Saturday, June 02, 2018


“Do you know why we Greeks are so successful?” the bright eyed, animated lady with the most luminous teeth asked me as she adjusted her necklace upon which was strung a Santorini-blue, evil eye.

“We are?” I enquired.

Side-stepping the question, she continued. “Because we have something else no one else has. And do you know what that is?”

“A language of such dexterity that is able to reduce the words Notis Sfakianakis to a short and easily compactable ‘Sfax’?” I responded.

“Kefi,” she answered, jingling her bracelet covered arms. “Kefi. An attitude to life that lets us surmount all challenges. The Greek succeeds where others fail because he has kefi. No one can stop him. You can see that when we dance. Take a Greek wedding for example. It’s all about the dancing, whereas with Italians it’s all about the food.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I reflected. “At all the Greek dances I’ve been to lately, the MC had to plead with the attendees, who were mostly in their eighties, to get onto the dance floor. They seemed to be more interested in complaining about the price of the ticket.”
My interlocutor raised her perfectly delineated, fleshy Kardiashian ™ eyebrow. “Very funny. No, Kefi is a whole life philosophy. Did you know that kefi is so unique to Greece that there is no word for it in any other language? That tells you something.” She struck her marble kitchen counter triumphantly, with the flourish of a barrister concluding a particularly difficult case.
“I don’t think that is correct,” I ventured. “For starters..”
“No, one hundred percent. This guy from Greece said it on youtube. I’ll try to find the url,” she fiddled with her telephone. “Filotimo and kefi, two Greek words with no equivalents in any language.”

“But kefi is not a Greek word.” I persisted. “It has been adopted from the Turkish keyif (“merriment”), which in turn is borrowed from the Arabic kayf. It also exists in Aramaic as keip. So in actual fact, this is a Middle Eastern concept, imported, or adopted by Greeks.”
A long silence ensued. At first my interlocutor was shocked, something could be discerned from the manner in which her lips pursed and unpursed like a fish gulping when exposed to air. Then she scrambled for her mobile phone and after her incredibly long, ring bedecked fingers caressed it a number of times, she looked up and signed in resignation. “But kefi…” Then her lustrous eyebrows met together in a frown and she asserted. “This is garbage. They must have stolen that concept from Alexander the Great’s army when he conquered them.”
“But why are you so adamant we are possessed of kefi?” I asked. “Take your people, the Epirots. If we consider, as the ancient geographer Strabo did, that Epirus was the ancestral home of the Greeks, then it follows logically that they should be abounding in kefi and that consequently, Epirot folk songs should be oozing with joie de vivre. Shall we consider some of those songs?”

“Ummm,” she murmured reluctantly.

“Exhibit A,” I continued, “an old and popular favourite, with which many an Epirotic dance commences: «Δεν μπορώ μανούλα ‘μ, δεν μπορώ, άι σύρε να φέρεις το γιατρό.» Is this a song about a person so full of kefi that he has to invade the dance floor, thereupon to bust his manifold Epirotic moves in a spirit of mirth or goodwill? No, simply, this is the lament of a person who has been rendered thoroughly ill by means of a psychosomatic malady relating to his compluslive/obsessive love of an unnamed individual, who now requires urgent hospitalisation.
“Exhibit B,” I droned on inexorably. “A love song: «Δεν στο ‘πα χαλασιά μου, στον μύλο να μην πας. Μη σε πατήσει η ρόδα, και γίνω εγώ φονιάς.» Which aspect of kefi would you say that this song particularly rejoices in? Here we have a song in which a would be lover, fulfills Occupational Health and Safety requirements by warning the object of his affection of a particular hazard within the workplace, in this instance, a questionable mill stone. He goes on further, to comply with disclosure requirements in order to confirm that the only reason why he is providing such a warning is so that he does not end up accused of industrial manslaughter. The last verse of the song is also revealing: «Μωρή κακιά κοπέλα, πού πας για λάχανα. Καρτέρα μωρή και μένα, να σου πω τα βάσανα.» So replete then with kefi is this song, that not only is the girl it is addressed to considered as bad, it is nothing more than an injunction for her to remain in situ, while her admirer unloads his psychological baggage upon her and has a good whinge. Sounds like vast quantities of allegria, the Italian word for kefi, were had by all.”
“Yes but in the context of a glendi….” the kefi proponent protested.
“Exhibit C,” I persisted. “Also much loved among Epirots: «Έπεσε από το φράχτη, κύρα Γιώργαινα, ο Γιωργάκης σου,» or if you prefer, this: «Λενίτσα μου, τον άντρα σου, πάνε να τον κρεμάσουν.» Among songs about people falling from fences, or being taken away to be hanged, I supposed the only kefi that could possibly arise, would do so when the song actually stops and the person’s misfortune ceases to be rubbed in their face. If the Epirots, as archetypal Greeks partake of the kefi tradition, then why do all of their celebrations traditionally begin with a funeral dirge?”

