Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The city under violence by Nikos Stavroulakis

Nikos Stavrolakis

The original subject of my paper, as announced, centred on Salonika and Jerusalem...two cities that have faced crisis regarding their history and the problems they have faced in coming to terms with events that have reshaped their roles and character. Both have faced revisionism, both have had some difficulty in adjusting to political events and wars that have changed the geo-political context in which they continue to exist.

Increasingly, as I thought about the subject, I realized that I could work up little enthusiasm over it if only because another city, Sarajevo, a city quite impossible to exclude from thought, as in the very full light of day, in the midst of violence of the most outrageous form. Toward the end of our century, in a world that claims to have realized the goals of civilization and yet a world that has seen the loss of some 300 000 000 people due to violence, a city and its inhabitants have been marked out, if not for complete destruction, then for ethnic and historical revisionism. We, or our parents have witnessed people wrenched from their homes, torn from their lives, their families, entire urban populations disappearing, in the course of two devastating wars. Now, fully covered by the media (we witness it almost as it is happening), violence is being perpetrated on an urban population in the most outrageous manner and with, should it succeed, with the most disastrous and fatal results for not only its inhabitants, be they Muslim, Christian or Jew, but for all of us, as each success of violence is a step towards barbarism and chaos. The strange almost medieval language that is being used in the coverage of this war: siege, ethnic cleansing, hostage taking have all recently emerged once again as we watch a city in the process of destruction. To destroy a city is to cut at the very basis of civilization. It is to go beyond warfare into some other form of barbarism that Homer so well recorded in the Iliad...seen from a somewhat seldom considered perspective, namely that the fall of Troy can be seen as the victory of barbarism as Euripides so shockingly revealed to his Athenian audience in the Trojan Women. We might well ask what a city is, what it is that we are watching in the course of its destruction.

A city is a fragile, quite frighteningly fragile phenomenon, it poses a dilemma worth considering in some detail as any violence, external or internal, is an act against the matrix in which humanity is formed and maintained. To destroy a city is to destroy the very source of civilized life. The very word 'civilization' is rooted in the Latin civilas...or city, in its sense of being a community.

On the other hand the city, as a human creation, is an environment that is quite bluntly 'unnatural'. To function properly a city must have an order and a rhythm that in many cases goes against the grain, makes me feel alienated from nature and in the instance of great cities, it divorces me from a direct contact with the greater world about me, which occasionally breaks into my awareness through the media. A great flood has inundated Bangladesh, an earthquake has thrown down a city in Japan, the ozone layer may well have been permanently disrupted. But it is comparatively easy to shut out the reality of the at times apparently eratic movements of Nature by switching off TV 5 or CNN

and getting back to life in an environment that is so vividly described in Genesis as Babel, a cacophony of noise, languages, and perhaps mis-placed aspirations, an environment that at least is of my own making, one that I can handle so it appears. Stress, bustle, anxiety, despair, loneliness in the midst of crowds of people are characteristics of the city as a human environment. It is not surprising to learn that the securalization of imbinging excessive alcoholic beverages to the point of senselessness took place almost simultaneously with the creation of the first cities in Sumeria at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates some 5000 years ago. Prior to that time alcohol appears to have been considered a sacred drink, it mysteriously put one directly into touch with Power as manifest in the rhythm of Nature, an apparent order on the surface but under that surface is a seething vortex of sheer and frightening Power. One could inter into communication with that Power, experience it, if only for moments through carefully controlled rituals in which alcoholic stupor or drug induced states permitted a 'break-through'.

In the city man learnt early to throw himself into that vortex almost as an escape from the consequences of his new creation. The failure to survive this artificial environment are only too well known in the form of what we call social drop outs...suicides, bag ladies, street beggars, vandals who blatantly attempt to destroy the fabric of the city in actions of aggression, rage, and senseless violence.

