“I suggest you safeguard my words by writing them on tablet in your minds” αἰνῶ φυλάξαι τἄμ᾿ ἔπη δελτουμένας
Aeschylus, Suppliants, 200-204
“Don’t be too aggressive or broken in speech: These people are especially ready to be angry. Remember to be accommodating: you are a foreign refugee in need. To speak boldly is not a fitting move for the weak.”
“You are the city, really. You are the people. An unjudged chief of state rules The altar, the city’s hearth, With only your votes and nods, With only your scepter on the throne You judge every need. Be on guard against contamination!”
“Write this down with the many other notes In your mind of the wisdoms from your father: An unfamiliar mob is evaluated by time, But everyone has an evil tongue prepared to lash out over immigrants and speaking foully is somehow easy. I advise you not to bring me shame Now that you are in the age which turns mortal gazes.”
“Oh! citizens of Argos, do you hear what he says? You dare to compare yourself to Themistocles, who found our city half empty and left it full to overflowing, who one day gave us the Piraeus for dinner, and added fresh fish to all our usual meals. You, on the contrary, you, who compare yourself with Themistocles, have only sought to reduce our city in size, to shut it within its walls, to chant oracles to us. And Themistocles goes into exile, while you gorge yourself on the most excellent fare”
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.93.3-5
“Themistocles likewise persuaded them to build up the rest of Piraeus, for it was begun in the year that he himself was archon of Athens, because he conceived the place both beautiful, in that it had three natural havens, and, also that, since the Athenians were now seamen, it would very much advance the enlargement of their power. For he was indeed the first man that dared tell them that they ought to take upon them the command of the sea, and then immediately helped them in the obtaining it. By his counsel also it was that they built the wall of that breadth about Piraeus which can now be seen.”
The journey begins at Omonoia Square, one of the most recognizable landmarks of modern Athens, built in the 19th century after the birth of the modern Greek state, and also iconic to the turbulent history of the country: Included in the initial urban plan of Athens (1833), it’s been renamed many times, as many as it has been renovated, rebuilt, destroyed and remade. A witness to the city’s modernization, once the site of the neoclassical architecture that has characterized central Athens (the body politic’s desire to mimic a grandiose past), it was once regarded as an icon of multiculturalism, in the same way that it is now despised for the same reason.
The rather derelict area is now traditionally known as a gray area for foreign workers, low cost retail (and drugs) and most recently, a site of contestation of European identities with the refugee tents going up in the area, making inescapably visible the plight of human rights and the failure of international law to protect those who need it most. As the square watched the refugees of the Asia Minor arrive in Athens from the port of Piraeus to rebuild their lives in Greece, it has now watched refugees from imperialist wars in the Middle East flock into Europe, but with little hope to rebuild anything.
Yet this image of Omonoia Square with the tents (just a stone’s throw from the Greek parliament), has a tendency to fade quickly. In a kind of white flight that saw the wealthy abandon the city center as it became progressively impoverished—a situation that paradoxically gave it its multicultural character. But a recent change of government has put forward plans for the reclamation of the city center by investor capital. Will the square be cleaned from its intangible history of migrations?
It remains to be seen. But it is significant that here we begin the journey towards “Piraeus/Heterotopia”, a participatory theater project by Japanese artist Akira Takayama that took place in 2017 (as a part of the Fast Forward Festival, organized by the Onassis Cultural Center), and is now dormant but latent since I was able to “awaken” it, during a visit to Athens in May. The project consists basically of an unusual walking tour of the port area, armed with a smartphone app and a map, with several stops selected based on the hidden (or at least not apparent right now) history of the area, unlocking a speculative oral history: At every stop, visitors listen to a story (it’s necessary to reach the spot physically to unlock the sound audio in the app) written by commissioned writers from different countries.
The story being told ‘might’ have happened there, and it’s written based on detail research of the history and possible connotations associated with the specific spot. Here we introduce the idea of a para-fiction: It’s both true and fictional. Starting with Ancient Greece, all the way to the current refugee crisis and the Asia Minor catastrophe in between, “Heterotopia” highlights the important role of this area as a space of transition, overturning the current European idea of migration from a state of exception, to an essential aspect of human history.
