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Sunday, September 15, 2002

Balkans

A View from Two Worlds, in Eleven Jump Cuts, on September 11


The following is from a work in progress entitled Freefall.

  1
Almost four months after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, I was standing knee-deep in snow half a world away, hitting bent boughs with a broom and working against time to save the lemon trees in the yard. The sap had already frozen in the olive trees, and every so often a whipcrack sound rent the air as a branch from one of these split from its trunk. Temperatures hovered below freezing, the spindrift blew mercilessly, there was no electricity and more snow to come, and the woodpile was very low. The village of Myloi was snowed in and closed – apoklismeno. No one knew when a bulldozer or roadgrader might come to open the road to Karystos, the town below us, but everyone understood it was certainly no priority, for much of Greece lay under the heaviest snows the country had seen in almost half a century.

Wendy Porter, a Canadian friend working with the American Archeological School in Athens’s ancient agora, cheerfully banged a broom on the other side of the tree. She’d arrived before the snowstorms and now was stuck; even if southern Evia’s roads were plowed, the port of Rafina, where the ferry docks, was under almost three feet of snow and closed. We saved the lemon grove (for the moment), shoveled the stairwell to the street, shoveled a path to the outdoor bathroom, stoked the woodstove, and placed buckets to catch the water that had soaked through the kitchen ceiling to drip endlessly onto the refrigerator and the electric stove, both useless and unplugged. We went up onto the roof and shoveled that too, to stem what we could of the melt seeping into the kitchen, and to marvel at the mountains and Myloi’s Frankish castle clad in cloud and snowdrift.

Only young Vangelis and old Mitsos and Yiorgos – a man of indeterminable age whose mother is 91 – managed the road past us, one by one and at different times, their earflaps pulled down and heads bent and gloved hands gnarled about walking staffs, set upon reaching their livestock. Vangelis yelled up to us that the snow was to his armpits above the village, where he’d waded through it to bring fodder to old man Stamatis’s donkey. Mitsos cursed and complained that his family had no heat, that everyone was in bed, under quilts and blankets: like others in Myloi, they’d thrown out their woodburning stoves when they installed oil heating, useless in times of electrical outages. Yiorgos only nodded as he passed, watching his footing and probably furious that his four-wheel drive was useless, then a ways beyond turned and spread wide his hands in a gesture of resignation and yelled, as much at the world as to us: Zimia, zimia!

Havoc, damage, mischief, a mess: zimia. The villagers called the mudslide that destroyed the squares before the church of Aghia Triada in December a zimia; they also use the word when a child breaks a glass or spills milk, when hail rips through their crops, when electric power lines are down and their pylons crumpled (as now), when dogs get at their chickens. But I can’t hear the word without remembering end-September, for that’s what everyone called the destruction of the World Trade Center: zimia.

I wanted to cry, suddenly, standing on the roof. No matter how many olive trees crack, no matter how many kids and lambs die of freeze, no matter how long the village is without electricity, no matter how many days we are cut off from the town below, no matter how many candles we burn to eat by, no matter how cold and numb we become, this zimia is not that of which I am now reminded. And it will leave no hole in anyone’s soul.

2
I had never planned on remaining indefinitely in Myloi, this village of some 120 souls where we have rented a house for some years; but after arriving here from Manhattan 12 days after the mayhem of September 11 – after being trapped in its wake – I could not imagine leaving. It was as if we had slipped through a torn seam in the universe, escaped from a precarious dimension, entered a place of pastworld distractions. Crowing cocks confusedly cockadoodled at the moonlight, dogs barked at the dawn, the sea below us shimmered through the drought, kerchiefed women glanced sideways into the sun during a relentless heatwave and went to special liturgies that were offered up to a god of mercy they were sure would hear them and send rain. Dried olives no larger than their pits dropped under the wilting trees, the stream in the village held no water, cicada song was hushed. Dust blew with the slightest breeze and hazed into softness the barren hillsides surrounding us, obscuring the Frankish castle and the view to the sea, settled into cracks, whitened like flour the floors and tickled our nostrils. And so it was that the fecundity of chickens after months of heatwaves, the disruption the drought heaped on reaping and planting, the appearance of a thirsty fox, the disappearance of an unruly mule, and the onset – finally – of heavy rains and a troubling winter became my world.

