Chapter 22: Vineyard philosophy with a Pakistani from Birmingham

‘My god she is pretty’ Ismael says while looking a young Italian volunteer. Her name was Claudia, and she spoke Arabic. She showed up to our camp one morning flashing a smile asking us whether she could join us. She has lived in Jordan for a while, practicing her Arabic, and here she was now, in Sykaminia, helping us around. ‘Yannis the diver is smitten too’ I tease him, and indeed that was so, Yannis mercilessly teasing Claudia every morning. She liked it, and returned ‘fire’ with her Italian-inflected English so deftly and amusingly that I suspect that Yannis did all this again and again only so that he would receive her smart aleck comments with that particular accent. Ismael Khan arrived with a Muslim charity group out of Birmingham UK. They were helping up at Stage-2, but also in the two large tents that the Faros people placed in the stone-fenced olive grove near us (those we requested as a backup in case of emergency). He was a young man, handsome enough to be nicknamed ‘the playboy’ by Yannis when these two first joked around. Idealistic, but unlike our anarchist friends, his idealism seemingly anchored on his religion.

‘Well, that makes two of us’ Ismael says and laughs. ‘How many are you anyway? It seems that every Pakistani I meet here from the UK is from Birmingham!’ I ask him, in a joking mood. ‘A lot’ he replies, ‘we are all over that city, much more than in any other one in the UK’. At this point, refugee families come out of our camp with several little children in tow. Ismael then springs into action and manages to fit all but one family in the small van that the Faros people started bringing down in Skala. Yannis picks up the other one, and the two cars slowly make their way towards the village, and on to the UNHCR/Stage-2, their red stop-lights flashing, indicating refugee transport.

Ismael does not go up with the van, he stays to linger a little longer, along with Lisbeth, another volunteer, a Greek-Swede that came here late last night. ‘You know I asked Yannis why he avoids getting photographed with any refugees’ Ismael tells me, ‘What did he say?’ I ask him, ‘That he does not do misery porn!’ Ismael says laughing. ‘Well I share his views on this one, these people at their most vulnerable, should not be used as a spectacle, or props for somebody’s goodness and philanthropy’ I tell him[1]. ‘I agree’ Ismael says, ‘though I saw some people doing this in our group’ he adds.

‘Still sometimes such photographs are necessary to record events, have you been to Moria?’ Ismael asks, ‘No why?’ I ask, ‘It is really very bad there, many many refugees and very slow processing’ he replies. ‘I guess that has to do with Karatepe being closed for now and all refugees taken to Moria’ I tell him, ‘…and a Europe that has yet to wake up to the enormity of the problem we face here, and the sparse resources of the Greek islands’ I add to myself. Then in a hushed and somewhat reverential tone young Ismael leans closer to tell me that an MP of the UK Parliament is among their group, sort of incognito, to see what is going on and suggest some kind of action on the refugee issue after going back in the UK. Myself being disgusted by Europe’s governing politicians (with only very few exceptions), and especially so by those of the UK, the country that participated in the Iraq war, the war that arguably started the domino of current horrors, I could not hold back. ‘Listen Ismael, I could not care less about any fucking MPs coming here to do any fact-finding no matter how well-meaning’ I abruptly tell him. ‘Here is what I suggest you go and say to that MP: please go back in the UK Parliament and support a quota to take some of these desperate people in the UK, maybe one based on the tonnage of the bombs the UK dropped in the Iraq war, or the ones is dropping now, along with the USA and Russia, to… correct the ill side effects of the previous bombings.’ ‘Then who knows maybe USA, Russia, participating in this war ‘party’, and the countries of the so-called ‘New Europe’ (as a certain Donald Rumsfeld once put it), those that once upon a time agreed and contributed to the Iraq war, will take a cue and do something similar. Now that would be a good start! And hey it does not have to be the relative tonnage of bombs dropped, any measure of the relative expenses towards these wars can do a fine job determining refugee quotas for these countries to take in. Greece will continue doing what she can, given her current conditions[2].’