This “strange land”, is for Takayama an ‘heterotopia’ following from Foucault’s use of the term, as a space of otherness that is larger than the sum of its parts. The urban and economic history of modern Athens has been nothing but strange combination of randomness and neglect, so that the port with its privileged location stands far beyond the metropolitan heart of Athens (centered around the Acropolis), and is not necessarily part of the self-image of Athens today, but it reappears in this project as an epicenter of mobility and demographic change. In what follows, I will stay loyal to the spirit of the project, leaving the oral stories alone, for they need to be experienced in person (the app is still functional and it is possible to do the walking tour).
I will focus on a few spots in the project, attempting to unmask the presence of the past – classical and otherwise, and make it present. At a time of infinite powerlessness before our current condition, with the global erosion of the liberal democratic project, these places of ‘otherness’, at the borders of European capitals (and particularly for Athens, an alleged monument to the Western tradition), remind us of the porousness of history, and therefore, of the tragic but nonetheless pluralistic experiences that have shaped the birth of modern polities.
The arrival in Piraeus is a continuation of the fragile multiculturalism of Omonoia (something that truly stands out in a country like Greece, built along the lines of 19th century ethno-states and largely self-identifying as white, by association with the classical past of Europe), with wares being sold in many languages and crowds of tourists rushing to catch the ferries to the Greek islands. As we know from ancient writers, particularly Thucydides, Piraeus was developed in the 5th century BCE under the statesman Themistocles, who in 493 BCE initiated the works of a fort in Piraeus, and in 483 BCE, the Athenian fleet left their order port in Phaleron, and relocated to Piraeus, a move that would be decisive in the battle of Salamis.
Phaleron, the old harbor, now the district of Palaio Faliro, is also the site of fascinating history: One of the most important archaeological findings of recent years was the mass grave in Faliro Delta, furnishing valuable information—and many new questions—about a rather obscure period of Greek history, the 7th century BCE. The find was the subject of another Japanese artist’s work, when Hikaru Fujii presented his video/performance work “The Primary Fact”, once again at the Onassis Cultural Center’s Fast Forward in 2018, that I wrote about.
The archaeological site was revealed during the construction of a complex for the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, now housing the national library and the national opera, highlighting the hybrid situation of Greece where these long-established shipping families such as Onassis and Niarchos act as a kind of para-state; not unlike the rule of the oligarchs, mentioned by Plato in the opening portion of his “Seventh Letter”. But returning to Piraeus, its story is long and complicated: Athens and Piraeus were connected through a pathway between the two walled cities (the Themistoclean Walls were completed in 471 BCE), but it declined after being destroyed by the Romans. What follows for Piraeus is a long dormant period during Byzantine and Ottoman rule, and later revival when Athens was designated the Greek capital under Bavarian Otto I.
To what degree was the revival of Piraeus part of the European antiquarianism regarding Greece? It would be difficult to answer. The current station building goes back to 1920s, a period of intense conflict in Greece with their loss in the war against the new Turkish republic, along the way forfeiting claim to the historical Greek Smyrna, and receiving thousands of Greek refugees from the Asia Minor, reluctantly welcomed into a country still very poor and largely undeveloped. It was from Piraeus that Greek migrants left to pursue the American dream, and it was also from there that the Nazis occupied Greece.
Different generations of migrants have settled in the area temporarily before moving on (during the research for Heterotopia, Takayama and his team also spoke with refugees from Syria in the refugee camp of the Piraeus port), but postclassical history seems to capture little of the imagination in Greek historiography, where the only path to connect a grandiose classical past with the birth of the modern republic, is the silencing of everything else. In this way, Greeks both reconnect with the European tradition and lay claim to their ‘whiteness’ (opposed to the people of the former multicultural Near East), and replace complexity with a traditional nation state.
“Although I have especially considered the affairs of the whole world my own business, whether bad or good, and I have become the kind of person which fortune has made me, one who loves the world is not worthy of hatred.
So, if someone should restrain me just to taking care of the city which produced me, then this state would seem to be suffering misfortune because of the many immigrants who leave their own cities and homes to come here. Well, that’s if they really have homes they would be brave enough to see even in dreams, these foreigners who think it right to overpower citizens, despite fearing that the emperor might make a law to examine their unexpected wealth.
It is not enough for them to have what is ours, but if anyone dares to blame their good luck, they get enraged and anyone who complains is annoying. When you are the kind of people you are, how is it not terrifying to meet this limit to your freedom of speech?”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
But ‘exile’ is an insult. Indeed, it is such among fools who use as slander “poor man”, “bald”, “short”, and, by god, “foreigner” or “immigrant”. But, truly, those who are not obsessed by these insults find wonder in good people, whether they are poor, foreigners, or exiles.”
