Health, Safety and Publicness: Athens, August 9–14, 2012

by | 22 Aug 2012

Five days in Athens. Five very varied days. I used to frequent Athens as a teenager with my parents. We were always transit visitors, en route to Kano, Nigeria where my late father used to work. Those visits where quick, two days in Athens, visiting ancient monuments, museums, tavernas, cafes, friends, and relatives. You see, post 1974 and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus a number of our refugee relatives and friends made their way to Greece and particularly Athens to begin again the reconstruction of their lives. Athens looked big, busy, exciting, expressive and glamorous through my youthful eyes. Athens looked like those old movies that Finos Film (Greek Production Company, 1943–77) used to make and exported to Cyprus and the Greek Diaspora. I am not Greek, I am Cypriot. I am a Greek Cypriot that grew up on Greek culture, and can speak, write and read Greek relatively well, at the expense of never getting to know Turkish culture or language. Let’s leave though this discussion for another day. Let’s stick to Athens for a while. The Athens of my youth was a euphoric one and simultaneously it was an Athens that I got to know only through general terms: the Athens of the travel guide book. What I didn’t notice then, though it must have been there already, were the details, details that paint the psyche of this city.  These details, the colourings of the city, are in danger of morphing the city into a black and white negative.

Years now, 25 or so years older with no parents to accompany me but visiting friends instead, Athenian friends, Athens shows its cracks and colours. The cafes that adorn its squares are not just public spaces of consumption as I thought in my youth; those hand moves are not just waving but an extensive agora where everydayness, love and politics are discussed and argued over. Not just between friends and acquaintances but also amongst strangers. Athens is an agora, from the bus, the tram, the train, the lesbian bar, the restaurant, the park, the taxi. Athens is an enormous public space where Athenians, demoralised from four or so now years of austerity vent their feelings about the state that they are in. They hide nothing in their expressive language: disappointment, hardship, intolerance, indignation. They have had centuries of practice expressing themselves in public. Nothing remains settled. They are the sons and daughters of Diogenes the Cynic after all.

Walking between 28th October Avenue and Stournata Street one finds Athens Polytechnic. Its walls are graffitied with slogans and glued with posters for gatherings, political and cultural gatherings.  At its sight I was transposed. In my ears the voice of a young woman broadcaster from the polytechnic radio of November 1973 echoed: ‘Εδώ Πολυτεχνείο! Λαέ της Ελλάδας το Πολυτεχνείο είναι σημαιοφόρος του αγώνα μας, του αγώνα σας, του κοινού αγώνα μας ενάντια στη δικτατορία και για την Δημοκρατία’, as ‘Here Polytechnic! Greek Nation the Polytechnic is the flag to the struggle (agon), our struggle (agon), our common struggle (agon) against the dictatorship and for Democracy’.

On the 14th of November 1973 the students of Athens Polytechnic went on a strike against the dictatorship. They locked themselves in the Polytechnic and broadcasted through their pirate radio their demands for democracy in Greece. Soon others, workers and students joined them outside. On 17th of November 1973 the military sent tanks to supress the occupation and its momentum. Civilians were killed that day. The same spirit is still in place — its walls say it all. A poster urges the people to make a choice: ‘Stop finally the mockery. Monopolies or the people!’ (my translation; see photograph 1). Images of the Greek indignados of the last two years in Syntagma Square keep flooding my mind. ‘Yes’ … I say to myself … ‘the Greeks know how to resist anything that curbs their freedom’. ‘Uncompromising!’

We soon turn into Stournata Street. We are making our way to Exarheia, Athens’ well established bohemian, lefty and anarchist area. Evi urges me to stop taking pictures. She keeps saying that my mobile is expensive and is at risk of theft. For a second I don’t understand why she is saying this. I’m still absorbed in my thoughts and looking at the Polytechnic whose entrance is on this street. I look around me for a second. On the pavements people are shooting up and exchanging drugs. Some are standing almost tilted downwards 90 degrees. ‘Caouching’ I think. ‘They must have overdosed or taken some really badly cut “staff”‘. I sober up from my own day-dreaming. I stare. I can’t direct my look straight ahead. I don’t want to take a photo. No photograph could have imprinted the eerie silence of the pavements. The pavements on the left and the right were populated by silence. Greeks, Immigrants, together in silence. An agora of silence. ‘What are they saying?’, I kept wondering: ‘a silent resistance to austerity?; we are opting out?; we just want to dream otherwise?; we have no home this street is our only home?’