“No that is not what I mean,” Mrs Kefi asserted herself. “I’m talking about that devil may care, who worries about what happens tomorrow, let’s have fun, spend all our money on a good time and «έχει ο Θεός» attitude we have. Going to the bouzoukia, blowing our cash on a bottle of whisky and καλή παρέα.»

“Are you sure that this more Black Eyed Peas, than Greek?” I countered. “Aren’t attitudes encapsulated in such lyrics as “Tonight's the night, let's live it up/ I got my money, let's spend it up/ Go out and smash it like oh my God,” more relevant to a certain western sub-set of socio-economic wage earners than our own people? After all, I seem to remember that the price of dance tickets and the cost of potatoes, meat and other comestibles served therein appear to be of prime concern at the Annual General Meetings of sundry Greek brotherhoods about town. And back in the homeland, the cost of vegetables and the immanence of tax concessions are perennially a feature of prime time new bulletins. Furthermore, I seem to harbour memories of being subjected to repeated interrogations by friends from Greece as to the cost of living in Australia, including but not limited to the cost of bread, milk, petrol and clothing, the basic wage, the tax brackets and the banking regime, even as we were out at the so-called bouzoukia, my answers being received with a stock «εμείς στην Ελλάδα γλεντάμε,» only to have them ask for a loan the next day.”

“Stop twisting my words,” the apostle of Kefi enjoined angrily. “Just because you were obviously born without a funny bone doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have a good time, Mr Killjoy. Sheesh. Obviously it is you who aren’t Greek, otherwise you would understand what I’m talking about. Xeftila.”

Some months after this exchange took place, I found myself attending a Greco-Lebanese wedding. Seated providentially to my right was, my kefi-advocating friend. I watched her intently, her face frozen in horror as the newly-wed couple entered the reception, thronged by ululating and dancing relatives obscuring the photographer. I watched her cluck her tongue in disapprobation as the MC vainly implored the Lebanese guests, too intent on dancing and having a good time, to sit down, in order to allow the speeches to take place. Upon the advent of the moustachioed genius Tony Hanna’s classic “Yaba yaba lah,” my Greek-Australian composure deserted me and surrendering to kayf, I threw myself into the dance, ululating with the best of them. As I did so, I noticed that all the Greeks in the room were still seated at their tables, glaring at the dancers contemptuously. Eventually, when the musical mood switched from Lebanese to Greek, I observed that of the Greek guests, only a very small proportion were going through the motions of a stately and rather lacklustre kalamatiano. They did so defiantly, as if staking an important cultural claim upon the floor, in a somnolent manner, utterly devoid of joy. 

Leaving any sort of void in the dance floor among the Lebanese is perilous, for kayf abhors a vacuum. Instantaneously, the floor was flooded with ululating dancers, first attempting the intricate steps of the kalamatiano and then, finding them of little interest, discarding them for infinitely more lively steps of their own, the sound of the ubiquitous dawla dictating the beat.
Exhausted and covered in sweat, I found my way back to my table, only to see a distressed Mrs Kefi in the process of being forcibly removed from her seat and dragged towards the dance floor by some exuberant Lebanese beauties. She looked at me pleadingly, one perfect eyebrow raised in a mute cry for help, finger marks of enthusiasm leavning their marks obtrusively upon her fake tan. “Surrender yourself to the kayf,” I advised gravely. “Aiwa habibti, shushla!”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 June 2018

Saturday, May 26, 2018


For the approximately one hundred and thirty five years, Crete, an island that is in the Greek popular consciousness, inextricably linked to the foundations of civilization and Greece itself, was one of the major foes of Byzantium. Commanding the sea lanes of the Eastern Mediterranean and functioning as a forward base and haven for pirate fleets that ravaged the Byzantine-controlled shores of the Aegean Sea, Crete was able to achieve considerable prosperity, not just through naval plundering but also, through more mainstream agriculture and trade. Moreover, its rulers did not speak Greek. Instead, for just over a century and a quarter, in the ninth century AD, the island of Crete was Arab speaking and formed an integral part of the Islamic world.

