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Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Politics

Losing Hearts and Minds


Winter’s clutch these days seems hardly lessened, here in Myloi or anywhere else on southern Evia, by the stunning bloom of pomegranate trees. The overcast skies, the downpours and raindustings, the winds that sweep the cold from the snowladen peaks above us have emptied the village roads and paths and gardens. The women seem sequestered, so seldom do they stray from their kitchens, though at times I glimpse the men (at dawn or before dusk) as they trudge, grumbling or in silence, to tend to their animals, and then they, too, disappear back into their homes. The koukia that were planted a month ago grow and yellow in the waterlogged gardens. Terraces hundreds of years old have collapsed from the weight of the soaked earth; walls have come tumbling down, as have mountainsides, roads, and, in other villages, homes. We listen to the swollen streams roar and tear at their edges, we do not plant onions and garlic and lettuce as we should at this time of year. We sit inside, which is all we can do at the moment, to outlast Eliot’s cruelest month.

Inside, we watch the war. The images we receive on Greek television are culled from Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi television, the BBC, Sky, CNN, and other networks, and they are in turn confounding, disturbing, surreal. The surreal images, by and large incomprehensible, are those received from embedded journalists who are required to mask what they show by technically manipulating what the camera sees; these appear to us as colorful, slowly rotating, kaleidoscopic crossword puzzles in which we can barely recognize the tracings of faces, places, tanks, buildings, bodies, and flora dissolving into multihued squares. The disturbing images have a clarity to them, for they portray the civilian casualties: children and adults without eyes; children and adults with dark eyes whose gazes are expressionless or turned inward in private observation of their own pain; children and adults wounded and lying about in what is left of their clothes, in hospital beds that have no sheets and no blankets; children and adults with bandaged stumps where they once had legs and arms; children and adults with thick white bandages on their stomachs or over their spleens or thighs or buttocks or across their faces; children and adults wearing casts. The most confounding images, however, fall between the dissolves of the surreal and the portrayals of the victims wounded: these are from before or after battles and skirmishes, before or after bombings, when soldiers and civilians are recorded as going about their business: the business of conquering, the business of being conquered.

Northern Iraq, to those in Myloi, looks startlingly familiar despite the difference in landscape, for the same innumerable shades of green color our hillsides at the moment. I happened to be watching television one evening with Panayis and Vangelio, both in their mid-seventies, when footage from northern Iraq was shown. Panayis waved at the television screen and announced that there, too, they must have had the same rains as we had here over the winter’s course. Vangelio shushed him as an armed Kurdish fighter was being interviewed next to a coalition tank. The fighter said that the most startling thing for him was not the appearance of the coalition forces but the fact that they were made up of women and men; the peshmerga, he said, had not expected women soldiers. The most astonishing thing for me, at that moment during the interview, was the fact that the cannon mounted on the tank was adorned, in capital letters writ huge, with the words, HAND OF GOD.

Ti grafei? — What does it say, what’s written there? Vangelio asked. Heri tou Theou, I translated. She shook her head — Vangelio believes devoutly in a kinder supreme being — and pulled with a fist at her sweater, a hand expression here that signifies profound disgust, and pulled again. Dropi. Dropi, she intoned twice. Shame. Shame.

Shame and the vagaries of any god’s handiwork aside, the Greek government happens to be a signatory on the famous list of coalition countries that support the Bush/Blair/Aznar invasion of Iraq. We should close Suda (the American base on Crete), old Leftheris tells me one morning on his way to his goats as I’m hunched against a thick drizzle while walking our dog Sam, and I think: he’s no fool. The elders in Myloi are, for the most part, illiterate, but they’re not stupid: they recognize complicity when they see it, and they don’t like what they see. They may not know where Iraq is (Panayis, for one, asked me where it was, whether it was bigger than Turkey, if it had a border with the US), but they know about — and constantly discuss — what they call Bush’s klika (clique), the insatiable thirst for petroleum, the contracts that will be meted out for Iraq’s rebuilding, and the way the war is being fought. They scoff at the reasons cited for having invaded Iraq: that Saddam (perhaps) has weapons of mass destruction (and the Israelis? they ask), that regime change is necessary (who else doesn’t Bush like, and where will this end? they ask), that the Iraqis must be liberated (let the Iraqis liberate themselves, we had a dictatorship here, too, they say). The villagers also know the war’s foregone military conclusion, given the superior airpower of the coalition, and this only steels their disdain, especially because most of the village men who are now in their seventies — a majority here — were conscripted during the Greek Civil War, which they claim was fought soldier to soldier, with cities spared. Ti ftaiei o laos? — Why blame the people? — they ask over and again, watching the punishing bombardment of civilians. Ti kanei o Bous? — What’s Bush doing?