Ismael listened quietly to my long angry tirade, and then with a wide charming smile defuses my anger ‘Are all Greeks so instantly political as you are?’ he asks, ‘Oh well, only when the issue is near and dear to our hearts’ I tell him, ‘and by the way’ I add, ‘you are in Greece, so you might as well be subjected to a few political tirades and a dose of αμπελοφιλοσοφία (ambelofilosofia)`, ‘What is that?’ he asks, perplexed but now ready for a joke, ‘It is composite word made of ‘ambelos’ which means vineyard in Greek, and filosofia which means well … philosophy, I say, ‘…and designates low caliber philosophizing’ I tell him. Ismael laughs loudly, repeating the word a few times.  The sun is gone now, the night falls, some lights start flickering in the Turkish coast, the skies over us already turned into a deep violet-blue, the hour of the amethyst, just before starry darkness.

We are all very much exhausted for it had been a very busy day with many boats arriving on the coast, their numbers continuously rising since I arrived. We still managed, but today we ran out of some clothes sizes, and some refugees had to walk up to Stage-2 soaking wet. Still, Bryan held his ground with his warm soups and tea, Nikos from Sykaminia and Marina from Mytilene at the tent adjacent to Bryan’s kitchen operation managed fine with the dispensing of cookies, milk and child food. Apollo raised an internal partition inside the medical tent to create the special examination space that the doctors asked for.  Iro, Martha with Eleni (from the Angalia depot in Kaloni) are now all busy sorting out a new large batch of dry clothes, but visibly tired from having to deal with all the previous waves of people. Today there had been no serious medical emergencies so far. Manos is not with us today, he is aboard the Greek Coast Guard ship, while the royal Meliades is at Moria. It was the two Greek-Syrians, Iman and Hamdi, along with Wolfgang and Alina, our two young German doctors, that staffed the medical tent today. That was plenty, so Iman and Hamdi came out to a few car patrols along the coast, their Arabic indispensable in calming people and giving them directions for walking towards our operations field.

‘Hey Petro, why don’t you come to our tent, some of my group are there’ Ismael says, ‘Sure why not’ I reply, the time now being past 9 pm when we rarely had any more boat arrivals. In any case, with that tent being next to our operations area, I would be at hand if any emergency arose. I followed him to the stone-fenced little olive grove where the Faros people have set up two large tents. It was the first time I saw them up close, ‘these are good capacity tents, great to have them next to us’ I tell myself. Then Ismael opens one of them and we enter. There, under the faint white glow of few battery-powered camp lamps, are several young people, mostly young women and a few men. ‘Good evenings’ and introductions all around, then we all sit cross-legged at the floor, drinking tea. They are all from Birmingham (no surprise there), belonging to the same Islamic charity that came here to help. Among them there is an austere-looking imam or some sort of spiritual leader. Soon after I entered he continued what he must have been doing before we enter the tent, reading some poetry to the young ones around him. A beautiful moment I found, even if some of the young ones did not pay a lot of attention to the old man.

After a while I step out of the tent with Ismael, a glory of stars sparkling above us now, calm waves lapping along the shore. ‘Man it is so good that we are all here’ Ismael says, ‘I find it very inspiring and sort of unbelievable that Muslims as well as Christians are out here to help these people’ he continues. ‘I keep telling to my people how beautiful this is’ he says. Unknowingly he had tripped on another ‘wire’ of mine, for I did not believe in any human-caring God. Worse for poor Ismael, I considered the role of religion in this particular conflict that send those desperate people on our shores downright toxic. Unlike the first time, I now check myself. ‘Listen Ismael’ I start quietly, ‘I think that all religions of the World are fairy tales man, we are all alone, we only have each other’. ‘Do you really believe this man?’ he asks intensely, ‘Yes’ I say firmly if wearingly, ‘…all the tribes of this World drifting in the Cosmos, and those poor Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis drifting out there in the dark Aegean, we are all alone…’ I tell him. ‘Man that can be depressing you know’ he says. ‘So nothing, nobody out there caring for us?’ he asks again, waiting for an answer.

