July 31, 2007

Voyages and Shipwrecks: a metaphor for shifting identities

Voyages and Shipwrecks: a metaphor for shifting identities

More than a year ago, a British-made ship with its human cargo, ie, illegal immigrants mainly children and women from …, ended up wrecked in the harbour of the town of Zakynthos, an island southwest of the mainland of Greece. The ship and the people onboard were left there for many days without any assistance, until the local authorities were to decide about how to respond to these unwelcome visitors. As discussions and negotiations were not getting any near to reaching a conclusion and the despair of the people onboard was mounting, people from the town decided to take matters in their own hands, and intervened to offer assistance. Residents, among them some doctors from the local hospital, went onboard to attend to dehydrated children and brought food, water and medicine. They helped them disembark the ship and offered them further support to stay in their town.

A few weeks later a documentary in the Greek TV appeared, televising pictures of human despair and asking questions about who was responsible for this. A couple of newspaper articles were also written to kick start a fruitful discussion about difference, immigration and racism, as well as the participatory role (or lack of it) of local communities in such matters. Since then, I have been having discussions with friends, who witnessed this event, about the physical and social space it occupied and its implications on the increasingly fragmented community of the island. The local authorities were considering sending the ship wreck to a scrap yard, but some residents have a different view. They would rather turn it into a museum of some sort, a point of reference, a symbol of acts of humanity in an era of uncertainty.

I decided to share my reflections on this event here, to offer some thoughts about the future of the shipwreck, and debate whether we need a monument to ‘celebrate’ an act of humanity or, rather, a starting point to reflect on the transformation of the Zakynthian people and place. I do not intend to write another human rights article, nor do I offer sociological views about migration, trafficking and exploitation.

Zakynthos has not been spared of the market-driven ideologies that have swept the world. As one of the Greek islands, over the last two decades, it has seen an explosion of the tourist industry that has changed the physical, social and cultural landscape of the island. In addition, large numbers of Europeans on retirement and economic immigrants, mainly from the Balkans and the former East Europe, have moved to the island, nearly doubling its population. This new reality has shifted the spaces between separateness and closeness in people’s everyday experiences, and in some quarters, it has created an ‘us versus them’ mentality, encouraging tribalism. In addition, increasing individualization where new money has become the new God, and what is left from the old neighborhood spirit have created a paradox: fear and alienation, on one hand, and pockets of a strengthened community that responds to vulnerability with respect, on the other.

The experience of shifting identities has become part of the Zakynthian people’s everyday life, and, in my view, it is timely to start reflecting on our troubled present and perhaps even more troubled future. A place once immersed in culture, ritual and tradition, Zakynthos has joined the forces and ideology of neoliberalism, where the tourist industry defines identities and shapes social relationships. Now, more than ever, we need to ask questions about the future, because as De Sousa Santos reflects, ‘the future is not what it used to be’, and large numbers of marginalized and vulnerable people who live in the periphery of the world have ceased to believe in it. We need to re-image the future and open up new possibilities, and look for ‘radical alternatives’ that perhaps can be constructed and articulated through questioning and critical reflection.

It is often said that the way we measure our humanity is how we respond to those whom we consider to be vulnerable. However, the concept of vulnerability is not a static but a shifting entity, stimulating questions such as ‘who is vulnerable’, ‘according to whom and under what circumstances’, and ‘what are the boundaries between helplessness and vulnerability’. The politics and ethics of ‘how’ we respond to difference, the morality that underpins the interventions we carry out and the well-intended aims to change other people’s life require further thought to avoid slipping into a cycle of breaking and entering into others’ lives.

In my view, this shipwreck can offer the space necessary to engage in discourse about who we are and what we have become as Zakynthians (I include myself as a distant member of that community) at this point in time. And through the journey of these illegal immigrants, to get a glimpse of the Zakynthian people’s journey and place in the world which also resonates the journeys, voluntary or forced, of other communities in a rapidly changing world. We do not need another museum, a static place, to celebrate humanity and philanthropy. What we need instead is to create the social and critical space to allow ourselves to engage with questions about ‘Otherness’, displacement, racism, identity and vulnerability, sense of belonging and the future of the Zakynthian and civic and cultural life. A space to engage reflexively with journeys and shipwrecks, border crossing, lost and newfound hopes, fleeting compassion, kindness and community spirit, and our dilemmas about difference. This shipwreck in the harbour of Zakynthos, physically and as a symbol of human despair, has the capacity to create a space for discussing and perhaps resolving the paradox of human solitude, alienation and xenophobia, and the dynamism and participatory role of a community.

Objects carry power beyond their immediate use, and can be iconic when they reflect shared stories, myths and images. This shipwreck can function as a symbol of separateness transformed into a collective identity. I believe that it should stay in Zakynthos and set the stage for a project to unhinge complacency about our place in the world and, most importantly, about our constructions of the ‘other’. The shipwreck should constitute an intellectual and aesthetic stance that should go against our non-narrative modernity, and should be preserved as an anthropological artefact that is not static but mutable, a metaphor and a space for storytelling to reflect on Zakynthos’ own journey. Although this collective act of kindness had such a profound effect on both the people onboard and the people on the shore, its effects may be short lived unless we engage with these issues and keep the discourse of difference alive.

We live in an epoch characterised by change, a post post-modernist era, Fukyama’s end of history as we know it. Some view change as a shift, a transition from old to new ways of life; others understand it as a complete rupture from the old ways, the beginning of a new order. In this context, there is an increasing need to raise issues such as who is vulnerable, and who is not, and become aware of the porous boundaries between the saviours and the saved. It is important to understand how easy it is for people to be transported to a new category of existence, the undesirable ‘other’. We need to reflect on our own journeys, some more successful than others, the despair and unexpected acts of kindness we have found in our way, and the transformations we have gone through individually and collectively.

This shipwreck can set the stage to develop ways of experimenting with how thoughts and actions can cross borders and create alliances between people and, hopefully, between institutions. Questions about difference, and the value of human life are important, as are questions about human variation, not only in terms of differences in ability, skin colour, financial and social /cultural capital, but, most crucially, what sense we make of variation as well as ways of responding ethically to difference. More than anything else, this shipwreck should become a symbol against modern society’s need and drive to erase difference.

Dimitra Hartas, Associate Professor, University of Warwick


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