OCTOBER 15, 2020
IF YOU’D LIKE TO APPLY for asylum in Greece, you’d better get used to calling Skype. The Greek Asylum Service (GAS) relies on the phone application to handle incoming calls from asylum seekers who have crossed into Greece from its land border with Turkey or arrived without already being registered on the Aegean Islands. Other than an exception that allows “vulnerable” categories of people to apply in person (which is in itself nearly impossible to prove unless you have documents in Greek attesting to it, are able to plead your case in English or Greek, or can find someone to plead it for you), your only route toward safe haven in Europe is to get on your phone and dial. And dial. And dial.
When I lived in Greece in 2018, I met many asylum seekers who were passing weeks and even months of their lives in this manner: calling in during their allotted hours, getting nothing, resolving to try again next week. Asylum seekers who spoke less commonly represented languages like Tamil or Kurmanji had fewer options and even less luck; the Urdu line had several scam accounts masquerading as the official state line, a problem that GAS never bothered to address. In the meantime, without any document to show that they had made the effort of applying for asylum in Greece, these asylum seekers were considered de facto illegal, vulnerable to arrest and deportation at any moment.
Around this time, I started hearing about a “golden ticket” scheme in which wealthy foreigners could essentially purchase residency in Greece for the modest sum of 250,000 euros, plus tax, in local real estate. This number seemed to me both restrictively high and insultingly low. It was, of course, out of reach to the majority of people on earth, including most Greeks themselves; it wasn’t high enough that the recipients would possess that special sheen associated with abnormal wealth, which made the essential griminess of the transaction clear. Your run-of-the-mill foreign investor could scoop up some property on a Wednesday and have his residency assured on Friday.
Probably not, actually. Greece is, of course, notorious for its bureaucracy — a system so mind-numbingly labyrinthine that it occupies considerable space in a new collection, The Passenger: Greece, out now from Europa Editions and Iperborea. This anthology-cum-travel-guide aims to forge beyond official narratives, popular in the West, of Greece as a hapless debtor, corrupt quagmire, or idyllic island paradise.
This in itself does not seem like an overly ambitious task. Greece is a tiny nation that possesses an outside claim on world history because of its foundational past, a country that has become an absolute scapegoat in recent years for its debt crisis and then its handling of migration from Africa and the Middle East, and one which few Americans or Brits or Germans really understand. It can seem like little more than a tourist destination — a place that “should only be open from May to October,” as one disenchanted expat puts it to writer Christos Ikonomou — but in reality it is a crucible for debates over nationalism, identity, migration, and societal organization that preoccupy the entire globe. It is the target of an astonishing amount of capital, investment, and extraction; and year after year, it manages to threaten the EU’s stability and self-definition.
The Passenger: Greece explores many of these contradictions in essays on film, music, food, politics, migration (both to and from), and, of course, the economy. The collection foregrounds the so-called migration crisis; an essay by the Italian journalist Matteo Nucci situates contemporary migration to the Aegean Islands in a long history of movement to and from Greek shores: from Aeneas to the Greeks returning to un-lived native lands from Asia Minor after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. It’s a good overview of the lengths to which Fortress Europe goes to keep out asylum seekers, examining political deals, such as the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement, that have come down disproportionately on Greece. (If a bit outdated, these days, Lesvos is not exactly a “haven of welcome and hospitality.”)
The essays that deal with bureaucracy and corruption aim to reveal the nuances of what is inarguably an aspect of life in Greece. Kostas Koutsourelis locates the origin of endemic bribery in both a deep lack of confidence in state authority and the desire to create a “shared relationship based on complicity”; Rachel Howard notes that bureaucracy is not unique to Greece and may take even more soul-deadening forms elsewhere. “In England I could only yell obscenities at automated helplines,” she writes. “At least in Greece you can argue with a real person.”
I’m biased, but I would have loved to read a history of political uprising in Athens — or a longer essay on the Greek Civil War, one of the very first conflicts of the Cold War, and the long dictatorship that followed. Molly Crabapple’s excellent writing on the Exarchia neighborhood, a bastion of anarchism and refugee solidarity, and one of the few places asylum seekers without papers feel comfortable venturing out in, also seemed notably absent here; I’d swap out crime writer Petros Márkaris’s bumbling essay about the Greek taverna for such a piece. Márkaris’s complaints of young people lingering over frappés feel not only mean-spirited but bizarrely untethered from a post-crisis reality where over a third of young people are unemployed. Making a career writing detective novels? Not in this economy, Petros!
