Saturday, October 25, 2014

Week in Greece: "What is progress?"

I traveled to Greece earlier this month for Eid al-Adha break. I had two long layovers in Athens which allowed me to visit the Acropolis. I loved it so much I visited many of the historical sites twice. My ticket to the see the Parthenon also gave me the opportunity to visit the Ancient Agora and the Roman Agora. During my first layover in Athens I spent a great deal of time in the latter and coincidentally became part of a Tino Sehgal art exhibit. From what I understand his work focuses on situational interactions between actors and willing participants. I know, this sounds a bit vague, however, it is unlike describing any type of art exhibit I've ever witnessed or been a part of. I'll try to explain. When I entered the Roman Agora a little girl approached me and asked me if I wanted to participate in a Tino Seghal art exhibit. I didn't know who Sehgal was or how it would work, but agreed to partake. The little girl then asked me, "what is progress?" I was speechless. That is not a question people face on any given day or hear from an 11 year-old. I honestly cannot remember what I said exactly, yet I know it was incoherent and non-specific. The littler girl introduced me to another member of the exhibit and we talked about why I was in Greece, I told her about my plans to visit the Jewish Museum in Thessaloniki and in order to practice reading documents in the Ladino language. My guide introduced me to another actor. We also spoke more about my travel plans. He referenced Thessaloniki's mayor who was recently sworn in wearing the Star of David. He did so to show his solidarity with the last remaining Jews in the city and to defy the conservatism of city councilors who are members of the Golden Dawn party (which many consider to be neo-Nazi). He then introduced me to the final guide in the exhibit who told me about her experiences in high school and how one teacher made a huge difference in her life. After we shook hands I sat down and wrote in my journal. I looked around at the Agora imagining the hustle and bustle of centuries past. When I wasn't looking back, I thought about progress and what it means to look forward.

Sunrise on the statues at the Acropolis (I can't remember their names). At least there are some statues left at the site for me to forget the names of. Most of the statues were taken by the British. However, George Clooney's wife, the lawyer, arrived in Athens a couple weeks ago to begin gathering evidence in the case for Greece to win its history back. I'm told it's the biggest case of her career. I'd say it's one of the most important legal cases in Greek history.

Another view from the Acropolis. I'm realizing that I did not take any pictures of the Roman Agora.

Your's truly and inappropriately dressed visitors to the site. Athens was chilly. Maybe my perception is skewed from living in the Gulf.


"what is progress?" The little girl's words still ring in my head. Thanks to Sehgal's exhibit I have a much stronger sense of why I visited Greece. Before taking part, I traveled with the goal of merely improving my literacy in Ladino. However, once one of the actors reminded me of the news article I had read about Thessaloniki's mayor being sworn in while wearing a Star of David, I gained a stronger sense of purpose. I visited Greece with the goal of studying a language whose native speakers were decimated by the Holocaust. I want to read the language to help tell the stories of those who might otherwise go unnoticed or who are inadequately remembered. For me, progress is learning to speak for voices in the silence. I think that goes for most historians. When I pondered the alleged anti-Semitism the mayor was responding to I could not help but think of the dozens of Ladino speakers I would not have the pleasure to meet in Thessaloniki. Thousands of Thessaloniki's Jews were killed after the Nazis began their occupation of the city during World War II. You might still be asking what is Ladino? What is it related to? And where did Thessaloniki's Jewish population come from? The answer to all of these questions is directly linked to Iberian history. After the Spanish Monarchy expelled Jews from its territory, and Muslims too, many of the Iberian Peninsula's former residents started new lives in the Ottoman Empire. Along these lines, a large number of Jews traveled to Thessaloniki where they continued speaking Castellano, yet spelled it in Hebrew characters. Thus I spent my time reading a language spelled with Hebrew characters, that sounds roughly like Spanish.

My stay in Greece wasn't entirely research-based. See the pictures below for places I visited besides the Jewish Museum.

 The White Tower. It reminds me a lot of El Torre de Oro in Sevilla.




 The Dönmeh Mosque. If you are in the mood for a history lesson look up the Dönmeh. Their story is extraordinary.




 Turtles outside the Dönmeh Mosque.




 Turtle and cat outside the Dönmeh Mosque.





Pomegranate tree planted by Ataturk's father. The Turkish President used to play under it. He was born in Thessaloniki.



The Mediterranean




This was the device the Greeks devised to impartially determine who got jury duty!!!