Though parts of Crete were temporarily occupied during the reign of the Caliph al-Walid I in approximately 710AD, it was, according to Arab legends, a revolt against Emir al Hakam I of Córdoba in Islamic Spain that caused a mass exodus of rebels to Alexandria in 818. Numbering over 10,000, they took over that city and held it until 827. Expelled in that year, according to Muslim sources, they landed, most probably on the north of the island, in 828, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Michael. In time, they would come to found a city and main fortress near their landing place, to which they gave the name Chandax, from the Arabic “rabḍ al-kḫandaq,” meaning Castle of the Moat, a name that persisted until modern times, when the city was renamed Heracleion.

The leader of the Arabs, Abu Hafs, known in Byzantine sources as Απόχαψις, set about defeating a number of Byzantine attempts to reconquer Crete, commencing with an expedition under Photeinos, strategos of the Anatolic Theme, and Damianos, Count of the Stable, in which Damianos was killed. A year later, a Byzantine armada of seventy ships under the strategos of the Cibyrrhaeots, Krateros successfully landed on the island, but was then routed in an Arab night attack. Krateros managed to flee to Kos, but there he was captured by the Arabs and crucified.
Byzantine efforts to reconquer Crete were hampered by the Arab invasion of Sicily, where the Aghlabid Arabs set about establishing a polyethnic, sophisticated, multicultural and religiously tolerant regime in which the Sicilian Greeks played a key role, and the revolt of Thomas the Slav, which took place in Asia Minor. Unlike their counterparts in Sicily, the Cretan Arabs seem to have treated the land they conquered, at least in the early years as merely a base from which to conduct piratical expeditions, though this was to change. Consequently, the Arab conquest transformed the naval balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean and opened the hitherto secure Aegean Sea littoral to frequent raids. 
The Cretan Arabs thus were able to occupy several of the Cyclades islands, destroyed a Byzantine fleet off Thasos, raiding and pillaging Euboea, Lesbos, north western Asia Minor, the Peloponnese and Mount Athos. So devastating were the Cretan raids upon the Byzantine Empire that in 829, the Emperor Theophilos was compelled to send an embassy to Arab Emir Abd ar-Rahman II of Córdoba proposing a joint action against the erstwhile Andalusian rebel Cretans, though this proved fruitless. In an early exercise of global warfare and proving just how extensive the Arab world had become at this time, in 853, the Byzantines attacked the Egyptian naval base of Damietta, capturing weapons intended for Crete.
During the early 870s, the Cretan raids against the Byzantine intensified, aided as they were, by Byzantine renegades who adopted Islam. One such raid in 873 under the renegade Photios penetrated into the Marmara Sea and unsuccessfully attacked Proconnesos, near Constantinople. Though many of these raids were repulsed, the Cretan Arabs returned again and again, often reinforced by the Arab North African and Syrian fleets. As a result, the islands of Patmos, Karpathos and Sokastro came under Arab Cretan control, with Cretan Arab rule extending as far north as Aegina in the Saronic Gulf, and to Elafonisos and Cythera off the southern coast of the Peloponnese, while Naxos, Paros and Ios, was forced to pay the poll-tax or jizya, prescribed as payable by subject Christians to Muslim rulers. The impact of this wave of Arab raids from Crete, caused some Aegean islands to be deserted altogether, and many other coastal sites were abandoned for inland locations. It also appears that Athens may have been occupied between 896–902, by Cretan Arabs while in 904, Cretan Arabs took part in a Syrian expedition that sacked Thessalonica, the Byzantine Empire’s second most important city. 

