Thursday, January 18, 2007

Yesterday the United States Embassy in Athens was bombed at 5:55 AM. It was the middle of the afternoon before I learned about this attack, and for some reason it seems to have struck a nerve that I didn’t know I had. I live about 10 minutes walk from the US Embassy, just on the other side of one of Athens’ two large hills. Because of this natural separation, I did not hear the explosion, which apparently shattered windows of nearby buildings. Despite the fact that I did not feel the force of the actual explosion, I am sure to feel the aftershocks for days to come, not only as I eat with friends who work at the Embassy, but as I think about what the bombing means to me as an American living abroad.

Here in Athens, there is a strong anti-American current that draws mutterings of disgust out of most Greeks, and news stories out of thin air. This distaste for America takes many forms, from casual remarks about American imperial culture to violent protests that culminate at the American Embassy. The anti-American sentiment can be somewhat understood coming from the mouths of Greeks, who lived under a brutal dictatorship in the 1970’s that was put in place by the CIA. However, the anti-American thoughts also run strong in many Americans, and I can’t count the times that I have heard Americans saying emphatically, “I am not American!” I am always a bit confused when I hear this. To be sure, American popular culture can be nauseating, American history as taught in our schools is a layering of falsehoods, American foreign policy is a nightmare, and the Americans that you remember seeing abroad were probably loud dense tubs. But America is also where each of us Americans comes from for better and for worse. We can hate our current political administration, we can read histories of slavery, of conquest, of secret wars, of how fast food is made, and we can feel unspeakably angry and disillusioned by what we thought was American, but this is precisely where we are lucky. We are allowed to learn! We are allowed to question! We have libraries, we have roads, we have free schools, garbage collection and machines that wash our clothes and do our dishes. Here in Athens, these things cannot be counted on. Garbage may or may not be picked up (the landfill is now full), libraries are not quite public, many people wash their clothes by hand, and as for the schools and roads, well, they leave much to be desired.

Greece is a proud country that has been pushed around in the past, and, perhaps as a result, is overly sensitive. The American Embassy is an easy symbol to push against. Several years ago, it was forced to move because of the level of violence that it attracted. It is now situated in a recessed compound behind a 9 foot steel fence, with a maze-like interior, and guards at every corner both outside and inside. It is an imposing structure. I have been there only once, and at that time was struck with the coldness of the building. Outside, there were long lines of people, Americans, and others each confusedly waiting, needing something, passport and papers in hand, unsure of what would happen once they entered after the long wait.

When I first heard that the American Embassy was bombed (to be precise, an anti-tank grenade was fired from a building across the six-lane street landing in a third floor toilet, narrowly missing the intended target of the large American seal on the outside of the building), my first reaction was, “Of course. Someone in Greece bombed the Embassy.” I was not surprised in the least. This casual reaction surprised me, and needs to be explained somewhat – explosives are commonly used in protests here, as is tear gas, loose rocks, bricks and police batons. In the three months that I have been in Athens, there have been at least three protests that have turned violent, and countless peaceful protests. There have also been multiple cases of fatal beatings (of immigrants) by police. I have tried to stay away from all of these protests, but living in the city center, it has been impossible. The whole center shuts down for large scheduled protests, and although there are usually warnings on television and radio of the places that have turned violent, I was once visiting a friend when her boyfriend staggered into the apartment coughing terribly. He had been walking home from work and making his way around a protest, he was unlucky to be present when the police threw tear gas. After hearing this, I re-doubled my efforts to steer clear. So, although it was not quite a shock when I heard that the Embassy had been attacked, it caught me off guard and struck me deeply.

I have lived in many places both within the United States, and externally, and never have I felt threatened because of my nationality. Because of my gender, yes; because of my language, ok; because of my skin color, certainly; but never because of my nationality. When I heard that the Embassy was attacked, however irrational it might have been, I felt a twinge of vulnerability. Walking through the twisting streets of the city center, I suddenly began to wonder if people around me could tell that I was American. Most people can tell that I am not Greek, but how many know that I am American? I felt naked. I felt unjustifiably nervous and exposed. I looked at the faces around me. Then I looked harder, and felt ashamed of my thoughts. I was in an immigrant neighborhood; most of the faces around me were not of individuals who had chosen to come to Athens. They were faces of people who had fled war, poverty, and social persecution. They were faces hardened by weather and hard work and discrimination. Once again, I was made aware of all the privilege that comes bundled in the package of being an American. We are the ones who can leave our country as we like, and return as easily. As silly as it sounds when uttered, we have the luxury to say, “I am not American,” whether at home or abroad. We are blessed if only for what we do not have to think about daily, and for the simply fact that we are all told, whether it is true or not, that we can realize our dreams.

The attack on the Embassy made me think about my identity as and American. I realized that I am proud of who I am, and therefore where I come from. As hard as it can be, the more I learn about the difficulties of the past and the flawed present, the more I dream for the future. I am not ashamed that I am American, nor am I afraid to say that there are many things that I do not like about the country in which I was born. But rather than make a laundry list with balled fists and feelings of disillusionment, I choose to take the other route, one which I can only hope will more powerful in the end. I choose to take my privilege and hold hands with the children with whom I am working. I choose to ask questions of strangers and listen to their responses. I choose to hug and eat with and build memories together with people from all over the world who happen to be my friends. I must believe that in the end, the boundless intelligence, love and strength in each of us will outweigh the rest, as long as we aren’t afraid of it.


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