The street had its own history
A single word, Liberty
That someone had painted on the Wall
Before it was blamed on kids
– Kostoula Mitropoulou
Every Greek of my generation, with vivid memories of 1970s Athens, remembers this Kostoula Mitropoulou verse and cannot but hum the Manos Loizos tune that carried it into our collective consciousness. The song is entitled O Dromos [The Street]. Coming out, as we were, from the fascist dictatorship of the 1967–1974 period, Loizos and Mitropoulou had tapped into a dual memory: of the Nazi occupation (and the subsequent Civil War) experienced by our parents, and the recent dictatorship that was so fresh in our minds.
The Wall, in both instances, was the sole canvas available to those who had chosen to resist. By painting a single word on it, Liberty, they incurred the wrath of the booted thugs in authority and, at the same time, they inspired hope in the hearts of onlookers; of the passers-by who, out of fear of persecution, would pretend not to read the Word, who would even blame the graffiti on ‘kids’, but who, under the cover of an expressionless, ashen face, drew courage from the Word on the Wall.
As the veil of tyranny lifted, and life recovered elements of its lost normality, the walls began to fill up with different words, as O Dromos documents in its final verse:
Then time passed and history moved on
That single word shifted from memory to the heart
The Wall now advertised great bargains
Of the shop that lay within
Commerce and prices thus displaced concepts and values, as advertisements were painted over slogans promoting freedom. Loizos and Mitropoulou’s ballad juxtaposed brilliantly our relief that tyranny was waning with our nostalgia for the words that used to adorn the Wall. Years later, after the Eurozone Crisis pushed Greece into a new type of abyss, the Word came back and it was the same Wall that provided the canvas.
Walls: A brief biography
Walls and streets are symbiotic. The former divide so that the latter can connect. While this was always so, walls and fences developed a special relationship with modernity and with liberal individualism, its ideological guise.
Before the ‘discovery’ of the autonomous individual, ancient poleis, like Athens, constantly dreamt of demolishing their walls or, at least, of never having to keep their gates closed. When a son of an ancient Greek city won an Olympic event, the elders ordered the demolition of part of the city walls. Only at times of crisis were the gates ordered shut. Unlike today in the southern states of the USA, or indeed in North Korea, open gates were, then, a projection of power, a symbol of confidence. Hadrian and the Chinese Emperors built great walls, but never with the intention of freezing human movement. They were porous walls, mere symbols of their Empires’ self-imposed limits, and a form of early warning system.
Today, dividing lines are not what they used to be either eighty years ago or in pre-modern times. Fences and walls have taken on new roles that their predecessors would hardly recognize. In times past they simply fended off the enemy, and lightly imprinted the Empires’ footprint on the land. Now, they are determined to etch division deeply into the land and to carve partition out of humanity’s common stock.
Walls and fences took on their modern role and character at the time that European feudalism was running out of steam. Under the strain of the commodification made possible by the new trade routes that linked Southampton with Calcutta, Macao, Japan, and the multiplying colonial outposts strewn all over the globe, the English commons were cut up, fenced off, privatized. Thus the Enclosures ‘liberated’ the peasants from access to the land of their mothers and the ‘free’ laborer was born.
For the first time in history, laborers became free to choose and, equally, free to lose. Free to rove unimpeded, free to sell their labor, time, body, and spirit, and equally free to starve, to enter into desperate contracts with strangers, to become a sad part of some productive machine owned by a faceless shareholder.
Thus the Era of Reason and Liberty was ushered in, hot on the heels of the globalization drive that, on the one hand, fenced the peasants out of their ex-commons at home and, on the other, fenced the slaves in ships that transported them to newly fenced-off land in the Caribbean and elsewhere, where they were put to work, producing the massive surpluses that funded the industrial revolution.
From this wealth emerged the castles that Englishmen called home and for whom the fence separating their property from the next one down the road became a symbol of freedom, good neighborliness, and, of course, subjectivity under their Sovereign. The accumulation of this wealth was the predecessor of:
- the fenced sovereign nation;
- the gated community;
- the notion of home as one’s castle;
- and the idea that the enemy of autonomy is the ‘other’, either as an individual or, even worse, as a collective, a State, the tax office…
The very notion of personhood that emerged out of Anglo-Celtic capitalism hinges on the idea of ‘well-defined’ spaces within the ‘walls’ that exclude. Our new-fangled concept of Liberty and Progress is, thus, contingent on the prior colonization of ‘alien’ others, while our splendid cosmopolitanism is bought at the price of parochial divides that mindlessly cut the Earth’s face, giving shape to the map of a world divided, supposedly neatly, into nation-states. The wall has played a major, unsung role in the shaping of the world as we know it.
The Globalizing Wall
It was December 1944, in downtown Athens, when an even newer species of wall made its first appearance, yielding a Civil War of an awfulness and a global significance that went almost unnoticed. The world began to pay attention when:
- from the streets of Athens, it moved to Berlin, which it partitioned the following June;
- it produced two Koreas in August;
- it leapfrogged to the mountain ranges of Kashmir exactly two years later, on 15 August 1947, as the new fledgling nations of the subcontinent, instead of celebrating independence, clashed;
- it flared up in 1948 in the guise of ethnic cleansing and in the midst of all-out-war in Palestine;
- and it made its mark in the streets of Nicosia with a green line, drawn innocuously by a British general in 1956, before returning in the form of barricades in 1963, two years after the similar soft division in Berlin was transformed, within four short days, into the Wall’s most famed incarnation.
