Saturday, March 16, 2019


“Look,” Jani, my grandmother’s Albanian neighbour’s son, interrupted me. I was in the process of waxing lyrical about his father’s hometown of Fieri, near the ancient Greek city of Apollonia and centre of Vlach culture in south west Albania, where once I had a rather sordid midnight encounter with a pelican of questionable moral fibre. Having visited the town on numerous occasions, I felt able to provide a learned opinion about its architecture, urban planning and rubbish removal.
“I am really not interested in Fieri at all,” he continued. “I haven’t been there since I was five. I don’t really know anyone there and it makes no difference to me whatsoever. I was born here. This is my country. Just like you were born in Australia and Australia is your country.”
“So what you are saying is that you are a Greek and I am not?” I sought clarification.
“Look at it this way,” Jani elaborated. “I was born here. You were not. I’ve lived here all my life. You have not. I work here. You do not. I pay taxes to the Greek government, you do not. I’ve married a Greek girl and had children here. You have not. Sure, you may visit on occasion, but what do you know about what it is to live in this country? What makes you more Greek than I? Most of you who come from Australia can barely speak Greek.” He launched into a passable imitation of Greek-Australians lisping  their s’s and aspirating their t’s by way of example.
I started to recite my ancestry to him, and some of the history of the regions my parents come from. He cut me short. “That’s all stories you have picked up from your family and from books,” he dismissed me. “It’s not your story. YOUR story is in Australia, among Australians. It is MY story that is in Greece, among the Greeks.”
Some months later, I was back in Australia and launching a book of poetry. At the launch, an old man walked up to me determinedly. Inflating his chest to the breadth of a sausage balloon suffering from hypertension, he pronounced: “You shouldn’t be writing in Greek. You were born here. English is your language. Not Greek. Greek is our language, the language of us who were born there. Don’t you ever forget it.”
“Great advice,” I responded, “if I were not a devotee of Favorinus.”
The old man, thinking that I was making a comment about his luxuriously anachronistic sideburns, walked off, muttering curses under this breadth.
Favorinus, born in Arletum, modern day Arles, in France, a Gallo-Roman who wrote prose in beautiful Greek, defies definition. His very nature transcends characterization for he is described as being a eunuch by birth. Polemon of Laodicea, in his treatise on physiognomy, described him as “a beardless eunuch born without testicles and with a high pitched voice,” a condition similar to what I could have come to espouse had that gonad-obsessed pelican of Fieri been permitted to have its way with me, while Philostratus determined that he was a hermaphrodite.
As an intersex sophist, Favorinus was, just like many of us Antipodeans, when travelling to Greece, and just like many immigrants to Greece from other lands, constantly being called upon to establish his Hellenic credentials, his identity continuously being called into question.
In one musing, Favorinus’ sentiments come eerily close to those of Jani, an earlyὍπου γής και πατρίς᾽ argument:
"And I too love my fatherland; my love is second to no one's and I should never have left it willingly. On reflection however, I discover that it is nothing other than the place in which my forebears settled or resided. That a fatherland is not the country in which we ourselves were born is clear from the following: many people, though born elsewhere, regard another land as their fatherland. If our fatherland is this, the territory to which our ancestors have become accustomed, why by the same token should we not also love the country in which we currently reside? After all, the land in which one dwells is much closer than that in which one's ancestors dwelled, and my future descendants will have the same reason (or even more just cause) to make my enforced dwelling place their fatherland."
 «τὴν δὲ πατρίδα φιλῶ μὲν καὶ αὐτὸς οὐδενὸς δεύτερος καὶ ἑκὼν αὐτὴς οὐκ ἂν ποτε ἀπελείφθην. λογιζόμενος δὲ εὐρίσκω οὐδὲν ἕτερον οὖσαν ἢ ἐν ἧι οἱ πρόγονοι ἡμῶν κατώικησαν ἢ διέτριψαν. ὅτι γὰρ οὐκ ἐν ἧι αὐτοὶ ἐγενόμεθα, δῆλον ἐκ τούτου, πολλοὶ γὰρ ἑτέρωθι γεννηθέντες ἑτέραν πατρίδα νομίζουσιν. εἰ δὲ τοῦτό ἐστιν πατρίς, τὸ σύνηθες τοῖς προγόνοις χωρίον, τί δὴ οὐχὶ τῆι αὐτῆι γμώμηι καὶ ταύτην φιλητέον, ἐν ἧι τὰ νῦν διατρίβομεν; πολὺ γὰρ ἑκάστωι ἐγγυτέρω ἐν ἧι αὐτός τις οἰκεῖ ἢ ἐν ἧι οἱ πρόγονοι αὐτοῦ ωἴκησαν, τοῖς δὲ ἐξ ἐμοῦ γενησομένοις ἡ αὐτὴ αἰτία καὶ πολὺ δικαιοτέρα τὴν ἐμὴν ἀναγκαίαν ἐνδιαίτησαν πατρίδα ποιεῖν.»
In emphasizing that an individual;s proper place may not lie in his geographical origin but the place to which he relocates, Favorinus justifies his own Hellenisation and decision to write in Greek, to Greeks who would be loath to accept him as an equal into their cultural group, because of his ancestry.