‘Look, do you see those beams of light from the Greek Coast Guard ship?’ I ask him a bit impatiently now, pointing towards two powerful search beams switched on for some time now and doing sweeps in the dark sea, ‘Yes’ he says, ‘those from the dive lights that this crazy diver from Athens shines out to sea?’, I ask pointing to Yannis starting his night sweeps, ‘yes’, he answers again. ‘This is divine light to me my friend, divine light! And we are the ones holding it. A beam of light cast in the dark with Humanity on both ends of it…hopefully.’ I tell him. Ismael is silent now, only the sounds from a light wind and the lapping waves gently weaving into his silence. I continue ‘so no matter what people are out there on these boats Ismael, Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis, no matter what God they believe in and pray to deliver them from night-dark sea to shore, it is really only us out here looking for them…, only us looking out for us’ my own voice now trailing off ‘…on this shore…and the World over.’

‘Man keep talking like this and you will make me an atheist!’ Ismael now says, ‘…don’t you believe in anything Petro?’ he asks me, ‘Well I do believe in the smile of that Italian, and maybe in that of that Greek-Swede’ I tell him jokingly now. He smiles a bit, ‘No seriously, don’t you?’ young Ismael asks, ‘I believe in Humanity’ I tell him, ‘the toughest religion of all to follow as she keeps one disappointed very often’ I tell him, ‘…and she certainly won’t save my metaphysical ass’ I add to myself.

‘…. you do not need a book or even religion, if you are part of Humanity you know how to be good.’ Those simplest of humanist words spoken once by a bereaved Pakistani father whose son was killed by a car in Birmingham during a burst of riots in 2011 came to my mind. I once read them in a newspaper and they stuck in my mind ever since. Now they echo back to me so true on this coast. I turn to say this to Ismael, but he seems absorbed by thoughts now, his easy smile gone. ‘I hope that one day you come to Birmingham Petro’ he quietly tells me at the end, ‘so that me and my family can treat you to a good Pakistani dinner’. ‘I really hope so’ I reply to him, ‘…one day, one day when all this is behind us’.

In the chaos of events that followed I never saw young Ismael again except in moments so frantic that neither of us could manage anything more than a fleeting glance and a tired smile. Later that night Elena came back to the camp and told us that a baby had been born on the coast, immediately after landfall of the boat carrying the mother, in a beach not far from us. The picture made it in many newspapers in Greece, the baby held by a sparkling Katerina that helped the delivery. Her long brown sea-wavy hair, green eyes, and bright smile, holding the little one wrapped in a thermal gold-foil blanket, next to the blue rolling waves of the beach. ‘What a great picture’ I thought. For my time there, this was to be the last piece of good news we were to have on those shores.

[1] Besides the political dignitaries, who perhaps could not avoid it, a few volunteers, mimicking various rich people from Athens’ financial elite and from around the world, could be seen doing this “misery porn” snapping such pictures and numerous selfies with refugees. On one notable occasion at the entrance of the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp, a certain volunteer asked not to be bothered with a certain task while she took and retook a selfie with a newly arrived Afghani family anxious to get in the camp, her smile during all this of the type found in fashion glossies.
[2]  Greece now hosts around 55000 refugees, much much more than what her economic conditions and population could accommodate. To put this in perspective, 48000 people would be the fair-share allotment of refugees for Japan! a much larger and much wealthier country (OXFAM analysis) that has yet to accept any. The even richer Gulf countries, from where funding of the militias that spread much mayhem in Syria often originated (whether private or state sponsored I do not care), are the true shame of the World in that regard, (so much for pan-Arab solidarity).