Avirama Golan, “Haaretz”: “What happened to Greece was a tragedy” [interview]

Israeli journalist and writer, Avirama Golan, recently visited Thessaloniki to participate at the International Book Fair, as a guest of the Embassy of Israel. She also stopped in Athens, to attend an open discussion with four other Israeli writers. Her love for the country is obvious! She’s been in Greece numerous times, she has studied the Greek language and she’s done thorough research on the Jewish communities of Komotini and Xanthi, northern Greece.
She spoke to EmbassyNews.net about the current Greek and European politics and she revealed her “Greek novel”, as she calls it, which she hopes to publish in Greek.

Interview to Eleftheria Pantziou

EN: You are very well aware of the European and Greek politics, and you’ve been in Greece numerous times as a journalist and a writer. What are your thoughts on Greece’s political and economic situation at the moment?

Avirama Golan: I feel very strange being -I would say- so involved in the fate of Greece. You know it’s been very difficult for me to hear people in Israel talk very neo-liberal and very American like and being so impressed by Germany. It is also the way they talked about Greece at the beginning of the crisis.

I think that journalism as a whole has become very shallow. We don’t have great thinkers in journalism anymore. Here and there you can find nice, educated, very bright people but journalism nowadays doesn’t demand journalists to go deeper into things. So, people read little articles in the foreign press – in the “Economist”, the “Washington Post” – and thought they knew what happened in Greece. But they have no clue of what really happened in Greece. They don’t know the history of the crisis and the way Germany and the banking system handled the situation and they know nothing about Greek and European politics.

EN: You’ve had the opportunity to interview prominent Greek politicians, among them, former Prime Minister, George Papandreou, a few months after the First Economic Adjustment Programme was singed in 2010. What was your impression back then?

Avirama Golan: When I interviewed George Papandreou he only talked about Greece’s relations with Turkey, because he did not want to talk about the other issues.

The man who impressed me the most at the time was Yanis Varoufakis, who was very close to Papandreou. I interviewed him also. No one knew who he was at the time and when I came back to Israel they were asking me, “who is this guy?” and I would answer, “you will hear from him!”. He had then said things that I still think they are true about Greece and the crisis. I tend to agree with most of the things he says.

What happened with Papandreou was a tragedy. He is a very, very nice guy. But Greece cannot stand these rich families anymore, who send their children to America and England to study, that are surrounded by rich people and do not pay taxes.

I also interviewed Dora Bakoyannis and I was so impressed by her. But the minute I stepped into her office – she was the minister of Foreign Affairs at the time – the guy who answered the door and managed the whole thing was her son! And I thought, “what is wrong with these people!” (laughs) And Israel is going there too, you know!

I don’t know if Papandreou had a good will or not, I don’t agree with those who say that he did everything he could for Greece. I think that Greece is entitled to different politics and this rich – family dominated system has to be over and done with. Varoufakis said it from the start. He said that it was not Greece’s fault, but the country had the responsibility to change. I don’t see it changing!

Now people voted for Alexis Tsipras because he is different, but I don’t know if he has the ability to change things or the people around him. For one thing he is not one of them! We’ll see…

EN: We are currently experiencing the increasing popularity of far right-wing parties in Europe, however the left is also gaining power. Why do you think that is?

Avirama Golan: I have to say that the Israelis are mostly right-wing and really in love with the neo-liberal system. At first they blamed Greece for becoming radical left. I told them that it was the people’s choice to elect SYRIZA. But they couldn’t stand the idea of the left coming to power. And this was actually the reason why Europeans couldn’t stand Varoufakis and they did not want to let SYRIZA win this economic war.

Europe and the banks are terrified of the idea that SYRIZA, Podemos and the French left are proceeding with a pan-European left movement. The idea was initiated by Yanis Varoufakis. It is a very good idea in my opinion, against the “wave” of fascism and the problems Europe is currently confronted with. Varoufakis was right when he said : “It isn’t the problem of Greece, it is a European problem”.