When the Troubles broke out in Belfast, and Sunday 30 January 1972 was indelibly bloodied by the British Army, it was there to embellish the pre-existing discontent with euphemistically named Peace Walls. Two years later, in 1974, the barricades along Nicosia’s Green Line, as if in a bid not to be outdone by Berlin or Belfast, also grew into a fully-fledged wall.
Some years later, quite unexpectedly, one of the two superpowers behind the grand division that was the Iron Curtain came tumbling down. The first piece of the Global Wall, the brick aberration in Berlin, was torn down by jubilant crowds. It was 1989, a time when Globalization was heralded as the process to dismantle all borders. It has done no such thing. Since then, our Wall has invaded disintegrating Yugoslavia, stood tall in the midst of hitherto unified communities in Africa’s Horn, and grown more insidious in Palestine, the US-Mexico border, in the streets of Bagdad, in Georgia; the list goes on and on.
While the elites in both Nicosia and Belfast may be ready to heal the divisions, a dark force deeply entrenched in their societies keeps the Wall going, even adding to its height and length. Back in the Promised Land, the Wall dips and weaves with concrete-slab breathlessness, carving out the world’s ultimate concentration camp. Currently, the very same wall, built in the same way, often by the same engineering teams, is unfolding audaciously along the thousands of kilometers that form the single remaining superpower’s underbelly; a border fence that joins the earth’s two great oceans in a bid to stem the Spanish-speaking human tide that strives to break into today’s Promised Land.
As trade and capital were liberated from border controls the world over, the fences and dividing lines that separate people kept getting less porous, taller, more intimidating. They are now becoming a pandemic. From Botswana to Iraq, from Mitrovica to the valleys of Chechnya, Allah and God are often blamed but, in truth, they are just scapegoats for purely secular forces that would never even allow the competing gods the impossible task of drawing ‘just’ borders between their people.
Therein lies the Great Paradox: The more we develop reasons for dismantling the dividing lines the less powerful the forces working to dismantle them become. Deep divisions, patrolled by merciless guards, seem to be the homage that our enterprise culture pays to misanthropy.
Central to the Great Paradox is something more than the observation that the walls are multiplying in length, height, and strength. Their most startling aspect is that they are globalizing. The reason is that the importance of deep divisions for stabilizing a grossly unstable world order is growing by the day. Especially so after the financial system supporting all this imploded in 2008. The raison d’être is the same. The ongoing crisis of financialized capitalism affects different Walls in similar ways. They start resembling each other. Both in terms of the social forces that huddle in their shadow and physically. Aesthetically.
A Mitrovica Serb would feel more at home in Nicosia than in Belgrade. An Eritrean residing in Tsorona will feel more of a sense of familiarity, despite the intense cold, near the Line of Control in alpine Kashmir than she would in Nairobi. An Ulster unionist will have no trouble coming to grips with the reality of the ghost city of Famagusta, in Cyprus, whereas he may well feel a stranger in London. A Palestinian from Qalqilia will discover strange bonds with a resident of Juarez; bonds that she may not feel in Cairo. The mere fact that Israeli engineering teams have been employed by the US government to help transplant Sharon’s Wall to California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas speaks volumes.
Back to Athens
Between 2010 and 2012, Athens’ luxury hotels were doing a roaring trade as the city was burning. While tourists stayed away, the world’s media booked every room with a view to the ‘battleground’: Syntagma (or Constitution) Square. It was there that the anti-austerity demonstrators clashed against the riot squads. Interestingly, it was precisely the same spot where, on 3 December 1944, police (and some say British troops) had opened fire on demonstrators sparking off the Civil War that was to become the first incident of the Cold War; the Globalizing Wall’s initial spurt.
The demonstrations that followed Greece’s economic implosion in 2010 were powerful, angry, ceaseless. Until, that is, the recession spawned a Great Depression that descended ruthlessly upon Greeks, taking its inhuman toll. Businesses died sequentially. Incomes collapsed. Debts grew. Faces turned ashen. The state receded. Nazis began to patrol the streets of Athens, for the first time since the 1940s, this time in search of migrants to injure and maim. As if in compliance with their misanthropic ideology, parliament decreed that to enter the police force it was not enough to be a Greek citizen; one had to prove a Greek… bloodline.
Thus, Athenians turned inward. They holed themselves up inside their homes, to lick their wounds, to plot the next day’s campaign to makes ends meet. But, as they abandoned the Street and recoiled behind the Wall, the Wall’s external surface once again became a canvass on which a pretty dangerous concept re-appeared.
Athens had come full circle. Liberty [Leuteria] had made its comeback. On the very same Wall. Only this time the representation reflected the aesthetic that only the Globalizing Wall’s triumphant march could have universalized (see the “Liberty for All”mural on the last photo)—from the Bronx to Kashmir, from Johannesburg to Athens. Perhaps Mitropoulou’s verse will one day be spray-painted all over our Globalizing Wall.
The street had its own history
A single word, Liberty