Vasiliki Petsa was born in 1983. She studied Media Culture and Society at the University of Birmingham and European Literature at the University of Oxford, UK. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Peloponnese. She has published a novella Thymamai (I Remember, 2011), two collections of short stories Ola ta chamena (All Things Lost, 2012) and Mono to arni (Only the Lamb, 2015), a novel To dentro tis ipakois (Tree of obedience, 2018) and a study based on her Ph.D. thesis Otan grafei to molyvi (Political Violence and Memory in Greek and Italian Literatures, 2016), all from POLIS Publishers.
Vasiliki Petsa spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest novel Tree of Obedience noting that among its themes and motifs are "the relentless pursuit of utopia, the tenacity of religious faith, the resistance to change, the fear and the lure of the unknown". She explains that "it's primarily by instinct" that she approaches writing, in the sense of "the reserve stock of knowledge or the acquired taste, configured through ardous consumption of several literary and other cultural texts", and adds that "creativeness concerns not only the process of writing, but also of reading".
She comments that the "professionalization of literature certainly entails unequivocal benefits for the author, but it would also incur serious risks" given that one would have to "handle both the iron laws of the (capitalist) market or the personal and financial cost of artistic failure". She concludes that "global interconnectedness has been intensified in the last few decades", and that "whether this will lead to greater cultural diversity or to defensive introversion is the million-dollar question - not just in terms of literary production".
Your latest writing venture Τree of Obedience received quite favorable reviews upon publication. Tell us a few things about the book.
I would have to state, first of all, that for the Tree of Obedience to be crystallized into an adequately coherent and yet curiously disconnected composite and intricately meaningful structure in my mind, at least one year was required, to the effect that it would be nearly impossible for me to provide an all-inclusive summary of the plot – in the opposite case, it would also mean that I have failed in my venture of inconclusive answers and parallel strings. Themes and motifs is, fortunately, all I could provide: the relentless pursuit of utopia, the tenacity of religious faith, the resistance to change, the fear and the lure of the unknown. The latter also applies to the authorial circumstance, having had to tackle the exigencies of a novel and abandon the safety of the short stories, to which I was previously accustomed.
“When you write, you have to define your own distinct writing style […] The structure should of course be solid and functional, but it should also be beautiful”. What role does language play in your writings?
Without being able to define the particularities of literary discourse −several criteria have, of course, been set throughout the years, but they pertain to the critical and analytical functions, i.e., they are applied, not without being contested, to the end-product of writing−, I would maintain that it is primarily by instinct that I approach writing; in other words, this is how I chose my words. With the term ‘ instinct’, mind you, I don’t purpose to invoke any kind of metaphysical talent, no – rather, I refer to the reserve stock of knowledge or to the acquired taste, configured through arduous consumption of several literary and other cultural texts, as well as everyday language, which is automatically activated when one puts oneself down to writing, while also keeping in mind the specificities of the
Giorgos Perantonakis argues that “in recent years, many Greek novels, following a similar trend in Europe and the USA, are modular, fragmented and multi-dimensional” and that it’s up to the reader “to follow and connect all those incongruous elements”. Would you like to comment?
I would be at least hesitant to comment on this particular argument, as, by doing so, I would need to imply that I am thoroughly familiar with the totality of Greek, British and US literary productions (which I am certainly not). If such authorial strategy can indeed be identified as a visible trend, I would be more than honored to be included in it, whether intentionally or not. It would mean that, irrespective of how we approach literature itself, authors address readers as (almost) equals, patronizing them as little as possible and acknowledging that creativeness concerns not only the process of writing, but also of reading.
It has been noted that Greek writers have a preference for short form and that short story collections have outweighed novels and longer narratives. How would you comment on this?
Again, one would need to be aware of specific figures pertaining to the Greek publishing industry if they were not to reiterate conventional wisdom and half-baked truth. The question whether major novels can be written in Greece, given all sorts of different historical, social and cultural factors, leaves me rather unconvinced, both in principle and in practice, as in my all-time favorite novels’ list figure prominently many Greek ones. However, leaving personal taste aside, I have the impression – and this is just an impression – that short stories are more convenient −although not at all easier− to write if you cannot make a living out of writing literature, which, sadly or not, is the case for the majority of Greek writers, which also leads us on to your next question.
For the majority of Greek writers, writing is not a main profession but rather a leisure time activity. Would you agree that in a country stricken by the crisis, earning a living through writing is the exception rather than the rule? Could things be otherwise?
It certainly is and if I am not terribly mistaken it has always been so, crisis or not (we cannot blame everything on the crisis, as if it were some kind of Boogeyman, whose sudden appearance overturned blissful normality). In my previous answer, I added the phrase “sadly or not”: the professionalization of literature (and by this I do not intend to imply that writing literature “as a leisure time activity” means that it is taken lightly by default) certainly entails unequivocal benefits for the author, but it would also incur serious risks: I, for one, could not, and would not be willing to, handle both the iron laws of the (capitalist) market or the personal and financial cost of artistic failure.
It has been argued that the new generation of Greek writers is multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational. How do they relate to world literature? How does the local/national interweave with the global?
In a sense, Greek literature has always been, to varying degrees, multicultural, multiethnic and multigenerational, either we focus strictly on the literary field, and take into account translations and first-hand language access to original works, or if we refer to the socio-cultural context within which Greek literature had been produced. It certainly is the case, though, that global interconnectedness has been intensified in the last few decades: whether this will lead to greater cultural diversity or to defensive introversion is the million-dollar question – not just in terms of literary production.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
There is no deus ex machina for the characters in Maria Lafi’s film “Holy Boom”. In fact there is no God at all in this dark drama where multiple storylines interweave to bear witness to the eternal race between human cruelty and kindness as the protagonists fight to survive during orthodox Easter. The lives of four strangers, who live in the same neighborhood in the currently downgraded area of Patisia, change dramatically when, on Palm Sunday, the neighborhood’s postbox is blasted just for laughs by Filipino teenager Ige. Documents of vital importance to all of them have been destroyed: Lena and Manou’s LSD stickers, a letter to Thalia from her abandoned child and Adia’s birth certificate. The consequences are relentless: Lena and Manou are chased by the drug dealer who wants his money back. Adia, an illegal immigrant, is now alone with her newborn child, forbidden to even identify the corpse of her husband, who has just died in a car accident. Ige tries in vain to be accepted by the local community and Thalia, who is watching everyone in the neighborhood, has lost her only chance of finding happiness.
Writer and director Maria Lafi was born in Athens, Greece. She studied Photography and Audiovisual Arts at Technological Educational Institute of Athens, Film Direction at Hellenic Cinema and Television School of STAVRAKOS in Athens and holds a MA in Video Production, Audiovisual Media and Motion Graphics at West Attica University. She has worked in film, theatre and TV. She has directed four short films: “For Eternity” (2014, Special Mention in 37th Drama Short Film Festival, Greece), “Circo de la Vida” (2006, Special Mention in Las Palmas Short Film Festival 2007, Spain), “Lou & Lena” (2003, Platinum Remi in the 37th WorldFest-Houston U.S.A.), “Love to Meat You” (2001, Silver Remi in the 35th WorldFest-Houston U.S.A.). “Holy Boom” (2018), her first feature film is touring International Film Festivals winning awards, such as Best Director Award & Special Mention for Acting to Luli Bitri at 4th Calella Film Festival in Spain (June 2019) and Best Balkan Film at Tirana International Film Festival (TIFF) in Albania (November 2018).
Maria Lafi talks to Greek News Agenda* about how she combined the "Holy Boom" photography and soundtrack to underline the protagonists’ strive for survival, character building inspired by real life incidents and the perils of finding co production from Greece, Albania and Cyprus.
Samuel Akinola, "Holy Boom" (2018)
While Greece has been at the center of the storm because of the refugee crisis, you return to the issue of economic immigrants’ integration in Greek society. Do you feel the situation in Greece is as gloomy as in your film?
There have been economic immigrants in Greece since the 60’s, but Greeks also immigrated from time to time. People move around the world in search of a better life, this is a game that is not always won and there are collateral damages in everyone’s plan. The thing is that I live in the same neighborhood the film was shot. I can understand these characters; I see them, hear them. They somehow chose to immigrate or their parents did and they ended up in this city. There are second generation kids born in Greece that don’t have an identity card or other documents and that have also lost their cultural identity since it’s too difficult to keep their own customs and language. The situation is not gloomy only for immigrants. I feel that soon half of the planet, probably we too, will have to move away, because of the climate change.
Spyros Balesteros and Iphigeneia Tzola, "Holy Boom" (2018)
In “Holy Boom” your characters are experiencing an Easter with no Resurrection. There is a strong feeling of tragic irony enhanced by music and photography. Would you elaborate?
I always wanted to make a film about Easter time. I consider this period as a childhood memory that stayed with me. The truth is that religion is not my cup of tea but I find the visualization of these customs attractive. The story takes place during Holy Week and this gives me the opportunity to make a comment of how hypocritical religion and religious people can be. On the other hand, Easter somehow marks the new life the spring gives birth to.
The idea about the soundtrack came up from the very beginning. Writing the first scenes of the screenplay I was thinking: what if we used an adaptation of Easter hymns? I consider rock music as war music and I liked the idea of a warlike adaptation of a Christian hymn! The film characters are in the middle of their own war for survival, so this kind of music can underline their goals and needs. Our composer, Lakis Halkiopoulos, is very open minded and immediately understood what I was looking for. I wanted the film photography in the same direction: Dirty, dark and always unsteady as our heroes’ war and world. I was lucky because we were on the same page with my collaborators on the visualization of this film.
Maria Lafi on "Holy Boom" set with DoP Ilias Adamis GSC
In your film you create a psychological space for the viewers to inhabit, letting them feel the characters’ distress. What were the means you used to that end?
The realistic photography of the film makes the audience feel the danger. The stories are based on true facts that I used to build my story, starting from a teenage boy from Afghanistan who got blasted from a stray bomb he accidentally found in a garbage bin, looking for food, (this incident took place on Palm Sunday of 2010), to mothers who have no one to look after their kids while they are at work and end up giving them sleeping pills or whatever… These are true stories. No matter how extreme they may sound, since they’ve happened in real life, they have the power to be on the big screen.
Anastasia Rafaela Konidi, "Holy Boom" (2018)
How did you work on building realistic film characters?
By observing people. As I said, I live in this multi-cultural area the film takes place. I always wonder how my neighbors make ends meet. I suppose I’m a little bit like Thalia, I see and hear people without talking about them. And I’m always making up stories for everyone… It’s a kind of a mind game for me.
Nena Menti, Samuel Akinola and Anastasia Rafaela Konidi, "Holy Boom" (2018)
Is the film story related to the controversies of life in Greece or could it take place anywhere else?
I think that such stories happen all over the world. Greece is not the only country hosting immigrants. If you remove Easter from the story, which is a subplot anyway, you can find similarities with a lot of Western countries. The fact that people from all over the world that I meet in the festivals tell me that they see similar situations in their own countries, shows that this story is global and the problems of the people are the same, no matter where they’re coming from or where they’re heading.
Luli Bitri, Vaso Kavalieratou, "Holy Boom" (2018)
“Holy Bloom” was your first feature. Could you tell us about its coproduction adventure?