While the Arabs of Crete ravaged the Byzantine Empire, we know little of prevailing social conditions on the island itself. Apart from a few place names recalling the presence of Arabs, there is little in terms of surviving archaeological evidence attesting to their long rule. Byzantine sources, unsurprisingly, given the amount of devastation caused by the Cretan Arabs, are extremely negative and this has traditionally influenced western scholars’ attitudes towards Arab rule in Crete.

From contemporary Muslim chroniclers, however, we can glean references of Arab Crete as being an orderly state with a balanced economy and enjoying extensive trading ties in the region, especially with Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world. Finds of gold, silver and copper coins of standardized weight attest to state regulated commerce, while it is believed that the Arab capital, Chandax, was a significant Islamic cultural centre. It is also considered that Arab rule saw an agricultural boom in Crete, with sugar cane first being introduced to the island during this time.

The fate of the Christian population of Crete during Arab rule is also a matter of debate. In the past, it was believed that the Cretans were either expelled, killed or converted to Islam in droves, a process that was repeated again during the Ottoman conquest. Careful analysis of the sources however, suggests that while large numbers of Cretans did convert to Islam especially in cities and along with the original invaders and other muslim migrants formed the majority of the population, Christians remained as a subject class, most particularly in the countryside. Theodosius the Deacon, for example, records that rural Christian Cretans, “inhabitants of crags and caves,” a metaphor that is reminiscent of Rhigas Pheraios’ “Thourion," almost a millennium later, descended from the mountains under their leader Karamountes during the siege of Chandax by Nikephoros Phokas to assist the besieged Muslim Arabs, against the Byzantines, their co-religionists. Further, in a surviving letter sent by the Patriarch Nikolaos Mystikos of Constnatinople to the Emir of Crete about the release of Byzantine prisoners the patriarch calls the emir an honourable man and praises his administration . He also adds that the Cretans and Romans (and it is noteworthy that the patriarchs considers the Cretans to be Arabs) could live side by side even though they have many religious differences. 
Eventually, successive Byzantine Emperors began a converted effort to rid the Empire of the Cretan menace for good. In 960, Emperor, Romanos II entrusted his general Nikephoros Phokas with a vast armada. In or July 960, Phokas landed on the island, and defeated the initial Muslim resistance. A long siege of Chandax followed, which endured until 6 March 961, when the Byzantines stormed the city. According to chroniclers, the Byzantines pillaged Chandax, and tore down its mosques and city walls. A massacre of its Muslim inhabitants took place, with many killed and others carted off to slavery, while Crete’s last Emir, Abd al-Aziz ibn Shu'ayb , known in the Byzantine sources as Kouroupas, and his son al-Numan, known as Anemas were taken captive and brought to Constantinople, where Phokas celebrated a triumph. Crete was converted into a Byzantine theme, and the remaining Muslims were converted to Christianity by such missionaries as St Nikon Metanoeite (meaning "Repent"), so called because his zeal in converting the population to Christianity. Among the Muslim converts was prince Anemas himself. He joined the Byznatine army and died at Dorystolon in 970, fighting against the Rus.

Capitalising upon his experience as the re-conqueror of Crete, Phokas went on to re-conquer Cilicia in Southern Asia Minor and Cyprus from the Arabs. His fame was so great, that he was able to utilise it in order to make an imperial marriage and propel himself to the Byzantine throne. Crete, on the other hand, thoroughly cleansed of one hundred and thirty five years of Islamic Arab rule, to the extent that little lasting legacy or memory remained of it, abided in Byzantine hands until 1204, when it was occupied by the Venetians. Today, all that remains to bear witness of the time when the Cretans were Arabs and the Arabs, Cretans, is a few scattered placenames: Sarkenos, Souda, Aposelemis (Abu Salim) and Choumeri. This is a battle for Crete that to all intents and purposes, has been  forgotten.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 May 2018

Saturday, May 19, 2018


Superficially, at least, Constantine Cavafy’s enigmatic last ever poem, completed just days before his death in 1933, “On the Outskirts of Antioch,” focuses upon an episode in the life of the controversial Emperor Julian the Apostate, who decreed that the Roman Empire discard Christianity as its official religion and return to the old gods instead. In the poem, Cavafy relates how the god Apollo refused to provide any more oracles until the remains of Christian martyrs were removed from the environs of his temple. Thus:
“We in Antioch were astonished when we heard/ what Julian was up to now./ Apollo had made things clear to him at Daphni:/ he didn’t want to give an oracle (as though we cared!),/ he didn’t intend to speak prophetically, unless/ his temple at Daphni was purified first./ The nearby dead, he declared, got on his nerves.”