But there are advantages to living in Babel, despite the problem of how God feels about it as an alternative life style to that lived directly under the laws of Nature. There is light almost all of the time...at my fingertips in fact. I can move rapidly from one place to another through public services. I do not have to worry about water and sources of power that enable me to have leisure, leisure that gives me time, hopefully, to learn something new, to experiment in fact with my experience of life. If I am open to what the city offers I also have an opportunity to experience what other people have learned through their own experiments. Through TV, the wireless, CDs and now the computer, museums, concerts, and the theatre, I am fitted with wings...I am in touch with the entire surface of the globe. I awake to hidden aspects of a rich interior life.

The city is, in some sense, a kind of bell-jar...a fragile intricately convoluted human contrivance of laws, customs, attitudes and technical conveniences that provides me with the illusion of being apart from the normal laws of Nature and permits me thus to fulfil certain aspects of my awareness that otherwise would be diverted into the battle of survival, as we call it. In other words, the city is a milieu in which my potential humanity can be realized. Perhaps more than by any other manner the city and its challenges bring me face to face with the paradox of human existence. I do not think that any of us here would opt for life in the Stone or Neolithic Ages when men lived subject to the Laws of Nature, dependent upon them, and terrified by them. Worth dwelling on is the fact, uncomfortable as it may be, that to dwell in a state of Nature (as Rousseau advocated, sitting in an urban environment and enjoying the benefits of a life in sophisticated refinement), is to be cut off from precisely the means whereby I am able to become truly a human person. The closer we, as potential humans, approach a state of Nature, the more do we sense our almost complete lack of ability to flow with it. My kitten has no problem in developing into a cat. My dog, despite the neuroses and confusion that have been fostered on him by centuries of association with human beings, has instincts that are aimed specifically to his evolution as a dog...and not hopefully, a wolf. But I, what do I have that evolves naturally so as to make a human out of me? My dog will never one morning address me by saying 'Good Morning' or 'Did you sleep well' but I, human that I am, very often, in moments of rage, anger and frustration, surpass my dog in bestiality. The human, a being who expresses altruism, compassion, and what I am not ashamed to call Wisdom, who has the painful and rich ability to reflect upon his acts, is as fragile as the urban environment in which he evolves. As human person I am not the simple consequence of natural growth, nor am I governed by instincts that are very specialized. Biologically I may grow and develop in a certain manner, not unlike my dog, but how that development is related to an 'I' appears to be a key to understanding what a human in fact is. It may well be that it is 'I' that is the real cause of alienation...but, it is very important to realize that the 'I', my ego, is an essential element in my development in eventually integrating itself into a wholeness as an element of awareness and not as centre of a universe. I might grow up to look like a human being...but it is not necessarily so. We have all seen savages in our midst, we have all experienced moments when our own hearts are filled with savagery, when it is our humanity, our sense of being rooted in more than simple natural laws as we comprehend them, that make us divert the surge of rage, anger, and violent response and by doing so, gentle our hearts, burn away perhaps some aspects of our selfishness, our self centred 'I' and thus transform it into a channel of integration. This is not 'natural' at all in common language today, but I think, if you ponder on this, you will agree that this is the only way that I become human and that humanity is also a delicate achievement...perhaps so much so that most of us are only more or less human according to some intangible measure. To be human appears to be a paradoxical state and one rooted in the initial one - to become human is dependent on growing within a human environment and our passage from barbarism into the state of being human was marked by the creation of cities. As Socrates so rightly remarked in the course of his trial when he was accused of having corrupted the Laws of the city...if only on the most mundane level, how could any man be so foolish so as to destroy the very laws that guarantee his protection, his growth and evolution as a human. It was the laws, the passing from one generation to another of experience through education and the prodding of the young into growth through important communal rites of passage, that were the bases of urban life...We wonder there is a problem of youth today when it is so obvious that those rites of passage, into sexuality, into semi-adult life, into the sphere of social responsibility, are completely absent. A human being is by nature a religious animal. By nature he creates rituals and if they are not of one kind, they are of another.

