Waves of Three Seas: Writers and Rhodes

Uwe Friesel

Why Europe? Already in 1983, the Greek Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri gave a decisive answer to EU politicians: “Culture, art, and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce, and economy.” Her humanistic convictions materialized two years later by Athens becoming the first Cultural Capital of Europe, beaming the way for so many cultural capitals to emerge ever since; demonstrating this singular link between history and the continuing presence of our continent; demonstrating our identity.

Six years later, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The antagonism between communism and capitalism may have remained unresolved, but the Cold War came to an end. It was a historic breach that nobody had anticipated. All of a sudden, old barriers proved to be outdated. Once again, Europe had to redefine its inner structure, even its position on the globe. 

The first to realize the new opportunities were poets and writers. Until then they had more or less been dealt with as the fools of society by both political systems. Now, with unexpected zest, they united in a vision of a ship carrying authors and translators ready to cruise around the Baltic (in 1992) and later (in 1994) around the Black and the Aegean Sea. On the neutral ground of these vessels, they could finally meet each other in dialogue, without being hampered by national borders and intimidations. Finally, they could be self-determined persons. Finally, they could be free authors.

Looking back, I marvel how we could have set these ships afloat. Associations of writers are not travel agencies and the obstacles were enormous. Charter rates of more than half a million dollars had to be negotiated; endless visa problems with newly emerging sovereign states like Georgia and Moldova had to be solved; harbor fees had to be forgiven in order to lower the immense costs. Without the personal engagement of Peter Curman, then president of the Swedish Writers’ Union, and the professional management of Ewa Kumlin, wife of the Swedish ambassador in Greece, none of these arrangements could have been made.

“The beautiful white Greek ship World Renaissance took us to long-secluded coastlines and ports like Odessa, Constanta, and Varna. To more distant Batumi and Sukhumi our odyssey could not extend because there was still shooting going on … But, at the same time, authors from both sides were on board, discussing their problems and desires in total liberty and peace,” I wrote later, still in perplexity about the marvel that took place. 

Besides the many seminars, readings, and recitals on board the World Renaissance, the most important outcome of the Aegean and Black Sea cruise was the “Delphi Declaration” adopted by all participants. Its decisive lines read: “Now, at the end of our voyage, we are assembled here in the spirit of Delphi, the sacred place in the middle of the ancient world, where peace must rule and the future is determined. We believe that our dialogue must be continued in order to give European unification as well as national cultural identity a new dimension. We are convinced that the sad political situation we share, ranging from terrible wars to a multitude of minority problems, must be changed to the better … Hence, it is our intention to found an International Centre situated either in the area of the Aegean or the Black Sea and corresponding to the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators, which was created by Baltic writers, after the Baltic cruise in 1992, in Visby, Gotland … It will be an international independent institution, which aims to give a new understanding of literature and literary communication at the beginning of the new millennium.”

In May 1995, the forthcoming Cultural Capital of Europe, Thessaloniki, already having contributed greatly to the costs of the venture, extended invitations to a follow-up convention. The main issue was to decide upon the intended new Centre. “There were six proposals, more or less substantial: Rhodes, Büyükada Island outside Istanbul, Pitsunda (Abkhazia), Odessa (Ukraine), Constanta (Rumania), and Poti (Georgia),” we learn from the most informative chronicle, Waves of Three Seas: A Modern Odyssey, published in 2006 and edited by Bente Christensen from Norway and Klaus-Jürgen Liedtke from Germany.

Georgios Giannopoulos, then Major of Rhodes, in a detailed letter to the convention, had proposed “the former Italian Admiralty building situated near Monte Smith, which following suitable repair and restoration work … will be an ideal venue for the activities of the Centre, overlooking the Aegean with breath-taking views.” More important, he stressed “the financial capabilities of the City of Rhodes,” adding that, after informal contacts, “the Ministry of Culture in Greece has expressed considerable interest in the project.” At the end, the assembly of authors voted for the Rhodes proposal as the most concrete offer, which included a Swedish-Greek cultural week in Rhodes that would promote international cultural cooperation in alignment with the overall project.  

To do the necessary preparatory work, a cultural committee was elected consisting of the most active colleagues, namely Bente Christensen from Norway, Peter Curman from Sweden, Sezer Duru from Turkey, Dimitris Fatouros from the Thessaloniki Cultural Capital Board, Uwe Friesel from Germany, also representing the Baltic Writers’ Council, Nikos Kasdaglis from the Dodecanese, Ewa Kumlin from Sweden and coordinator of activities until then, Yuri Pokalchuk from the Ukraine, and Thanassis Valtinos, former President of the Hellenic Authors' Society . 