From the beginning we had in our mind that this is a film that could find a coproduction in several countries. The film characters offered certain flexibility in the sense that we could choose their origin. We had discussed about it with the producer, Lillete Botassi from the very beginning. We were also lucky because co producers Bujar Alimani and Tefta Bejko liked the script and we also knew each other, since Bujar and I have met in festivals in which we participated with our short films. Also Christina Georgiou from Cyprus took a liking to the project from the very beginning. We’ve met in some Script Workshop, working on different projects. That time I was working on “Holy Boom” screenplay and Christina almost immediately said that she wanted to be part of this production. I know that it may sound easy, but, believe me, it’s not. In order to manage to have such kind of coproduction you must fill dozens of papers and bureaucracy is enormous. Also for small countries like Greece, where the money you can find is not enough, getting in some kind of coproduction, is a solution.
Maria Lafi on "Holy Boom" set with actress Luli Bitri
What are your next plans?
I’m writing a new script with Christina Georgiou. We hope that somehow this new story will become a film. It’s a difficult and peculiar story too. But still, if you don’t have an interesting story, what is the purpose of getting in this huge adventure of making a film after all?
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
Read also: Chicago Reader Film Review
Aristea Papalexandrou was born in Hamburg in 1970. She has published five books of poetry: Dio onira prin (Two Dreams Ago, 2000), Allote allou (Once, Elsewhere, 2004), Odika ptina (Songbirds, 2008), Ypogeios (Underground, 2012), Mas propserna (It's Overtaking Us, 2015). She has studied music and Medieval and Modern Greek Literature. She works as an editor. For her last book, It’s Overtaking Us, she was honored by the Academy of Athens, in December 2017.
Aristea Papalexandrou spoke to Reading Greece* about what has changed and what has remained the same since her first poetry collection in 2000, noting that she has, "during all those years, continued to write what is basically a single poem", adding that her poetry will continue to be "in a state of prolonged 'suspension'", just as her life is. As for the role language plays in her poetry, she explains that "during the writing process there are elusive incidents and inexplicable coincidences and that in the end there is no formula for the creative act of poetry".
Asked about the extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in recent years, she comments that "there has been an intense need for expression in all ages and periods. What's happening now is more than likely a reaction to the difficult times we live in". She concludes that "every period has its difficulties which can in a variety of ways produce a vital and even ground-breaking new poetic generation", noting that "we all remain bewildered by the mystery of art".
From Two Dreams Ago in 2000 to It’s Overtaking Us in 2015. what has changed and what has remained the same in your poetry? Are there recurrent points of reference in your writings?
I would say that I have, during all those years, continued to write what is basically a single poem. But while writing it I am myself changing…as we are all obliged to change…so there is no way that I can escape making changes to that poem…writing it is an evolving act all its own. Naturally enough, no one wants to end up copying himself… so in the final analysis, and with the passage of time, there is an ongoing narration incorporating the many views woven into the work… still incomplete and as such reach new tentative conclusions each time the “site” is revisited. Speaking for myself, the only thing I can say with any certainty is that my poetry will continue to be in a state of prolonged…”suspension”…just as my life is, and will remain, in a similar state…
In her review of your latest poetry collection, Maria Stasinopoulou comments on your elaborate poetic language. What purpose does language serve in your poetry?
If the Maria Stasinopoulou's observation was not specifically concerned with my poetic language, I would maintain that it is ground-breaking critique, combining as it does instruction and intuition. However as her observation is directly related to me, I must admit I feel somewhat confused and must confess that though I feel honored by her opinion, I also feel I am deluding myself. All that I can say with any certainty, regarding my language, is that everything I write starts in my maternal language. (Unfortunately Beckett’s masterpieces in two languages are unique and there seems to be no other. And even my answer here has been translated by an American (and naturalized Greek) Philip Ramp who also did the English translation of It’s Overtaking Us which will soon appear from Fomite Press in Vermont USA).
So just how does language specifically contribute to my poetry…I won’t try to be ingenious by saying my poetry is an art that presupposes one knows not only how to write but knows even better how to erase. I would say that during the writing process there are elusive incidents and inexplicable coincidences and that in the end there is no formula for the creative act of poetry…or if there is such a formula or even formulas…I for one have remained ignorant of them. The only sure thing I know is that what even the best writers do not necessarily make a great poem every time. In a word it needs to be put in a… DRAWER. As Borges has so aptly put it: The meaning of any definitive text has to do in the end depend solely on religion or fatigue…
“Papalexandrou’s poetry doesn’t want to just be flattering, but rather to put us in front of a big mirror, leaving no way out of reality”. What then is the relationship of poetry to the world it inhabits?
Your question brings to mind the tumultuous and inspired Operetta by Gombrowicz which I saw staged at the Greek National Theater: The corsets of existence are tight…I would just like to add that indeed they get even tighter when we are speaking of a creator who has to work to live and tighter yet when we are speaking of the Greek crisis… and even tighter still when our work…and no matter what we write, when it frequently depends on the criticism of others who know as much about poetry as I do about astrophysics... And so it goes...and goes…and goes…till we drown in it…Or, perhaps, leads us on to other poems which for some reason we never know in going their way find themselves on ours as well…
In recent years there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares…just to mention a few, How is this strong public awareness to be explained?
There has been an intense need for expression in all ages and periods. What’s happening now is more than likely a reaction to the difficult times we live in. Everyone has a right to express himself. How would he not! But that does not automatically make him a poet. All I’m trying to say is that this turning outward does not of necessity mean that poetry is doing well, because not all those taking part in such manifestations does not mean of and in itself that poetry is doing well…nor does it mean that the participants are good poets or even poets at all for that matter. I think that every poet, if he is really a poet, has something special about him. Poetry, just as all the other forms of artistic creation. is first and foremost a manner of expressing.
How would you comment on current literary production in Greece? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what could be radically different realities?
At the very least I think that poetry in Greece was, is and will be always something very good. Down through the generations we have had many fine poets and we can be proud of that. Of course in speaking of the singular ways poetry opens the world for us one could say a great deal. Oh!...the real world! There are times one would like to erase the whole thing. And there are many ways of doing it. One of which is creating another present/past. Another is to “write” it into being, not “erase” it; and by writing it regain all the lost time…and in this way one can open up a superb parallel world in front of one’s eyes…
Could a multi-faceted, socio-economic phenomenon, like the current socio-economic crisis, trigger a poetic “cosmogony” and possibly a “new generation” in poetry? If so, based on which poetic and aesthetic criteria?
Look, every period has its difficulties which can in a variety of ways produce a vital and even ground-breaking new poetic generation. As I have stressed it’s the way in which each presumptive poetic generation makes use of the various dead ends that exist. There are no known formulas for this. We all remain bewildered by the mystery of art… Paraphrasing Hamlet’s lengthy monologue in Act II, Scene II... (and based on the ingenious translation of the work by Giorgos Cheimonas into modern Greek) he says:
“…because art is not for the many
nor Is it for the few…but is always
for one person and him alone…”
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
Maria Martzoukou was born in Corfu. She studied Ancient Greek and Finnish Philology at the University of Helsinki as well as Modern Greek Philology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her translations and essays have been published in literary magazines, mainly the Corfiot literary magazine 'Porfyras'. For her translation of the Finnish epic Kalevala she received an honorary distinction by the Hellenic Society of Translators of Literature (1994).
She also received the 'Order of the White Rose of Finland' by the Finnish state for her contribution to the dissemination of Finnish letters (1996). She is a member of the Finnish Literature Society and the Kalevala Society. In 2011 she was awarded with the Finnish State Translation Award for foreign translators. She has been working at the Finnish Institute of Athens since 1985.
Maria Martzoukou spoke to Reading Greece* about what drove her to the Finnish language and the translation of Finnish literature, as well as on the main challenges she was faced with while translating Kalevala, one of the major epic works of Finnish literature, noting that her intention was “to lay emphasis on its poetic dimension so as to bring forward the common myths that unite peoples around the world”.
She also comments on the peculiarities of translating literature from Finnish to Greek, explaining that given that “Finnish is a concise language”, “attention should be paid to avoid unnecessary rambling”. She concludes that “literature constitutes an anatomy into the body of language”, adding that “the question is whether foreign readers actually want to realize that in Greece there aren’t just Zorbas”. “While I was in Finland and I had the chance to teach the Greek language, I tried to make them understand that the Greeks are a people which strives to survive, just as the other peoples, and that the sun and the sea don’t constitute the ultimate good”.
What drove you to the Finnish language and more specifically to the translation of Finnish literature?
Everything happened by chance. While I was studying in Finland, I attended a Finnish language and culture curriculum, which also included literature courses. Trying to make sense of some texts, I translated them in Greek. It never crossed my mind that these translations were of some literary value. At some point, I showed them to a friend of mine, who, in turn, showed them to a member of the editorial board of the literary magazine “Porfyras”, the late poet Dimitris Sourvinos. “Porfyras” played a major role not only in my career as a translator but in my personal life as well.
You have translated Kalevala, one of the major epic works of Finnish literature, in Greek. Which were the main challenges you were faced with?
I have translated part of the epic, that is 20 out of the 50 songs. I am waiting till my retirement to continue! I hope Ι’ll make it in time! Kalevala is based on the oral folklore collected by Elias Lönnrot. It is a poem and should be translated as such. Yet, in which meter? The trochaic tetrameter, as in the original? Or better yet a meter the Greek reader is more familiar with?
My intention was not to deal with the saga as if it were a museum token or an archival material, but to lay emphasis on its poetic dimension so as to bring forward the common myths that unite peoples around the world. That’s why I opted for the iambic fifteen-syllable verse, which we use in our demotic poetry. This working hypothesis is not unique. Several other translators have opted not for the trochaic tetrameter of the original but for their own folklore poetry’s meter in order to translate Kalevala in their language. If translation is not just, as we believe, a bare act of imitation but rather a free and equal conciliation between two languages or texts, then such ‘arbitrary’ choices are perfectly justified.
Most scholars reckon that the content of a book cannot be separated from the particularities of the language that gave it shape. In this context, what are the peculiarities of translating literature from Finnish to Greek?
The translator is called to find out the suitable matches to the particularities of his/her own language. Finnish is a concise language, full of impersonal passives and participles, it has no articles nor prepositions – which are expressed through cases. Attention should thus be paid to avoid unnecessary rambling.
Ιt has been argued that when translating from a so-called “minor” language or literature, translators do sometimes hold remarkable power, including the power to produce what will in many cases become the only interpretation of a work of literature available in a given language. In this context, where does the role and responsibility of the translator lie?
Translators of minor languages constitute the ambassadors of literature and thus they bear enormous responsibility.
Within the framework of “The Nordic Narrative in Athens”, there took place an exhibition titled “Greece through the eyes of the travelers from the North” (19.2-31.5.2019). Tell us a few things about this initiative.
In 2006 there was published in Finland a book titled Kadonnut Kreikka - suomalaisten matkakuvauksia ennen massaturismia [The lost Greece. Travelling impressions of Finns prior to massive tourism] edited by Björn Forsén και Erkki Sironen. This book was quite enlightening for me so I started to delve into Finnish travellers, who are in fact quite numerous.
In Greece, there preceded the publication of a book in Greek, which we prepared together with Vassilis Letsios, assistant professor at the Ionian Univesity, titled Ένα καράβι αχνοφαίνεται στον ορίζοντα. Ο Φινλανδός περιηγητής Όσκαρ Έμιλ Τουντέερ στην Ελλάδα και το Χισαρλίκ (1881-1882) by Assini Editions. So when it was asked from the Nordic countries to participate in the festivities of “Athens, World Book Capital”, we thought that the theme of travellers perfectly suited the occasion. We also organized an event on the Nordic crime novel, which is very popular in Greece.