There are White and Black masses - the one in inversion of the other...but still rituals. Even demons bow to one another.

One of the most wonderful stories I know concerning ancient cities appears in the Gilgamesh Epic. This great tale that was told and re-told for so many centuries that some of these episodes eventually were re-worked into the fabric of Jewish history and hence into Christianity. The Epic is about a city and its king. The name of the city is UR (that very same UR out of which the father of Abram was called by a mysterious god to find a new home). The king is Gilgamesh, a man described as having incredible strength and almost insufferable energy, loved by his people for both, but at a terrible cost as this energy overflowed in frightening episodes that saw the destruction of the very urban fabric in which they lived: Gilgamesh, like a later Samson, could bring down buildings by himself, could run havoc in the streets in drunken fits BUT, and this is an interesting point in the story, he is deeply loved by his people...he is their king and the essence of kingship rests on almost divine strength. But, he is difficult and so the people approach the gods, who listen attentively, almost sympathetically (after all, if people do not work and harvest their fields and tend their flocks where will the gods find food from sacrifices?) The people also tell the gods that they have yet another inconvenience... outside the city walls there lives a great savage creature named Enkidu. Here also is a threat as Enkidu is rude, uncontrollable and voracious in appetite and quite terrible in odour...at least this is implied in some later details. Enkidu is quite outrageous as he sucks dry the teats of cows, goats and sheep before there is time to milk them.

He rambles through great fields of wheat tearing off sheaves and devouring them while breaking off fruit laden boughs from trees. In short he is more than savage. So the people actually have a double threat one to the source of their physical lifelihood and the other a threat to their city, their urban environment. The gods spoke about this amongst themselves and then presented the people with a plan, as gods do. Gilgamesh needs a proper companion, one who can match his strength and the only such being is Enkidu who must be brought into the city to be his bosom pal. The people are to go to the temple of the chief god of the city and obtain the services of one of its temple prostitutes. When they had elicited her professional services she was dressed in the most precious clothes, covered with the most exquisite jewels and went, accompanied by the population toward the city gates emanating the most heavenly odours of attar, myrrh and the like. The gates were opened, she walked out, and then the gates were closed, and this lone, quite delicious woman walked towards the marshes where dwelt the terrible Endiku. His roaring, and grunting, belching, and farting could be heard even within the city walls; his odour of his stench permeated the streets from afar and then, suddenly it was quiet...and the population crowded the city walls to see what was happening and it was all silence. Three days and three nights the people waited and neither heard nor saw anything and then, slowly emerging from the reeds of the marches came the proud temple prostitute, a woman who was dedicated to making sacred the rite of passage into sexuality, holding the hand of Enkidu who had been shaved, combed, washed and scented... who now walked like a man and even could speak like a man...in short, the sort of person you might bring home to dinner.

As stories such as these go - there was great jubilation in the city until Gilgamesh heard about the arrival of this other great figure ...perhaps a danger to his throne, and he threw himself on Enkido and the city rocked, and reeled from the effects of their literally titanic battles. In the end they both fell exhausted to the ground, neither having outdone the other and thus ends this part of the story with Gilgamesh and Enkidu becoming inseparable friends, more than brothers, more than husband and wife. Life went back to better than before but Enkidu discovered something quite strange some time afterwards. One day he took a walk outside the city walls, nostalgic for the places where he had roamed in a natural state. When he went to touch a young gazelle it bolted away in terror. When he drew near to the flocks that he lived amongst he found them running away in fright. Even breaking off some wheat brought him pain to his now delicate fingers and as the evening grew cold his thin gossamer outfit little matched the heavy matt of hair that had covered his body before. Enkidu returned to Ur perplexed and alienated from that world that he had known. His experience had weakened him, had alienated him from nature but it was also to bring into a state of mind, eventually, that was to see him reflect, as never would he have done had he remained in a state of nature, on death and the meaning of life...which is another story.

