06 September 2015

Swimming in the Mediterranean
is not a pleasure for everyone

The long sandy beach at Pavlos Beach in Platanes, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

Autumn had settled in fully in Dublin as I left, but it still feels like summer in Greece, and the temperatures in Crete were in the high 30s early this afternoon [6 September 2015] when I decided to go down to Pavlos Beach for a swim.

The beach is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Julia Apartments on the square in Platanes, 5 km east of Rethymnon, where I am staying for the week.

It is good to be back in Rehtymnon, which has been a constant favourite since the mid-1980s, and it is good at this time of the year to swim in the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

At the shore, the water is a shade between aquamarine and bright green, but it turns to a deeper blue as the eye moves out, and there is a purple hue all along the horizon. The air is clear and clean, and the Fortezza in Rethymnon to the west seems much closer than the 5 km distance it is in reality.

Swimming this afternoon in that calm, clear, clean, refreshing water, with waves that are almost unnoticeable but for the sound on the shoreline, and with soft sand under my feet, it is easy to realise how many Syrian refugees imagine that their passage at night is safe a little further to the east in the same Mediterranean waters between the Turkish peninsulas near Bodrum and Kusadasi and the Greek islands of Lesbos, Kos and Rhodes.

Flowers blooming and blossoming on the short between the beach and the centre of Platanes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Despite the summer heat, the flowers are still blooming and blossoming on the roadside and in the gardens on the short walk between the beach and the centre of Platanes.

Why, even the wasps’ nest barely hidden in a clump had a beauty of its own in the afternoon shade.

The Septuagint Greek translation of the Bible uses the Greek work sphekia, literally “wasp’s nest,” to translate the Hebrew word meaning “to smite” in Old Testament passages that tell of the original inhabitants of the Promised Land being driven out before the Israelites (see Exodus 23: 28; Deuteronomy 7: 20; Joshua 24: 12).

It is a terrifying image – and one that strikes greater terror in my heart when I think of how Biblical literalists, in both Judaism and Christianity, and Quranic literalists in Islam use their sacred texts to identify, demonise and marginalise people of faith that they want to drive from their societies and their cultures.

A wasps’ nest barely hidden in a clump (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

I have started reading Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, which tells the stories of disappearing religions in the Mediterranean and Middle East, including the Mandaeans, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Druze, Samaritans, Copts and Kalasha.

In his introduction, he is troubled by three things: “humanity’s collective ignorance of its own past, the growing alienation between Christianity and Islam, and the way the debate about religion has become increasingly the preserve of atheists and literalists.”

In a posting this afternoon, my friend Magda Hatzopoulos also reminds me that today is the 60th anniversary of the pogrom in Istanbul that Greeks know as Septemvriana. The riots against the Greek minority in Istanbul took place in September 1955, leading to the flight of the community, which once numbered some 100,000 but was reduced within days to just a few thousand.

The widespread destruction of Greek property, businesses, churches and cemeteries succeeded in terrorising the Greeks of Istanbul into abandoning their homes, and almost wiping out the Greek presence in the city.

Sitting on my balcony watching the beauty of the sunset over Rethymnon, I am conscious this evening that none of us is ever very far from becoming a refugee and in need of a safe refuge.

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