In commenting derisively on Emperor Hadrian's founding of the "Panhellenion," an institution tasked with determining which cities within the Roman Empire were actually Greek, Favorinus presciently echoes many of the arguments used down the ages to dismiss concepts of primordial bloodlines and inherited identity:
 "If you delve back to the earliest times, you will find that all people everywhere are foreigners and exiles."
 «ἐὰν τὰ τοιαῦτα εἰς τὸ παλαίτατον ἀρχαιολογῆις, ἅπαντας ἀπανταχοῦ ξένους τε καὶ φυγάδας εὑρήσει.»
For him, there is no such thing as a original land. Employing what amounts to be a proto-Derridean argument, he maintains that while myths of origin may be deemed necessary in order to substantiate identity, when we look critically at the point of origin we identify with, we only find displacement.
Favorinus also mirrors Jani in his dismissing genealogy as a tool for establishing a diachronic national identity: "Do you know that if you trace back all those noble ancient ancestries, you will trace them back to Promethean mud or the stones of Deucalion?"
«ἢ οὐκ οἷσθα ὅτι ἐς πάσας τὰς παλαιὰς ἐκείνας εὐγενείας ἀναφέρων ἀνοίσεις ἢ εἰς τὸν Προμηθέως πηλὸν ἢ εἰς τὸυς Δευκαλίωνος λίθους;»
 In all his dismissal of my proffered arguments to establish my Greek identity, the Janus-like and deliciously ambiguous Favorinus, offers a few that can be employed against the Jani’s of the age.
In upbraiding the Corinthians for removing a statue of him, in his ‘Corinthian Oration,’ Favorinus mentions that though he was a  Roman of equestrian rank, “he espoused not only the voice but also the mind-set, life and style of the Greeks.” (οὐδὲ τὴν φωνὴν μόνο ἀλλὰ καὶ τὴν γνώμην καὶ τὴν δίαιταν καὶ τὸ σχῆμα τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἐζηλωκώς).
Consequently, he posits that he had developed an outstanding quality, that of  both resembling a Greek and being one.” (Ἕλληνι δοκεῖν τε καὶ εἶναι.)
Favorinus explains transition process from seeming” Greek to “being” Greek by explaing that “having been educated is no different from being so by nature in respect of seeming.” (οὐδὲν τὸ παιδευθῆναι τοῦ φῦναι πρὸς τὸ δοκεῖν διαφέρει). Who one actually is, then, is a matter of training and mime.
Devastatingly for the Greeks who would deny him his Hellenic affiliation, Favorinus goes on to call into question the Hellenic credentials of the very city that would deny him his coveted statue. Accordingly, he claims that “though Roman, he has thoroughly Hellenised like your own city” (Ῥωμαῖος ὣν ἀφηλληνίσθη, ὥσπερ ἡ πατρὶς ἡ ὑμετέρα.) This is because Corinth was sacked in 146BC by the Roman Mummius and was refounded as a Roman colony in 44BC. It is for this reason that the ancient travel writer Pausanias writes “Corinth is inhabited by none of the Corinthians of old, only settlers sent by the Romans.” (Κόρινθον δὲ οἰκοῦσι Κορινθίων μὲν οὐδεὶς ἔτι τῶν ἀρχαίων, ἔποικοι δὲ ἀποσταλέντες ὑπὸ Ῥωμαίων.) Corinth is both a Greek and a Hellenised mimetic city, just like Favorinus, Jani and myself, attempting to find parking in Oakleigh while balancing a frappe on my dashboard.
Jani was not particularly interested in Favorinus and resemblance to the sophist. As his father was a property developer of considerable clout in the neighbourhood, he was more interested in compelling my grandmother to sell him her smallholding and relocate elsewhere. His denial of identity had much to do with his understanding of property rights and I remembered that the very reason why the Corinthians pulled down their statue of Favorinus in the first place was because he let the Emperor Hadrian win in a debate. When asked to justify his match-fixing, Favorinus was said to have replied that it was foolish to question the logic of the master of thirty legions. He also responded to the obsequious Athenians pulling down their statue of him in order to curry favour with the Emperor, by observing that if Socrates had a statue in Athens, he would have been spared the hemlock.
I haven’t returned to Greece since the last time I spoke with Jani.  I learn from old neighbours that he no longer lives in Greece. Instead, after a property deal involving astute Russian investors went tragically wrong, he relocated to Albania, where he is an active supporter of the Party for Justice, Integration and Unity, which advocates the annexation of that part of Epirus where the Çam Albanian minority once lived.
I on the other hand, remain here, in the Hellenic Antipodes, perennially striving, as Favorinus did, to transition from seeming Greek to being Greek and back again, often unable to determine one from the other, especially while starching the pleats of my foustanella, in readiness for the 25th March parade and always on the lookout, like my pelicanic adversary, for tasty mouthfuls of large and ponderous Hellenic words and attributes, some to masticate, others to swallow wholesale.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 March 2019