I think that this story is still, some 5000 years after being put into words, quite immediately intelligible. There is the city and the state of nature. To dwell in a city puts one at odd with nature...it is another alternative but it also presents some frightening consequences. He who lives in nature is a victim of the violence of nature, he who lives in cities must sacrifice his natural state and become vulnerable and weak but with a peculiar twist...he is better off in that state, he can possibly become human. But what does that entail in the end? It entails living in paradox.

This is put perhaps most succinctly in the story of Cain and Abel which actually comes out of this same Mesopotamian. Abel is a farmer, a victim of the endless cyclical round of nature. In essence the slave of nature as his life and livelihood are determined by the very static earth itself. Cain, on the other hand, is a shepherd, a wanderer, one who is not bound to place and earth. God, in this story, asks for a sacrifice from both brothers and for no explainable reason, accepts the one while refusing the other and we know how Cain killed his brother Abel and God marked him. It was a very peculiar mark, this mark of Cain, as it did not do more than to brand him as a marked man and to warn people to stay away from him and out of the loins of Cain eventually emerged the bronze makers, musicians, wine makers, and dancers...it was the fratricide Cain who was the father of the urban world of civilized man...marked, at odds with nature and delicately balanced on the horns of a dilemma that we know too well. According to this tradition that sees the urban revolution as a consequence of murder and alienation, the first great city is that of Babel,

a great cosmopolis aiming at the sky, so to speak. Communication appears to have been a prime factor in their success and from it arose the plan to reach heaven itself, and heavenward they went until God, still apparently having trouble over how fare these descendants of apple-eating Eve were going to get, became concerned about their claims of equality - (after all did not Eve eat of the apple so as to become like God). Here they were, almost at his doorstep and after some traditional roars, thundering and lighting bolts displays, down came the great tower that had threatened his domain. Down came the tower of Babel, destroyed was their communication system, and to make matters worse they babbled with each other...each in different tongues and, of course, built different cities but ones in which babbling was characteristic...multi-lingual in effect, certainly multi-racial. In fact, a mini New York! and later, of course, came the flood!

What is interesting about these stories on urban life in great antiquity is the sense of frustration, paradox and growth. Things never go the way one wants them to, but they get somewhere anyway. What has always struck me as the most obvious lesson of Genesis is that out of apparent evil emerges good. If it had not been for the serpent we might well still be crawling about in the bushes stark naked. In fact there is a very ancient Hebrew version of the story that says that God himself dressed up as the serpent in order to get Adam and Eve to rebel, to be free, to exercise what made them most like him - their wills. If it had not been for Cain we certainly would not have Rockefeller Centre nor any great urban centre where babbling in tongues is such a delight and where one can encounter all of the races of the earth actually doing things together, sometimes and then again, reverting into savagery and coming at odds with each other. But something is always going on and there is always something new that emerges from at times tragic and apparently savage displays of primitive behaviour. On occasion we know that some individuals break under the strain of living in such arduous circumstances and become drop-outs which is also a test for our humanity...we forget that an ideal is unattainable. Most of us are open to the fact that cities are made for people and that people are not all the same. Some are white, some are black, some are of other modified hues but we all share a common potential - to become human. Apparently we do it best when we babble together and occasionally step on each other's toes. Here is where I think I can finally narrow down to some uncomfortable observations.

Not too far to the north, in a quite beautiful valley, is a city that I stayed in twice and passed through a number of times, Sarajevo. Back in the late 50's and until the late 60's I used to drive every summer to London and on alternate years I would take either the route through Italy or that through what was then called Yugoslavia. Southern Yugoslavia, what is today called FRYOM by some people, always fascinated me as it was such a confusion of races, languages, religions and customs...one could hear Albanian, Serbian, Bulgarian and a good number of people spoke either Greek or Turkish. The villages were marked out by white-washed minarets or stumpy bell towers...and there were heavy black Muskoven everywhere and even an occasional camel. Sarajevo was a delight always as side by side stood mosques, synagogues and churches, some Catholic, some Orthodox, with people coming and going. I even managed to make a few friends in the course of those short stops in Sarajevo and I enjoyed meeting families that were a bit like my own: in one there was a Catholic Croat mother, a Muslim Bosnian father, an Orthodox Serb son-in-law, an Albanian grandfather somewhere in the past looking stiffly out of a fading portrait on the wall, and we communicated in broken Turkish. Sarajevo had a wonderful vitality and there was an intense interest in music shared by all. It was a very proud city and its minarets, many dating from the 16th century only increased this sense of its pride.

