For reasons I do not quite understand, Barbarossa keeps recurring symbolically in my life in Greece.
I first became familiar with this historical figure when I was about ten years old and a new convert to the Age of Empires strategy game. That Barbarossa was a 12th century Holy Roman Emperor and the particular objective of that game scenario was to claim dominance over other European Duchies. It was apparently still the age not only of empires, but also of prizing dominance over compassion. At 10, I was fascinated by the concept that you could make digital people forage, build homes and fight just by clicking something in a computer.
The break-down of the dominance paradigm began during my encounter with another Barbarossa: operation Barbarossa during World War II, the name for Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union. Every time my favorite history teacher recounted the horrors of that war, I couldn't ignore the memories of the glorification of combat in the first Barbarossa I had known through Age of Empires.
Nearly a decade later, and after I have born witness to the kind of violence you cannot unsee and the kind of compassion you revere over dominance, I was standing in the cave of another Barbarossa. This one was a notorious pirate in the Mediterranean in the late 1400s. The bay in which he used to hide exists to this day and is aptly named Κλέφτικο in Greek: bay of thieves.
Κλέφτικο is a series of cliff formations on the island of Milos, Greece. Behind them, pirates used to hide to observe the shipping route to Crete. Today it is the site of sailboats and snorkels, sea urchins and sunscreen. I have always been intrigued by how history and the passage of time transform places from battlefields into tourist attractions. Two years ago, my love and I had camped in a field overlooking the Horns of Hattin in Israel. Those towering rocks had provided the backdrop for one of the fiercest battles during the Crusades. Now they are the stuff of wheat fields and hiking boots. As we pitched our tent, Elijah noted: "A crusader probably died here."
I am currently in Mexico City and for the first time in a while, there is a TV in my room. At night, I watch images of brutality in Aleppo, Syria parade through my screen. I remember my Aleppo of the car breaking down on the Syrian highway, of the kind man in the tow truck stopping to give us a three-hour ride to safety, of him refusing our money because "you have to help a traveler." I remember leaving at dawn alone for the bus station and being shielded from street harassment by the rest of the women there who glared at any men who dared to make eyes at the foreigner traveling solo.
The tragedy is not that I have lost the ability to return there for now; it is that I am able to leave in the first place. Being a foreigner, even if you are a "conflict specialist", especially if you are a "conflict specialist", gives you a parachute. You arrive at your liberty with a return ticket that you will use when you wish or when the situation necessitates. The Aleppo I saw then came with hotel floors that were less dusty than my own body. The Aleppo I witnessed was a direct reflection of my own privilege. My ability to parachute in and out is an outcome of that same privilege. I am ensconced in another hotel room with clean floors, watching the violence from afar, thinking of those without plane tickets out of it.