Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Stories from 'the time of the monsters'

This is a true story ... A story that sometime ago I would have thought was part of some sort of dystopian fiction. As time passes, I cannot shake away the feeling that it increasingly looks and feels like a nightmare that returns night after night with more intensity and power and from which one finds it more and more difficult to wake up. 

It happened at Ayios Ilias, part of a long stretch of sand dunes on the west coast of the Peloponnese, just over eight weeks ago, on what would have otherwise simply been just another hot sunny summer day. The beach - a popular destination for groups of young people and families seeking a quiet place by the sea to spend their summer days, was fairly crowded. Built at the point where the sand dunes met the road, the local tavern was also crowded with companies having a late lunch after a day at the beach. In the midst of the terrace, one could see a group of six men in their thirties, all dressed in black. I did not pay much attention at what, admittedly and with hindsight, constituted an obvious paraphony, something like a black ink blot staining the colourful canvas made up by the clothes, towels and bags of the other customers.

Suddenly, a woman in her mid-forties, apparently in shock, rushed out of the tavern, through the terrace and clumsily run the twenty meters of sand that separated her from the sea, looking right and left, calling for help. As she drew closer I could hear that she was asking people to save 'the girl' in the tavern.

Not thinking that much, I run into the tavern to join a dozen of other people outside and inside the kitchen where four of the black-clad men were being held back by one of their friends. To my right, a distraught young woman was crying and her hands - in fact her whole body - was trembling. The owner, an elderly woman, upset but also barely able to disguise her fear, had gripped the woman's arms and was shaking her violently, shouting at her to leave her restaurant. The younger woman, clearly upset and disoriented was almost catatonic, unable to respond or establish eye contact. Having scanned the room, I slowly turned my head towards the men and confirmed what my earlier glance had registered. They were wearing a sort of uniform, with black tee-shirts with the Golden Dawn logo on their back and the Greek flag on one of their sleeves - I cannot remember which one- complete with combat fatigue bottoms and army-type boots. They were hurling insults at the shocked girl while one of them, barely kept in check by one of his comrades, was threatening he was going to do unspeakable things to her. I had recently read that 'units' of Golden Dawn men had been formed to 'patrol' the beaches and tourist hotspots making sure that the places were kept 'clean' of undesirable (mainly west African and Pakistani) street vendors, often to the delight of local shop-keepers, and I was in no doubt that these men were tasked to intimidate, terrorize and hurt. As I was told later, the young woman could not bear the presence of the uniformed gang and, ignoring the advice of her friends who chose to remain silent, decided to approach them and ask them to leave. Apparently, the six men challenged the young woman, and she told them that their presence next to families with young children was unacceptable and accused their theories of racial purity as racist and dangerous. The men started threatening her and and one chased her into the restaurant. The woman entered the kitchen and run to the owner telling her that the men's presence was unacceptable and asking her to tell them to leave. 

I, impulsively, together with three, maybe four others positioned ourselves between the girl and the gang. When we asked the gang to leave, they arrogantly retorted they were 'ordinary' customers and insisted that they expected to be treated as such. I probably hesitated, thinking through the repercussions of challenging them, but before I finished weighing the pros and the cons of intervening, I heard myself say to them that their 'uniform' suggested otherwise. It carried with it the message of an organization that was spreading hatred and fear. They did not respond as they were fixated on the young woman that, alone, had dared to confront them, to pass on the message that what they represented was not unopposed. A bystander who had until then claimed to be the voice of moderation, trying to soothe the angry men saying that what the young woman had said to them was not 'a big deal', certainly not a reason to get that upset, turned to me and said he found my comments unacceptable and provocative. He reproachfully told me that I exaggerated. He suggested that I read too much into the way these people dressed – after all they had the right to dress as they saw fit. Shocked by what I was hearing, I retorted that their 'uniforms' were conveying a message of hatred against foreigners and dissenters, that they terrorized people and constituted a means of gaining authority, in fact usurping it. He was unimpressed as were many more bystanders.

In the meantime, some people took the young woman to the side of the restaurant and were trying to convince her that this was not the way to deal with the Golden Dawn. The restaurant owner, clearly shaken, went to great lengths to appease the Golden Dawn men, then turned to the young woman and started shouting at her that she had no right to demand the removal of the men. Another woman mustered all her courage and managed to whisper that there was nothing wrong with the reaction of the young woman and that the presence of the six men offended the customers. No one paid attention. As the situation deescalated, the men and the woman left the restaurant and so did I along with the many people who had congregated there. Eventually, the six men returned and sat briefly at the terrace table they had previously occupied, only to leave a few minutes later walking over a bed of flowers and plants.

With the protagonists of this episode gone, there was little left to remind the encounter of the young woman and the Golden Dawn 'militia'. The sun was shining, the sea was inviting as usual, people returned to the beach or back to their tables at the tavern and did their best to forget what had happened. I, too, welcomed the relative calm, the soothing sound of the waves washing the shore. But I could not ignore what had just happened. I got an opportunity to recall, possibly fully realize, the barely suppressed apprehension, not that different from fear really, that I felt when I run into the tavern, the young girl's courage to do what no one else was prepared to do and face alone the monster. In snapshot-like flashbacks I saw the sheer undiluted hatred in the expression of the six men, but also the apathy in the faces of many bystanders who seemed unable or unwilling to understand why their day at the beach had to be spoiled by the whim of a girl. I also recognized the fear in the eyes of the restaurant owner, a fear that dictated looking the other way and, when necessary, appeasing the monster in our midst, even taking its side. I realized that this potent mixture of hatred, apathy and fear was in fact everywhere around me. 

At the beach where most people had already 'forgotten' what had transpired, in the villages, and the cities where Golden Dawn has managed to become a feature of daily life because of the misplaced zeal of its blackshirt minions enjoying the illusion of power and, yes, even respectability, because of its apologists who are happy to justify the poison it spreads as they secretly share its murky vision, because of those who are prepared to turn a blind eye to avoid any discomfort standing up to the monster they are nurturing entails. As day after day violence becomes entrenched in society, as the basic rights of migrants, minorities, critics, of anyone who is deemed to be different are routinely ignored and violated, as human life becomes more and more expendable, the future seems gloomy. And like in those horror films where you think the monster has been defeated until, in the final frame its shadowy figure can be seen lurking in the background - a reminder that evil has not been defeated and awaits another chance, even if the evil organization is dissolved or fades away, the monster will still be lurking in the most dimly lit corners of a society that has got so accustomed looking into its eyes and eventually got to recognize itself in them.

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