The longer I stayed, the more such things made sense, nature’s vagaries and village life being what they are. The longer I stayed, the more convinced I was that I would never be ready to return to New York, a place – among others, I knew, but I had not lived in those others – that had borne the brunt of human senselessness. But on January 11, 2002, after riding out the drought and then the toughest, coldest weeks of that frightful Greek winter – and four months to the day from when I’d stood under a cerulean sky on a crowded corner at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue and watched the Twin Towers burn – I went through passport control at Athens’s Eleftherios Venizelos Airport. For Peter had slipped on an icy New York sidewalk and shattered his wrist a few days before. Zimia.

3
Hi! I’m Nick! announces a fellow passenger standing over me, hand outstretched. I repress a groan and, without saying a word, turn to stare out the plane’s window. Nick huffs and settles in busily, kicking my carry-on, testing the headset, asking a steward for a bloody Mary though we aren’t yet out of the bay, not even on the tarmac (not to mention in the air). He hogs the armrest between us, stretches his legs, flaps through the inflight magazines, slurps his drink. When we back out and head for the runway, I can only be grateful that the flight is on time.

Hi, folks, booms the pilot’s voice over the intercom. Hi, folks, and that’s all it takes: there’s a lump in my throat. I hate flying, I’m in crisis mode; I haven’t heard an American accent in months. And I’d forgotten that there’s nothing in the world like a homey American with that duh-happy, we’re-great-buddies-and-we’re-all-in-this-together, unaffected, wholesome, friendly, corny familiarity easily mistaken for democratic character. It’s the stuff in the States (and only in the States) that makes waiters introduce themselves before taking your order, allows job interviewers to call you by your nickname (even if you don’t have one), puts bosses on a first-name basis with grunts. My name’s – – – , the pilot continues, and I’m glad to be your pilot today. And I’m proud to tell you that our destination is JFK, New York City, in the United States of America –

I begin to cry. His folksy way, the undercurrent of patriotism in his voice and in his geographical elaboration of JFK, the sudden uprooting from Myloi, the idea of Peter in a cast and sling, the thought of New York, and the reality of being stuck in the air next to Nick for the next 10-plus hours all hit me full force.

– and I’m promising you the best and safest flight you’ve ever had. Repeat: the safest. So welcome aboard, sit back and relax, and enjoy, folks. We’ve got a wonderful crew, and we’re gonna have a wonderful flight.

The runway is a blur, the snowcapped, low-lying hills are a blur, there’s a catch in my chest. So you’re a bad flyer, huh? Nick pipes up. When I don’t answer, he taps my arm. Look, I tell him between clenched teeth and without looking at him, I was in New York on September 11 and left with the first Delta flight out from JFK to Athens after that. I haven’t been back since, and I don’t want to go back, but I’ve got a family emergency. So excuse me, and leave me alone.

Hey, Nick exclaims, you shouldn’t take it so hard – September 11 and all. I mean, I know it was a blow to our national pride, but –

That’s when I turn to him, and on him. It wasn’t a blow to our national pride, I hiss, it was a disaster – in which a lot of people died.

4
Those of us who were in southern Manhattan on September 11, 2001, were from that day forward set apart – at least so I believe – from the rest of the nation: we witnessed, we were threatened, our city was transformed, our fellow workers were vanished into ash, our lives were brought to a standstill as Manhattan closed down, and then we were left with too many dead and not enough survivors and a catastrophic amount of fiery rubble and toxic smokeclouds that billowed for miles. We lived with the reek of burning substances we could hardly identify, we wore masks and handkerchiefs or put our hands over our mouths and noses; we lived with constant siren wails, bad telephone connections (when we had telephone connections), we were evacuated from buildings because of bomb scares; and we lived without traffic below 14th Street, which had become something of a no-man’s-land, eerie and abandoned – with most businesses, restaurants, and bars closed – except for those who went about like sleepwalkers as they crossed police checkpoints, under a skyline that was now unrecognizable.

