Odyssey to Europe

War, destruction and displacement are only one or two generations ago in Europe. But those who haven’t experienced them at first hand can’t understand what they mean. In Greece, people at least know what it means to be exposed to the dangers of the ocean.

von Amanda Michalopoulou

Foto: Dimitris Tsoumplekas
The Greek Writer Amanda Michalopoulou. Photo: Dimitris Tsoumplekas

I never write my texts in English. I am Greek and I only feel I can say what I mean with Greeks words. I think in Greek and I dream in Greek.  But for this article I’ve deliberately chosen English for its degree of difficulty. I thought that if one wants to write about the refugees without producing another witty text that’s just a commodity one should put some restraints and feel exiled too in one way or another. I’ve chosen to be exiled from my language. I feel that this anti-ontological, anti-Aristotelian approach, this move from language to thought, suits best the absurdity of the situation and gives to the text a degree of uncertainty, perhaps even clumsiness, that makes me also a refugee when I write.

For the last few months, my students in creative writing class write stories from the point of view of refugees. It’s a terrifying task to identify with someone who stands completely outside of one’s own realm of experience. And so they fail. They talk like refugees that haven’t been exposed to the risks of the Mediterranean Sea, who haven’t nearly drowned. When their characters wait in lines or burn their lifejackets to keep warm, not a real spark of life comes out of it. They understand this and feel disappointed.  I tell them how much experience shapes us and how we ultimately write only about things or people we know firsthand. John Steinbeck said this. “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving”. Or unless you are that particular Chinese, I would say.

All we really know about refugees comes from the news and relates to numbers. Thousands, we read, millions of them. We approach them and write about them as if they are vague figures, moving stereotypes. As a neologism the expression “flow of refugees” suggests something evasive, unclear, intense. An overwhelming power. It makes us think of water pressure, of plumbing problems. Of streams, currents and tides. Like poems, new language structures communicate subconscious fears and riveting images. “Flow of refugees” expresses linguistically an inherent inability to understand and manage those flows that cannot be contained, but in West Europe, for the last couple of decades, we have forged a sense of certainty that everything can be controlled and fixed. Despite financial crisis, terrorism and wars, there still persists the feeling that Europe is safe and that we know what we are doing.

If we look closer, we observe that this inability to understand what’s happening is spreading all over Europe in various ways. It is strange, because Europe has suffered tremendously during and after World Word II and the trauma should be still there. The recent devastation of Syrian cities should remind us of our own cities reduced to rubble across Europe following the bombardments of WW2. But why should we look at photos to be persuaded? Photos of bombarded cities or drowned children can be excruciating to look at. They bring to mind what W.G. Sebald once said about photographic testimonies from the concentration camps: “These kinds of images fight our ability to think rational thoughts, to reflect on things that happened. And also in a way they paralyze our ethics, our value system”.

So what has happened to our value system? When I read about the new law in Denmark, forcing asylum seekers to hand over valuables, including jewelry and gold, my mind goes again to Sebald and to the long lists of personal items confiscated from the Jews  inhis novel “Austerlitz”. Silver teapots, paintings, clothes, wedding rings. Obviously I trust literature more than international news. There you have codified ethics, a whole palimpsest of the human race and of one’s ability to forget, underestimate and be implausible. News are just another expression of this human ability, without the symbolic value and the added depth of fiction. And what do we have there? We read that Greek coast guard patrols and lifeboats ply the waters of the eastern Aegean Sea along the frontier with Turkey on the lookout for people being smuggled onto the shores of Greek islands – which is the front line of Europe’s massive refugee crisis. And then we read what an EU executive said, that Greece has “seriously neglected” its frontier duties to Europe’s free-travel Schengen zone and could be subject to new border controls by other member states if it fails to remedy the problem quickly. Everything we read is an instruction, an admonition, a wish, a lament. Nothing is said about what really can be done, more or less like the texts of the creative writing students that don’t say anything about the reality in the life of a refugee. As with literature, so with politics. There has to be a structure, an inner plan, a sense of truth. To explain to my class how important it is to understand before we criticize or sympathize I use this very example. Look here, I tell them, we have Europe’s borderless Schengen area, we have a rough sea and obviously we can’t seal the waves. Central Europe doesn’t know about waves because they don’t have the experience of this vast exposure to water. This is why, throughout history and now once again, a higher Europe builds fences and fortresses for protection. No matter how many patrol boats are out in Greek waters, attempting to force a vessel of asylum-seekers back into Turkish waters is both illegal and dangerous. Once a boat has entered Greek territorial waters, coastal patrols only arrest the smugglers and pick up the passengers or escort the vessel safely to land. We all become journalists, repeating numbers and percentages but only the refugees can talk about themselves. I am thinking of a refugee poet whose name I can’t remember. He writes: “Do you know what it’s like to live someplace that loves you back?” Despite the crisis Greece seems to love refugees back or at least not to despise them enough to sink their boats. This is perhaps one reason that led Europe to seriously consider creating in Greece a kind of modern day concentration camp for 400.000 refugees. Instead of being a holiday hot spot for tourists, the idea is now to become a hot spot for the displaced. And instead of hoteliers, Greeks would become more like prison guards for this sophisticated prison where Europe could then recruit her best workers in the future.

Migration is an extremely complicated issue and the reason we don’t find a solution is that we are all part of the problem. International politics, armstrafficking, petrol, global warming, the constant cycle of persecuted masses and their saviors. But if we want to remember how old this story is, literature should be a good starting point. Let’s contemplate what Aeschylus said in his Agamemnon: «Ορώμεν ανθούν πέλαγος Αιγαίον νεκροίς, / ανδρών Αχαιών ναυτικοίς τ’ ερειπίοις». Which means: “we saw the Aegean Sea blooming death, carcasses of humans(? Or: human carcasses), carcasses of boats”. And then let’s move on and read Sebald again, or Ann Seghers to feel what it means to be persecuted, to remember that this has happened to our parents, our grandparents, in our very neighborhood; and then act accordingly.

Milan Kundera says that the unity of the human race lies in the fact that nobody can escape; the war itself assures our unity. We should either do something to stop this war or do something to effectively help its victims. After all, and if we invoke Kundera again, -who asserts that “European is one who is nostalgic for Europe”- then refugees are more European than we are.


This essay was first published as part of ‘The White Sea” project, initiated by the Allianz Foundation and the Literarische Colloquium Berlin. Click here to read more essays on the theme by writers including Rasha Abbas and Ingo Shulze.