“Friend, I said, Don’t completely dismiss the majority of people in this way. The certainly have a different opinion, if instead of picking fights with them you would show them the people you say are philosophers by persuading them and working against their prejudice against loving learning—if you distinguish it so that they will know what their nature and business is so that they don’t mistakenly think you are talking about different people.
And even if they don’t see it this way, will you claim that they are going to take up a different answer and answer differently? Or do you think that someone who is calm and kind will get angry at someone who isn’t difficult or be jealous of someone who isn’t jealous? I will start out by saying that so harsh a nature develops in only a few people, not the majority.”
“Epictetus said that if someone resists what is clearly true, then it is not easy to devise an argument to persuade him to change his mind. This is due neither to the man’s strength or the teacher’s weakness, but instead because once someone has been assailed and hardens to stone, how could anyone prevail upon him with reason?
Men are hardened to reason in two ways: one is the petrification of thought; the other comes from shame, whenever someone is deployed in battle to such a degree that he will not acknowledge what is obvious or depart from his fellow combatants. Most of us fear the necrosis of our bodies and we will do anything to avoid having this happen in anyway; but we don’t think at all about the mortification of our mind. By Zeus, if a man is disposed in such a way concerning the mind itself that he can’t follow any argument or understand anything, we believe that he is ill. But if shame or self-regard hardens a man, we still persist in calling this strength!
Do you sense that you are awake? “No”, he answers, “Not more than when I imagine that I am awake while I dream.” The fantasy of dreaming differs in no way from being awake? “Not at all.”
How do I have a conversation with this man? What kind of fire or iron can I take to him to make him perceive that he has turned to stone? Although he realizes it, he pretends he does not. He is even worse than a corpse. One man does not perceive the conflict—he is sick. The other perceives it and neither moves nor responds—he is even worse. His sense of shame and his self-regard have been amputated and his reason has not been excised but instead has been mutilated.
Should I call this strength? May it not be so, unless I should also it strength when perverts do and say everything that occurs to them in public.”
I have re-posted from a few earlier selections in honor(?) of the US Supreme Court’s ruling today on immigration and the UK’s EU Referendum.
While looking up some random phrases about the healing power of literature, I found myself reading Plutarch this morning. His words on citizenship and exile are powerful and pertinent in our transatlantic crisis of Politics (xenophobia and racism from the right) and Wars (the refugee crises and responses in Europe and Asia). Though his words are of course influenced by his experience of the Roman Empire, there is an essential humanity to them and a belief in common good and shared existence that is too often lost in modern discourse.
“This is the character of your current exile from your customary country. For we have no country by nature, just as we have neither home, nor field, nor blacksmith’s, nor doctor’s office, as Aristôn said. But each of these things develops or, rather, is named and called so by the man inhabiting or using it. For a human being, as Plato says, “is not earthly born and immovable but comes from heaven” just as if the head raises the body up straight from its root stretching towards the sky. So Herakles said well “Am I Argive or Theban? I do not claim / one—every citadel in Greece is my homeland”. But Socrates put it better saying “I am neither Athenian nor Greek, but a citizen of the world,” as someone might claim to be Rhodian or Korinthian, because he did not lock himself within Sounion, Tainaros, or the Keraunian mountains.
As [Euripides] puts it: “Do you see the boundless light above / and the earth opening below with damp embrace?” These are the boundaries of our countries and no man is an exile, foreigner or stranger where there is fire, water, air; where we find the same rulers, overseers, and presidents: the same sun, moon, and star at day’s break; where the same laws exist for all under one order and single government: the summer and winter solstices, the Pleiades and Arcturus, the seasons of planting and harvesting that rise and set for us all; and where there is one king and ruler, god, who knows the beginning, middle and end of everything; who travels through all, guiding it with a straight force. Justice is his attendant as an avenger for those who transgress divine law. We all by nature follow this law in treating all people as our fellow citizens.”
Plutarch was not the first to claim that we are all citizens of the same country. He wasn’t even the first to assign the remark to Socrates! As far as I can tell, there is no clear articulation of this idea in Plato or Xenophon. The first person to have said such a thing was Diogenes the Cynic.
Diogenes Laertius, 6.63, on Diogenes the Cynic (4th Century BCE)
“When asked where he was from, he said “I am a world-citizen.”