Nick was not there, he told me – he couldn’t stop talking, he’s what the villagers call anesthitos, unconscious, insensible. I didn’t want to know, because I already knew, and I ignored him. By lunch, Mr. It-Was-A-Blow-to-Our-National-Pride-But had ensconced himself in a seat next to the only other woman traveling alone. Halfway through the flight, two stewards asked me: Are you with that man? I certainly am not, I told them, and as far as I’m concerned he can stay where he is. Actually, he can’t, one of them said. He happens to be bothering the pilot’s girlfriend. Have the pilot come out and deck him, I suggested.

Nick eventually took his seat next to me, silent and morose. We did not fly over Manhattan, for which I was grateful. The Pakistani cab driver who drove me home from the airport asked me where I’d come in from. He said Greece is a good place, then told me he’d just returned from a visit to Pakistan. I pray to Allah for General Musharraf’s life, he remarked.

5
The fires were out in January at what came to be called Ground Zero, an appellation I detest because it grinds into dust, into amnesia, what should never be forgotten – the Ground Zero, at Alamogordo, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The site bore no resemblance to anything – certainly not to the original Ground Zero(s), not even to Dresden – but the lack of life around it, south of it, was unnerving. Battery Park City’s benches and walks along the Hudson were twilight-zone empty on an unseasonably warm winter Sunday. The West Side Highway was closed to all but official traffic below Stuyvesant High School, and above the high school the biking and jogging paths along the riverside were cordoned and fenced. Trucks dumped detritus from the ongoing excavation to be barged away – twisted girders, half-melted metal fragments, mangled wiring, dirt, split blocks of concrete, pieces of something that looked like comet debris – at a corner dock adjacent to the school. No one was there to watch.

There was still a chalky, ashcolored substance evident on the buildings that stood closest to what had been the Twin Towers, and there was still a powdery residue on surrounding streets. Tourists with cameras hustled about, tracking in the footprints of others, taking photographs of one another at what had become a pilgrimage site of destruction. Its monumentality, I found myself thinking, should have given pause rather than elicit photo-op smiles: after all, the platform erected for sightseers edged a mass grave. And there were US flags everywhere: on hats, on shirts, on jackets, on pocketbooks, in windows, hanging from buildings, on baby carriages, on daypacks, on cars and trucks. A van passed by with so many flags they defied counting. On the inside of its windshield, writ huge, was one word: NUKEM.

6
The grief and fear, the horror, and the disruption felt on September 11 and on the days following, in a lower Manhattan that was barely familiar, had – it seemed in January – almost entirely dissipated. Old patterns of existence had reasserted themselves: people went to work and went shopping, there were no checkpoints except close to the World Trade Center site; there were pigeons (lower Manhattan after September 11 was curiously devoid of avian life) and pigeon feeders; no one stopped dead and looked skyward whenever an airplane droned past; the restaurants were no longer peopled with ghosts; and the candles that had filled Union Square Park and lined sidewalks and stoops all over lower Manhattan were gone. Gone too the photocopy posters of the missing.

The New York Times’s sugary obituaries of the disaster’s victims continued. The anthrax scares were over, Kabul had fallen, Osama bin Laden had disappeared, New York was recovering. But it was difficult to question where we were heading – something people in Greece and the rest of the world asked – without encountering a blindsided, mindless, kneejerk patriotism. And it was even more difficult to deny that what was profoundly tragic in September had lost its heartrending edge to a gung-ho, smoke-’em-outta-everywhere policy that was orbiting us further and further away from the rest of the world, which is a place filled with many good, ordinary people who believe the US represents and is responsible for what ails them – poverty and its misery and degradation; oppression, torture, and death at the hands of past and present governments supported by the US militarily, monetarily, and ideologically (yes, Israel, among them); continuous economic dislocation (most recently in the name of “globalization”); the displacement of cultures. But rational discourse didn’t allow for the rest of the world or its complexities; all that mattered, it seemed, was on which of George W. Bush’s whoever’s-not-with-us-is-against-us lists each of the world’s countries found itself.