There is undoubtedly a stereotyped perception of Greeks abroad. Could literature be used to shake off these stereotypes and help form a new narrative about the country?
Literature constitutes an anatomy into the body of society and, in this respect, provides the opportunity to make sense of the society it describes. Yet, the question is whether foreign readers actually want to realize that in Greece there aren’t just Zorbas? While I was in Finland and I had the chance to teach the Greek language, I tried to make them understand that the Greeks are a people which strives to survive, just as the other peoples, and that the sun and the sea don’t constitute the ultimate good.
* Interview by Athina Rossoglou
In Angelos Frantzis’ latest film, “Still River” (2018), Anna and Petros, a Greek couple, have recently moved to an industrial Siberian town on account of Petros’ work and are shocked to discover that Anna is pregnant without intercourse having taken place at that time. Did she cheat? Are they victims of a conspiracy? Or blessed with a miracle? Looking for a logical explanation, Petros begins to distrust Anna, who chooses to embrace the pregnancy, turning to religion to cope. Their previously unshakeable bond starts to falter and cracks begin to show, as their relationship becomes the battleground between the rational and the spiritual. Set against the striking frozen landscapes of Siberia, Still River is a haunting, touching suspense drama about love, trust and faith struggling in the face of doubt.
Angelos Frantzis was born in Athens in 1970. He studied Film Direction at INSAS in Brussels. He has made five shorts and five feature films: “Polaroid” (2000), “A Dog’s Dream” (2005), “Into the Woods” (2010), “Symptom” (2015) and “Still River” (2018), which have been screened and awarded at many international film festivals. Besides film directing, Angelos Frantzis has been involved in mixed techniques art projects (installations, performances), has worked as a film critic, publishing reviews in various books and magazines and has taught film studies and acting. His installation “Got to be Real” participated at the Venice Biennale 2012. Interviewed by Greek News Agenda* Angelos Frantzis talks about “Still River”, filming in a snowy landscape and the insignificance of some questions.
Is “Still River” the least experimental of your films?
For me it was my most experimental one, in a way. In this film, I experimented with balancing my point of view between a classical narration, i.e. a drama with a beginning, middle and an end and my personal style and cinematic universe. My previous films are less narrative, with the exception of my first film, “Polaroid” that has a more linear story.
Nevertheless, there is an open ending in “Still River” which is a modernist trait.
This film has an enigma plot. It’s a Hitchcockian whodunit, which ends up as an existentialist whodunit; and there is no answer to this existential question. Whodunit is of little importance: it serves as a pretext leading us to other questions that prevail over whodunit. If I gave an answer, it would be as if I took a stand, whereas the story begins with an inexplicable event and asks what this event can inflict upon these two people and society in general.
Andreas Konstantinou, "Still River" (2018)
As you have mentioned in an interview, the idea for the film began during the period of the Greek crisis. Could it be an allegory about the Greek crisis?
There can be many readings of a film: we can perceive a film in many different ways and this is the most interesting part. Although I did not intend to make an allegory about the crisis, it was a motive. When we wrote the script with Spyros Krimbalis, all that fear and damage inflicted widely was carried into the couple’s relationship; and it is very interesting to see how something that concerns society becomes personal, and the personal becomes universal.
So, you transfer a story to a smaller scale.
One of the issues the film deals with is that of the coexistence of contrasts. Coexistence is tested in the most evident way in a couple’s relationship.
Katia Goulioti, Andreas Konstantinou, "Still River" (2018)
Your film focuses both in terms of form and content on the concept of the juxtaposition of contrasts. A scientist who is married to an artist, their different worldviews, Anna’s faith as opposed to Petros’ rationalism, the white background and the black contrasts. Where do contrasts lead: to conflict, harmony or something else?
As you said, the film is based on dipoles, both in form and content. As the story unravels, it exposes the false mechanism of construction of these dipoles, in that the differences between these dipoles are fake. The contrasts e.g. between science and religion or between faith and reason are products of the western way of thought which don’t let us see things in a broader perspective. This is what happens in the film. The two protagonists stick to their own beliefs and the way they each perceive reality, and their persistence does not allow them to understand each other although they love each other. This persistence leads to consequences that are contrary to what they initially wanted. Petros, for instance, who is a scientist, free spirit and respectful of the rights of others, will end up taking a totally different course of action; the same will happen to Anna.
So if the protagonists followed a different line of thought, this course of action would’ve been avoided.
Exactly. That’s why I said that “Still River” is a film about coexistence. The protagonists can’t see through each other’s point of view. This is the problem and it causes problems on a bigger scale. Unquestioned faith or extreme rationalism can lead to atrocities. This is what happened with Nazism. Let’s also not forget either the atrocities that took place in the name of religion. The two protagonists will pit against each other because they don’t know how to love each other and how to coexist.
"Still River" (2018)
Why did you choose Siberia, a place with heavy historical and political connotations, as your film location?
Russia is a place of conflict and ideological and religious belief. Siberia was the perfect place for me because it is covered in snow and it had that “end of the world” feeling, as it was a place of exile in the past, where my protagonists are themselves exiles. All its white landscapes are like white pages that cannot give any answers. The Siberian landscape and its imposing architecture show how insignificant man is.
You were visually influenced by the work of Jonas Bendiksen on the communist legacy (former USSR) in Russia. How did you incorporate his colour palette as well as Russian iconography in your film?
I was always attracted by Russian culture, its classic literature, iconography and architecture. The film’s iconography definitely has a post Soviet style. The film takes place today, but its visual style has a timeless flair, because I wanted to underline the historic impact on that place. That’s why I’m interested in the post Soviet visual references in the work of artists and photographers like Jonas Bendiksen and Russian artists that have worked on the Soviet legacy and its marks in contemporary Russia. Kommunalkas, for example, still exist in Russia, although they don’t house many families together anymore, but there are still similar edifices with the same architecture and interiors. What I also find very interesting visually is the coldness of the landscape, whereas interiors in Russia radiate warmth. Anna is very much attracted to the warmth of the Russian people, their feasts at home, and we had to emphasize that visually. There is also a stark visual contrast between interiors and exteriors. Interiors are very dark as opposed to the vast white landscapes.
Katia Goulioti, Andreas Konstantinou, "Still River" (2018)
Is there a feeling of an unconscious attraction to the past in ‘Still River”?
Yes, but not with in an evocative way. There is no nostalgia for the past. The film is not taking place in the past. I wanted the film to combine traits of the present and the pastin orderto attain a timeless feel. There is an attraction connected to the primal fixation on a trauma. I mean by that that we feel the need to return to our traumas and our traumas create this endless repetition. The protagonists repeatedly return to a traumatic event which defines them, it becomes their driving force and they are not able to come to terms with it.
So Siberia and its traumatic historical past are connected with the trauma that defines the two protagonists.
That’s right. The inevitability of the past and the trauma was an element we extensively used when we were working with the actors to build the story of their relationship.
Simon Beaufils on the set of "Still River"
How did you cooperate with DoP Simon Beaufils on the difficulties posed by the landscape (reflections and constant changes in light)?
I was very fortunate to work with Simon, although it was the first time we worked together. Simon is an excellent DoP. All the references I used to define the light we wanted in the film in certain locations, how we would work on the contrasts, the softness of light on faces combined with our desire for very intense black, found a common ground with the way Simon works so we were on the same page on the pre production stage. It was a blessing we understood light in the same way, because it’s not easy to define it with words, you can only talk about it through images.
Katia Goulioti, "Still River" (2018)
What were the challenges of an expensive production like “Still River”?
It was a great challenge in production terms. There was no Greek funding in the beginning, due to the financial crisis. This was a big setback that caused many delays, not least because it was a film to be shot in a remote country. Heretic films, the Greek Production Company that I worked with, helped a lot in solving the problems as well as the French and Latvian co producers. We were very lucky to find good collaborators in Latvia, where a big part of the film was shot, and in Russia, where many shootings took place.
We faced all kinds of difficulties. In the first year of shooting in Latvia there was no snow, so we had to wait a whole year, hoping for a snowy winter to be able to shoot those scenes in the snow. I have to say that Russia is not a film friendly country as regards co-productions and shooting facilitations. An additional difficulty was the fact that we were filming in cities like Murmansk that are very close to the Arctic, with no film facilities whatsoever.
"Still River" (2018)
Would an international coproduction be easier today for a Greek filmmaker?
Coproduction in Greece has become easier. Greek producers have grown familiar with co-production and Greek Cinema has enough visibility to seek co-productions. Nevertheless, funds for film production have suffered a dramatic cut, due to the fact that Cinema does not perform in the Box Office on an international scale. So you may have access to international co-production, but funds are dramatically smaller.
What do you think of Greek Cinema? Has it influenced your work?
I always loved the New Greek Cinema of the 70’s. The films of Theodoros Angelopoulos, Nikos Panagiotopoulos and Nikos Nikolaidis, were a great source of inspiration for me. And I’m very interested in current cinematic production. I was mostly influenced by Panagiotopoulos and Angelopoulos, with whom I have worked with for a long period, as well as Tornes, Nikolaides, some films by Panousopoulos and the list goes on.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi
What does it mean to be Greek? What connects Greek and British people? How does the ancient Greek heritage weigh on contemporary Greeks? These are some of the questions that the acclaimed British author, Sofka Zinovieff, attempts to answer in her autobiographical book Eurydice Street: A place in Athens (2004) and the fiction books The House on Paradise Street (2012) and Putney (2018), which feature Anglo-Greek families based in Athens or London.
On 2 April, Mrs Zinovieff gave a captivating speech on those three books at the Hellenic Centre in London. The event was organised by the Anglo-Hellenic League and raised £525 for the Greek disability charity, ELEPAP.
In an interview with the Press & Communications Office at the Embassy of Greece in London, Mrs Zinovieff talked about Greek language, history and politics, the complex relationship between Greece and Britain; and everyday life in Athens, based on her personal observations and research.
You have lived and traveled in Greece, have studied and written about Greek culture and history and are married to a Greek man. In your autobiographical book, Eurydice Street, you recount your efforts to acquire the Greek citizenship and "become" Greek. In your opinion, what does it mean to be Greek?
I am fascinated by Greece and have loved the country since I was an anthropology student in the 1980s. Acquiring citizenship was more symbolic than practical. It represented my commitment to an ideal, rather in the way you commit to a person when you marry them. I see my relationship to Greece as a lifelong endeavour, with all the ups and downs that anyone has with the country they choose to make their own. However, it is certainly based on love. As to what it means to be Greek – that is something I’ve been trying to work out in my books over many years! A short answer would be impossible.
In the same book you recall the language games that you used to play with your daughters, translating Greek expressions literally into English, i.e. "You are going to eat wood". Your Greek is excellent. What are the benefits of learning Modern Greek?
Greek is a rich and marvellous language and another lifelong endeavour for me. I never learned it officially - I didn’t study it at university - so my written Greek is not as good as I’d like. Nevertheless, I love speaking it and it’s what I talk at home with my husband, Vassilis and with my Greek friends. I would recommend anyone to learn Greek, even though it is not one of those languages classified as 'easy'. I’m so happy my daughters both grew up bilingual, with all the benefits that brings in terms of broadening horizons and versatility of thought.
