I am in Sicily with the journalist Paweł Smoleński, staying with a friend who runs a hotel. Through the window is the sea. A bay spreads out its arms towards Greece. The phantom of a faraway ship is dotted with kayaks and yachts in the foreground.
“This was where the first Greeks landed in 8 BC,” says Caterina.
Paweł and I stand with our backs to the water to look at what the newcomers saw: a smoking volcano and hills like dromedaries marching down to waterholes…
Information about the Greeks and many others could have remained as lifeless fodder in the tourist brochures, but somehow it didn’t. Not because we are training our imaginations and striving to make sense of phenomena that may have no intrinsic meaning. Perhaps they are merely mobile, static or eye-catching. What we saw left us feeling moved for different reasons, of which there are several at least.
First, we met a priest who provides pastoral care for outcasts in Catania. No, he had not made a point of serving on the margins of the ‘respectable’ world. Almost half a century ago, he was assigned to one of the Earth’s innumerable margins. He looked around, saw that it was populated by male, female and multi-gender prostitutes, sat in the confessional, heard the sobbing, and decided it was his mission to listen to their weeping and ask if there was anything he could do. The priest was probably subconsciously recalling the words of St. Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one […].” Or perhaps he didn’t need them, and an image of a world of equal people, regardless of inequalities, seemed as natural to him as it does to us all, way back in primary school, before we are pricked by the sting of prejudice.
Second, we came across a black lad from Mali at Caterina’s hotel. After being falsely accused of a crime, he had run away from home and spent months walking and hitching his way to Libya. He toiled for free and was beaten up. He made it to Lampedusa below decks on a boat, then on to the immigrant community in Italy. He was at Caterina’s hotel on a kind of work placement but, according to European law, would have lost his Italian state welfare when he turned 18, so Caterina offered him a permanent job. I’m not sure if it was because she had read St. Paul or Homer. It was probably a sentimental reflex. Her empathic imagination had allowed her to picture the life of a good boy with a terrible fate and black skin in a world without rules; in a country where the Northern League is triumphant.
On Earth and in the heavens, many signs suggest that we should return to a lost point in the past where everyone meets today: Greeks and Jews; Jesus and Antigone. A point that accumulates the tales of travellers, irrespective of where they come from or where they are going. Scenes of people who have been scattered all over the world meeting each other; people who knew nothing about one another or themselves until they met.
Paweł and I sit in a seaside bar beneath the cliffs – the solidified sediment that the Cyclops hurled at the fleeing Odysseus. When Polyphemus asked the King of Ithaca his name, he replied: “No man.” Thus, when Odysseus had plunged a burning stake into his one eye, the Cyclops cried out for help, truthfully shouting that no man had blinded him. “How well I can relate to the Cyclops,” reads a verse by the contemporary Polish poet Krzysztof Karasek. How well all of us can relate to him, for we are in pain but know not why. Life itself, of whose nature we are unaware; we who are unable to explain the roots of our own suffering.
We stare out of the windows of the Hotel Palladio in Naxos, thinking that stepping off a boat onto a jetty never altered the identity of Jesus the fisherman or Odysseus the adventurer. Everybody travels. Everyone has their own tale to tell. We are most fortunate that the Mediterranean Sea, a place which for many has become a graveyard, can act as a lens of humanity, reflecting its fate, struggles, suffering and liberation.
Those deciding today whom to admit and whom to turn away are those who once sought a home, or will do so, sometimes successfully, but always with great losses. Pressured by my own lack of indifference, I would like to say that – let’s agree – time does not exist. Every present-day person is also a primeval person. Every historical period is archaic and eternal time. Every ancient person is a person of the future. And we shall all meet at the hour of myths; the Mediterranean hour of sisterhood and brotherhood. Or that of indifference, evil and the inability to comprehend that, for all of us, any pain hurts just the same.
For years, we’ve been telling the world that our heritage traces back to the Mediterranean, not the post-Yalta European order. So, where is it now?