Bush was riding a cresting popularity wave in January, and he could barely deliver his State of the Union address for the unanimous congressional applause that kept interrupting him. In it, he managed to create his “axis of evil” (applause), announce the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security (applause), emphasize the need for volunteer neighborhood watch-forces (applause). No hoots derided the simplistic division of the world into forces of good and evil; no one recoiled at the creation of a new office that would roll back the cover of constitutional rights to privacy; no reminiscent nods were sent in the direction of that most recently disbanded neighborhood watch-force called the Stasi. A few days later, addressing the press in response to the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, George Bush drawled: ’Mericans are sad, and angry. Sad, and angry, he repeated, as if the entire nation were trapped in a simulated national EST-training assembly hall and under his tutelage. Thank you, I wanted to scream, for sharing that with us.

7
Kala na pathoune: It serves them right, a Karystian cab driver said gloatingly to me, after learning that we were in New York on September 11. September was not quite over at that point, and Greek television networks were still broadcasting live the ongoing firefight in Manhattan, interspersing their coverage with repeated footage of the planes crashing into the towers and the towers collapsing. More than 8,000 people were assumed to be dead then, and it’s not that I couldn’t believe my ears – the cabbie was only voicing what many people thought in Greece and elsewhere – but that I resented his callousness, his tone, his gleeful attempt at provocation. I asked him whether he thought 8,000+ people just going to work deserved to die. America was responsible for the Greek junta, he shot back, kala na pathoune.

A few days later, sitting on a beach, Peter watched a fat man yelling, Erhondai ta taliban! – Here come the Taliban! – as he plunged into the sea after his friends with a massive splash. (Has this become a joke? he asked incredulously.) The Greek media began reporting (for days, and as truth) a preposterous statement by a Taliban spokesman in Pakistan that the destruction of the Twin Towers and the strike at the Pentagon was masterminded by the Mossad – as “proof,” he declared that 4,000 Jews did not go to work in the World Trade Center that morning, having been forewarned by Israeli intelligence. (Are they crazy or just stupid? Peter asked, even more incredulous). And then Greek soccer fans booed and jeered while burning the American flag during what was supposed to have been a moment of silence for the victims of September 11 before the beginning of a match in Athens. (Anesthitoi, Peter said.)

Our elderly village neighbors tried to grasp the magnitude of the destruction and loss of life in New York, difficult as it was for them to imagine the enormity of the towers. All of Karystos would have disappeared, I found myself telling them, and everyone in southern Evia would be dead. One day, old Panayis, who is well-meaning but in another time would probably have been a tribal buffoon, told me that 32 Greeks died in the zimia. Thousands of people died, I corrected him, and he brushed the air with the back of his hand and responded, Ma, anthropoi leo, ellines eitane. But I’m talking about human beings, Greeks.

I stopped watching television and began telling people that I didn’t want to talk about September 11. I was tired of being dogged by the nightmare footage of the plane crashes, tired of being worn down with every conversation, tired of being reminded, tired of feeling accosted as I had when an acquaintance, an Athenian who has a weekend home below Myloi, greeted me gleefully with: Hah! You Americans finally learned a lesson, didn’t you?

What lesson might that be? I asked. Do you mean that at the beginning of Bush’s presidency no one even believed he’d won the election, and now his popularity rating is more than 90 percent? Is that the lesson we learned? Fuck Bush, she said. Kala na pathete.

8
It is impossible not to be anguished by the fact that many people in Greece thought that “we” deserved what happened on September 11, but it is possible to understand it. What is incomprehensible, however, and painful beyond anguish, is to realize that Greeks are so divorced from reality that they think they now exist somewhere outside the sphere of the West, somewhere beyond and not under the cape of Western hegemony. Which hegemony is after all modeled on, with variations, the American capitalist system and an ideology that has come to link free markets with the entrenchment of democratic institutions.