In your words, "you dig any little hole in Athens and you’re immediately inside the ancient world". What is the connection between ancient and Modern Greece? How important is the ancient past for contemporary Greeks and Brits who study Greece?
When I was a youthful anthropology student I was rather annoyed by the fixation on ancient Greece – often by foreigners who seemed to value the long-lost past over the present. Now, I think the interaction between the present and the past is something we can’t escape. We should examine it and in Greece, the ancient past is very much part of identity and above all, the physical surroundings. The old chestnut about whether modern Greeks are descended from the ancients in terms of DNA is irrelevant to me. I believe what my late father-in-law used to say: modern Greeks walk along the same paths and in the same landscapes as the ancients did. Even without the language, the myths and the ruins, this has a huge impact and is a powerful connection.
Describing Greeks’ attitude towards Greece you have written: "If Greeks have a passionate pride and love for their country, they also hold feelings of shame, pity and disappointment". How would you explain this ambivalence?
I’d say it’s the result of the complexities of Greece’s history. Greeks managed to keep their 'Greekness' alive during all the years of Ottoman rule. Passionate pride was encouraged by the battle for independence and by the wave of nationalism sweeping across Europe through the nineteenth century. Having become a nation state, Greece then found itself repeatedly at the mercy of stronger nations, which I think provoked insecurities from not being able to determine its own future. In addition, the state has often shown itself to be dysfunctional and has perpetuated the lack of trust by individuals in anything other than their own efforts and connections.
I wonder whether the burden of ancient Greece might not also play a part in these mixed feelings. I think of Seferis’ reference in Mythistorema to waking with the overwhelming weight of a marble head in his hands and how it has been hard to live up to the vast significance of history.
Sometimes Greece reminds me of a family which has many wonderful qualities, but also has problems: its members fight and feud but they don’t appreciate outsiders criticising them and can unite in the face of external opposition.
In the fictional work, The House on Paradise Street, Maud, an English woman -married to a Greek man- tries to fit into Greek society, but feels that she will always be a xeni (foreigner), "an awkward hybrid who belonged nowhere". What are the perks of being an outsider, of belonging nowhere?
I have felt an outsider ever since I was a child in England, so it’s something I have built into my character already. I find being an outsider in Greece an excellent way of living – I’m rather a different person to Maud! I’m enough of an insider in Greece to have friends, family and a way of life I love, but I don’t need to engage with some of the more painful aspects of being Greek and can step back from the fray.
The House on Paradise Street is a story of a family riven by the Greek Civil War. Do you think that divisions created by the Greek Civil War still play out in Greek politics? To what extent does political orientation define Greeks?
I used to think that Greeks were very different to the British in their passionate political beliefs and the divisions between right and left that were played out in such a deadly and destructive way during the Civil War. Now, with the bizarre and humiliating mess of Brexit, I’ve changed my mind. We can see that families and friends are divided in Britain and that instead of discussing differences of opinions, people often merely express hatred.
Having said that, I do think that the Greek Civil War was a particularly painful episode and that the scars have still not healed properly. It has led to people identifying very strongly with their political orientation – often that of their families.
In the same book, you also refer to the relationship between Britain and Greece, highlighting both heroic events of Greek-British collaboration, such as the blowing up of Gorgopotamos bridge, as well as dark moments such as the Dekemvriana in 1944. How deeply have the relations between Britain and Greece affected Greek history and society?
It was so interesting for me to research the complex relationship between Greece and Britain for The House on Paradise Street. In Greece, I spoke to people on both sides of the Civil War and I created two divided sisters - Antigone and Alexandra, who represent these allegiances. It was shocking to hear the stories from women who had ‘gone to the mountains’ in the resistance against the Nazi occupation – not just what they had gone through then, but how they were arrested, executed and persecuted afterwards by the right-wing regime that was supported by the British and the Americans. In the eyes of these women (on whom I based Antigone), the British were traitors who fought and killed their erstwhile allies on the streets of Athens in the Dekemvriana. To those who feared the rise of communism (like Alexandra), the British were quite right to have helped Greece escape Stalin’s grasp and prevented it ending up like its northern communist neighbours.
These are incredibly important elements in Greek history and while they underlie so much in Greece, I’ve been surprised by how little known they are in Britain.
"Dekemvriana": Paratroops from 5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, take cover on a street corner in Athens during operations against members of ELAS, 6 December 1944. (Morris (Lt), No 2 Army Film & Photographic Unit. Photo NA 20515 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums / Wikimedia Commons)
Having written about your daughters’ experience in Greek school, you note the value that Greeks place on education. What is the role of education in defining Greek identity?
Education is held in utmost esteem in Greece. It has been the way of improving life chances for countless Greeks who might have begun their lives in humble circumstances but have reached the highest offices and made their fortunes through becoming educated. In Britain, education is appreciated but it is complicated by the class system and the way that private schools have dominated the education of the ruling classes.
Greek education is far from ideal – the fact that state schools are supplemented to a dramatic degree by parents paying for private lessons for their children means that it is actually a rather strange hybrid system. However, it is always remarkable to me how even the most remote villager with few means will do whatever they can to get the very best education for their children. I don’t think it’s like that in Britain.
When describing Greek everyday life you mention religious rituals, followed in Greece even by Greeks who do not believe in God. What is the role of religion in Greece?
We moved back to live in Greece from Rome, so I inevitably compared Italian Catholics with Greek Orthodox. There seemed to me to be an ease with the religion in Greece, where you can be relaxed in your relationship to the Church and not wracked with guilt or questions of Faith. Religion has been a fundamental element in identity and is embedded in Greek life, so an individual will still probably be baptised, married and buried by a priest, even if she or he is not a believer. Orthodoxy is a constant and a bedrock, even if, like every religion, it has its own problems and contradictions and could probably do with being separated from the state a bit more.
Eurydice Street is an affectionate, but not rose-tinted, picture of Greek society before the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, written during a rather affluent period. How would you describe Greece today, after an 8-year-long economic recession and the influx of a large number of refugees?
Eurydice Street would surely be a very different picture of Athens if I wrote it today. 2004 was a high point in recent times and there was a sense of optimism that has evaporated over these recent difficult years of the economic crisis and the tragedy of refugees seeking refuge in a place not fully equipped to cope. It has been a traumatic time in Greece, but I have a strong belief in the resilience of Greeks who have been through so much over the last century. If they can bounce back after wars, occupations and dictatorships, they can surely do it again now. The first signs of things improving are beginning.
You describe Athens as exciting and erotic. "People looked into your face as you walked down the street, making a visual contact, however brief, that was not found in northern European cities." What are your favorite places in Athens? How could a traveler, visiting Athens, get the feel of Greek everyday life?
I do believe that Athens is an erotic city, though of course it’s down to the people, not the place! And perhaps the term sensual would also apply. I like the engagement that goes on between people that you don’t find in northern Europe.
I’d say the best way of getting a feel of everyday life is to talk to people and to walk around. The neighbourhood is such a significant aspect of living in Greece, so hanging around almost any neighbourhood square, checking out shops, cafes and the local church is an obvious way of getting some insight. I also believe that going to the area around the central markets and Omonoia gives a sense of Athenian openness – both to incomers from the villages and islands but also to foreigners and refugees. Greeks often have strong links to their local origins but wide horizons to the rest of the world.
Omonoia Square, June 2016 (George Voudouris/Wikimedia Commons)
In your latest book, Putney, your interest moves from intercultural to intergenerational differences, as you explore the changing attitudes towards consent and child sexual abuse since the 1970s. How has your understanding of different cultures helped you engage with different perspectives on such a sensitive issue?
Putney has been described as 'A Lolita for the era of #MeToo' and it describes a 13-year-old girl’s 'love affair' with an older man in the '70s and the fall-out decades later when she starts to realise it was actually grooming and abuse. I am interested in the pendulum swing between attitudes during my youth and those in the present day when arrests for historical child sexual abuse make up a large section of police work. We see things differently now.
I was definitely helped in analysing this by having studied social anthropology as it gave me the ability to stand back and realise that everything is relative and cultural. There is no ‘normal’ in our attitudes towards sexuality, which vary hugely across societies and across time.
Although this novel is set mostly in London, the family at its centre is Anglo-Greek and there are many parts which take place in Greece. It seems almost impossible to keep Greece out of my writing, even with a title like Putney!
What are you working on at the moment? What are your plans for the future?
I’m working on another novel now, as well as some short stories. I won’t say more except to add that I couldn’t keep Greece out of this one either!
My plans for the future are to be based in Athens but with plenty of time in London, where our two daughters live. I’m hoping that a balance between the two countries will be the ideal way of life.
About Sofka Zinovieff
Sofka Zinovieff was born in London, has Russian ancestry and is deeply attached to Greece. After studying social anthropology at Cambridge, she wrote her PhD thesis on Modern Greek identity and tourism and then lived in Moscow and Rome, working as a freelance journalist for British newspapers and magazines such as The Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement and The Independent.
She is the author of five books, including a memoir, Eurydice Street: A Place in Athens, (included in New York Times’ '100 Notable Books' 2005). Her first novel, The House on Paradise Street explored the Athenian riots of 2008 and the Greek Civil War. Putney is her latest novel and has an Anglo-Greek family at its heart. A 'Best Book of 2018' in The Observer, The Spectator and The New Statesman, it was described by the Financial Times as 'an important addition to an urgent, current conversation'.
Sofka is married, has two daughters and lives mostly in Athens.
For more information, see Sofka’s website www.sofkazinovieff.com
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Victoria Hislop: I want to get my short stories turned into short films to introduce people to another side of Greece!; Hilary Roberts on German and British Photography in Greece 1940-1945; Professor Gonda Van Steen on her lifelong fascination with all things Greek; An Englishwoman in Evia: Publisher Denise Harvey on her love for Greek literature and culture; Richard Clogg: “I am continually struck by the ignorance of the recent history of Greece that exists in the UK”
Elli Lemonidou is Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Greek and European History at the Department of Cultural Heritage Management and New Technologies of the University of Patras. Her research interests include Modern and Contemporary History, History of International Relations, Cultural History, History and New Technologies, Public Uses of the Historical Past. Her research focuses on the two world wars and the public uses of history.
Her latest book bears the title History on the Big Screen. History, Cinema and National Identities (Taxideftis, Athens 2017); she also edited the collective volume One hundred years after: The memory of the First World War / Cent ans après : la mémoire de la Première Guerre mondiale (French School of Athens, bilingual edition, Athens 2018).
Greek News Agenda’s sister publication, GrèceHebdo, interviewed* Elli Lemonidou about the heterogeneous memory of the Great War in Europe, which remains "a forgotten war" in Greece, contrary to the dominant position of the 1940s in historiography and public debates in Greece. Lemonidou gives a definition of Public History ("Public Uses of History" in France) and speaks of its various expressions in the public space, emphasising the cinema.
Greek troops in Thessaloniki departing for the front (National Historical Museum/ Thessaloniki History Centre)
One hundred years ago, the First World War ended; you have edited the recently published bilingual (French and English) volume One hundred years after: The memory of the First World War, which presents the diverse forms of the collective memory of the conflict in Europe. We can certainly say that Europe’s memory of the “Great War” is neither uniform nor homogeneous. Could you tell us what causes collective memories to be so heterogeneous from one country to another?
It is true that there’s no single type of collective memory of World War I in Europe, something reflected in the contributions to this volume, which cover many different national examples. As the professor and academic George-Henri Soutou points out in his text, we can perhaps speak of some points of convergence in the memory of this war on a wider European level, but not of a single narrative.
This phenomenon can be explained in many ways – there is, however, one central point where we must focus our attention. The Great War has dramatically affected almost all countries on the European map, whether they were among the warring countries, the ones that remained neutral or those established at the end of the war. However, the ways memories are triggered and references are made to this war vary considerably, bearing a distinct national character, since they have been shaped to a large extent by the particularities of each country's national history and socio-political characteristics that prevail in different periods.
Venizelos reviews a section of the Greek army on the Macedonian front during the First World War, 1918, accompanied by Admiral Pavlos Koundouriotis (left) and General Maurice Sarrail (right). (Wikipedia)
Despite the fact that in several European countries the Great War occupied, and still occupies, a central place in the collective memory and the public sphere, in Greece this important historical event is, as you say, "a forgotten war". How can one understand Greece's disinterest in World War I?
Several reasons may explain this lack of interest in the First World War. There are three factors contributing to this phenomenon.
First of all, World War I took place in the midst of a decade that was decisive for the history of modern Greece. It began with the military and diplomatic triumph of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and ended with the so-called “Asia Minor Catastrophe” and the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne (1922-1923), which marked the final end of the “Great Idea” (Greek irredentism). The glorious memory of the Balkan Wars and the trauma of the Asia Minor Catastrophe almost completely overshadowed intermediate developments, despite their great consequence for the final outcome of Greek issues.
Secondly, official Greek participation in World War I was short-lived, given that it essentially became involved in 1918, the last year of the war. The events that unfolded on Greek soil in the years prior to WW I, despite being directly related to the war, were of a fragmented nature and indelibly linked with the particular issue of the National Schism on the domestic political scene; as a result, it was impossible to form one single dominant narrative regarding the country's involvement in the First World War.
A third and most decisive factor concerns the critical role of the 1940s, a decade that was traumatic in many ways, overshadowing not just WW I, but also every other event in modern Greek history, both in historiography and in collective memory.
The Greek population of Smyrna watching from terrace of local Greek sport club “Sporting” for entering of Greek navy ships in the Bay of Smyrna, 2 May, 1919 (Wikipedia)
You argue that, unlike World War I, the events of the 1940s and World War II still echo in Greece, whether we refer to historiography and academic research or to public discourse.
It is true that the 1940s still have a dominant position in public and academic debate about Modern Greek history. In fact, the period 1940-1949 has not yet been fully historicised: there is still a significant number of people who experienced the events of that time and who often add their (admittedly much sought after) testimonies to this debate.
Moreover, the extremely traumatic nature of the events of this period, combined with the socio-political conditions of the following decades in Greece, delayed the assimilation of very important aspects of this decade (i.e., the Greek Civil War or the fate of the Greek Jews) into scientific research. There are, thus, many issues that remain open to new approaches, fully justifying the unending interest in the subject.
The experience of recent years has clearly demonstrated that several of the major challenges relating to the history of the 1940s are still relevant and form an essential part of public debate today. Characteristic examples include the issue of German war reparations, the treatment of Greek Jews, and the ideological axes of the Civil War. These questions maintain their dynamic, which explains the enduring interest in the layered history of the 1940s.
Registration of the male Jews by Nazis at the centre of Thessaloniki, July 1942 (Wikipedia/Bundesarchiv)
Let's talk about "Public History" which is another area of research for you: it is a separate field of history that has attracted academic interest in recent years. What do we mean by this term and what are the main expressions of "Public History" in Greece?
Public History is a relatively new field of study. However, despite its rapid growth in recent years, there is no universally accepted definition of the term. On the basis of the most commonly accepted description, we could say that Public History refers to narratives about important issues of the past, which do not necessarily go through the channels of academic history. To give some examples, Public History includes the management and narration of the past through cinema, museum exhibitions, TV shows, online posts, as well as school-taught history or institutionalised memory via national commemorations and celebrations.
In Greece, systematic Public History research and study has been with us for about two decades, although examples of such studies actually have deep historical roots – one need only consider how deeply perceptions of the past are influenced by factors such as literature and public ceremonies and celebrations. In recent years, Public History has been enriched by a spectacular expansion and proliferation of related actions and initiatives – we can mention, for example, an increased interest in oral history, the organization of historic walks and frequent broadcasts of history programmes on radio and TV.
Hands up, Hitler (Psila ta heria, Hitler), 1962, de Roviros Manthoulis.
You mentioned cinema and I know that you have recently written a book about the relationship between history and cinema (H Iστορία στη μεγάλη οθόνη [History on the big screen, Athens 2017). Could you tell us how Greek contemporary history has been rendered in Greek films?
Although there have been a significant number of Greek films drawing themes from contemporary Greek history, their imprint is still rather limited compared to other national film industries. In the heyday of commercial cinema (1950s-1960s), Greek directors had, with few exceptions, treated historic subjects in a conventional and one-dimensional manner, due to the political and social restrictions of this period. It wasn’t until after 1970 that the New Greek Cinema -with Theo Angelopoulos and Pantelis Voulgaris among its major representatives- attempted a fresh look at recent controversial historic events, while after 1990 the attention of filmmakers focused on the burning issue of migration and identities within Greek society.
The traveling players, 1975, by Theo Angelopoulos ©Greek Film Archive
You have also focused your research on the ways "sensitive" issues are handled in school. What is the situation today in Greek schools?
This issue today preoccupies many historians as well as education theorists. Sensitive or contentious issues of the past generally come with a traumatising dimension, provoking heated public debate or even social conflict, and thus require extremely cautious management in the classroom. Characteristic examples of such subjects include the Holocaust and the Algerian war at French schools, and the Greek Civil War in the Greek educational system. Modern research converges on the need to include sensitive and traumatic issues in the teaching of history at school. Given that these issues are inherently open to multiple and often contradictory interpretations, their teaching is considered essential for the development of critical thinking and civic awareness among students. As many researchers have pointed out, historicisation is a prerequisite in the process of overcoming historical trauma at a collective level and this is achieved through narration (instead of silence), extensive study of all its aspects and by integrating it in a specific historical context. Thus, unilateral perceptions of these issues may be avoided, while conditions are created for the smooth integration of young citizens into an increasingly complex and demanding social environment.
* Interview by Magdalini Varoucha. Translation into English by Nefeli Mosaidi.
Read also via Greek News Agenda: Ntina Tzouvala on the history of international law and its impact on the Balkans; Gavrilis Lampatos on the Communist Party of Greece and the country´s public history; Henriette-Rika Benveniste on the history of Greek Jewish communities and the rise of the extreme right in Europe
Ntina Tzouvala is a senior research fellow at the ARC Laureate Program in International Law at the University of Melbourne. Dr Tzouvala has previously worked as a lecturer at Durham Law School, where she also completed her PhD thesis entitled “Letters of blood and fire: a socio-economic history of international law”. Her research places particular emphasis on history, theory, and the political economy of international law, while more recently her work has been focusing on the role of international law in the construction of European peripheries, the political economy of interventionism, and their lasting impact for the region. Greek News Agenda* spoke with Ntina Tzouvala on the multifaceted impact of international law on the history of the Balkans, the intertwinement of legal and economic practices, as well as more recent trends in the field of international law.
Your main body of research has focused so far on the parallel emergence of international law and the expansion of the capitalist mode of production on a global scale starting from the second half of the 19th century. Could you explain how you view this symbiotic relationship and what is the particular position of the Balkans in this historical context?
In the last two decades, international lawyers have become increasingly interested in (and concerned about) the colonial and imperial past of international law. Inspired by postcolonial studies, notably the works of Edward D. Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty, this turn has produced invaluable insights into the way international law justified and rationalised Western imperialism, but also into the fact that core doctrines and concepts of the discipline (including, ‘sovereignty’, ‘territorial integrity’ or even the notion of the ‘state’) are products of the imperial encounter and therefore carry its politics, contradictions and violence to the present day. It is my view that, in order to better understand this symbiotic relationship we also need to factor in capitalism as a truly global system of production and exchange for profit. In this respect, international law did not only (or primarily) manage cultural difference between the West and the ‘rest’ but it mediated, in very messy and complicated ways, the transformation of colonies, semi-colonies and protectorates along the lines of capitalist modernity and facilitated their incorporation into an asymmetrical global economy. The Balkans are in fact a very interesting, but largely neglected, example of this connection. It is a well-known fact that the Great Powers became actively involved in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire, a fact that was both the consequence of and an engine for the Empire’s decline. Often, liberal internationalists trace the origins of ‘humanitarian intervention’ back in the 19th-century engagement of European states with the declining Ottoman Empire. This is not necessarily a very noble genealogy, since it reveals pretty clearly the selectivity of such humanitarian sentiments, the importance of Orientalism or outright racial thinking in the shaping of this form of ‘muscular humanitarianism’ and the impossibility to distinguish between state-lend, armed compassion for the suffering of others and naked self-interest. However, what is less known is that the Great Powers deployed international legal arrangements to make sure that the transition from the Ottoman Empire to nation-states in the region would not disrupt the reproduction and profitability of foreign capital. For example, the 1878 Treaty of Berlin included important provisions that dictated that the newly independent states of Bulgaria, Montenegro, Eastern Rumelia and Serbia would assume a proportion of the Ottoman debt and/or of the Ottoman railway concessions. These provisions were tailored so as to safeguard the interests of British, French, German and Austrian capital, especially since railways constituted one-third of all foreign investments in the region. Therefore, protecting capital and safeguarding legal continuity and uniformity despite political change has been an important function of international law at least since the 19th century (another good example here is Latin America).
In what sense have racial and cultural assumptions of “civility” and “barbarism” been historically intertwined with the selective use of international law? Would you suggest we view those stereotypes in relationship with geopolitical and economic strategies?
Reading international law textbooks published before the 1960s is a supremely uncomfortable experience. This is because the vast majority of authors (even though originating outside the West, were nonetheless often educated in Western institutions or used Western sources), subscribed to the idea that peoples and political communities were divided into three categories: they were civilised, semi-civilised and uncivilised. This was not just a matter of politically incorrect language, but had direct legal consequences, since only ‘fully civilised’ states enjoyed the full range of rights and duties under international law, while the rest had their legal autonomy significantly circumscribed. For example, the imaginary of the Ottoman Empire as insufficiently civilised authorised a wide range of interventions, ranging from the exclusion of foreign merchants and missionaries from local laws to armed interventions. Even though the relationship between race and civilisation was and remains a complicated one, it is beyond doubt that racial imaginaries were inextricably linked to this civilisational ‘scale’. For example, many legal scholars were pretty open about their conviction that certain ‘races’, notable indigenous peoples in white settler colonies or black Africans, were inherently inferior and therefore, the possibility of them becoming civilised at some point was remote or only theoretical. For example, even though slavery in Africa or in Asia were condemned, and were often used as an indicator of insufficient levels of civilisation, slavery in the southern states of the US or compulsory labour in all European colonies were treated with a certain degree of deference by international lawyers, the reason of course being that this form of slavery benefited white masters, plus it was also incorporated in thoroughly modern and capitalist systems of international trade. In fact, the history of international law elucidates the fact that the history of race and racialisation cannot be properly understood unless it is ‘read’ together with the history of capitalism.
