Saturday 2 May 2015

Odysseus, the EU, & the Dispossessed of Lampedusa

The last month saw hundreds of migrants drown while crossing the Mediterranean in fragile vessels, so desperate are they to flee intolerable situations. Both cadavers and survivors often wash up on the prizewinning tourist beaches of Lampedusa, where prosperous northern Europeans tan themselves.

Capsizing between Libya & Lampedusa
The Mediterranean, once crucial to European colonial domination, is now an aquatic equivalent of the electric fence excluding Latin Americans from the USA. International waters are misused as liquid prisons to confine and exclude people whose plights are by no means unconnected with European policies past and present.

Nicolini: Moral Hero
The 6,000 residents of Lampedusa, led by their humanitarian mayor Giuseppina Nicolini, have been requesting the EU to replace the military ships patrolling the sea with search & rescue vessels, and send funds to enable the island to treat its struggling guests properly. Nicolini quotes Pope Francis: ‘Lampedusa is the door to Europe, not its exit.’   

How different is she from the vindictive resident nymph of Lampedusa, Lampetie, best known for being turned into a tree in Ovid's Metamorphoses. But in the Odyssey, where her island is called Thrinacia, she is a grimly suitable personification of Fortress Europe. Adverse winds have confined Odysseus’ crewmen to the island for weeks. They are starving. They eventually slaughter the cattle of the Sun-God which Lampetie, his daughter, herds, but they gratefully promise to build a fine temple to Helios on Ithaca when they return. 

But Lampetie, the most spiteful snitch in Greek epic, who could have interceded on behalf of the hungry mortals weeks earlier, now runs to her daddy, who run to Zeus. Once the humans set sail, Zeus rouses a tempest, and blasts their ship with a thunderbolt, killing all but Odysseus. The men ‘floated like sea-gulls in the breakers round the black ship. The gods had robbed them of their homecoming,’ a passage tragically prophetic of photographs of African boat people whose ships have capsized. 

Romare Bearden, 'Cattle of the Sun God'
The Odyssey is an instruction manual on good and bad ways to behave both when arriving as a desperate wanderer and when receiving strangers on your shores. There is a speech in a later episode which Lampedusa’s mayor might deliver to the EU bureaucrats who refuse to help. Imagine them represented here by the vicious slave Melantho, who loads insults on Odysseus, in his beggar’s disguise: ‘Go away, you loser, and eat your supper outside, or you will soon find yourself beaten away with a blazing torch.’  This is Odysseus’ unforgettable response:

Tischbein, Odysseus begs.
Strange woman, what is the reason for such anger with me? Is it because I am dirty, and dressed in rags, and go begging from people? I have to do this out of necessity. That’s what indigent men and beggars usually do.  There was a time when I too was a wealthy man, who could hold my head high as master of my own flourishing household; in those days I often used to give things to tramps who lived as I do now, regardless of who they were or what it was that they needed.

Alternatively, his rebuke could be inscribed on the lintel of the European Parliament, along with Marx and Engels' 'to each according to their need.'

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