Michel Foucault described as “heterotopias” those other spaces in early capitalist modernity, which subvert and reflect the hegemonic morality of the society. “Heterotopias are worlds within worlds, mirroring and yet upsetting what is outside”, he wrote. Graveyards, slave ships, and brothels were the most essential heterotopias of the early modern times, each with its own role in society.
The wildfire began and ended in two essential heterotopias of contemporary Greek society that mirror and provoke its hegemonic moral order: a church-run asylum and a politician-owned seaside villa, respectively.
The flames first appeared in the vicinity of “Daou Pentelis” on the mountain above Athens. Daou had always a rather dubious reputation as an institution for abandoned children and the mentally ill. Many have been sent there by their families for financial reasons. The Church is a powerful institution in Greece. With millions of followers, probably billions of Euros of property ownership and thousands of employees directly paid by the Greek state, the Greek Orthodox Church provides ample moral fuel for the war against the neo-Greek’s perceived Other (refugee, gay, communist, etc.)
At the coast, two dozens of victims were found only few meters before the sea, hugging each other on an otherwise idyllic plot of land overlooking the big blue. Choked by smoke and chased by fire people missed the tiny private exit of the plot to the coast, because the owner had built an illegal wall around it. The owner, an ex-member of the prefecture committee, was caught red handed in the past for legalizing illegal constructions. Her uncle, a powerful right wing ex-prefect and MP, was prosecuted for issuing illegal electricity licenses to many of the plots that caught fire. Adding insult to injury, the owners sealed off the plot a day after the fire, quoting the trespassing law!
Descending from the mountain slope and propelled by unprecedented winds of 10-11 Beaufort scale, a blitzfire attacked the seaside village eating up houses, cars and people in less than half an hour. It does not take longer to identify the two mightiest heterotopias in modern Greece, the ecclesiastical and the executive. Enclosing land within their walls and people in their dungeons solidify their iron grasp on power since the existence of the state.
Mati, the village destroyed by the fire, was mainly made up of privately owned summerhouses. The summerhouse (εξοχικό) always constituted the quintessential utopia of petit-bourgeoisie imagination and occupies a very special place in the repertoire of self-realization fantasies for the Neo-Greeks (Nεοέλληνες). This is what you are supposed to own when you finally made it in life: A place where you can raise your walls and hide from the rest of the society who still tries to make it. Many of these summerhouses were built on illicitly declassified land (often with the help of the politician whose brother owned the heterotopia further above).
Illicit building had practically made major highways into and out of the settlement impossible to construct, and this is also why Mati was often praised among its inhabitants as a hidden gem. If you didn’t know about it, you could not have driven into it easily. In a tragic inversion of fate, the small alleys became dead ends for many escaping the fire.
The fire transformed a utopian space of luxury and leisure into a deadly dystopia.The symbolisms involved reach deep into the psyche of Greek society. Here we have the petit bourgeois dream par excellence savagely going up in flames. The fire is after all Christian God's most potent and punitive weapon. In Greece when you want to say that one invites God's wrath you say "fire will fall upon him" (θα πέσειφωτιά να τονκάψει). This eerie connection - the Neo-Greek's most feared subject burning down the Neo-Greek’s most desired object – has caused unfathomable – and I believe unconscious – horror, beyond the self-evident horror of the tragedy itself. Perhaps this horror (and not only their hatred to "atheist' Tsipras) explains the rather rare outspokenness of orthodox bishops about this tragedy being God’s will, omitting of course the petit bourgeois part.
The pine tree and the seawater constituted a dialectical pair of unfathomable treason and unexpected redemption. The beloved by the Neo-Greeks pine tree proved a lethal weapon in the hands of the wildfire, while the salty seawater became a most welcoming refuge for those running to save their lives.
In the aftermath of the disaster, forest experts revealed that during the junta years and the decades of illicit construction the region had undergone a massive state-funded campaign of planting pines, forgetting that they are the most fire-friendly trees. Even much later, during the preparation for the Olympic Games, the major highway separating the mountain from the village (supposedly an anti-fire zone) had been planted with pine trees to the effect that the trees became a metaphorical highway for the fire to jump over the real highway and attack the village.
Thousands of inhabitants finally found refuge into the sea. At sea they felt secure that the fire would not reach them. In the aftermath, it was impossible to oversee the striking parallelism to the refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Many made the link explicit on social media ("You see how easily you put your kids in the water now?"). Even the fact that people chased by fire eventually drawn at sea was only adding more credentials to the parallelism. When the fire screamed, the sea spoke.
The pine and the water, the forest and the sea, were matter out of place, a concept introduced by anthropologist Mary Douglas. In this particular context, the pine forest and the salt water were places not supposed to be there. They were a-topias, as in spaces out of place.
Racism could not have missed an appearance in this Greek tragedy. Some citizens were outraged when a government official carelessly said that the support gathered for the fire victims might also go to others in need, such as the Syrian war refugees. At first I thought of their anger as sheer inhumanity. But after I acknowledged it as a subconscious negation of the self-evident: the common refuge of the sea, uniting those escaping from all kinds of fire on land. When news were out that this fateful evening the first savors to come from the sea were Egyptian fishermen, only then did they become visible in the place they have always been, the little fishermen port right next to the idyllic beach.
Carribean poet Derek Walcott has famously exclaimed that “the sea is history”. The sea – and the water in it - possesses a borderless memory. The sea will remember the fire victims as it remembers the refugee deaths in the rest of the Mediterranean. We humans tend to limit our memory of pain and sorrow by proximity of space and time. In Greece we mourn these deaths as our own, also because they were lost on “our” soil. On our timelines we will mourn these deaths for a little longer, also because we are programmed to post updates from our August holidays soon. Life continues; but the sea remembers.
We should all learn to remember - like the sea. We should all seek a borderless, timeless, relentless memory. Only then no death will be in vain.