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Tuesday, October 15, 2002


A Younger World: The Mysteries of Ikaria

I would never have thought of Ikaria as an incubator of terrorists. Naughty maybe, a little subversive perhaps, but a breeding-ground for the infamous November 17? Then, suddenly, I began reading in the Greek American press about concerned Greek Americans of Ikarian descent lamenting the fact that the Xiros brothers happened to be from Ikaria, outraged by the sudden appearance of an allegedly November 17 proclamation on the island, and despairing of the inevitable damage to the island’s reputation following all these unfortunate incidents. At lunch with a relative a few weeks ago, I was reminded of how long it had taken the island to free itself from its image as a communist stronghold, the “red rock.” The impression had developed gradually, after years of Ikaria being used as a place of internment for communists and leftists. These political prisoners had indelibly colored the island; as a result, Ikaria had suffered from years of political neglect. “Think,” I was warned, “of how long it will now take to overcome this association to terrorism.”

A different drummer
I left wondering whether or not I was seriously misguided when it came to the whole issue of November 17 and the so-called Ikarian connection. I had read in the non-Greek press about the terrorist group’s “Ikarian faction,” as opposed to the “Thesprotian faction.” It had never occurred to me, however, that this meant anything more than that three of the group’s members (the Xiros brothers) were from Ikaria, and that one of them, Christodoulos, had been an active participant in the island’s public life. But then I became suspicious. In all the years I had been visiting the island, how could I have ignored all those signs of something clearly subversive being hatched and growing in that bastion of communists and leftists.

The first thoughts that disturbed the memories of Ikaria with which I’ve been suffused for a large part of my adult life were of my Uncle Vangelis. For years, he’d emerge at five in the morning and disappear for the greater part of the day taking care of his animals (goats, sheep, and pigs) and vegetable gardens. We’d always wondered about all the time my uncle spent looking after a few animals and some rather stunted vegetable gardens. My father, who had to look after Vangelis’s animals when the latter had to go to Athens to be with my gravely ill Aunt Lemonia, had recently mentioned to me how puzzled he’d been all these years with Vangelis’s pace and use of time in fulfilling his agricultural tasks. We’d always considered my uncle to be a telling example of how Ikarians notoriously perceive the concept of time. If time has ever been out of joint, it’s been in Ikaria. It is only now that I begin to question my uncle’s wanderings all these years. Can he had been conspiring all this time with those terrorists that suddenly seemed to have emerged from every corner of the island? Was he putting his training and experience from the time he had fought in the Korean War to good use?

And what about the baker in Raches, the central village in the northwestern part of the island? For years, he, too, would emerge at dawn, bake the day’s bread, and then leave to labor at his gardens and take care of his animals. The door of the bakery remained open for everyone to pick up their bread, and money would be dropped in a small basket that served as a primitive cash register lying on the store counter. As far as anyone knows, there’s never been any money missing from that basket. What kind of business philosophy is this? Who has ever functioned on such a business model? Only now does it occur to me that the baker’s behavior and radical business model were perfectly compatible with the antiestablishment and anticapitalist philosophies that seem to have motivated November 17. Perhaps the baker, too, was part of the anarcholeftism that one could now clearly see everywhere on the island, contributing to the presence of the terrorist group’s Ikarian faction.

It finally became clear to me that perhaps all these concerned Greek Americans were right. Everything that had made me fall in love with Ikaria from the time I was a child were not merely signs of a simple, agrarian, and (in many ways) primordial lifestyle and society that were quickly disappearing, but, rather, disturbing evidence of the place’s capacity to feed life on the fringe, in the margins.

