Byline by M.J.Akbar: A Santorini Diary
When we cruised around the volcano I was ready to believe every story told in every folk song about these magical waters, of mermaids and demons and ghosts and sailors enchanted into stone in mysterious caves inside a sea of heavenly blue. (It is heavenly; water is colourless, and adopts the hue of the sky.) Our gentle timber boat might have been from the past as well, except for the motor and the absence of sails. I kept wondering why it seemed familiar, since my sole previous trip to Greece had been restricted to Athens and a ride to the oracle at Delphi, until it struck me that I might have seen something similar in The Guns of Navarone. Gregory Peck was not around, but I did espy a couple of Anthony Quinns. My fellow guests, unmindful of age, were happy to plunge into the cool waters when we rested under the shade of a volcano.
A Santorini Diary
The cat came free. Everything else had a price, except the view, which was priceless. The cat, brown-grey with blue eyes, Ottoman whiskers, sat upright on the white stone wall, her body silhouetted half against a blue sky and half against a blue sea, and checked me out impassively.
Satisfied with what she saw, or tempted by the breakfast on the table of my neighbour across the wall at the Canaves Oia resort, she scurried off, leaving nothing between me and a horizon indistinguishable from the sea.
Canaves is an exquisite series of terraced rooms set up on a cliff rising above the Aegean, on the island of Santorini, the diamond in a cluster of thousands of jewels collectively known as the Cyclades. Its special claim to fame is that it is volcanic, the last eruption being in 1939.
But the Big Bang came in 1500 BC. The truth is buried in legend; the line between the two is in any case delicate in a land with as much history as Greece. The Athenian statesman Solon (6th century BC) made the first recorded suggestion that this Santorini-based volcano-cum-tsunami sent the fabled city of Atlantis to the bottom of the ocean.
Since then it has been settled/ruled by a circle of neighbours, all of whom took their turn: Phoenicians (today’s Lebanese), Spartans, Egyptians (under the Ptolemys), Byzantines and Ottomans until Greece won her independence in 1821. The past appears in the most unexpected forms: the Ottomans are visible in a local variation of the shalwar-kameez, still worn by a few middle-aged women in an era of tops and jeans.
You know you are ageing when your head gets fried.
When we cruised around the volcano I was ready to believe every story told in every folk song about these magical waters, of mermaids and demons and ghosts and sailors enchanted into stone in mysterious caves inside a sea of heavenly blue. (It is heavenly; water is colourless, and adopts the hue of the sky.) Our gentle timber boat might have been from the past as well, except for the motor and the absence of sails. I kept wondering why it seemed familiar, since my sole previous trip to Greece had been restricted to Athens and a ride to the oracle at Delphi, until it struck me that I might have seen something similar in The Guns of Navarone. Gregory Peck was not around, but I did espy a couple of Anthony Quinns. My fellow guests, unmindful of age, were happy to plunge into the cool waters when we rested under the shade of a volcano. I remained on deck, in shirt and trousers, not out of modesty but inability and caution. I can’t swim, and have no appetite for sunburn. I appreciate the desire of the white person to turn brown, a much better colour, but we are already there. Back on shore it took me time to understand the slight scratchy itch on my head. I had forgotten to wear a cap, because I had forgotten I was bald. My scalp now looks like a map of the world with more than five continents, and I can’t even hide it with hair.
We were in Greece for the annual conference of the New York Times’ worldwide partners, and in Santorini as the weekend guests of Themis Alafouzos, scion of a great Greek family and owner of a great newspaper, Kathemirini. I have rarely met anyone as gracious and charming as his mother. Pearls of a dazzle I have never seen, nor am likely to see, might have set her apart at first glance, but as a hostess she was in and out of the kitchen of the Katina taverna on the seaside, personally supervising the food, and then attending to each guest with elegance and charm. A gang of newspaper managers and editors can be as cynical as any lot in the world, but we melted: everyone wanted a picture with her. At one point she turned to me, her voice full of paternal censure, looked disdainfully at my robust cigar and asked, "Why do you smoke?" All potential wisecracks about helping Comrade Castro’s economy froze on my lips. I meekly put the cigar away, delighted to experience schoolboy guilt after decades.