A few years ago, all this might have sounded interesting but somewhat parochial. After all, sometime during the Cold War the language of international law stopped being explicitly racist and focused on civilisational differences. However, both the ‘war on terror’ with its overt and covert islamophobia and the contemporary revival of biological racism, including its use to justify reactionary, exclusive policies, indicates that this entanglement between law, capitalism and (overt) racism is not a thing of the past. This, in turn, raises the question to what extent racial or civilisation assumptions are still part of international law, even if they remain implicit. My answer is that international law has become ‘colour-blind’ in a very particular and superficial way, while it is still complicit in the reproduction of racial hierarchies and the unequal distribution of rights, duties and resources. For example, international investment law -albeit nominally a technical, dispassionate field- has played an important role in countering efforts for economic reforms that would help diminish the racial wealth gap in post-apartheid South Africa. Moreover, the idea that certain peoples or states are inherently corrupt, violent, incompetent or weak has been central in the articulation of far-reaching exceptions to the rule that prohibits the use of force amongst states (Article 2 paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter), which is often considered to be one of the most important rules of the post-1945 international legal order. Therefore, I think that one of the most urgent tasks for international lawyers is to see through the tale of technicality, neutrality and colour-blindness international law tells about itself and think carefully about how our discipline relates to the contemporary rise of the most reactionary strands of the far right on a global scale.
What are the continuities but also any potential points of rupture in the field of international law throughout the 20th century? How would you describe the current situation?
One could write ten PhDs on this topic and just scratch the surface of this question. We could perhaps single out a few. First, I think that the fragmentation of international law in specific fields (international environmental law, international investment law, international human rights law, etc) has been an important defining feature of international law during the last four decades or so. What we have witnessed is the proliferation of a multitude of institutions, international organisations, and specialist bodies (such as the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court or various regional and international human rights bodies) with their own procedures, traditions, professional ethos and way of interpreting international law. This is a trend that has important implications not only for international law as a discipline, but also for international politics. For example, it is well-documented that on various occasions powerful states have used this reality to block reforms that would have been beneficial to developing states. For example, in the 1970s developing states launched an initiative known as the New International Economic Order, in order to reform international legal rules pertaining to natural resources, multinational corporations or technology transfers. They did so using their numerical majority in the United Nations. As a reaction to these efforts, rich states channeled economic decision-making toward international institutions where voting rights are proportionate to budgetary contributions (notably, the International monetary Fund and the World Bank). More recently, the controversial mega-regional trade and investment agreements, like TTIP, TTP or CETA, can be partly understood as an effort by the US, the EU and Canada to move decision-making regarding trade away from the World Trade Organization, which -albeit not at all perfect- operates on the principle of one state one vote and has enabled different groupings of developing states to defend their interests. Fragmentation into many sub-fields and institutions is, therefore, a defining characteristic of ‘modern’ international law, and it cannot be ignored by those interested in international politics and global economic justice.
As for continuities, I think it is worth going back to the example of global war on terror, which has put pressure on many core rules of post-1945 international law, including the prohibition on the use of force. Of course, as those caught in the ‘hot’ zones of the Cold War know very well, this prohibition did not stop the USA or the USSR from using force, but it did force them to deny that they ever did so or to put forward particular sorts of arguments on why intervening in foreign states was lawful. 9/11, however, happened in the context of US hegemony and successive administrations (Republican and Democrat) as well as academic lawyers felt that it was an opportunity for a thorough revising of these aspects of Cold War international law that clashed with their strategic interests. Many arguments put forward were genuinely novel, but others sounded uncomfortably familiar to those studying the history of international law. Take, for example, the argument (which is gaining traction amongst governments and academics) that force can be used in the territory of states that are ‘unwilling or unable’ to stop terrorists. This sort of argument does away even with formal legal equality amongst states, and only gives the full range of legal rights to powerful states, or to states that follow specific counter-terrorism policies. This way of organising lawful violence closely resembles 19th-century, imperial international law, which, in turn raises the question whether international law ever became truly post-colonial.
To what extent does the region of the Balkans continue to be “a site of experimentation for international legal techniques” in the 21st century?
As I mentioned earlier, debt has been central in the economic ordering of the Balkans. Ensuring the servicing of debt, in particular, was an important motivation for the assumption of control over the domestic financial policy of Greece or the Ottoman Empire by the Great Powers. Of course, the similarities between this history and Greece’s recent adventures with the IMF and the EU are too stark to miss. Before the 2008 economic crisis, it was the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia and its aftermath that brought the Balkans at the centre of international interest, even though much of the political and legal commentary focuses on the lack of intervention, notably in the instance of genocide in Srebenica, or on the question of (self-styled) humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. What has received, perhaps, less attention is that in the aftermath of these conflicts both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo were placed under international territorial administration. For example, following the controversial bombing campaign of 1999, the UN Security Council bestowed the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) with essentially unlimited legislative, executive and judicial power. UNMIK performed all the functions of a sovereign state, and for that matter of one that has unlimited functions and is not bound by law. This assumption of full governmental functions by an international authority was justified with more and less explicit invocations of the incapacity of Kosovars to govern themselves and a certain equation of international actors as more rational, benevolent and effective. Importantly, UNMIK implemented a thorough programme of domestic reform along neoliberal lines that included the privatisation of important sectors of the economy, including agriculture, the introduction of flat tax rates, and the promulgation of a constitution that legally entrenched neoliberalism straightjacketing politics.
In some of your more recent publications you have argued that, contrary to a widely held belief, what you term as neoliberalism does not entail less or softer law but, instead, a rather increased legalisation and judicialisation of international trade law. Would you say that this also applies to domestic legal frameworks or are we talking about two opposite phenomena?
Neoliberalism is commonly associated with the retreat of the state, deregulation and deference to private actors, individuals and markets. In reality, both neoliberal theory and practice is not uniformly hostile to the state at all. Rather, neoliberals acknowledge the crucial role of the state in the creation and reproduction of competitive markets and many -however, not all- have been intensely relaxed with the repressive branches of the state, including prisons, the police, the army or border controls. In international law, the global ascendance of neoliberalism in the 1990s was also marked by the judicialisation of trade and investment disputes. Judicialisation and legalisation of economic decision-making has, therefore, been a core characteristic of the neoliberal international legal order. At the same time, we need to also pay attention to the opposite trend: financial or business regulations were relegated to the realm of ‘soft law’ and ‘self-regulation’. Schematically, the limitations to states’ redistributive and planning capacity have become ‘hard’, while limitations to the behaviour of transnational capital remain ‘soft’.
The picture is, of course, much more complicated when it comes to domestic legal orders, not least because of the sheer number of states and the vast differences of wealth, political and legal culture that separate them. Therefore, it would be impossible to draw general conclusions. However, it is worth noting that the enhancement of the role of the judiciary and the promotion of a certain version of the ‘rule of law’ understood primarily as strong protections of property rights and counter-majoritarianism have been at the heart of many ‘structural adjustment’ projects led by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the post-soviet world and beyond. It might be superficially paradoxical, but the United States have also witnessed a similar trend, although in this instance the origins of the transformation are much more clearly endogenous. Progressives argue for a drastic delimitation of the functions of the courts, and especially of the US Supreme Court, which they (rightly) perceive to be hostile to economic redistribution and to efforts to curtail the political and economic influence of big business interests. I have suggested in the past that the framework of ‘authoritarian statism’, proposed by the Marxist philosopher Nicos Poulantzas, could be a useful lens for theorising this trend and for situating contingent development (be it domestic or international) within a broader structure of transformation of the relationship between the state, international institutions and the political economy.
Being sensitive to such ongoing transformations also means that the present moment needs to be taken seriously. Already since the days of the Obama administration the US has adopted an aggressive stance toward the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization blocking the appointment of new judges and therefore, paralysing its function. On the one hand, this raises the question how unique Trump’s hostility toward international law and institutions really is and whether we should never forget that, party politics and peculiar personal styles aside, the US attitude toward international law has consistently been over-determined by its position as a global superpower. On the other hand, this example combined with the rise of right-wing authoritarians that are to an extent hostile to courts (even though not necessarily to other forms of counter-majoritarianism) raises the question whether this trend of the judicialisation of economic decision-making is about to be stalled or even reversed.
*Interview by Dimitris Gkintidis
Pavlina Marvin was born in Athens in 1987, but grew up in Ermoupolis of Syros. She studied history at the University of Athens. She was a co-publisher and co-editor of Teflon poetry magazine (2008-2011). She also studied poetry in biennial workshop of the Foundation “Takis Sinopoulos”, and since then has not stopped ever. Her first book Histories from all around my world was published by Kichli Publishing (2017). Part of her work has been translated in English, French, German and Croatian.
Pavlina Marvin spoke to Reading Greece* about her first writing venture, Histories from all around my world, “a book about the art of saying goodbye to time, to bodies, to the real, to ourselves”, “a book that wonders bout the usefulness of the absurd”. Asked about “Teflon”, a poetry magazine she co-published, she explains that “it dealt unprecedentedly with issues that seems to have been up to that time of no interest to the literary community in Greece”, while “it re-approached issues from the viewpoint of a new generation which carried its own expressive particularities, reversals and concerns”.
As for the National Book Center of Greece, her doctoral thesis focuses upon, she comments that “EKEBI dealt with numerous important issues, most of which remain widely unknown”, adding that in her opinion, “there has been no national policy for the book, in the sense of setting mid- and long-tern strategic goals and developing relevant investments”. She concludes that “in every age there are remarkable poems and noteworthy poetic actions”, and that poetic creating is “a thread that links both the perceptible and the imperceptible, the real and unreal levels of this wonder that we call ‘life’”.
Your first writing venture Histories from all around my world received the “Yannis Varveris” Award 2018 for Best Newcomer Poet. Tell us a few things about the book.
It is a book of prose and verse, published by Kichli Publishing in 2017. It begins with the story of two little kids, who keep burying the same dead pigeon again and again, and it ends with a piece of prose poetry about the butcher’s rubber gloves lying in a mud puddle, “which know better how to say goodbye than the hand that has been my or your lot in life.” So it could be a book about the art of saying goodbye to time, to bodies, to the real, to ourselves. Or rather it is a book that wonders about the usefulness of the absurd.
How does poetry interrelate with history and memory in your work?
It is quite complicated, but if I were to simplify things, I would probably say that poetry is the medium, history provides the tools and memory offers the material. However, I feel that none of these three elements is completely, or at least largely, subject to my control, and under no circumstances would I wish to have this kind of command.
You have been a co-publisher in the poetry magazine “Teflon”. Would you agree with Thomas Tsalapatis who argued that for such ventures “the bet to be won is to bring a new audience, interested in literature yet quite distant from the art of the poetic verse, close to poetry”?
To be honest I don’t know what a “new” audience is. The audience that takes an interest in poetry, or rather in literature in general –and that being not just the writers, the students, the literary critics and other artists who deal with poetry because it is, one way or another, part of their work– seems quite unforeseen to me. As far as Teflon is concerned, I feel lucky because it shaped me and I shaped it at our starting point; I’m also happy because it is still in circulation, and I have the chance to be its devoted reader. It has been one of the first (if not the very first one) poetry magazines in our country, whose editorial team consisted basically of women, and it dealt unprecedentedly with issues that seemed to have been up to that time of no interest to the literary community in Greece. It re-approached issues from the viewpoint of a new generation –as is the case with every single generation– which carried its own expressive particularities, reversals and concerns.