Daedalus’ descendants
It has always been difficult for those who are not familiar with Ikaria, whether first-time visitors or Ikarians who have been away for a long time (Greek Americans of Ikarian descent are a good example), to become accustomed to its unusual rhythms and sense of space, time, and order. What the uninitiated comes upon, especially in the northwestern part of the island, is a surprising and initially incomprehensible way of living, of engaging with the daily struggles of life in a small and rather poor Aegean island. Stores open at midnight and hundreds of people shop and socialize until two or three in the morning. You are invited to dinner at eight and arrive on time only to realize that the locals don’t appear until at least eleven. You arrange an appointment with a tradesman on the island (carpenter, plumber, electrician), but he doesn’t show up for days or even weeks. Rules (traffic, parking, etc.) are consistently violated or ignored.

If one, however, allows oneself to adjust, to become submerged in and seduced by the place’s idiosyncratic modus vivendi, one comes to consider the order of things on the island as almost perfect. You play the game and suddenly discover with great pleasure that everything works. My father, whose sense of punctuality, discipline, and order was embedded in him by 30 or so years of serving in the Greek air force, has had a very difficult time understanding and adjusting to the local lifestyle. It has taken 12 years of living on the island all year round for him to become fully absorbed by it. Occasionally, one still senses some traces of resistance, but a conversion has undoubtedly occurred.

I was visiting Ikaria in the summer of the second year after my parents’ decision to live there most of the time. My father and I had gone to Raches one afternoon to get a prescription filled for my grandmother. As we came upon the pharmacy, we encountered Nikos, the pharmacist, another of those dangerous local communists, in the process of locking the door. Ignoring my father’s angry pleading to quickly fill the prescription for us, he said that he had an urgent task – he had to metadesei his goat (move it from one field to another) – but he vowed to be back in 10 minutes. My enraged father and I proceeded to the local café to wait and have a drink. As the 10 minutes became an hour and then two, I start panicking at the thought that my father was going to suffer a lethal heart attack from his outrage at what he considered to be Nikos’s complete lack of civic responsibility and professionalism.

Nikos emerged three hours later. Laughing, he explained how, while in the process of moving his goat, it had suddenly occurred to him that he had forgotten to pull in his fishing nets from where he had dropped them the night before. With no hesitation – and certainly no concern about us waiting back at the pharmacy – he proceeded to do just that: drive to the port, get in his little boat, and go to pull in his fishing nets. As he narrated all this – Ikarians, by the way, are great storytellers – in the most natural way possible, I began to discern a slight smile beginning to form on my father’s face. I realized then that he was allowing himself to be seduced by Ikaria. My father also understood very clearly who Nikos was, and what he had done by deciding to open a pharmacy on the island. The pharmacist had made what was for Greeks an unusual commitment to this isolated place. My father knew that, in the winter, when all the visitors were gone and only a few hundred people lived in the area, and the island remained isolated for weeks on end from the rest of the country, Nikos’s presence was soothing and reassuring for everybody.

This was a reciprocal relationship that everybody understood, and that my father was just beginning to comprehend. The pharmacist could leave in the middle of the day to fish, but he was also present when he was needed most, and when it was the most difficult for someone to be present. Furthermore, all of us got something out of that day. Nikos his fish, and my father and I a chance for a long and intimate conversation that we hadn’t had for many years – in addition to four huge skorpines for the most delicious kakavia (fish soup).

A “world…half a thousand years younger”
I have been going to Ikaria regularly for most of my life. When I was four, I spent a whole year with my grandparents in their village, Vrakades, while my parents worked in Athens. In the Seventies, there was no electricity, no hot water, no cars, no paved roads. Almost everything on my grandparents’ dinner table was produced by them. At that time, I was too young to reflect on whether or not there was anything unusual about the village’s daily life. Everything seemed natural and perfect. All I remember is a tremendous sense of exhilaration and pleasure. It was much later, in my early thirties, when I read The Autumn of the Middle Ages, the seminal work by the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, that I clearly understood why I had derived such tremendous pleasure in spending time in Ikaria, and why now, in my late thirties, I yearn to experience such pleasures once more.

