In Arabic “salam” means peace, but when I met Salam Magames she was on fire with indignation. The twenty-one-year-old had made a perilous trek from Aleppo, narrowly evading ISIS captors, Turkish prison guards, criminal human traffickers, and death in an inflatable lifeboat on the choppy Aegean Sea. After all that she found herself stranded in an overcrowded refugee camp in Greece alongside her teenage brother. Where, she wondered, were these lauded “human rights” Europe prides itself on? All she saw was desperation, indignity, and squalor.
I first spoke to Salam in the spring of 2015 when I was filming my documentary What Is Democracy?, a philosophical investigation into a word we too often take for granted. Salam appears in the final act and steals the show with her compassion and outrage. In Syria she had been a music student, and accordion her chosen instrument. In the film, I show her playing a song to remind us that she is a multi-dimensional person, not a passive victim. Playing music, she told me, makes her feel free.
I met Salam at Piraeus Port, the very site where, over 2,000 years ago, Plato set his influential dialogue the Republic. Even then the port was a site of democratic contestation. When I visited, the sprawling camp and its over 5,000 inhabitants evoked a fundamental political quandary: who is included in democracy and who is left out? Or, as a young man from Nicaragua puts it in the film: “Who counts and who gets counted?”
Astra Taylor is the director of What is Democracy?, distributed by Zeitgeist Films and out now in theaters, and the author of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, forthcoming from Metropolitan Books.