Translating and discussing poems that have been written by the Aborigenes in Australia or the lesbians in Black Africa, poems from Japan, India, the Flanders, the Teflon team taught me all the Modern and Contemporary History that I had not been taught in the Department of History of the University of Athens. The only exception were the inspiring seminars of my professor, Antonis Liakos, which at that time nourished my work at Teflon, and vice versa. Of course, such topics attract inevitably a new audience, since these people have been wondering about these issues, but it was impossible from them to read neither the poems nor their literary analyses, as this kind of material had not been published regularly in any other magazine. In this sense, I understand Thomas Tsalapatis’ argument, and I believe that the bet has been won and keeps being won.
Your doctoral thesis focuses on the history of the National Book Center of Greece (EKEBI) (1994-2012). Has there ever been a national book policy in Greece? And, in turn, how pivotal is the role of a concrete state policy for the promotion of a national literature?
The National Book Center of Greece (ΕΚΕΒΙ) dealt with numerous important issues, most of which remain widely unknown. I hope that the current research will shed light on them, so that we understand not only what happened but also what is needed for the future; what’s more, it will focus attention on what has been achieved and what infrastructure projects we need in order to move on. In my opinion, there has been no national policy for the book, in the sense of setting mid- and long-term strategic goals and developing relevant investments. There have been certain individual policies, some of them more successful than others. I believe that it is of utmost importance to re-assess and develop an institutional framework in order to establish a national policy for the book. A self-regulating process cannot be expected to result in translating Greek books into foreign languages or promote the establishment of libraries or develop programs of engaged reading or protect and support the professionals of the book field or sustain a support framework for writers and their work. All these parameters should be part of a dynamic national policy for the book, as is the case in most European countries.
Which are the main challenges new writers face nowadays in order to have their work published? What role do the social media play in the promotion of new literary voices?
New writers face various obstacles but they are also recipients of certain kinds of support. As far as the Internet is concerned, accessibility and the possibility of communication are two very important gifts to all of us. Anybody can set up a blog that fulfills their aesthetic criteria at no or very low cost. However, it is noteworthy that there is no website that informs the public about the numerous literary events that take place in Athens and all over Greece everyday. Facebook is the only source of information, providing that one in touch with publishers and writers. Regarding the printed form of a work, things are considerably different. Poetry, for instance, is not high on the publishers’ list of priorities. This does not necessarily mean that the writer of a short story collection or an essayist can easily find a publisher for their writings. One must have a lot of patience, selection criteria, must be prepared for disappointment and have a plan at hand in case of rejection. In other words, one should do exactly what one does in any other kind of job. It is also true that not every writer has the same communicative skills; this does not mean that whoever has difficulty or does not systematically promote their books does not write so well as others. Actually, it could be the other way round.
One more thing that crosses my mind is the role of critique, which I appreciate and look for. I have the feeling that literary scholars, and they are not the only ones, do not read the contemporary literary production and they do not write about it. In my opinion, this fact is relevant to our general reading culture, which is linked to the Greek University syllabus. The other day I was saying to a very good friend of mine, who is a writer, that I was going to stop writing reviews about books. This is something I keep doing out of a sense of duty, because I believe that some books are worth writing for, although I do not think that I have all the necessary tools to do so. “If we don’t write about them, no one will,” was his answer, and to a certain extent he is right. Critique is constructive for both readers and writers; the former learn a great deal of things and the latter come to important realizations. However, we rarely come across this profound and systematic dimension of critique.
In recent years, there has been an extraordinary burgeoning of poetry in every form: graffiti, blogs, literary magazines, readings in public squares and buses. How is this strong civic awareness to be explained? Could poetry offer new ways to imagine what can be radically different realities?
I’m not sure that there has been a particular burgeoning in poetry. In my opinion, in every age there are remarkable poems and noteworthy poetic actions. Poetry always finds the appropriate channel. What matters though is if we are willing to reach out and connect to it, provided that we feel that we need it. I believe that poetic creation has unifying properties; it is a thread that links both the perceptible and imperceptible, the real and unreal levels of this wonder that we call ‘life.’ As Szymborska states in her poem Autonomy: In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two./ It abandons one self to a hungry world/ and with the other self it flees. […] If there are scales, the pans don’t move./ If there is justice, this is it. […] Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar –/ just three little words, like a flight’s three feathers./ The abyss doesn’t divide us/ The abyss surrounds us. (https://poetrying.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/autotomy-wislawa-szymborska/)
Translated into English by Anastasia Lambropoulou
*Interview by Athina Rossoglou
As is usually the case, stereotyping embraces all nation images. George Angeletopoulos and Evangelos Aretaios with their book “Turkey: The Train of the Great Modernisation” (Το τρένο του μεγάλου εκσυγχρονισμού) take readers along a train journey in the lesser known Turkish heartland, aiming to look closer at some of the stereotypes of Turkish society.
Press counselor George Angeletopoulos was born in Athens in 1967. He graduated from the History & Archaeology Department of the University of Thessaloniki, concluded his post-graduate studies at the Bosphorus University in Istanbul and received his PhD in Modern History from the University of Cyprus, Nicosia. He has served at the Greek Press & Communication Offices in Ankara (2004-2006), Nicosia (2006-2010) and Istanbul (2013-2017). His scientific interests lie mainly in Turkish foreign policy, aspects of Turkish domestic life, the Cyprus issue, Modern Greek history, as well as communication research theory and practice.
Evangelos Aretaios was born in Athens in 1971. He studied Law in France and Islamic Studies in Belgium. Since 1996, he has been on a regular visitor to Turkey and he travels to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. He lived in Istanbul from 1999 to 2007, working as a correspondent for Greek media. He works as a journalist for the Cypriot newspaper Charavgi and for the Greek site Inside Story, covering issues of the European Union and Turkey. He has published two novels, a collection of short stories, and a book on politics and society in Turkey titled "From Gezi's Utopia to the coup” (2018).
Greek News Agenda interviewed* co authors Angeletopoulos and Aretaios on their book “Turkey: The Train of the Great Modernisation”, the fruit of a long observation and deep knowledge of Turkish society, that subverts many of the clichés pertaining to this country, focusing on the rapid modernization of the Turkish society, contrary to the prevailing view of Turkey being gradually and irrevocably Islamized.
Book presentation in Athens. From left to right: George Angeletopoulos, Panagiota Manoli (Assistant Professor in Political Economy of International Relations), Angelos Athanasopoulos (journalist, To Vima), Vassilis Karatzas (CEO, Levant Parteners) and Evangelos Aretaios
Your book is a road trip to “the three Turkeys”: The one that is western and modernized, the central and conservative, and the Kurdish part, which is the least developed. Is there a common Turkish identity?
The term “three Turkeys” is a neologism coined by KONDA’s chief pollster Bekir Ağırdır, whose opinions are highly valued by social scientists, far sighted politicians as well as that specific part of public opinion described as the “attentive public”, to use a term introduced long ago by Vincent Price. The thing is that one might discern three or more Turkeys, depending on the criteria established each and every time in order to describe particular aspects of the country’s political or social reality. Your question, for example, reflects two intersecting points of view, the economic (“developed”) and the social (“modernized/conservative”) ones. All these different facets of Turkey, either political, social or cultural, no doubt constitute a common Turkish identity, put together by the cohesive power of the central Turkish state and its various mechanisms. This is not an isolated or peculiar paradigm since most modern nation-states administer directives and exert their institutional homogenizing power through various moderating schemes, the state, the government and the education system. On the other hand, it is true that there has been a huge discussion on the particular way by which Turkey was “modernized”, i.e. introduced to the western political and cultural system and formed its national identity. The majority of the academics who study this tranformation agree on the fact that it was initially accomplished “from the top down” by the founder of the state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Nevertheless, after WWII and the gradual opening up of Turkish society via pluralism and multi-party politics, one can pinpoint to a rather societal – namely grass roots – genuine participation in the building of a collective national identity. With the ascension of Erdoğan’s party AKP to power,there has been a shift, at least nominally, in what constitutes this identity, towards more conservative and traditional references. So, yes, we believe that there exists “a common Turkish identity” and although it has historically shaped and consolidated characteristics, we don’t think of it as being still, unaffected by or impermeable to change.
In your book you focus on the notion of “transitionalism” characterizing Turkish society, which means neither modernism nor traditionalism. Would you like to elaborate?
Let us make clear that all three human types, the “traditional”, the “transitional” and the “modern” are present in Turkish society but it is the “transitional” type that attracted our attention as that with the most interest. As we traveled through the country back in 2018, talked with the people and exchanged views with members of its intelligentsia and academia, we discovered that a great number of people living in present-day Turkey continue to experience profoundly the personal and collective process of change. Sixteen years of AKP rule has had a significant impact on people’s lives: A new urban Muslim middle class has emerged, both in the western as well as the central provinces of the country, establishing higher standards of living, acquiring certain commodities and developing new needs. This has led to a gradual and partial departure from old habits, attitudes and behaviors that had defined themselves and their everyday lives until then. This is certainly not an easy transformation, not one without obstacles, back steps and a constant feeling of “wrong-doing”. It is exactly as David Lerner, an eminent American social scientist, had described it 60 years ago, when he came up with the term “transitional” in order to describe the psychological, attitudinal, as well as the social transformation of the citizens of Turkey when exposed to the all permeating process of modernization. In his 1958 book “The Passing of Traditional Society. Modernizing the Middle East”, Lerner emphasized that “the true Transitional is defined, dynamically, by what he wants to become […] The Transitionals, at various phases of modernization, are making their way toward an unclear future via a path replete with hard bumps and unsuspected detours. Their voyage entails a sustained commingling of joyous anticipations with lingering anxieties, sensuous euphoria with recurrent shame, guilt and puzzlement. From their changes of pace and their shifts of direction we learn how they perceive the terrain, its pitfalls and its promises”. It is exactly these “hybrid” human types and identities that are evolving in front of our eyes in contemporary Turkey, influenced and shaped by the powers of new mass media technologies and globalization, just as they did so in Lerner’s time through their exposure to the powers of urbanization and media participation, to name but a few.
Contrary to the prevailing view that Turkey is heading towards Islamization, in your book you argue that in recent years Turkey has been moving towards modernization, and that there is even an "internal secularization of Islam". Why do you think it is so and how do you define modernization in your book?
This conclusion is a product of our observations and readings over the past 20 years, accompanied and further strengthened by the findings of our recent train travels throughout Turkey. This last trip served, one might say, as the culmination of our common mindset pertaining to the evolution/transformation of personal attitudes of the more or less conservative citizens of Turkey in the last decades, under the influence of the ubiquitous process of modernization. Actually, what we highlight in our book is the fact that, as you have correctly put it, contrary to the prevailing view of Turkey being gradually and irrevocably Islamized, Turkish society is moving rapidly towards secularization rather than returning to traditional attitudes and behaviors influenced by religion. There is plenty of evidence subscribing to this conclusion along with the consequent theorizing too. Starting from the late 90’s, when sociologist Nilüfer Göle talked about “Islamist elites” and “hybrid conjunctions”, up to 2015 when her colleague Volkan Ertit published his book about the “uneasy conservatives”, one can find plentiful examples of attitudinal change ranging from pre-marital relations and alcohol consumption to social media self-exposure. Moreover, what we emphasize in our book is that Islam itself is undergoing transformation as it is obliged to respond to new situations and to the new needs of its followers. By doing so, it adopts a new vocabulary and new outward postures. For example, the Imam of a central Istanbul mosque promoted himself in an interview not only as a man of religion but also as a singer as well as an athlete of…martial arts! Another vivid example – included in our book – is the need felt by the Directorate of Religious Affairs to issue a directive to its spiritual guides exhorting them to be “sensitive to the sexual inclinations” of those taking recourse to their advise. Politically speaking, Islam has seized to be exclusively a religion from the moment it started to function in an era of modernization. Looking for ways of both standing against the successive political and cultural sorties of the west to its territory and of adapting to the new ethos, it gradually started to function more as an ideology, thus acquiring the modern structural traits of the latter. In light of the above, we view modernization as an all-permeating dynamic procedure of economic, social and political transformation of peoples’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in a manner that gradually alienates them from the traditional values and habits and ushers them in an era of individual-centered, religion-less and risk-oriented ways of life.
