A Turk and an American in Athens

A Turk and an American in Athens

A message appeared on WhatsApp: “Is something happening in Athens?” It was sent late on Nov. 15 by a young Turkish academic friend who was in the Greek capital in his first ever trip to Greece. “Obama is in Athens, and there are restrictions on traffic. There are also some anti-American demos,” I replied. “Yes, I know he is here, but I was affected by tear gas. Is everything ok?” he asked. “There are also some clashes between anarchists and the police at the Polytechnic School. It is the anniversary of the Polytechnic School Uprising. It happens every year, it will calm down,” I texted back. “Good to know, it’s not easy to understand as a tourist,” he replied.

I am sure my friend’s first visit to Athens will leave a mark in his memory. He could not have chosen a more interesting moment to visit the “place where democracy started,” as the city’s most prominent visitor had said on that very same day. The outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama charmed the Athenians during his two-day stay in Athens, reminding them of their great ancestors who set up for the first time a method of governance that gave every citizen the right to have a say and decide.

“This is my last trip as a president of the U.S. and I wanted to pay it to Greece. I heard about the legendary hospitality of the Greek people, and I wanted to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon and to express my gratitude for all that Greece has offered to the world,” he said.

His long and flattering speech, broadcast live, was decorated with perfectly pronounced Greek words ranging from “philoxenia” (hospitality), “demokratia” (democracy) and “spanakopita” (spinach pie). It also included a whole verse from a Greek poem. In a miserable mood over the state of the economy and their crumbling living standards, the warm words of the American president were like a friendly pat on the shoulder for the ailing Greeks by a long distant relative they did not know they had. 

I do not know whether the organizers of Obama’s trip had taken into consideration that, ever since 1973, two days before Nov. 17, is a period for valuable memories, remembering the Athens Polytechnic students uprising against military rule that ended in bloodshed on Nov. 17, 1973 and helped the collapse of the regime the following year. Over the years, this important anniversary, which still attracts big crowds, has often degenerated into a platform for blind and violent anti-state riots, sometimes even infiltrated by elements of Greece’s deep state.

This year’s anniversary was no exception. The arrival of Obama in Athens coincided with a spate of anti-government and anti-American demonstrations that saw violent clashes with the police, damage to property and slogans like “Obama and Tsipras, you are unwelcome.”

But the smell that came to my Turkish friend from the tear gas that the police used against the demonstrators probably did not reach the American president who was busy praising Greece. “We have a debt toward Greece; here 25 centuries ago, on the rocks of this city, a new idea was created. Democracy and state. Throughout the world’s history, the flame was lit here in Athens and has never died out. Some countries while they have elections they do not have a real democratic system. Our history has shown us that countries with democratic governments are fairer and more stable,” he said.

Obama left Athens for Berlin. He talked a lot, promising to “do his best” to persuade Greece’s creditors to be more lenient. His successor Donald Trump is already busy stitching up the new America he promised.

Yesterday, an opinion poll showed that 56 percent of Greeks are friendly towards Americans, as opposed to 38 percent in 2010. But nearly 80 percent think Trump’s presidency will have a negative impact. At the same time, 47.5 percent believe it is in their country’s best interest to develop relations with Russia and only 36.5 percent prefer developing ties with the U.S. 

The day after Obama’s departure, it was the actual anniversary of the Athens Polytechnic uprising. Unruly groups set fires around the school, clashed with the police, and several were detained. Things went back to a depressing normality, and I am waiting for my friend back in Istanbul to get their first-hand impressions.