Saturday, March 09, 2019


The logo of the Central Afghanistan Bank is restrained and unassuming. It is neither simplified to the level of an abstraction, as is the case with most Australian Banks, nor does it sport a garish colour scheme. It does not pretend to be your friend, assert that it is vitally concerned with helping your business team grow or funding your footy team and displays absolutely no interest in assisting you to maintain a work/life balance. At no stage does it intimate that you can talk to it if ever you are facing financial problems and it will certainly not ever attempt to sell you insurance. 

At the outset, someone who is not conversant with the Pashto language may be confused by the word “Da,” and mistake it for the Russian word meaning “yes.” Is this august financial institution thus implying that since by its very nature it is a positive affirmation, it will never react in the negative towards a loan application? Does this explain the dearth of mortgage brokers in the whole expanse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan? Indeed, is the bank’s positive approach to lending an institutional strategy to obviate the need for royal banking inquiries? Possibly, although “Da” here means central and the bank, founded in 1939, is tasked with the weight responsibility of formulating, adopting and executing the monetary policy of Afghanistan, holding and managing the official foreign exchange reserves of Afghanistan and most significantly, printing and issuing Afghani banknotes and coins, in the local currency, which, unmistakably is the Afghani. 

It is, of course, to be lamented that more countries do not follow suit and foist their ethnic identities upon their coinage. I look forward to the day, should Australia ever emancipate itself from its American colonial overlords and become a republic, that the dollar is replaced with the Aussie. Similarly should Greece ever remove itself from the Eurozone in a blaze of patriotic passion, I eagerly anticipate renaming its currency from the euro to the ellinara.

In my view, the naming of the aforementioned respected banking institution thusly, is a well concealed subtle attempt at coolness and monopolization. To all intents and purposes, in Afghanistan, this is Da Bank, ergo, the only one worth mentioning. Fo shizz. Word.