From left to right: Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Republic of Turkey and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of major opposition party (CHP)
Turkey was modernized through the reforms of Kemal Ataturk, following a top down process. Today there is a bottom up process of modernizing Turkey, stemming from the rise of the "underprivileged". How can this modernization process affect the policy of both the ruling party and the opposition?
It has already done so! This has to do with the aforementioned “all-permeating” characteristic of the modernizing procedure from which neither the ruling party nor the opposition can escape, even if they wanted to! We want to clarify that modernization is a process that occurs beyond a person’s value judgments, that is irrespective of how one might call it, good or bad, a blessing or a curse, the embodiment of optimism or of pessimism. The question it poses for participants is structural and ontological at the same time. Modernization exposes individuals and societies to new lures and needs created both economically and culturally. This new overall edifice tends to expand in every aspect of everyday life, from the way we perceive time (cyclical in traditional societies, linear in modern ones) to the way we consume and choose our leaders. Turkey could not be an exemption. Note parenthetically that in Greece we have experienced a similar phase of the rise of the “underprivileged”, their acquirement of access to political power, reshaping the legitimacy of the political terms in use and reclaiming the cultural symbols of acceptance and justification in social space. At the same time, though, they did not remain unchanged and untouched by the structural procedures of modernization. A simple reflection on their appearance, political preferences, vocabulary and cultural references over the past 40-50 years is convincing enough. Mutatis mutandis this is valid for Turkey as well. Tayyip Erdoğan and his party came to power representing the “underprivileged” with a rather liberal political and economic agenda. Despite the gradual authoritarian shift from 2011 onwards, the promises for liberty in public sphere and free self expression lived on and – what is more important – they were partially experienced in practice by his followers. Concomitantly, the quest for more spaces of freedom, both personal and collective, are omnipresent in people’s hearts and minds and constitute accomplishments, real and/or figurative, that cannot simply be put to rest. The same thing is valid for the opposition too. Being used to dominate the scene for decades both politically and culturally, they have tasted the rather traumatic experiences of successive political defeats and symbolic marginalization with no visible signs of recovery. Some of them succumbed to what they considered as the “inevitability of Islamization of everyday lives”, failing thus to tell between “laicite” and “secularization”. As explained in our book, the first notion deals with the way a state/ a government defines and moderates the role of religion in the political and social space. Conversely, the second notion refers to the dynamics rising from within society when coming across the question of the role, extent and gravity that religion should have in mindsets and in practice. Consequently, the Turkish opposition could not remain untouched by the voiced needs of society for more democracy, more peaceful and respectful coexistence, more “justice”; it is already passing through the painful procedure of mental and political transformation and must heed more to these demands if it wants to keep up with the pace of modernity which, ironically, it was their political ancestors that had initiated in Turkey about 100 years ago.
Since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, the notion that prevails in the Turkish subconscious is that foreign powers threaten Turkey's national sovereignty. How is the view of an "external enemy" reflected in Turkish society?
In our opinion, we are talking about a deeply imbedded feature of Turkish collective identity, shaped, as you mentioned, by historical experience but also systematically nourished over the years by the state. This specific historical experience, though, is perceived and construed rather selectively. For example, it wasn’t only the antagonizing forces of the West and the East that paved the way to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire, but also the political decisions of the Committee of Union and Progress that had played a crucial role to this outcome. Political science professor Baskın Oran puts it eloquently when he talks about the “Sevres syndrome” which haunts the Turkish collective mentality, both statesmen and commons. In other words, it’s not just a subconscious fear but a consciously and overtly cultivated anticipation with very obvious political usages. Foreign powers – with indigenous minorities serving as their local agents/ collaborators – depict in their minds “the enemy” that is constantly, deviously and repeatedly looking down on and undermining Turkey and the Turks. This perception cuts across political (p)references since it vividly exists in the minds of CHP adherents and thrives nowadays in the perception of the pro-government supporters. The latter, living in an imagined quasi Hamidian era, consolidate their support for the modern equivalent leader, R.T. Erdoğan, while at the same time they hold responsible for the “subversive acts” against their country both the political offspring of the “Young Turks”, i.e. the oppositionist CHP, as well as the “conspiratorial” West by and large. Besides being a self fulfilling prophecy, this perception constitutes also a vicious circle that obscures a safe judgment and a more balanced attribution of responsibility for whatever ill-functioning there might exist in Turkey.
You refer in your book to the theory of cognitive dissonance between traditional upbringing and modernization. In what ways is this discrepancy evident in youth and women?
Allow us to refer you again to David Lerner. As already cited above, the American social scientist described the personal adventure of modernization as a “way toward an unclear future via a path replete with hard bumps and unsuspected detours. Their voyage entails a sustained commingling of joyous anticipations with lingering anxieties, sensuous euphoria with recurrent shame, guilt and puzzlement”. This is exactly what we found out in our Turkish train trip. The young generation claims public space projecting its own particular cultures. They start to question traditional values, not always in a straightforward manner as do their coevals in the West, but in the same decisive fashion. Girls may continue to defend their right to cover their heads but at the same time they do it in such a way so as to attract and not to discourage male attention, as explicitly said by the young employee in Konya. The youth of Turkey live together in the public sphere, reclaim their right to flirt, to fall in love and to be socially visible, a procedure which is internalized by them with all its assets and liabilities, with the fervor of the newcomer and at the same time with the restriction and the guilt of “crossing the red lines” of their social habitus. Not an easy task at all! Social psychologist Leon Festinger described this process in a different setting using the term “cognitive dissonance”, meaning that people tend to find plausible excuses for keeping up doing things that are harmful or socially frowned upon. Nevertheless, what we see in Turkey is that this dialectic of backs-and-forths ends up in the medium term in the transformation of attitudes and – to a certain extent – of behaviors. The scope of such observations, of course, is limited since we didn’t conduct a full scale survey but we think that combined with the conclusions reached by the scientists cited in our book they constitute a very strong thesis to the described direction.
Turkish opposition accuses Erdogan of trying to impose a more conservative lifestyle on society. What is Turkish society’s reaction, if any? Is there any resistance or is it heading towards islamization?
The publicly declared aim of Erdoğan’s politics is the creation of a new young “pious generation”, whatever that might mean. Religious and conservative people existed in Turkey before. With the AKP coming to power, they were broadly seen; they were made “socially visible”. What the majority of western observers miss, though, is the fact that this “conservative lifestyle” is not stable and unchanged but dynamic and resilient. For example, we haven’t yet come across a mass movement of doing away with the headscarf, but we have indeed been witnesses to the new Islamic fashion, ranging from new outfits to distinct stores and special magazines. The “revolution” brought about does not pose as an overall rejection of tradition and/or traditionalism but it constitutes a breach with the traditional male imposed conduct that women are supposed to adapt to, that is to stay hidden, away from “penetrative” male eyes and “inappropriate” conducts. The existence and constant development of “hybrid” identities that we have already described constitutes a specific and decisive form of “resistance” to the officially promoted cultural politics. It is not necessary to have only landmark social events such as the Gezi uprising back in 2013 in order to conclude that something is changing. The slow but revolutionary transformation of personal attitudes and perceptions sets a different but equally powerful pattern of modernizing change, which is more than evident in present-day Turkey. As Bob Dylan had aptly put it, sometimes “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”!
Nationalism in Turkey: Is it a characteristic of the Islamists or the Kemalists?
We think that it is a common trait to both. In 1974, the invasion in Cyprus was decided by a coalition government led by CHP’s Bülent Ecevit on the one hand and the Islamist Milli Selamet Partisi’s Necmettin Erbakan on the other. Today, Erdoğan talks frequently and ambiguously about “the borders of our hearts” when referring to the geography of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, while the CHP opposition attempts an equally nationalist verbal counter attack by attracting the attention to the “18+1” islands of the Aegean sea that Greece has allegedly “occupied”. The same aggressive rhetoric takes place in other circumstances as well, in cases where Greece is not directly involved. It is noteworthy that this attitude derives from a deeply rooted feeling of “victimization”. During our trip, we came across the aforementioned belief of many of our interlocutors, namely that Turkey and R.T. Erdoğan are being undermined and subverted by “jealous” and “devious” western powers. Next to this commonly shared feeling of “victimization” lies a similar one, that of “seclusion”, especially vivid in the case of the Aegean Sea. In the minds of many Turkish politicians and citizens, the West via Greece is trying to keep Turkey “confined” in the Asia Minor peninsula using the surrounding geographical formation of the Aegean Greek islands as a tool. So a “big state” such as Turkey simply cannot put up with this situation and “has to break the chains of seclusion”. CHP’s Nihat Erim, who had served as Prime Minister in the late 70’s, expressed characteristically this point of view in his legal notes to the then Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes back in 1956 with respect to the Cyprus issue. So, if one is raised to believe that he/she is a member of a “great military nation”, inhabiting a big state (büyük Türkiye) that has been – and still is – wrongfully “victimized” and threatened by “seclusion”, then you have all the ingredients that at a certain point of time might have destabilizing effects.
Keeping in mind the polarization prevailing in the Turkish political scene and given that Turkish society is composed of different cultures, would you say that the model of coexistence in Turkish society has been preserved?
An interesting observation occurred to us in the course of writing our book. The Turkish language has three different expressions in order to define “coexistence”: “bir arada” meaning “all together”, “yan yana” meaning “next to each other” that is without intermingling and “iç içe” meaning “intermingled”. All three ways are present in contemporary Turkey in a rather peculiar coexistence, this time of corporatist practice with exclusionist/discriminatory mindsets. Political polarization is a practice that separates Turkish society in real time; this does not prevent public actors and state dignitaries from insisting rhetorically on the “equal footing” of all “Turkish citizens” or putting emphasis on the spirit of “unity and togetherness” (birlik ve beraberlik) that must permeate common attitudes and direction. In times of political and social unrest the limits of this model are tested but the imprints of this painful process are still visible. Nevertheless, what we observed and recorded in our book is an expanding demand stemming from different and opposing political and cultural affiliations in Turkey for more and real democracy with checks and balances, as well as for a social environment with genuine and mutually respectful relations. This is very important in our opinion since it modernizes the traditional value of and demand for “justice” (adalet), taking it away from its traditional connotation “to everyone according to his/her standing in social hierarchy” and bringing it closer to the notion “to every human being irrespective of his/her ethnic, cultural or political characteristics”.
* Interview by Florentia Kiortsi and Christina Fiorentzi.