EN: You have said that the rise of far right-wing parties was an excuse for the establishment of racist views within Europe…

Avirama Golan: People who vote for the Right in Israel, say that the big problem of Europe is all the Muslims that are migrating. But these are just refugees of extremism. They flee from this extremism! There are always terrorists, who seek ways of taking advantage of the situation. But there is a crisis in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. Europe has to decide what its values are! Why is it so difficult for countries like England, France, Germany and Belgium to take half a million refugees? We know well that the economy of Germany would have died if not for the people that came from Turkey and Greece and revived it.

The situation is difficult in Israel as well. The Israeli society has become less open to the world and to new ideas, weaker. Everything is privatized. Money is the name of the game in a much more violent way. This is changing the society from within. If you add the never-ending conflict with the Palestinians it only gets worse.

EN: So, what is next?

Avirama Golan: Greeks invented Europe. You are Europeans but you are also “Hellenes”! The European mind was created here! But Tsipras is not Aristotle, whereas Netanyahu is not Moses. We have to go deeper to find the power that we have inside and address the big questions. What happened is a tragedy, it is part of our DNA but what do we want now? How are we going to continue? Are we going to keep blaming everybody else for our destiny? Do we have the power to change our destiny? This is something I think the two nations lack at the moment. I feel it when I speak to young people who leave Greece or leave Israel to go to Europe or the U.S. They speak as if there is no hope, there is no future but they are in love with their country.

I understand it, it is painful. It is your country, you love your country. But then you get very, very angry because you feel there was a choice and it was not taken. And this is something that goes deeper into culture. The same is for Israel. Are we going to use and re-use the old tragedies? We have to heal the injuries and start over!

EN: You were recently in Thessaloniki to attend the International Book Fair and you had the chance to talk about your book, “Vital Signs”, which was written after years of research in Greece. Please, give us some details.

Avirama Golan: It’s was not my first time in Thessaloniki. I visit Greece twice a year, I speak Greek and I read the work of Greek poets and writers. I obviously love Greece!

I don’t know how it happened but I know it started during my research for my second novel, “Vital Signs”. I call it “my Greek novel”! I did quite research for the book, I worked on it for five years and it is very dear to me. It is about the story of an Israeli professor in his 50s, who is influenced by the American way of thinking, he graduated from to Harvard and he knows nothing about the Mediterranean culture. I chose this guy because I wanted to say that Israel is missing something. We are so much Americans and west Europeans and we forget that we are Mediterranean too!

This guy – I didn’t know it at first – when I started writing I discovered that he had a Greek mother. By saying Greek MOTHER, you know what I mean…The typical Greek mother and when you add to this the elements of a Jewish mother… what do you get? A very crazy situation!

Her character is based on some women I knew, but I started wondering, “where does she come from?”. I didn’t want her to come from Thessaloniki, because there are already so many different writings on Thessaloniki. Then I discovered two lost Jewish communities in Komotini and Xanthi, northern Greece. These two communities were slaughtered on the very same day! I don’t know how much Jewish they were in their way of life, but I know they were very Greek! I made a very long research on these communities, I started learning the language, the songs, the local cuisine and I started feeling as if I was born here and I had a past. In fact the story of the mother overlapped the story of the son. It is a very “Greek” story.

EN: Will it be published in Greek?

Avirama Golan: I’ve brought some copies in Hebrew for Greek publishers to see. I wanted to publish my novel in Greece but then the crisis started and I forgot about it. But now in Thessaloniki I said, “why not?”. I think this book could open a window for Greece to see the way see them and the way Israelis are connected to Greece.

After the book was published in Israel, some people wrote to me and told me that they knew nothing on Greece. They thought Greece was just islands and tavernas, the sun and all that. They knew nothing about the tragic, the pain, the suffering, during World war II, the Civil War, the Dictatorship.

Some of them have never heard the great Greek poets and writers. Some elderly people in Israel have read poems of Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis but in a very bad translation. Konstantinos Kavafis is much popular in a better translation. And everybody knows the music of Mikis Theodorakis. But they do not understand the words; they don’t know the poems and the background.

The film “Politiki Kouzina” was recently screened at the Cinematheque of Tel Aviv and the organizers asked me to present it. I talked for an hour on the Asia Minor Catastrophe and audience looked at me with surprise. They didn’t know what the film was about and what happened to those people! The Greeks and the Israelis have suffered a lot and this is something they share!

PHOTO: Avirama Golan facebook page