When I set off for a sunny week in Crete last week, the things I expected to find were sun, sea, chilled beer and mouth-watering Greek Mediterranean cuisine. I was not disappointed and it is exactly what I found. However, what I didn’t expect to find was a heart-wrenching tale of prejudice and discrimination. Although of a different kind suffered by Eugene and Pieter and other gay individuals and couples around the world, it nevertheless made me reflect once again on the consequences of prejudice wherever we may come across it.
It started innocently with my holiday read of The Island by Victoria Hislop. A must read I thought as it is a tale about Cretan life and in particular, an account of life on Spinalonga, an island just off Crete and a stone’s throw away from a village called Plaka. It was also coincidence, or possibly serendipitous, that our hotel was only five kilometres away from Plaka. Spinalonga, a deserted island, has had a long history of occupation and fortification by numerous rulers over the centuries, beginning with the Venetians in the 16th century. The final inhabitants of the island were the lepers of the leper colony that was established there in 1903 until 1957. It is because of its history that Spinalonga is known simply as the Leper Island.
The main plot of the book, The Island, is a moving account of life on Spinalonga and the hardships and isolation the inhabitants face as lepers. As is often the case, we fear and reject that which we don’t understand and leprosy was no exception. Throughout the ages, those suffering from leprosy were banished from their communities, quarantined in colonies and reliant on the charity of others.
People were terrified of the contagious disease of leprosy and unaware that the majority of the population was naturally immune to it. However, as an incurable and fatal disease, no one would have been willing to take the risk of being near those suffering from leprosy. Despite the fact that leprosy is now curable, the word “leper” continues to carry a social stigma. An island was therefore an ideal place to where sufferers could be sent, thereby isolating them from the healthy population.
The history of leprosy and the stigma associated with the disease provides us with a reminder of the consequences of the prejudices associated with a fear of the unknown. Stigmatized individuals or groups are often not accepted by their peers, which may result in abolishment from their communities. Although it is not totally eradicated and still to be found in Africa, India and Asia in particular, leprosy is now curable.
However, the stigma remains and those contracting the disease continue to experience the historical prejudice and discrimination associated with the disease. In India, for example, contracting leprosy remains legitimate grounds for divorce and being forcibly removed from the community to isolated premises, such as those of Spinalonga, even if the person has been cured. It is unimaginable how outmoded behaviours of this kind continue to be practiced in the 21st century.
The account of life on Spinalonga was therefore a stark reminder of the capacity of human beings to harshly judge those that are different, whatever the reason of their difference may be. Living conditions on the island were dire and accounts from those who lived on the island paints a picture of utter squalor. Change came about in 1930 with the arrival of a new member of the community, a man by the name of Epameinondas Remoundakis. It was his demands and dedication to change the plight of the islanders that resulted in the improvement of living conditions of the leper colony and its inhabitants.
Needless to say a visit to Spinalonga was a must and whilst wandering around the abandoned island, I was convinced I could hear the following verse from the poem of Epameinondas Remoundakis whispered by the breeze whistling through the deserted buildings:
“As you walk around Spinalonga, stop and hold your breath. From some hovel nearby you will hear the echo of a mother’s or sister’s lament or a man’s sigh. Shed a couple of tears from your eyes and you will see the sparkle of the millions of tears that have drenched this road.”
The Island is also an account of the lives of a family over a number of generations and apart from the tale of prejudice, it also once again brought home to me the loss of a loved one. In particular, I reflected that the lives we have lived are shared stories hat connect us with others; it is how we are remembered. Eugene was the last member of my family who shared the story of my life from birth until the time he passed away. This makes the stories and experiences I have shared with Eugene that much more special and poignant and possibly another reason for capturing them in the book.