These institutions have as their cornerstones sexual and racial or ethnic equality, freedom of expression and of the press, the right to practice any religion, the right to a secular state, the rights of the accused to face their accusers in unbiased courts (and, until recently in the States, the right to habeas corpus), the right of all citizens to vote. None of the above existed for the Taliban. None of the above, needless to say, would be relinquished by Greeks at this moment under any circumstances.

And so how is it that Mikis Theodorakis, arguably the greatest composer in Greece’s twentieth century, could voice his support for the Taliban – which outlawed all music – before the fall of Kabul, and thereafter listen to his Mauthausen being played in Kabul’s streets on the eve of the Taliban’s desertion of the city without being embarrassed? How is it that the Greek media could hold back from lambasting those soccer fans who desecrated a moment of silence, then be caught offguard by the outcry of outraged Greek Americans and Americans who had long lived or worked in and certainly loved Greece? How is it that a nation that has largely marginalized its own Muslim minority (yet rants about 400 oppressive years of Ottoman Muslim rule), and sided with Slobodan Milosevic and its Serbian Orthodox brethren against their Muslim and Catholic enemies in the former Yugoslavia, can sympathize with terrorist acts committed by Islamic fundamentalists? How can a butcher in Karystos, a kind woman from all appearances and despite the sound of her profession, greet one of my Myloi neighbors the day after September 11 with, Den eitane thavma i zimia pou egine sti Nea Yorki? – Wasn’t the destruction in New York a miracle?

Political depravity, collective schizophrenia, moral callousness: these are, of course, immediate and simplistic answers that, in the end, answer nothing. Moreover, these responses remain in the private sphere and in no way reflect the Greek government’s response to what happened in Manhattan. But they must be seen – not condoned, but understood – as personal reactions to what many Greeks have long perceived to be their humiliation at the hands of the United States: US support of the right during the civil war and of successive governments in the 1950s that marginalized and castigated the left, US support of the 1967-74 dictatorship, US efforts to undermine the socialist governments of Andreas Papandreou, and the US’s ongoing strategic alliance with Turkey. They must also been seen as part and parcel of the resentment Greeks feel when they sense their own inadequacy, their own lack of importance, in the eyes of Americans. Even as Greece has become richer than ever, even as it has become part of the flagship Schengen club within the European Union, even as it has brought its economy into line with the mandates of that Union and introduced the euro, the gap between the political and economic reality of Greece’s firmly embedded location within the Western community and the private sphere’s perception of perpetual victimization by the United States is enormous.

This is a small country with no common borders with the West; it is not a superpower; and its people have long understood that life was often, and until recently, better elsewhere – including in the United States, to which hundreds of thousands of Greeks have emigrated over the course of more than a century. And it’s a country whose natural inclination is to favor any self-professed underdog taking on the powers that be. Even on September 11.

And where are the voices – public or private – of reason in the United States? Smothered, it seems, under the weighty waving of millions of flags, engrossed by a kind of collective national recovery act that has pitted “good” against “evil,” and muted by a barely veiled desire for revenge. The voice of reason in Greece (and there is one) happens to belong to the Simitis government, which – if we’ve learned any lessons from democracy – happens also to represent the Greek people.

9
I never loved New York. But I loved a man who was in love with New York, and whose heart was large enough for me too, and so New York became my home. It was a place I came to live in more or less happily for more than 20 years, not because of its cosmopolitan sophistication and certainly not because of its cynicism but because of its grittiness, because of the way its hodgepodge of people from all walks of life, speaking many tongues and wearing skins of many colors, dug their heels in and rubbed elbows and made the city what it was, as unlike any place in the American heartland as it could be.

Now, that’s over, at least for me. Now, I’d rather live in a country where the contradictions between – and the complexities inherent in – the public and private spheres are as exposed as raw nerves. I’d rather live here in Greece, in a peasant village, than in a nation and in a gritty city where everything has become so blurred that all that seems to be left is silence. I’d rather live with the jeering than with that big hole in the ground and the voiceless complicity that now emanates from it.