We move slowly from Exarheia towards Psiri; from a space where anti-government, anti-police slogans and gorgeous graffiti provide you the pulse of dissent, to an area well known for its restaurants and cafes.  The streets are quiet. It is early afternoon. Five o’clock moving towards six on a Saturday. I see a young Asian man looking through black plastic bags. I notice him. He is the only person on the street except for me and my two friends of course. We walk past him.  He keeps scavenging. I glance once more towards him. Suddenly about eight police officers and a man pointing at him surround him. ‘When did this happen?’ ‘How did this happen?’ ‘What did he do wrong?’ I ask myself. I pick my mobile ready to record, a habitual move from my legal observing days. A bearded man without a uniform commands us to go away and I to stop recording. I ignore him, I keep trying to record. He comes near me and asks to see my phone. He authoritatively states that he is a special branch officer and aggressively reports that by law only journalists are allowed to record. I give him the phone. Why did I give him the phone?

I am asked to see the Chief Constable. He was present on the scene and in uniform. He looks at my phone. He sees nothing of interest. He explains that they are merely checking whether the young man is a documented immigrant. He let us go. And I walk defeated and shaken. Why did I not stand up more for this young man? Why did I not stand up to this bullish attitude? I am both disappointed and angry with myself. The man who got the young Asian immigrant arrested ran after us to explain. ‘I’m a health and safety officer. I am a lefty, I belonged for years in Antarsia (the socialist workers party) and then my heart (literally gave in and had to get a job). I was doing my job; I repeatedly told this young man to stop scavenging through the black plastic bags and littering the place, the neighbours were complaining…’ he kept apologising, giving his account. I wished he did his job less well. Why has everybody become a little sovereign governor? ‘Judith Butler and Giorgio Agamben where astute when they were writing about the change in the way power is operating in the 21st century’, I reflect. We are all in the little sovereign governors. How to resist? How to stop the force of fear and intimidation?

Hannah Arendt writes in We Refugees:

Before this war broke out we were even more sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own free will to countries of our choice, and we denied that our situation had anything to do with “so-called Jewish problems.” Yes, we were “immigrants” or “newcomers” who had left our country because, one fine day, it no longer suited us to stay, or for purely economic reasons. We wanted to rebuild their lives, that was all. In order to rebuild one’s life one has to be strong and optimist. So we are very optimistic.1Arendt, H. ‘We Refugees’  in The Jewish Writings (New York, Schocken Books: 2007) p.264.

On Sunday 12/08/2012 I read in H Kaqhmerinh2 that on Friday 10/08/2012 a police operation, operation Xenios Zeus3For a critique of this operation and the discourse surrounding illegal immigrants in Greece, see Monastirioties, V accessed 17/08/2012. ‘swept’ (the discourse that is used in every day discourse) 6,690 illegal immigrants from the streets of central Athens. According to the article by Costas Onisenko Greek inhabitants of central Athens were delighted with the change. They were now less afraid to walk in the streets and they were hoping that their business would see a hike. They blamed illegal immigrants, the threat of theft, and drugs for a down-turn in their incomes. The same reporter points out that out of these arrests 1,555 of those arrested were illegal immigrants. In addition, he writes 172 women were charged with prostitution and ten of them were HIV positive. Now I understand more what we witnessed on Saturday. The arrest of the young Asian man, (according to the same newspaper, most illegal immigrants are Asian or African. They came to Greece post 2004 and the Olympics, believing it to be the promised, hospitable land) I retrospectively acknowledge as being an extension of the police operation Xenios Zeus.  The violence of the racism and xenophobia that Athens is producing is trying disguise itself under ‘health and safety regulations’, under claims of illegality, under claims of austerity, under so many things that can’t disguise it.