An essay on “vulture oligarchs” by Alexander Clapp is a good antidote. Clapp highlights the diaploki phenomena: “[T]he nefarious intertwining of government and private interests that austerity has deepened, not dismantled.” Like the United States, whose billionaires have seen their net worth soar during a pandemic that has cost millions of American workers their jobs, Greece’s scions of industry have successfully used the country’s economic crisis to line their pockets and increase their control of and influence on the Greek economy and beyond. One, Ivan Savvidis, seems hell-bent on privatizing the entire city of Thessaloniki — so much so, Clapp writes, that residents of that city have invented a neologism to describe the wealth that radiates outward from his many purchases.
Greece is a deeply ethnically homogeneous country, but just because the vast majority of its inhabitants are white does not mean that race does not apply here. In an essay about Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thomas Tsalapatis writes compellingly about the hypocrisy surrounding Greece’s reception of the basketball phenom, who was born in Greece to Nigerian parents but only extended citizenship as he left for the United States to pursue an NBA career. “In the Greece of prime ministers driven crazy by basketball dunks,” Tsalapatis writes, “if you are HIV-positive, homosexual, homeless, an anarchist, or any number of other things, your allotted place of residence is an anonymous no man’s land: the wire fence of Evros on the Greek Turkish border or the bottom of the Aegean.”
The essay’s attempts to unearth these contradictions, though, ultimately recapitulates the same erasures. As Tsalapatis gestures poetically toward Antetokounmpo’s family’s long journey toward recognition, he misses an opportunity to include the perspectives of those Black immigrants currently living, working, and raising children in Greece, who have not been acknowledged by the state or its people despite the belated embrace of one preternaturally talented young man. Antetokounmpo is hardly the only Black Greek whose story merits telling. And Tsalapatis’s references to “the wire fence of Evros” and “the bottom of the Aegean” create a symbolic linkage between the castoffs of the Greek state and those migrants seeking to enter it, an uneasy bond that belies a crucial distinction: no matter how reviled political dissenters or drug users may be, no matter how stripped of metaphoric belonging to the nation-state, they still possess their literal citizenship.
Throughout my time perusing The Passenger: Greece, I was nagged by the feeling that something was missing. What was it? The writing was good, the photographs gorgeous, the subjects relevant and appropriately varied — but it lacked some spark, a beating heart at the center of the collection.
The Passenger: Greece, as its name suggests, is one of a series. Its subhead, or tagline, is “For explorers of the world”; current volumes include Japan, Turkey, and Brazil. I can only speak for Greece, which does not quite know whether it is a sophisticated accompaniment to travel or an essay collection. Photographs by the Italian documentary photographer Pietro Masturzo are a welcome addition, but I could have done without the statistics and graphs — I didn’t really need to know that Greeks consume four times as much olive oil per capita as Syrians, or have sex an average of 164 times a year (who’s counting?) — and the font and design makes the whole thing look a bit like a Monocle travel guide: Fodor’s for people who read The New Yorker.
The collection ultimately struck me as an attempt at cultural translation — here is Greece, the editors seem to say, packaged and presented to you in the language of Guardian journalists, fluent in Greek and English and equally capable of interpreting the idiosyncratic desires and behaviors of their countrymen. And this uniformity of tone, of course, begets certain absences. There are in fact twice as many long essays in this collection by the aforementioned Nucci than there are by women; stunningly, of the 12 central pieces that anchor this book, not a single one is written by a Greek woman.
The Passenger’s editors would like to make Greeks into human beings rather than caricatures, but there is no real accounting for their pride, their interior delusions, their strength of spirit — who they might be as individuals. Portraits hint at the rich interior lives of young men and women who left the capital for far-flung and provincial islands, but we don’t hear their voices. What is it like to be queer, a retiree living on a pension that’s been cut in two, or an immigrant in Greece? What’s it like to be an anarchist who hangs out in the cafés in Exarchia all day, or a middle-aged businessman who takes his coffee 10 minutes away in Kolonaki? With a few notable exceptions — an essay on rebetiko music and a profile of Thessaloniki’s controversial Ringo-Starr-look-alike mayor stand out — this collection never really tries to answer these questions. I was left with a sense of the forces and passions that dominate Greek politics, the cultural trends that animate society, but not the ordinary people who embody them.