cheese, and many other smells and tastes that stuck in my palate to remind me about everything I loved growing up in northern Iraq.

My Greek friend asked me several times about when I plan to write something about the Greece that I experienced, especially amid the current crisis and mainstream media distortion of Greece as no more than a “bankrupt” country, or depicting Greek people as no more than “lazy” people waiting for the “charitable” EU crumbs to save their lives. And for these reasons, I want to dedicate these lines to Greece and to the Greek people. I ask them to forgive me for taking so long to write about the Greece I got to know, but that is perhaps because I am like the American writer, Grace Paley, who said: “There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.” In fact, I wouldn’t even go as far as claiming that I “know” anything with certainty, but I do know that the Greek people are strong and they will go through these hard times to take back their freedom and dignity from the oppressive and blood-sucking financial institutions, bankers, and oligarchs of the EU. In the meantime, I ask my Greek friends to hold on tightly, to trust their instincts and gut-feeling, and to hang in there. Let’s all remember: the true peace is the one that follows not the one that precedes the storm.

Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.