Socialism is alive and well in Santorini. You can hire a donkey from the capital, Fira, to the old port, Yialos, for three euros, or take the quaintly name Funicular for two. The latter takes only five minutes for the journey, but if you are counting minutes, don’t go to Santorini. The Funicular was a gift to the island from a certain Evangelos Nomicos but not before the trade union of donkey drivers had made its point: 20% of the gross receipts (gross, not net) from the Funicular go to the Fira Union of Mule Drivers. The trade union lives! So does Communism, which gets about 8% of the vote in every election. The spirit extends beyond the 8%. The graffiti in Athens attests to a strong tradition of anti-imperialism. Some of the graffiti about George Bush and Osama bin Laden in a quiet street just below the Acropolis cannot be printed. It would get me into trouble with America’s Homeland Security.
There is an incidental, but entertaining, connection between Greece and the George Bush presidency. About two years before Bush was first elected, a small group of intellectual-activists sat down to fashion the agenda that could bring him to power (Condoleezza Rice is the starring survivor of that group). They called themselves the Vulcans after the Graeco-Roman god. As is well-known, the Romans absorbed the Greek pantheon into their worship and gave them Roman names. And so Ares, the god of war, became Mars, Aphrodite became Venus and Hephaestus became Vulcan. It has been wisely noted that the ancient Greeks did not have a religion; they turned their fears into gods, and then made the gods behave like themselves. The Odyssey narrates the story of how Hephaestus (Vulcan) trapped his wife, Aphrodite (Venus), when she was making love to Ares (Mars) by ensnaring them in his net.
Why on earth did George Bush’s intellectual mentors name their group after a cuckold? And what happens when a Vulcan tries to emulate his wife’s lover, Mars? Is this an explanation for the misadventure known as the Iraq war?
If the Greeks understood war, their dramatists also understood the futility of it, and no one better than Aristophanes who wrote Lysistrata in 411 BC. She found the perfect solution to the bitter and unending wars between Athens and Sparta, who continued to fight even when the hated enemy, the Medes (today’s Persians) were at their door. Lysistrata organised what might be called the first women’s trade union, and struck work in a unique way. They decided to deny their men sex until the Athenians and Spartans had stopped fighting. The oath that Lysistrata made the women take is worth repeating: "I will not allow either boyfriend or husband to approach me in erect condition. I will live at home without sexual activity. I will not raise my legs towards the ceiling…" and so on.
Lysistrata won the day by shutting down the night. Anyone, incidentally, who thinks boyfriends are a modern idea should read the ancient Greeks.
It was not only Lysistrata who saved the Greeks from speaking Persian. The oracle at Delphi, which was always consulted before any great event, played its part as well. When Xerxes threatened to overwhelm Athens in 480 BC the oracle advised Athenians to put their "trust in the wooden walls". The general interpretation was to take a stand behind the city walls but Thermistocles argued that the wooden walls meant their ships made of wood. And so Athens challenged Persia on the sea, and won the historic battle of Salamis. The oracle succeeded because, like an Indian astrologer, it left more than one option open.
I often wonder why Greece is hyphenated with western civilisation when it is so eastern. At the airport immigration counter a corpulent official lounges behind another sitting at the desk. The latter is doing the work; the former, having served the nation in his prime,
is preparing for retirement, which is only ten years or so away. What could be more eastern than this? On a road to the Acropolis, one municipal worker is busy repairing a drainage outlet while three others stand around him, chatting and smoking. This is not injustice. They will work in turns, one at a time. But work together to finish the job in a quarter of the time? No chance.
What could be more Indian than that?
No wonder, as I left Athens airport for Delhi, I felt I was leaving home to come home.
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