All is not well in the port city of Piraeus. COSCO Shipping are not happy that they cannot get hold of the extra 16% share of the Piraeus Port Authority (PPA) that they were promised when they signed up for the original 51% back in 2016. The Greek authorities say that COSCO have not carried out the requisite mandatory investments and developments they promised to when they took over. COSCO say that the Greek authorities have delayed approvals and licenses so they haven’t been able to. So far, so normal. Expect it to drag on for some time.
Piraeus, it has to be pointed out, at least to those that don’t work or live here, is not Athens. It is a separate city, proudly so, with a markedly different mentality and individuality that marks it out from other areas in Attica, and indeed Greece. This is partly due to it being a port, and also to the fact that the citizens here are descended from other areas of Greece, from Asia Minor in the 1920s when they were expelled from what is now Turkey, and also from the islands as part of economic migration. There are still cafes and tavernas that stick to the ambience, food, drink, traditions, identity and music of their past. The migration and turnover of the people here has continued too, and is not confined to Greeks, nor has it ever.
Piraeus was also always a hotbed of the kind of independence – or liberty of spirit – that infects port cities around the world. I lived in Liverpool for eleven years and sometimes I get flashes of recognition. The red-light areas of the port were celebrated in more than one film, the most famous being Never On A Sunday starring the incomparable Melina Mercouri. And then, although hardly celebrated in old films explicitly, was the rembetika scene, the Greek blues if you like, where the poor and disenfranchised, not to mention the criminal and outlawed – for political as well as legal reasons – found release in music, drink and hashish. This identity – I hesitate to call it a lifestyle because it suggests a choice – can still be felt today, at least in COVID-19 free today, when people will gather together on a Friday or Saturday night, and drink, and eat, and sing, and most importantly dance their troubles of the week away.
The dance is not just the happy and carefree festival of bouzoukia, or the Zorba dances of the tourist traps, or even the group dances of Crete and Thraki, but there is an individual, defiant dance. The Ζεϊμπέκικο (Zeibekiko) is strictly personal, and expresses all the things inside the dancer that they are feeling at the time. It is normally danced in a fairly small space around a fixed point, and the more extravagant, or show-off, or celebratory dances will circle around a glass of raki on the floor, which is drunk off during or after the dance. But the ones that stick in my mind are the ones where a group of musicians have gathered in a small neighbourhood taverna, and the individual wrings out from his (or her) soul the bitterness, unhappiness, loneliness and anxiety through dance, and gains inner strength from that release. It is beautiful to experience.
I should say that zeibekikio is not confined to Piraeus, or even to rembetika, but it is in Piraeus and to rembetika that I have seen it done best, and where it has moved me most. Piraeus is a place where all human life is present, where the high and mighty not only rub shoulders, but exchange jokes and the time of day – and life, and more – with the lowly and cheeky. And by high and mighty, I don’t mean the rich, or the pompous, but those with character that command respect. The lowly and the cheeky are the rest of us. But everyone watches everyone else, and takes note of everything.
The Piraeus city municipality – I disagree that we should call it a town hall – is standing up to PPA, and has not agreed to allow the PPA to do what they like, for example sending materials and lorries to pass through the city and further clog up the famous congestion here. They – reasonably enough I think – suggest that the materials should arrive by sea. It is a port after all. The PPA however is going over the heads of the local authorities and appealing directly to ministers for resolution, and also get their extra 16% share. They should not, however, expect the ministers to bow to their wishes and overrule the local authorities immediately.
Evangelos Marinakis, ship owner, football club proprietor (Olympiakos, and fallen giants of the English game, Nottingham Forest) is on Piraeus’ side. As leader of the majority group of councillors in the City Council, he objects to developments that do not benefit the local communities. Without going into great detail, Mr Marinakis is well connected in politics at both a local, regional and national level. We should pay attention when he says:
“COSCO would have to spend money on some very large projects in order for Piraeus to benefit from this monopoly agreement. I find it very difficult to continue this co-operation without our city having a great benefit.”
The message is clear: the port of Piraeus should serve the city of Piraeus, not just the shareholders or the Greek economy. But the port, as the interface between the land and the sea, is hugely important for the Greek economy. It is not just the marina at Zea, or the ferry port, but the massive and expanding container port, the cruise terminal and all the repair and other facilities from Perama to Mikrolimano and points inbetween. But ports, especially efficient ones, are not great places for employment, because the most successful ones are where cargo and people move quickly in and out. No wonder the city of Piraeus wants a bigger slice of the action, to benefit their people, as well as the PPA.
And size is power, as COSCO (and China) well knows. The bigger the share of PPA, the bigger throughflow of cargo, the more influence they will have over the economy of Greece – and the body politic – as a whole. Yes, the port of Piraeus is a success story as far as container shipping is concerned, and the results since COSCO has taken over the operations of the terminals are impressive. But a port like Piraeus is not just a terminal which connects a highway to the sea, it is a community of people, from many different backgrounds that prize their identity and cannot just be rolled over to accept the dictates of power. History has shown indeed that the citizens of Piraeus won’t just do what they are told, and neither are they likely too.
In my imagination, I see Piraeus like one of the zeibekiko dancers, showing the world a face full of emotion – pain, sorrow, joy, fun – but a face full of defiance, and pride, and beauty, caught in snatches of light and music. This face is also wise, a wisdom hard won, etched with lines drawn from success and failure, from the battles of life won, and lost, but where the fight will not die. COSCO has a battle on its hands, especially if it thinks that the people will compliantly accept what it wants. The city of Piraeus is bigger than that.