I have lost touch with these people now. I see on CNN vaguely remembered streets down which I would have driven then but now part in rubble, a fallen minaret stretched in sections across a road. I see on CNN that the market had been bombed and vividly the flesh of victims is detailed for me spattered across walls, and hanging on fences...is it that of my friends? The Serbs are raping Bosnian women, the Croats are apparently raping Serbian women, and undoubtedly women of both ethnicities are being at this very moment raped by Bosnians. We have had warnings in past ages, in the past century about this sort of thing, about what happens when we revert to tribalism and racism, the true face of nationalism.

Nationalism in its most commonly met form is one of the masks of the modern faceless state and counters what we call civic nationalism. It is interesting that both modern nationalism and the concept of the state as such, were both born in violence...the former as a means of furthering pseudo identity that demanded an enemy, a race and a mythology of superiority, that demands violence in the end. The latter arose as a consequence of the French Revolution. Nationalism imposed by the State reduces me to a cipher, whereas civic nationalism relates me to the community, a city, and assist me in defining myself as a responsible person. Some of the problems centring on minorities e.g. appear to be solved on a national level only by ethnic cleansing. These same problems appear to be capable of being solved effectively in an urban context creatively and with great benefits to the community as a whole, and to myself. Cities that cannot absorb effectively and creatively their minorities are doomed perhaps like Paris, to pay dearly for it. Others, that apparently do, such as Toronto, grow richly into communicates with a creative, ethnically diverse urban fabric.

Historical revisionism, the natural accompaniment of any racist and nationalistic movement results in most cases in reverting  to some form of violence with regards to the urban habitat. Rome, for example, is a city that apparently ignored nationalism and any form of revisionism in the form of reducing it to being a means to a dubious end. One senses in every street the incredible continuum that is Rome...temples, churches, classical monuments, Renaissance and Baroque facades all stand side by side, even incomprehensibly mixed up together...even the grotesque monuments of modern fascism have their place, have their right to remain. Even a cursory glance at Athens, if one were to know absolutely nothing about the 19th century, would cause one to wonder. What happened between 500 B.C. and 1832? There is nothing that remains that would indicate a thread linking the city with its past...gone are most of the Byzantine monuments, those of the Crusaders, those of the uncomfortable Turks...and then one wonders why it is a city that cannot decide what it is doing, where it is going and how to suit the needs of a population that has been divorced physically and psychologically from its history.

How does one introduce a newcomer into a city like this? no rites of passage, no sense of continuity...a breeding ground, in fact, for frustration and neurotic behaviour at best, for urban violence at worst.

Socrates was sensitive to the fact that only when Athens had broken from the laws of tribalism, based on tribal ethnicity (which is in fact what all nationalism is) in order to create a community the unity of which was determined by the acceptance of common laws, common ideals and aspirations, was a potentially humanizing process feasible. Of course the Ancient Greeks never escaped racism, nor did most ancient people. It was perhaps this lack of racism that is the most distinctive non-Greek aspect of Alexander's character, and one that was dismissed by Greeks as a sign of his being only a barbarian Macedonian himself.

