x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Greeks' silent, corrosive collusion fuelled growth of debt

Greeks protesting against the need for austerity measures aren't being honest: the whole population, almost, was complicit in the mentality which got the country into this mess.

As schoolchildren in Athens we practised an alarming custom. At the end of every school year, as the exhaust of waiting schoolbuses mixed with the aroma of pine trees, we gathered our textbooks into a pile and burnt them.

Even at age 12 I had a sense that something was wrong about emulating Nazi book burnings. I comforted myself by thinking this was an act of rebellion against a rigid education system that ordained absolute obedience to teachers, many of them unqualified.

In retrospect it's clear that by burning books we were damaging only ourselves, cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Today a parallel to that self-destructive behaviour is unfolding in Constitution Square in Athens, as Greeks curse their elected politicians for lulling them into two decades of easy credit, tax evasion, corruption and overspending.

hey ignore the fact that they consented to all this, in an unwritten social pact whereby demonstrably corrupt politicians conjured higher living standards while nobody asked questions.

Perhaps not everyone knew that Greece had fiddled statistics to get into the European Union, then over-borrowed to fund exaggerated lifestyles for politicians, a pliant and distended civil service and an elite rentier class for which paying tax was somehow unmasculine. But many knew, if only subconsciously.

Now that the cat's out of the bag, many Greeks are blaming global banks, the International Monetary Fund, Zionism and assorted other scarecrows, instead of shouldering the blame for our silent, corrosive collusion.

To kalo to palikari xerei allo monopati ("the smart lad knows a better path") goes the Greek folk saying, and for years we negotiated our special path. In truth, international institutions did encourage Greece's addiction to debt, but almost no Greek voices ask why the country knowingly lived beyond its means.

This collective amnesia reminded me of my Greek childhood. I grew up in 1980s Athens without the benefit of hindsight or any means of comparison, and so tended to think that our life was normal.

At sport events, the hooligans lighting fires in stadiums, setting off fireworks in enclosed arenas and pelting players with coins were referred with a dash of admiration as "fanatics". Criminals regularly organised escapes from supposedly high-security jails. When riots marked political anniversaries, the police stood by impassively. Only later did I learn that the authorities viewed rioting as an important pressure valve for society.

Terrorist organisations like 17 November were never caught, despite a wealth of evidence. Clearly they too were offering our politicians a valuable service. Or maybe our spooks were too busy renting out their surveillance equipment to the highest private sector bidder.

Then came entry into the EU, which was interpreted as a signal to become "western", which was interpreted as meaning degenerate. Swathes of society plunged into a consumerist lifestyle unprecedented in Greek history. Glossy magazines featured scantily-clad girls in suggestive poses, a new career path for our young women.

By 2000 we were well and truly "Westoxified", as the Iranian thinker Jalal Al-e Ahmad might have put it. A stupefied teen generation was absorbed in reality shows, gossip, and then Facebook.

In 2008, the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old student by a policeman brought young people into the streets, starting a political awakening which still continues.

When I moved away from Greece in 1995, I considered my life there to have been perfectly typical of every western country. Greek reality seemed normal, not least because any voice raised against it was shouted down as xenerotos (pathetic) or floros (a dweeb).

I didn't realise anything was amiss until my admiring descriptions of our hard, bad "fanatics" elicited strange looks instead of admiration from my new English acquaintances.

Now I shuttle between Istanbul and Kabul. Istanbul is filling with expatriate Greeks attracted by Turkey's booming economy; Kabul is still considered exotic for a Greek, as Istanbul was 10 years ago.

I've chosen a failed state, deep corruption and the resurgent Taliban in part because it all quite reminds me of home.


Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and photographer who splits his time between Istanbul and Kabul