by Tobias Thornes
With the Mediterranean Sea shimmering silkily around me in the soft spring sunlight, it is difficult to believe that there could ever be anything but peace and tranquillity between those quiet coasts, blessed with a beauty beloved since ancient times and hardly diminished in our own. As if in some delicious dream of mesmerising mountains and idyllic isles, I slowly slip across that dazzling space. Alas, it is no longer possible to glide – as centuries of seafarers had done before me – with only the power of the wind upon my sails or oars licking the water pushing me on. But I have boarded the smallest, slowest ferry I can find, meandering my way from Greece to Egypt via several island stops.
The engine’s hum is quiet, and the glitter of solar panels of the cabin roof reminds me that at least some thought was being given to the need to use energy sparingly and efficiently if we are to preserve this precious world of life. And yet, I know, such gestures aren’t enough. What difference will a few solar panels – or ‘energy-saving’ light bulbs or ‘fuel-efficient’ cars for that matter – really make? None at all, if they simply tempt us to plug in more and more powerful electronic devices, not bother to switch of the lights or make more journeys by car. Such is the fallacy of ‘energy efficiency’. And a little bit of tinkering with a few boats bobbing on the Mediterranean cannot save us if the planes I see above me continue to streak like high-flying hawks across the blissful blue sky.
But climate change is far from the thoughts of the people here. Beyond a few grumbles about the fishing stocks not being what they were, they seem content that their sea and islands continue to thrive, so it seems, as lusciously as ever. But these are not the islands their ancestors knew – not really. Urbanity and Industry have a long history here, but the roads and cars that cut across and the myriad new villas and apartments that crowd out the ancient tranquillity of this sublimely cultural constellation represent a fundamental shift in the quality of the habitat here on which life in all its forms depends to flourish.
And still more change is coming, of a still less intentional kind. You can almost see it, rolling in like the storm-clouds that gather, at first in mere hints and whispers of shadows on the horizon, before with cruel rapidity the tranquil sea collapses into a cauldron of chaos. Storms are coming from many directions. As we approach the island of Crete, I think of the many olive-growers there who wait with baited breath, hoping that the disease that has devastated the centuries-old olive-trees of Italy, having been translated inadvertently by humans from the Americas, doesn’t make the further leap to strip their fertile isle, too, of its most precious produce. But if the ships and planes keep moving, it’s only a matter of time.
Yet it is human translation that poses the bigger threat. Everywhere here there are memories of the refugees who struggled across these waters in 2015, desperately seeking salvation from the suffering of needless war and persecution blighting their own countries. Then, migrating people poured through these ports, and many lost their lives on these seductive seas. At the time of my travel, the Greeks are glad that this crisis has abated, but I don’t think they realise that, because of climate change, this is just the beginning. As the world warms and seas rise, swathes of Africa and Asia will become uninhabitable, and then not thousands but millions of people will be displaced. Europe, where – misled by the sugar-coated ‘medicine’ of capitalist rhetoric – many elsewhere have come to believe the very streets are paved with gold, will be the destination of which they dream. And everything the people here still hold onto from their past – the last pockets of natural peace, the cultural artefacts – may well be lost in the translation.
I arrive in Alexandria as the sun begins to sink, and all around bright lights sprinkle streets and high-rise buildings. For over two millennia this city has thrived at the centre-point of moving goods and people, the gateway to Egypt, its culture and resources. But is it really all that ‘Egyptian’ any more? Did not these street-lights and skyscrapers originate with European and American planners and architects, trying to transform their own cities far away? How, then, did these ugly edifices come to be here? The Egyptians could craft buildings befitting their harsh environment thousands of years ago. The Pyramids of Giza, the Lighthouse and Library of Alexandria were wonders of the ancient world. Now air-conditioning units struggle to keep cool constructions designed in other places but carried here by capitalists. They desire to exploit the whole wide world, to ‘develop’ this country in ways that profit the rich but, unlike those ancient wonders, bring little lasting benefit.
Although decorated with hieroglyphs, to me the concrete face of the new library at Alexandria seems just another alien blot on an increasingly ink-spilt skyline. Does this truly invoke the ancient splendour of Egypt, this modern-day megalith that might sit just as easily, barring a few decorations, in London, Sydney or New York?
At least in Alexandria I found preserved some snatches of authentic Egyptian life not buried by foreign bulldozers. But it was on arrival at Cairo, after a long hot journey mostly by slow boat along the Nile, that I was truly struck by the grim reality of the devastation wrought through so-called ‘development’. The river itself brewed with warnings as I approached. That life-blood of the ancient kingdom, which long ago was cherished, protected and even worshipped with such reverence, now stank with the filth of industrial pollution. But the city, sitting like a fat black spider at the end of its dirty thread, went beyond anything I had experienced before. A poisonous smog hung in the air, belched out by scores of metal-working factories. That this desert location had been exploited by artificial means far beyond its natural capacity to support humans was evident all around. The sewers overflowed in poorer areas packed with people; smoky motorcars jammed the streets. Perhaps this didn’t bother the rich, ensconced within more ivory towers of alien glass and steel while beneath them people struggled to live in a poverty perpetuated by their greedy, profit-driven practices.
The tourists, of course, trod only the richer paths, opiated by token cultural treasures preserved for their benefit. But capitalism is eating away at Egypt, as it is so much of the world. With its money-minting steamroller it has crushed culture into conformity, paradise into pollution, sustainability into cataclysm and contentment into greed. We can see it in the languages lost year by year as traditional societies surrender to homogeneity. Your culture and your language are intricately intertwined. And, just as for a lost language, once you lose your culture you can’t translate it back.