Losing hearts and minds: of this, I’ve no doubt. Indeed, the antiwar sentiments here grow in inverse proportion to the coalition’s “success” in Iraq, and it matters not a whit that Baghdad is quiet this morning as I write this. It was heartening to return to Myloi after almost five months in New York, where I’d begun to think I was losing my mind — and where opposition to the war decidedly represented a minority, permits to march were denied to demonstrators (and those of us who were even allowed to demonstrate stood peacefully instead on First Avenue in below-zero temperatures), and Americans became convinced that the hijacked planes on September 11 were commandeered by Iraqis; heartening to return to something akin, to my mind, to a saner society. One in which everyone knows the Iraqis had nothing to do with September 11, antiwar sentiment is shared by the majority, and antiwar demonstrators have the right to march.

On March 21, several days after I’d arrived to discover that spring was nowhere to be found, the town of Karystos (a mile and a half below Myloi, with a population of about 5,000) closed at noon in a municipal protest against the war, which means that banks, the telephone and electricity companies, shops, tavernas, kiosks, and schools shuttered their windows and locked their doors at that hour. The schoolchildren of Karystos, including the dozen or so children from Myloi (all of whom attend school there), marched through the streets with banners and headbands in an antiwar demonstration until they reached the mayor’s office, which was — of course — also closed. They decided to continue on, some banging cymbals and others rapping spoons against pots, chanting peace slogans, throughout the town, up and down its sidestreets and in its squares and along its port, for hours. The entire town cheered them on, the adults lining the narrow sidewalks or standing on corners, despite the weather. A week later, a school and work strike was held, again townwide, in protest against the war. On the front door of the National Bank of Greece here, to this day, is a notice of the antiwar demonstration: the managers and employees are proud of it. (And I find myself liking to bank here because of it.)

Karystos cannot compete with Athens, where last week writers and artists tossed small white caskets before the American and British embassies, and where demonstrators — upward of 150,000 at times, the largest numbers since just after the fall of the Greek dictatorship — have gathered before the American embassy almost daily since the war’s beginning. No one will broadcast the children’s marches here, no one will broadcast the town’s strikes and closings. But, as the villagers say, these children are the future. I hope so, I thought, walking with my 10-year-old friend Alexander a few days ago, who’d run off and returned with a small olive branch in his hand. This, he told me, is for Bush, o, xereis… — the, you know….

Alexander, who I try to discourage from cursing, had restrained himself from saying o keratas — the cuckold — which is how Bush is most often referred to in Myloi, at least by the men; the women, shy to use the appellation, simply call him achristo, worthless. But that a 10-year-old should make the distinction between Bush and the American people — the olive branch was not held out to Americans, after all, but to the keratas himself — reflects the odd fact that the anti-Americanism sweeping this corner of the world has everything to do with the Bush administration and, as far as I can discern, little to do with Americans in general. I wish I could be as generous but, having become much like the villagers in some ways, I recognize complicity when I see it; despite the antiwar protests in the States, public collusion — which might arise, let’s hope, in part from confusion — seems rampant, at least from this distance. Regardless of the distortion that might in fact be part and parcel of the remoteness here, it’s a distance I intend to keep.

That, Stella’s husband Thanasis quips, would be most appreciated. He tells me that he always knows when the US will go to war, since, every time I leave Myloi for New York, things go so awry that my return always presages the Bush administration’s bombing of somewhere. We laugh at the coincidence — indeed, Peter and I did return from New York shortly after September 11, 2001, just before the campaign in Afghanistan began — but the war in Iraq, as the one in Afghanistan, is no laughing matter. And then Thanasis points to Bush on the taverna’s television — Bush and Tony Blair, in Ireland — and says: O keratas.

I show Thanasis my Greek residency permit, just issued, and say the same.

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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