10
A sense of helplessness, not to mention distraught bewilderment, hit most of us in lower Manhattan as the Twin Towers collapsed and life changed, perhaps forever. People – despite pervasive fear, incomprehension, a sense of nerve-shattering isolation, panic, and shock – did what they could. They rushed to schools and to their children and to each other and to their homes; many of them made their way to where they lived in other boroughs by foot after traffic ceased to flow, many gave blood, and many opened their doors to people who could not go home. I went to a hospital closest to our home and volunteered to do anything, but as the day wore on it became more and more apparent there was little to be done. By the time I left in late afternoon, there was still far more hospital staff standing before the emergency entrance than survivors reaching the doors.

Manhattan closed down. Fourteenth Street, a block below us, became no man’s land. A kind of quiet – broken constantly by siren blare – settled over the lower part of the island as traffic flow ceased, as urban white noise dissipated. In the following days, we did what we could: tracked down all our friends (none had perished), stood with the crowds at the corner of Christopher Street and the West Side Highway and applauded whenever a trucker hauled debris past, wandered past deserted firehouses and through abandoned lower Manhattan, watched the candle vigils grow, tried to get as close to the site as we could until the sickening sensation that we were walking on the ashes of our fellow beings made us turn back. We got used to carrying IDs for identity checks; we watched television nonstop; we stopped sleeping. We tried to celebrate our wedding anniversary by not canceling reservations, but we ate without appetite in a restaurant half-empty because, we knew, of the missing and dead.

We felt trapped, because we were trapped. By the time we finally boarded a plane for Athens, it had rained once, but not enough to dampen much of the fire or reduce the size of the massive cloud. JFK was emptier than I’d ever imagined an airport could be, except at 4:00 in the morning in Boondocks, USA. Before the plane left the bay, the last person to board in business class was “profiled” and taken off the flight with his bags. When the plane finally lifted from the runway, there was nothing to do but cry.

11
Vangelio Koutsoukos, my 75-year-old landlord and friend here in Myloi, was born in this village and has lived here all her life. She is what my grandfathers would have called a fine woman, a woman without pretense, a kind, honest, hardworking woman. Her thin hands are beginning to warp and her back is beginning to bend from the labors she has performed all her life – planting and hoeing and milking and harvesting and warping and weaving – but her eyes are as clear as any girl’s, her slow smile as enchanting. She’s seen much sorrow, and felt as much, having suffered poverty and a marriage she never wanted and the bane of childlessness, having suffered also regret at not having gone to school beyond the fifth grade, at having forgotten how to read, at not understanding the world, and of now being one of the many here who are burying their relatives and neighbors of like and greater age. As if that is all there is left to her.

She could not make sense of what happened in New York on September 11. That which she could understand was that people died under shocking conditions. She said to me one day that those who lost parents or children or relatives, those who lost spouses or friends, must be doubly bereaved – first by their loss, and then by the horror of such untimely, violent deaths. Including, she continued, the terrorists themselves, for surely they had parents or siblings and relatives, surely they too had friends or spouses; and I consider that she is right, that they too died horrible deaths, that their absence must have left fissures and voids somewhere, in the hearts of those they left behind.

What Vangelio cannot understand is the why of it all, except from the standpoint of faith. Like most of the women in Myloi, she is profoundly devout, which means that she is piously dedicated to a belief in an afterlife and in the righteousness of divine judgment. The terrorists too, she knows, were religious – so much so that they believed in their own suicidal, murderous martyrdom, and in an afterlife. And what did they believe would happen to them after they died killing so many innocent people? Vangelio asked me.

There wasn’t much I could say. They believed they would go to heaven immediately, I began – wondering at the madness of religious dogma in general and at these greetings at the gates of paradise in particular – and there be met by forty-two?, seventy-two? virgins –

Lathos, she interrupted before I got any further. Wrong.

All things being equal, I hope she’s right.

Melanie Wallace is a novelist and frequent contributor to greekworks.com. Her latest novel, The Housekeeper, was published by MacAdam/Cage in April.
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