The most offensive of the dead to the god Apollo, was the martyr Vavylas, and the removal of his remains seemed to have been a matter of some urgency: “There are many tombs at Daphni./ One of those buried there/ was the triumphant and holy martyr Vavylas,/ wonder and glory of our church./ It was him the false god hinted at, him, he feared./ As long as he felt him near he didn’t dare/ pronounce his oracle: not a murmur./ The false gods are terrified of our martyrs.)
Unholy Julian got worked up,/ lost his temper and shouted: “Raise him, carry him out,/ take him away immediately, this Vavylas./ You there, do you hear? He gets on Apollo’s nerves./ Grab him, raise him at once,/ dig him out, take him away, throw him out,/ take him/ wherever you want. This isn’t a joke./ Apollo said the temple has to be cleansed.”

In accordance with Julian’s wishes, the faithful gather to remove the bones of the saint: “We took it, the holy relic, and carried it elsewhere./ We took it, we carried it away in love and in honour.” This having been done, retribution, whether by divine, or other means, is not long in coming: “And hasn’t the temple done brilliantly since!/ In no time at all a colossal fire/ broke out, a terrible fire,/ and both the temple and Apollo burned to nothing./ Ashes the idol: dirt to be swept away. Julian exploded, and he spread it around/—what else could he do?—that we, the Christians,/ had set the fire. Let him say so./ It hasn’t been proved. Let him say so./ The essential thing is—he exploded.”
As with all his works, Cavafy’s poem is imbued with a multiplicity of meanings. Ostensibly referring to the triumph of Christianity over paganism, a close reading of the text reveals that the poem acts also, as a coded metaphor for the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the annihilation of the Greek presence in that region, in 1922.
According to this reading, given that Apollo is the god of civilisation, it is the Allied Powers, through the League of Nations that order Eleutherios Venizelos, (equally as revisionist and apostatic in the eyes of half of the Greek population at the time, as Julian himself), to remove the remains of the martyred Greeks of Asia Minor (personified by the remains of Vavylas), somewhere else, so that the problem of the co-existence of Christians and Muslims, Turks and Greeks within Asia Minor, cease to vex the International Community and “get on their nerves.” They threaten to withhold their aid, (“the oracle”) until this is done. In particular, the verse describing the translation of the relics of Vavylas are eerily reminiscent of harrowing accounts of the long processions of Asia Minor refugees, fleeing their villages, carrying their church labara, relics and the bones of their ancestors before them, to a new land.
The irreverent Cavafy has “false gods” tremble before such martyrs. Here, he is quite possibly parodying what he perceived to be Eleutherios Venizelos’ blind trust and belief in the absolute benevolence of the Allies, even as they betray him. Without question, he agrees to their demands, lest he incur the ire of his gods, for after all, in an expression that is a disquieting precursor for ethnic cleansing, “the temple has to be cleansed,” and no alternative course of action is to be considered. As such, he becomes the unwitting tool for the destruction of Hellenism in the East. We know from the writings of his friends, that Cavafy had mild monarchist leanings and thought poorly of Venizelos and his politics, for his conception of Hellenism transcended the bounds of the nation-state.
Having left Asia Minor/ the temple, a great conflagration breaks out which renders everything before it to ashes. Is this a not-so veiled reference to the great Holocaust of Smyrna, where the warships of the World Powers remained anchored in the harbour, watching the city being burnt and its inhabitants massacred without intervening? When Cavafy relates that Apollo is burnt to nothing, is he implying that in the aftermath of one of the greatest ever humanitarian disasters, caused in no small part by the cynicism and vested interests of the powers underwriting the League of Nations, that our faith in those International Institutions that supposedly bring about justice are now ashes? He is certainly prescient, given that the League of Nations went on to perish in an even large conflagration, that of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Furthermore, given the destruction of Smyrna, is it one of the most powerful driving forces of Modern Greek foreign policy, the “Megali Idea,” that is the idol that is consumed to dust in Apollo’s conflagration? 
Certainly, the final verse, supports the view that in the arson of the god Apollo’s temple, Smyrna’s destruction is being referenced. When he states: “he spread it around—
what else could he do?—that we, the Christians, had set the fire,” Cavafy seems to conflate Julian/ Venizelos with Venizelos’ partner in achieving the population exchange in Asia Minor: Kemal Atatürk, who famously blamed the burning of Smyrna on the Christian Greeks and Armenians. Similarly, Eleutherios Venizelos blamed the mismanagement of the war which saw the Greek presence in Asia Minor go up in flames upon the royalists. If it is Atatürk that Cavafy is inferring, then his last line, in which he is said to have “exploded,” (the Greek is έσκασε and here means to be upset) is doubly ironic, for the condition of exploding/being upset (σκασίλα), translates in the colloquial as not caring in the slightest.