A close look at the centre of Da Bank’s logo reveals that it depicts a coin of the Graeco-Bactrian King Eucratides, inscribed in Greek. This inscription, which also appears on all Afghani banknotes, issued by Da Bank, reads: «Βασιλέως Μεγάλου Εὐκρατίδου,» meaning: "Belonging to, or property of the Great King Eucratides." Two men riding horses bearing spears and palms are depicted within the inscription. These are Castor and Pollux, the divine twins. In times ancient, they were associated with the rite of θεοξενία, or "god-entertaining", where the two deities were summoned to a table laid with food, whether at individuals' own homes or in the public hearths or equivalent places controlled by states ad they would arrive on their horses, at a gallop. The implication is thus clear: pay your interest on time to Da Bank, or we will send the boys around….

Yet the presence of the Greek coin upon Afghan currency issued by Da Bank harbours broader implications. For if by its own admission, the Central Bank of Afghanistan admits that all of its banknotes belong to Great King Eucratides, then surely, after his demise, those banknotes become property of his estate. We know for instance that King Eucratides, who came to the throne by overthrowing Antimachos I in Bactria, while his son Demetrius was conquering northwestern India, was eventually overthrown and killed by one of his sons, either Eucratides II or Heliocles I, in a particularly bloody way. As Roman historian Marcus Junianus Justinus writes in his Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus:” But as he was returning from the country, he was killed on his march by his son, with whom he had shared his throne, and who was so far from concealing the murder, that, as if he had killed an enemy, and not his father, he drove his chariot through his blood, and ordered his body to be cast out unburied." 

At some stage, the Yuezhi, an Indo-Aryan people living in China took over Graeco-Bactria, killed Heiocles I and the dynasty fled variously to India, where the Indo—Greek kingdm persisted for another hundred years or so, and to China, where the Kingdom of Dayuan, (Great Ionia) endured, under Yuezhi and then Chinese suzerainty for a considerable period of time.
The fact is however, that at some stage, Eucratides’ descendants died out. In absence of any linear descendants, it is common legal practice to name next of kin as beneficiaries to his estate and in their absence, the linear successor to the state to which he belonged. Like all epigonoi, Eucratides could be said to rule in the name of Alexander and the Macedonian kingdom. The modern successor state to that Kingdom is the Republic of Greece. Thus, by logical implication, then surely this landlocked state’s legal tender, rightfully belongs to Greece.

It should be noted from the outset that the government of the nation that is ruled from the city of Skopje is estopped from emerging as a rival claimant to the Afghan banknotes, in great part thanks to the recently ratified Agreement of Prespa, where in article 7, that country concedes and acknowledges that its people having nothing to do with Ancient Macedonia, hence: “the official language and other attributes of [FYROM] are not related to the ancient civilization, history, culture and heritage of the northern region of [Greece]. “ Consequently, the Greek nation is thus the sole party entitled to collection and possession of the banknotes. Considering that according to the current exchange rate, 100 Afghanis purchase 1.18 Euros, whereas 100 “Macedonian” (sic) dinars purchase 1.62 Euros, the second party to the Prespa Agreement’s diplomatic and economic gaffe assumes epic proportions. It seems that the man without the tie knew was he was doing after all. Not for nothing does the name Eucratides ambiguously ranges in meaning from “he who rules well,” to “he would holds on well.”

For, fellow compatriots, thanks to the generosity of Da Bank in Afghanistan and the exalted leader of Modern Greece, re-namer of islands, signer of treaties and memoranda, we have struck it rich. This windfall is the most significant cache of coin to befall Greece since Artemis Sorras' discovery of the Greek soverign heritage fund. The hoard of Afghan legal tender literally is, ours for the taking. All that remains for us to do now, is merely prosaic: to figure out the logistics of how to wrest control of our banknotes from the mujaheddin, the warlords and the Taliban. As key stakeholders and inheritors of the majesty of the Macedonian epigonoi, I nominate the various Pan-Macedonian associations throughout the world as the most appropriate entities to take receipt of the funds and convey them to the motherland, where they can be used to set up a foundation that will highlight the Greek character of Macedonia and fund projects for Macedonian scholars to emphasize their Macedonian-ness.
Alternatively, considering that last time substantial funds came in from the east was in Alexander’s time, with Darius III’s Persian gold reserves causing rampant inflation and a crippling economic crisis, the Eucratidean funds could be appropriated by the Greek government in order to create a foundation, bearing their originator’s name: “The Eucratidean [Good Government] foundation.” The possibilities are endless. After all, ἔστιν οὖν λεφτὰ καὶ ἡ Μακεδονία.. Now let’s make sure that we get those contact details right: cc. Subject: Ta Lefta. Dear Sirs…….