This international working group proved capable of removing remaining hindrances on the long route to the inauguration of the Centre and organizing many follow-up meetings. Of particular significance among them was the KLYS-conference in Stockholm, organized by Peter Curman and financed by the Swedish government, Stockholm as forthcoming European Cultural Capital, and the Nordic Council. Conference topics included “The Role of Culture in Areas of Conflict,” “The Impact of Technology on the Development of Culture,” and “The Economic Status of the Artist.” Participants from India and Pakistan, Cyprus, as well as Palestine and Israel, gave their testimony as to what it means to keep culture alive under war-like conditions.

It took numerous consultations in Rhodes to overcome legal and financial difficulties, in addition to defining ways in which writers and the Centre would cooperate. There had to be statutes both for the Three Seas Writers’ and Translators’ Council (TSWTC) and the Centre. Vassos Minaidis, president of the hotel owners’ association of Rhodes, and his wife Lee Minaidis, who later served on the Board of the Centre, hosted participants generously in order to complete such preparatory work. The set-up of the already existing UNESCO-Centre in Visby, Gotland served as a model, even though the scheme had to be modified to take juridical and other conditions in Greece into account.

At the inauguration, a seminar on “Literature and the Internet” was held. On that occasion, the Mayor of Rhodes presented the “Establishment Act,” codified by the Legal Advisor to the City, as well as the statutes of an administrative board. The cultural committee that had led preparations expressed gratitude for these carefully drafted documents, which took into consideration the safeguarding of the international aspects of the Centre as well as the smooth cooperation between the administrative board, the committee, and the general assembly of the diverse international writers’ associations.

In his address, the Mayor voiced the high hopes that Rhodes invested in the Centre: “I’m sure that the Centre which we are inaugurating today will, with its wide-reaching influence, be able to spread even more the ideals of cooperation and intercultural community throughout the Mediterranean, Europe, and – why not? – the planet as a whole.” His speech reflected the common spirit that had made the creation of this singular set of institutions possible as well as the creative energy of workshops, symposia, and other activities in years to follow. 

An especially spectacular symposium on “Writing out of Exile,” which I had the honor to coordinate, involved writers from some twenty countries, with open to the public seminars, made accessible by simultaneous interpretation, taking place in the Aktaion near the harbor. The local newspaper Rhodiaki covered every discussion and published interviews with the authors. Papers from the symposium were published in a volume titled Two Realities Simultaneously: Writing out of Exile, which was printed in Sweden.

Many outstanding conferences were to follow on themes ranging from “Cultural Identity and Literature” and “The Poet and his Translator” to “The Eternal Youth of Poetry,” focusing on young authors, and “Ancient Greek Literature in the Modern World.” In collaboration with the University of the Aegean, topics like “Insularity” were explored, while an international seminar on Lawrence Durrell, who had served as a British press officer in Rhodes, was also successfully held. Several new books, especially by Greek authors, were introduced, while a bilingual, in Greek and English, literary magazine, Helios, was launched. 

Few of the activities, in which the Centre and Greek and foreign authors through TSWTC commonly engaged in, can be cited in a brief memoir.  In terms of an overall sense, it is worth recalling, therefore, what Lee Minaidis said on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Centre: “I was impressed with the devotion of all those involved … They worked tirelessly to make sure that the building of the Italian period overlooking the Aegean and the Turkish coast would be renovated in time … Since its opening in September 1996, I have served on the Board of Directors of the Centre. I feel truly privileged to have worked through the years with so many outstanding people who have given so much of themselves to the creation and operation of the Centre, which has become a beacon radiating from Rhodes, drawing writers and translators from all parts of the world.”

2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of a remarkable international literary cooperation between the Centre and the TSWTC, a twin set of institutions that depend on each other, while Rhodes is seeking to become Cultural Capital of Europe in 2021. Although most of the protagonists of the first hours no longer represent the member organizations of TSWTC that made the establishment of the Centre possible, the requirements of European and worldwide collaboration have not waned in an increasingly competitive international literary agora.  As much as TSWTC is inconceivable without a Rhodes Centre, the Centre is equally inconceivable as a UNESCO rather than local institution without the infusion of creative energy and Greek and international contacts the Three Seas Writers’ and Translators’ Council represents.

Uwe Friesel is a German novelist and poet, as well as a literary translator (of Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike, among others) who served from 1989 till 1994 as the first president of the German Writers’ Union after the reunification of Germany. A member of PEN, he was also one of the founders of TSWTC.

2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of a remarkable international literary cooperation between the Centre and the TSWTC, a twin set of institutions that depend on each other, while Rhodes is seeking to become Cultural Capital of Europe in 2021. Although most of the protagonists of the first hours no longer represent the member organizations of TSWTC that made the establishment of the Centre possible, the requirements of European and worldwide collaboration have not waned in an increasingly competitive international literary agora.  As much as TSWTC is inconceivable without a Rhodes Centre, the Centre is equally inconceivable as a UNESCO rather than local institution without the infusion of creative energy and Greek and international contacts the Three Seas Writers’ and Translators’ Council represents.

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