Considering that Cavafy was an inhabitant of Alexandria, one of the greatest Hellenistic cities, that his historical poems generally are set during Hellenistic and/or Byzantine times, when the lands ruled by Greeks reached their greatest geographical extent and that he was attracted to characters and themes existing upon the margins of Hellenism and which expressed its decline in multi-faceted forms, it is ironic but not unexpected, that in the last poem of his life, he chose to deal with the final act of the most marked contraction and reversal of the geographical spread of Hellenism, the Holocaust of Smyrna. His paralleling of Antioch with Smyrna is inspired because in many ways Antioch is its counterpart: historically a vibrant and important centre of Greek civilisation that was repeatedly and violently sacked, burnt and fell into decay, until it was written out of the Greek discourse altogether. 
Despite his lament and deeply emotive evocation of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, embedded within Cavafy’s poem are the seeds of survival, the prophetic keys to the regeneration of Hellenism, unconstrained by borders and narrow ideologies: “We took it, the holy relic, and carried it elsewhere./ We took it, we carried it away in love and in honour.” And we did take it, that holy relic, far from the blasted lands of conflict and genocide, into continents Cavafy‘s heroes never imagined existed. We retained it, and founded colonies of such hellenisticity as to rival Cavafy’s own poetic geography. And though we declined in the same bittersweet and disarmingly innocent manner in which Cavafy’s described our forefathers’ fate, we keep it still, and will continue to do so, preserving the ashes and the memory of those who burned to keep it for us, until the time comes for that imperishable holy relic, in love and honour, to be carried away, somewhere else.


First published in NKEE on 19 May 2018

Saturday, May 12, 2018


Some years ago, I was re-reading Stratis Myrivilis’ classic anti-war novel «Η ζωή εν τάφω,» (Life in the Tomb), a harrowing account of life in the trenches of the Macedonian Front during the First World War, first published in 1924. Suddenly I stopped. In a scene describing how he was billeted with a Slav family, the author describes the woman as a «Μακεδονίτισσα,» that is, a Macedonian woman. In another passage, the author goes on to observe that the Slavs of the region he found himself in, «δὲ θέλουν νά ᾽ναι μήτε Μπουλγκάρ, μήτε Σρρπ, μήτε Γκρρτς. Μονάχα Μακεντὸν ὀρτοντόξ,» that is, “they don't want to be neither Bulgarian, nor Serbian nor Greek. Only Macedonian Orthodox." Tellingly, in later editions, Myrivilis, who came from the island of Lesbos, removed this most contentious sentence, but allowed the reference to the Μακεδονίτισσα to remain.

