Austerity in Athens

A report from the Greek capital.

We had many reasons for wanting to travel to Athens and to interview people there about the appalling effects of austerity's assault on services, jobs and aspirations. One was a concern about the brutal realities of cuts in Greece - Abi had visited Athens earlier this year, talked to a lot of people and was keen to meet with more. Another was an interest in comparing cuts stories from Greece with cuts stories in the UK. For several years, Kate has been interviewing people around the UK who were on the sharp end of this government's cuts – people who were losing care services, benefits, homes and any hope of rescue.

It seemed that comparisons could be made. It also seemed that comparisons should be made. Dead-eyed, austerity continues to march Europe deeper into poverty, shock, fascism and other forms of oblivion. Reporting that and the wider experience is a crucial part of the response of those of us who refuse to accept that most people exist to serve out as austerity's fodder. To put it another way – everyone everywhere needs to know when and where poverty and fascism are taking people out across Europe and anyone who is in a position to report that should be doing so. So, we went to Athens last week.
 
Right away, race was an issue. In fact, it was an issue before we went: friends in Greece warned Abi to take care and to stay out of Golden Dawn strongholds. Abi: “I spoke to Greeks in London who told of anarchist friends being beaten up alongside immigrants. Before we left, I'd heard that the American government issued a statement warning dark-skinned Americans in Athens to be careful when leaving their hotels at night. I assumed that as a dark-skinned British person, that probably applied to me as well.”
 
Kate is white and so, to put it bluntly, was a lot less likely to end up as a target. Nobody bothered with niceties on the subject. They simply told us that Abi was at risk and Kate wasn't. Abi: “I was surprised how many people said that I couldn’t go to certain places, although my white companion could. “Especially because you’re coloured” was something I heard a lot.”
 
“Don't you go,” surgeon Charalambos Farantos told Abi when, at the end of our interview with him, we said we said we would go to see Attica Square (Abi had seen this film) and several other areas. “They'll beat you up.”
 
“Is it dangerous here?” we asked antifascist activist Thanasis Kourkoulas when we were walking from Attiki station to his organisation's offices several streets away. We'd heard that Golden Dawn raids and attacks took place in the area at night, but the streets seemed benign during the day. People watched us and each other, but the sun was out and people in squares and cafes were talking and drinking coffee. But Kourkoulas seemed anxious. He took us to the burned-out ruins of a building that had recently been torched. He gave us a few minutes to take pictures of the site and the fascist graffiti that had been daubed on the surrounding walls and then he hurried us away.
 
“Come on,” he said. “Better go.”
 
“Is it dangerous?” we asked.
 
“It would be for you, because you're coloured,” he said to Abi.
 
Almost everyone we spoke to had a Golden Dawn story to tell, or seemed to expect to have one soon. Pavlos Antonopoulos, an Athens high school teacher, told us that just a few days earlier, three young Golden Dawn members – all ex-pupils – had turned up at his school to try and share the party's message with students. He told them to leave and they threatened to stab him. They took a different view of the security guard who let them in. “We will take care of you,” they told her.
 
We talked to doctors who treated immigrants without papers and people without insurance and said they would continue to do so, no matter who turned up to insist otherwise. “I think most doctors here would refuse if they were asked to behave like Mengele,” Farantos said. Doctors at his hospital had already taken pay cuts and were working hours of free overtime to treat people. Farantos told us that the evening before we met him, surgeons had worked into the night, unpaid, to operate on one person who had an appendicitis and another who needed emergency surgery for a stomach perforation.
 
We talked to three young men from Nigeria and Togo who'd come to Greece on the promise of further education. Two were were planning to leave as soon as they could. All said they were frightened of the police, all right. Explaining why, one of the young men pointed to an ugly lump over his eye – a day or two earlier, the police had thrown a bottle at him. We spoke to a teacher and students – all anti-fascist activists in Kallithea who were organising to leaflet against the party on the day we met them – who showed us obscene graffiti which had been sprayed on a school gate and signed with fascist insignia.
 
Not everyone was worried about fascism. Christos Mpampouras, 61, a man who ate regularly at an Omonoia municipal soup kitchen we visited, told us that he didn't have much problem with Golden Dawn because “they are young and they are Greek.” We spoke to a woman in her early thirties who voted Golden Dawn this year and said she'd vote for them again. She said she was proud to be Greek and needed hope.
 
Many of the Greek people we met wondered why the UK government was pursuing cuts with such passion off its own bat. A dentist we spoke to said: “In Greece the Troika is forcing us to implement these cuts. In the UK, your own government is doing it. Why?” Certainly, the evils being inflicted on people in the UK in the name of bank bailouts and corporate welfare - the Atos assessments, care cuts, bedroom taxes, council tax benefit cuts, housing benefit caps, rocketing rents, workfare, falling wages, the relying on foodbanks and all the rest - often came to mind while we were in Athens. The rise and rise of Golden Dawn may not be replicated here, but the heaping of cuts and blame on people who can least afford to shoulder those things sure as hell is.
Shops closed in Athens during a recent strike by transport workers (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle