Friday, 29 January 2016

"By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept..." - T.S. Eliot and the Refugee Crisis

It’s quite rare that I cry. I’m normally quite good at staying composed and outwardly controlling my emotions. But during my time in Lesbos, I struggled. I remember sitting in a café in the port of Mytilene and looking out at the Aegean Sea with tears running down my face. As I sat there by the water, I couldn’t help recalling a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”: “By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept…”

Eliot wrote a large part of “The Waste Land” on the shores of Lake Geneva, known by many in France as Lake Leman. He was suffering at the time from what he called ‘aboulia’, defined as a lack of will and motivation. Really, it seems, he was in a state of anguish, lamenting the horrors of life and the imperfections of the human race. The line I have quoted has often been read as a reference to Psalm 137, in which the people of Israel, having been exiled to Babylon, weep by a river as they recall their glorious past in Jerusalem. Eliot, along with the entirety of Europe, was similarly mourning for a lost past – the glory of Europe before the devastation caused by the First World War.

So just as Eliot mourned the sadness of WW1, so I wept for the refugees who never made it to the safety of Europe, who lost their lives in trying to secure a better future – Eliot and I were both in a state of anguish. But I suppose I, too, was weeping for a lost past – not my own past, but the past of the refugees. Like the Israelis in Psalm 137, the refugees of today have been forced to leave their homes and their countries, the places they were born and the places they grew up.

But they have lost far more than just that – not only have they had to leave their countries, but they have witnessed first hand the destruction and the ruin of the world around them. They have seen their friends and loved ones killed and injured in the horrors of war, only to arrive with nothing on European shores and to be housed in what was once a Greek prison, now a registration camp for refugees. It’s no wonder that shock and grief often characterize the faces of refugees in Lesbos’ Moria camp.

So, I wept not only for those who have died, but for the lost beauty and happiness of Syria before the civil war; I wept for the lost beauty and happiness of Afghanistan before the rise of the Taliban; and I wept for the past of all nations now torn apart by war and the devastation it brings. Eliot, I’m sure, would have wept with me in Lesbos, pitying the dreadful nostalgia and suffering of those arriving on the Greek island.

It was this reflection that got me thinking about Eliot in the context of the refugees travelling to Europe. It’s rare that I turn to deceased anti-Semitics for advice and guidance, but that is what I did. I opened my book of Eliot’s poems and I was struck by the connections and links between Eliot’s work and the refugee crisis of today. He was, after all, a great poet, and all great poets have an unparalleled awareness of the human condition, of human suffering and of existence itself.

One of the most obvious connections is seen in Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”, a conversion poem about the journey of the three wise men to Bethlehem. The first few lines immediately caught my eye:

“‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey;
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’”

Like the refugees, the three wise men walked night and day for miles and miles to reach their destination. And like the refugees, they miss their homeland, “The summer places on slopes, the terraces,” particularly when they compare it to the new lands they are travelling through, “the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly” and “the lack of shelters” (lines that remind me of the horrendous conditions and police brutality I witnessed in Calais). Eliot clearly understands the hardships of travelling long distances through alien and strange places.

In another one of Eliot’s poem, “A Cooking Egg”, the speaker idolises his or her future in Heaven (“I shall not want Honour in Heaven / For I shall meet Sir Philip Sidney…”), and again this got me thinking about the journey to Europe. All humans tend to idolise the future: the grass is always greener, as they say. And, of course, the grass is greener in Greece, Italy and the rest of Europe: these countries aren’t ravaged by war.

And yet, many of the refugees I spoke to were disappointed, and it’s no surprise: as I said earlier, the conditions in the camps are horrendous. The hospitals are full of refugees suffering from hypothermia, and some have even died from the cold. These are people who were once wealthy and successful, now lining up in the freezing weather just to ask hesitantly for a warm jacket or a sleeping bag. And what is more, the European Union is struggling to handle this crisis. Like Prufrock, the self-conscious man who is unable to sing his love song, the EU is failing to act effectively, if at all.

It is this failure and this lack of a political solution that has now turned parts of Europe, including parts of Lesbos, into a waste land – there’s no other way to describe it. Moria camp, where I volunteered, is an old olive grove that has now turned into a wet and muddy dump with a huge puddle in the middle. Like in Eliot’s “Waste Land”, the trees are dead and nothing can “grow / Out of this stony rubbish…” Indeed, the soil has been so polluted by faeces and waste that no vegetation will be able to grow there for at least ten years.

“I had not thought that death had undone so many,” Eliot comments, and one could say the same when watching the crowds of refugees walking through Europe. War, and indeed death, has undone them all, their lives, their families and their countries. And there seems to be no real hope: the huge influx of refugees has left the EU in huge trouble. There’s no easy answer, but perhaps Eliot can provide us with some guidance.

“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata…” are the three Sanskrit words (meaning “Give. Sympathise. Control…”) employed by Eliot at the end of “The Waste Land”. He suggests that if we give, sympathise, and control, then we can overcome our problems and improve the wasteland in which we live. Perhaps, by acting according to these words, we can also solve the current refugee crisis.

However we decide to confront this crisis, we must act with humanity, kindness, and sympathy. This is the only way forward, as reflected in Eliot’s words. But we must also act with control rather than with knee-jerk reactions spurred on by intense emotions. Germany’s decision to open its borders completely was an act of love and kindness, but it was not one of reason: Germany’s reintroduction of border controls on the 14th of September demonstrates this need for control. We cannot have open borders – it simply wouldn’t work. However, we can come up with a sensible, rational solution that validates the humanity and compassion of the European Union. It’s in this sense that I think Eliot’s words can guide us.

I suppose my experiences in Lesbos have endorsed and confirmed the skill of Eliot as a poet and his knowledge of the human condition, a knowledge that transcends time and place. He understands the struggles of nostalgia and change; he recognizes the difficulties and hardships faced by those fleeing their homelands and arriving in strange new places; he grasps the flaws and inhibitions facing the human race, particularly in times of crisis; and, finally, he provides hope, hope that one day the refugee crisis that we face can be addressed and perhaps solved. Our solution will only work, however, if we recognise and sympathise with the hopes and dreams of those who flee their countries. It will only work if we allow love to guide us in our decisions.

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