I was dumfounded. Here was no less a personage than Stratis Myrvilis, three time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and strident anti-communist, in a novel that established him as a master craftsman of Greek prose, and with the work itself constituting a turning point in the development of Modern Greek prose fiction, describing Slavs as Macedonian, at a time when, according to the vast majority of accounts, the so-called “Macedonian ethnic identity” had neither been invented nor articulated. Furthermore, his subsequently deleted observation seemed to attest to the fact that despite Greek and Bulgarian assertions to the contrary, in some sections of the regional Slavic population at least, there must have, during the First World War, which is the period Myrivilis describes, some sort of conviction that they had a “Macedonian identity,” regardless of whether this was historically plausible. I was deeply disquieted.
 My sense of mystification grew upon discovering in Ion Dragoumis’ influential  book «Μαρτύρων και ηρώων αίμα, (Blood of Martyrs and Heroes) published in 1907, presents a dialogue between a Greek and Bulgarian prisoner in Thessaloniki, in which reference to a «Μακεδονικὴ γλῶσσα» (a Macedonian language) is made. In the dialogue, the Greek protagonist goes on to deny that the language is Bulgarian, stating: «Σεῖς θέλετε νὰκάμετε δικὸ σας τὸ διαμέρισμα τοῦ Μοναστηριοῦ καὶ τὸ Μοναστήριἐπειδὴ βρίσκονται μερικὰ χωριὰ ἐκεῖποὺ μιλοῦν τὴν μακεδονικὴ γλῶσσαποὺ τὴ λέτε σεῖς βουλγάρικη». (You want to make the region of Monastiri and Monastiri yours, because there are a few villages there  that speak the Macedonian language, which you call Bulgarian). Astoundingly, Ioan Dragoumis has the Greek prisoner go on to state that: «Τὴ γλῶσσα αὐτὴπρῶτα-πρῶτα δὲν τὴν μιλοῦν ὅλοιἀλλὰ μόνο μερικοὶ ΜακεδόνεςχωριάτεςἜπειταἐκεῖνοι ποὺ τὴσυνηθίζουντὴ μιλοῦν μόνο στὸ σπίτι καὶ ὄχι στὴν ἀγορὰὅπου μιλιοῦνται τὰ ἑλληνικὰκαὶ τέλος  γλῶσσααὐτὴ δὲν εἶναι βουλγάρικηἀλλὰ ἕνα ἀνακάτωμα ἀπὸ σλαυικὰ καὶ ἑλληνικἀΒουλγαρικὴ γλῶσσα δὲνεἶναι…» (Firstly, this language is not spoken by all but only by some Macedonians, villagers. Further, those who use it, only speak it at home and not in the marketplace, where Greek is used and finally, this language is not Bulgarian, but a mixture of Slavic and Greek. It is not Bulgarian.” In one fell swoop, Ion Dragoumis not only appears to disagree with the Modern Greek contention that the language of FYROM is Bulgarian, but is adamant in showing that it has not relationship with Bulgarian whatsoever.

This is significant because Ion Dragoumis was one of the main instigators of the Macedonian Struggle and it is arguable that if it was not for him, Macedonia would not have been liberated and included within the Modern Greek State at all. Indeed, his book Blood of Martyrs and Heroes which contains the above contentious passages, was written by Dragoumis in order to tacitly argue for the annexation of the region to Greece. What possible reason could this ultra-patriotic nationalist Greek hero have to advance a position which if propounded today, would have him branded a traitor and a communist by even mild-mannered contemporary Greek patriots?