When the world was half a thousand years younger, all events had much sharper outlines than now. The distance between sadness and joy, between good and bad fortune, seemed to be much greater than for us; every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness that joy and sadness still have in the mind of a child. Every event, every deed was defined in given and expressive forms and was in accord with the solemnity of a tight, invariable life style. The great events of human life – birth, marriage, death – by virtue of the sacraments, basked in the radiance of the divine mystery. But even the lesser events – a journey, labor, a visit – were accompanied by a multitude of blessings, ceremonies, sayings, and conventions.

…Just as the contrast between summer and winter was stronger then than in our present lives, so was the difference between light and dark, quiet and noise. The modern city hardly knows pure darkness or true silence anymore, nor does it know the effect of a single small light or that of a lonely distant shout.

From the continuing contrast, from the colorful forms with which every phenomenon forced itself on the mind, daily life received the kind of impulses and passionate suggestions that are revealed in the vacillating moods of unrefined exuberance, sudden cruelty, and tender emotions between which the life of the medieval city was suspended.

As it turned out, the collapse of November 17 revealed that some people with whom I had shared such “moods of unrefined exuberance” in Ikaria were close friends of Christodoulos Xiros, and became suspects in the investigations, although, in the end, no evidence was found of any misdeeds. These are people for whom I have nothing but tremendous respect; indeed, deep inside me, I envy their decision to go back to Ikaria after they got their university degrees. Now, in New York, I find myself all of a sudden hearing people saying that this was not only to be expected from an island in which communists, anarchists, and all types of leftists were running rampant, but that there is a concrete connection between the unorthodox lifestyle of native Ikarians and terrorism.

In The Bow and the Lyre, Seth Benardete discusses Odysseus’ surprise upon entering Polyphemus’ cave:

When finally Odysseus enters the empty cave, he finds something that neither his intuition nor his narrative anticipated. “Baskets were brimming with cheese, and pens were tightly packed with lambs and kids; they had been severally enclosed separately; the older were apart, the middle were apart, and the ‘dew drops’ were apart; all the fabricated pails, large and small, in which he milked them, were swimming with whey” (9.219-23). Odysseus beholds with pleasure perfect order. Everything is in place by age and kind. Odysseus seems to conclude that wherever there is order, there is justice (cf. 14.13-16, 433-38), but he discovers that law and order can be apart. The very word for law, themistes, turns out to be misleading. Though it seems to assume a necessary connection etymologically between order and right, there is none in deed.

  It is this very assumption that “wherever there is order, there is justice,” understood in a less philosophical manner, that somehow seems to be inspiring a number of people’s reactions regarding Ikaria’s association in certain ways with November 17. It is not unusual for people to find a connection between the lack of a sense of order that characterizes the island and the presence of many anarchist and leftist elements there. The islanders’ seemingly natural disposition to disorder (as perceived from the outside) provides the explanation – to my mind ridiculous – for the misguided political dispositions of the Xiros brothers and their inner circle on the island, as well as for the acts of terrorism that were born of them.

It is the absurdity of such claims that has driven Ikarians to develop a sense of humor regarding the large presence apparently on the island of undercover police, who are presumably there to erase all traces of “home-grown” terrorism. And it is the same absurdity that has made Ikarians more proud than ever of their unique lifestyles. Christodoulos Xiros was known by almost everybody who lived in Ikaria all year round, since he was actively involved both with politics at a local level, but also with the island’s cultural and social affairs. Obviously, however, the vast majority of Ikarians condemn his actions as a member of November 17 as cold-blooded murder. To have known him, to have shared goat and wine at one of the island’s famous festivals with him, does not mean that you support his actions. To criticize a whole island for promoting violence because of its manifestly different lifestyle is, to say the least, idiotic.

I, for one, plan to go back to Ikaria this summer. I long to let myself be absorbed by its crazy schedule. And I know that my daughters – who love the idea of accompanying my mother to milk the goats for the day’s milk and being taught to catch butterflies by my father – will return to New York gloating at school about the joys that this great city can never offer them, but which they can only experience on the “red rock.”

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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