Athens was perfectly open about the fact that it was an exclusive society, distinct in almost every respect from other Greek cities in almost tribal enmity. But as a city in itself, with laws that determined citizenship and belonging, Athens achieved this as a response to institutions and theories or relationships that were based on blood, and race, and hence tribe. It was Cleisthenes who dissolved the racial and tribal relationships that determined 'rights' and responsibilities, and replaced them by enrolment into a Deme. It was on the basis of the reforms of Cleisthenes and the awareness that the human environment, the city, is a place where humans might evolve, that Alexander founded his own cities in which Macedonian, Greek, Persian and Egyptian were, at least theoretically, united by a common bon, that of the city and its laws and not blood. Even if Alexander did not have this altruism the fact is that the great Hellenistic cities and Hellenism itself was rooted in multi-ethnic and multi-racial and multi-religious inter-action. It is an error to see Hellenism as a Greek preserve...it was an international matter that soared above the petty squabbling of politically orientated city states.

Two words have been used ad nausea in the past years, words that have come to fill me almost with disgust since they are used as if they had no meaning than to fill the mouth with a puff of air and avoid having to really say what one really means. They smell not simply of 'nationalism' (which is defunct enough an ideal having served some purpose in the past), but of a more primitive state of mind that I will call 'nativism': the inability to live with a community or individual that or who is different from ourselves. Nativism is the dark, closet-case face of nationalism in its primitive, pristine and perhaps most malevolent form. It is based on suspicion, hate, ignorance and results always in violence. And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, any violence that affects the community in which I live affects me whether I know it or not. Any indifference to it adds to the decay of my environment, my urban home, the place where I exercise my humanity. Fully unleashed 'nativism' demands complete eradication and liquidation of all evidence of conflicting individuals, and communities. As a withdrawal into ignorance it calls on history, science, and religion to not only condone but to support its expression.

Of course one might say that Sarajevo is an exception and one could equally ask the question but what has it got to do with say, Paris, or London, or New York. The recent bombings in Paris, on-going it appears and of elusive origin though obviously organized and well-planned, are deliberate acts of urban violence. They indicate a failure somewhere to absorb effectively and in an integral manner a part of the community that may have been trivialized. The increase in violence in London, in the underground, in the aggressive behaviour in the streets, in ships, appears to be rooted in a completely shattered public education system.

I realize that I have rambled to some degree in this paper - I have to admit that it was, to a degree, intentional as I wished to stimulate some questions rather than give answers. Essentially what I wish to stress is that our only true home as humans is in urbanism. This is so deeply part of our psyches that fully honed hatreds are aimed at the city itself...we are now used to words such as urban warfare and urban guerrillas. Our cinema and TV almost transforms them into heroes of a sort. These are extremes perhaps but indifference, ignorance, trivialization, bigotry, and now racism, have affected, one form or another, our cities for some time now and will only become worse until demands are made for better and responsible leadership, education, and awareness of what the city is in our lives as the form of a community in which we must learn to inter-act...the matrix in which I, more or less human as I grow, have the opportunity to evolve into a responsible human person amongst others. One may well say, 'well, this has happened in the past as well, it will always go on'. This is true, and it is especially true that it will always go on.

This is also a paradox...I cannot sit on my achievements, I cannot expect that what I have gained and learnt through life will be passed on to another generation save through learning. Animal instincts are transmitted, what I am as a human person, can only be taught, acquired and hopefully, experienced by another.

I have only touched upon some aspects of violence directed toward the city. There are others. Almost all of our cities are under siege: in some cases from without, and in other cases, from within. Where we can look for keen awareness of the essential problems that face our cities? It is obvious that it is not only in the isolated and self perpetuating civic leadership, or national domination that directs the fate of most cities ignoring the most vital and perhaps uncomfortable volatile element...its creative community: its poets, its writers, its artists. Without their vital role as educators the city is reduced to becoming a means of control, the reaction to which quite naturally is violence.

During the harshest period in the siege of Sarajevo it was the multi-ethnic and multi-religious symphony orchestra of the city that gave courage to the people and drew them together...it did not play a national anthem, they did not goat the audience into more violence...if I remember correctly, it was Beethoven's Erotica and his Ninth Symphony that wafted across the city.

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