In her children's book about the Macedonian Struggle: Τα μυστικά του βάλτου (Mysteries of the Swamp) (1937) Penelope Delta referred to the slavic idiom as "Μακεδονική διάλεκτο" (the Macedonian Dialect). Elsewhere, she states: «Ἦταν ἕνα κράμα ὅλων τῶν βαλκανικῶν ἐθνικοτήτων τότε  ΜακεδονίαἝλληνεςΒούλγαροιΡουμάνοιΣέρβοιΑλβανοίΧριστιανοὶ καὶ Μουσουλμάνοιζοῦσαν φύρδην-μίγδην κάτω ἀπόταὸν βαρύ ζυγὸ τῶν Τούρκων γλῶσσα τους ἦταν  ἴδιαμακεδονίτικηἕνα κράμα καὶ αὐτή ἀπὸ σλαβικὰκαὶ ἑλληνικάἀνακατωμένα μὲ λέξεις τούρκικες..» (“Macedonia was then a conglomeration of all the Balkan ethnicities. Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanian, Serbs, Albanian, Christians and Muslim lived higgledy piggedly under the heavy Turkish yoke. Their language was the same, Macedonic, a conglomeration of Slavic and Greek, mixed in with Turkish words.”)
Quite apart from the fact that Penelope Delta was Ion Dragoumis’ lover, in possibly one of the most powerful and tragic love-affairs of early Modern Greece, like Dragoumis, Delta was a staunch proponent of the necessity to liberate and annex Macedonia to the Greek state. How is it possible then, that she would advance a position about the language of the region that appears to refute the oft-cited Greek contention that there is no such thing as a Macedonian language and that the concept was invented by Tito in 1944, especially when Delta predates Tito by seven years and Dragoumis, by thirty seven? 
 Furthermore, as  early as 1858, in the newspaper Αυγή, (Dawn) intellectual Alexander Rhangavis made fun of Bulgarian philhellene and accomplished poet in the Greek language Gregor Parlichev, also known as Grigorios Stavridis for writing a poem protesting against the disrespect shown by a visiting Russian, in a Greek church. Rhangavis stated that as Parlichev, who was the winner of the prestigious Academy of Athens poetry prize and was hailed as the “Second Homer” was a “Macedonian” (he was born in Ohrid) he ought to be grateful to the Russians. Parlichev himself identified as Bulgarian. Why would Rhangavis, refer to him as a Macedonian, almost a century before the concept of such an ethnic identity existed?
From the above examples we can see that even among nationalistic Greeks there has been inconsistency in the use of terms to describe the Slavs of the region and/or their language. In Rhangavis’ example, the term Macedonian is used maliciously, he seeking to impugn Parlichev’s attachment to Greece by emphasising his Slavic roots supposedly giving him an affinity to the Russians he so derides. There is no evidence however, that Rhangavis is using the term in an ethnic sense. He is merely being extremely nasty and stupid.
Even in the cases of Dragoumis and Delta, their musings over the “Macedonian language,” should not necessarily be taken as supporting the linguistic aspirations of the modern inhabitants of FYROM.  None of them were linguists. Instead, their observations are deeply political. In the face of Bulgarian claims on the region and the irrefutable fact that a Slavic idiom was spoken there, both Dragoumis and Delta are seeking to differentiate that idiom from Bulgarian as much as possible, by emphasizing its hybrid quality (both claim it is a conglomeration) and its regional quality, which is why Dragoumis describes it as “Macedonian” and Delta as “Macedonic.” None of them recognize a “Macedonian” ethnic identity. Dragoumis’ dialogue in  his book then cleverly goes on to state that language is no determinate of ethnic  identity, having his Greek protagonist state:  «Θέλουν ὅμως  δὲν θέλουν νὰ εἶναι ἕλληνεςΚαὶ ἀφοῦ τὸ θέλουνδὲν ξέρω ἂν  γλῶσσα ποὺ μιλε κανεὶςεἶναι ἀρκετὴ ὰπόδειξη τοῦ ἐθνισμοῦ ἑνὸς λαοῦ.» (“Do they or do they not want to be Greeks? And since they do, I don’t know whether the language one speaks constitutes adequate proof of a people’s ethnic identity.”) In other words, in a period before any “Macedonian identity” was claimed, Dragoumis tried to differentiate a regional language from Bulgarian nationalist aspirations by regionally rebranding it, in a manner what would have been completely out of context today. He then goes on to advance the contention that the Slavs speaking the idiom he terms Macedonian, are lapsed Greeks, which is why linguistic considerations, in his view, are unimportant when assessing ethnic identity.
As for Myrivilis’ observation that persons he came across identified as “Macedonian Orthodox,” does this constitute evidence of the emergence of such an identity, much earlier than is commonly accepted by Greeks? Or does it merely evidence a reaction of a people, caught between competing nationalist claims, not wishing to buy into either, a theory considered by historian Nada Boskovska, in her book “Macedonia (sic) before Tito.” The fact that he caused the observation to be removed in later editions, when the Macedonian issue took a different turn, probably suggests that he too, was merely trying to distance the Slav speakers he came across from the Bulgarians, in order to “gain them from Hellenism,” in a manner which would be unacceptable to the contemporary Greek position on the Macedonian Issue. After all, just because the people Myrivilis describes felt that they were “Macedonian,” doesn’t mean that they actually were.

Ultimately, the terms we use reflect political necessities and context, of the times. Their meanings and connotations shift over time in a manner in which their original coiners have no control and if taken out of their historical frame of reference can give rise to misunderstandings and misconceptions.  Had they lived now, it is most likely that the above mentioned authors would have avoided those contentious terms. Nonetheless, the way they employed them in their own writing testifies to crucial changes in the negotiation of identity, within the geographical region of Macedonia, prior to the emergence of the Macedonian issue in its most modern form.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 May 2018