I Apologize to You, Sir
Dear Chief Editor,
Regarding an incident that shocked my whole being a few days ago, I took the liberty to write this letter. I am a widow with two daughters, twelve and fourteen years old. I live in Athens, but I work as a Greek literature teacher at a private school in Halkida, an hour’s drive from Athens. I also give private lessons at home to provide better living standards for my children.
For a while now, I have been thinking about writing this letter, but in the process, I thought not to and to let things slide. But I cannot keep quiet. A rare rage has settled inside me because of a horrendous incident from which I am still trying to recover.
A few days ago, I was on an evening train heading to Athens. I took a seat next to the window and started correcting my students’ homework. Half an hour into the journey, the train pulled into Avlona. A young woman with dark skin complexion and green eyes sat next to me. She greeted me in Greek, took a history book out of her bag, and began to read.
When the train reached the SKA station, I looked out the window and became alarmed. A group of young men with their heads shaved, in military boots, khaki pants, and flight jackets, were standing on the platform, frantically gesturing and screaming at the train. Some of them were holding baseball bats.
When the train came to a full stop, the men started to pound on its windows and doors, shouting slogans and obscenities.
“They must be football fans,” I heard a man say. But they seemed a far cry from football fans. They surged onto the train and scattered through the cars, howling.
Three sturdy men entered my car and stopped two rows down from where I was sitting. The shortest man stood with his legs apart, arms folded across his chest, and stared down at a seated man with dark skin while the other two stood by his side in the same fashion. In an authoritative manner, the short man asked the dark-skinned man where he was from. With an accent, the man said he was from Nigeria. Rocking his leg, the short man asked for a residence and work permit.
Without protesting, the Nigerian man handed them to him. After the short man took a look at the documents, he scoffed and dropped them to the man’s feet.
When the Nigerian man asked him who had given him the right to question him, the short man slapped him across his face, hard. This unexpected and shocking act swept through the car, and it made me feel as if I had been slapped. A few rows back, a baby began to cry. The Nigerian man sat there with his head down as the other two men laughed. I gathered myself to stand, but the girl next to me gave me a look.
The short man asked him for his wallet and called him a monkey. Haven’t their parents and teachers taught these men anything of value? I wondered, and fear heaved in my chest.
When the baby began to sob, the short man told the mother to shut it up. Then he opened the wallet, put a few euro bills in the pocket of his pants, and dropped it on the floor. When the Nigerian man bent down to collect it along with some colorful photographs that had fallen out of the wallet, the short man took him by his shoulder and slammed him back into the seat. Then, he wiped his hand on his trousers and made a face of disgust. “You should go back to your country,” one of the other men said. “You aren’t welcome here.” Nobody dared to speak. We all sat frozen with fear and surprised by the men’s impudence and cruelty.
Glancing from left to right, the short man sauntered to where I was sitting, and with the other two men standing right behind him expressionlessly, he asked the lady sitting next to me where she was from. She told him that she was born and raised in Greece. He smirked and told her that did not make her a native. Then, he asked for money.
When an old man stood up and told them to leave the young woman alone, the short man glared at him and told him to sit back down and shut up. It was then that I realized the train was not moving. “Someone must have called the police,” I thought, and a faint relief fluttered in my chest as I glanced out the window, expecting to see the police. But I did not see anyone.
The young lady handed him a five-euro bill and told him that was how much his life was worth. Cursing, the short man grabbed hold of her elbow. The other two began to smirk, slyly. I now felt a rising tension in the car and hoped that someone would stand up to those men. The lady tried to get out of his grip but to no avail.
I plucked up my courage, stood up, and told him to leave the girl alone. His cold eyes met mine. Then, he put his hand on my face and, pushing me down, said, “Sit down, you nothing.” His partners laughed. But I felt disgusted, and a knot formed in my stomach.
By now, he had taken the lady by the hair, and as he tried to lift her, she started to shout. I heard a door in the back slide open, and then I heard feet stomping. Two conductors holding crowbars came to our rescue. One of them shouted, “Let go of the girl, you bastard, or I swear I’ll break every bone in your body.”
When the short man let go of her, she pushed him and told him how low he was. Then she spat in his face, sat back down in her seat, and began to cry. The face of the short man hardened like wood.
As the conductor walked down the aisle with the crowbar, the three men began to back away. I put my arms around the young lady and held her tight. One of the other passengers in the back said that the police had arrived.
I looked out the window and saw the men scattering, jumping over fences, and howling like wild beasts. In a few minutes, the train began to move, and my lungs opened again.
When we pulled into the Larisis station, I went over to the Nigerian man and apologized to him. He smiled and thanked me. I also reported the incident to an officer at the station.
I know that this letter may not make any difference whatsoever. But I wanted to express my rage, my shame, and my frustration toward the people and the politicians of this country and any other country where such inhumane and degrading actions still happen.
Sadly, we have not learned anything from all the bloody riots, the mad wars, the massacres, and the genocides. Sadly, we have not learned from all the tears we cried and the misery and the heartache we felt tearing inside. Sadly, we have learned nothing from the millions of crosses marking the long rows of dead. I do not want to sound melodramatic, but I am afraid that we will never learn.
Lately, I have come to think that maybe we are our own worst enemies. Maybe we are born with a self-destructive gene that is dormant inside us. And when that gene wakes up, it spews its poison like octopus ink and messes with our mind’s vision. One day, we may manage to locate that gene and tear it out, or maybe, because of it, one day we will simply cease to exist.
That day, it was so difficult for me to stand up and try to stop these men. It was so difficult to stand up and say aloud, “Are you aware of what you are doing? Don’t you know that we belong to the same family and share a common descent? Don’t you know that happiness, compassion, and love are universal emotions? I am a mother and I know.”
But I kept quiet instead. And I was disappointed with myself, and my heart ached. Soon after, I realized how vulnerable and fragile we all are in the face of barbarism and violence. And at the end of the day, we are all to blame for such disgraceful outcomes.
Given the circumstances, I am grateful I came away physically unharmed. I am grateful I am sitting at my desk by the window, writing this letter to you, wondering where the pure, noble, and unconditional love has gone.
Hopefully, this letter disturbs you as much as the horrendous incident on the train disturbed me.
Thank you for reading.