I think of Arendt’s words above while I try to imagine the optimism that every immigrant may hold in his or her heart when they sail away from the land of their birth. I think of the black woman that slapped a Greek man on the tram on my last day in Athens after he assaulted her (sexually or otherwise I was not able to verify). I think of the optimism or perhaps despair that might have taken for her to raise her hand against a violation? I think of the energy that may be needed for immigrants to be able to survive fear, intimidation, violence on an everyday basis.  ‘How do they manage?’ I ask. I have no answer. I am speechless.

In the streets of Athens, dogs roam alone or in packs. Cats do the same. They belong to the city, to all and no one. The state attends to their health. Individuals feed them. At ‘Myrovolos’, a lesbian bar, there are three such dogs. They have been given names — I can’t remember  them.  An old lady comes to ‘Myrovolos’ and sits alone at a table. She looks solemn and patient. She doesn’t order a drink. Ten minutes pass by. The bar woman comes and gives her a pack of food. She takes it and leaves. She doesn’t pay. On walls all around Athens the same graffiti is prominent: basanizwmai (‘being tormented’; my translation; see photo No 2).

Basanizwmai, tormented. Athens tormented. Basano ‘originally (from oriental origin) a touchstone; a Lydian stone used for testing gold because pure gold rubbed on it left a peculiar mark…’.4 accessed on 20/08/2012 Torment is intolerable. We condemn the torture of prisoners, of political prisoners, of all prisoners, of all. So we should. But if we, if a city, a nation is in torment, if it is already in the process of trying to find a ‘truth’, of excavating something that goes beyond the national political discourse, then it needs to rub against the language and practices of health and safety regulation. It has to stop tormenting others in order to find the truth. It has to rub against the concreteness of its situation for some ‘truth’ and stop assimilating discourses of resentment: austerity, external threat, security, sanitation. It may be hard.

Basano is a stone of oriental origin (the dictionary pronounces) but more precisely from Lydia, a Kingdom in the Iron Age that occupied the whole of western Anatolia. A stone of foreign origin gave the Greek language a word to express its torment. This is an enabling word, a word that forces one to ‘catch’ another image of oneself. Judith Butler writes:

…the kind of relationality that is at stake is one that “interrupts” or challenges the unitary character of the subject, its self-sameness and its univocity. In other words, something happens to the “subject” that dislocates it from the center of the world; some demand from elsewhere lays claim to me, presses itself upon me, or even divides me from within, and only through this fissuring of who I am do I stand a chance in relating to another.5Butler, J. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism ( New York, Columbia University Press  2012) at 6.

If a bus driver is able to stay past his working hours at a stop to give a lift to three women who were erroneously waiting for a bus that stopped coming, if  any bus driver is able to find in him or her something that breaks ‘health and safety’ – health and safety regulations – then something tells me that there is something in all of us, Athenians or not, that can see that we are ‘pressed’, ‘interrupted’, ‘divided’ by each other. There is still something, a stone, a graffiti that urges us to acknowledge not only that we share this earth, this world, but moreover that we are transit passengers here, like busses that pass by. There is still something that forces us to see the world in colours, colours beyond black and white. If this could be the case so much can happen: the Agora will not remain a museum remnant, but it may as well transform itself, it may transform into a plateaux of action; a plateaux, where words are no longer ossifications of opinions but openings to a different world. This world is possible, as possible as the one that acts in black and white. And it is up to us, not the state, not the police, not the health safety officer to restore its colours, to invent new colours.

For Chrysanthi Nigianni. Many thanks to Chrysanthi Nigianni and Evi Michalaki for showing me Athens as it is. Thanks to Brenna Bhandar also for her helpful observations.

Elena Loiz­idou is Senior Lec­turer in Law at Birk­beck, Uni­ver­sity of London


  1. Elena lozidou presents a gift of her Athenian voyage
    Through both her historical experiences, Greek language and
    Powerful ability to unearth the current fissures
    In Athenian streets (i.e., Agoras) – she cuts through
    The official Greek government discursive
    Attempts to dehumanize immigrants as “foreign” reasons for
    The economic malaise hanging over Athens-This is not only
    A Modern Greek Tragedy, but a timeless
    Tool of discrimination and if left unchecked, a
    Road littered with much hate and death.


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