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 March 2019

Saturday, March 02, 2019


“G’day,” a portly middle aged man sporting a grey, Fu Manchu-like goatee and wearing an eighties Bundaberg Rum t-shirt, approached me at the Epirus Cultural Stall during the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, last week. “Can I ask a question?”
“Sure,” I replied, gearing up for, what, in the fifteenth year of running the stall, is a well-rehearsed mini exposition on the embroiderers of Ioannina, the silversmiths of Syrrako and other small pieces of Epirus-related trivia that we dole out to interested passersby as they view our collection of 19thcentury Epirotic jewelry and costumes.
“How come there are no worry beads in your tent?” he asked. Before I could think of a reply, he provided the answer himself: “Because there are “No Worries” in Australia.” I burst out laughing, invited him into the tent in order to initiate him into the mysteries of home-brewed tsipouro, a concoction which turned him purple and caused him to splutter: “Strewth.  No wonder you guys are so highly sprung. That’s bloody rocket fuel. Goodonya Aussie.” He went on to tell me how he often likes to stop off on the side of Geelong Road and have a picnic because it is something he remembers Greek immigrants do in the western suburbs in the seventies and early eighties.
Soon after, Peter Ford, well known within the Cretan community for his tireless promotion of the commemoration of the Battle of Crete turned up, as he does every year, his ubiquitous camera around his neck.  He proceeded to take detailed pictures of the exhibits and myself, “for insurance purposes only,” he smiled. A half an hour later, he returned, bearing an envelope with the developed photographs. He then proceeded to do the same for all of the cultural stalls in the Festival, loaded as he was, with Epirotic rocket fuel.
A person who identified themselves as being of Wurundjeri descent stood gazing at a traditional embroidered Sarakatsanic apron in our display. “I’m fascinated by this,” she smiled. “The patterns remind me of some of our own art. The motifs are very similar.” I explained to her that if you knew how to decode the symbols you could glean as much personal information about the wearer of the apron as you can today from a facebook profile. Pointing to the symbols, I showed her how one can deduce that the wearer was married but a widow, with two children. I then related the legends about the transhumant Sarakatsanoi during their peregrinations around the Balkans and the songs that make up their identity. “Just like our own song-lines,” she gasped. When she finally bid us goodbye, there were tears in her eyes. “To tell you the truth,” she confided, “I’ve struggled to understand the place of migrant communities in Australia. I’ve always seen them as groups jumping off the back of the English invasion. If I hadn’t come here I would never have dreamed that we have so much in common. At the end of the day, we are native peoples. That’s right, we are natives, we are one,” she affirmed and grasped my hand tightly. My eyes grew moist.
“Can you tell me where these things come from?” a squat man asked, his open pink shirt revealing a forest of chest hair. “These are from Epirus,” I responded, explaining that the items, common to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike belonged to a region straddling the Greco-Albanian border. As it turned out, he was from Shkodër, in Northern Albania. When I concluded my narrative, he commented: “These are exactly the same things that form part of our own traditional culture. I was expecting you to tell me that they were solely Greek. But here you are telling me that we share these items. I would never have expected to hear this from a Greek.”
“Why?” I asked, pointing to a painting of the Aslan Pasha Mosque in Ioannina, executed by our artist in residence, Jason Roberts and hanging on the wall of our stall. “How can we deny the presence and cultural contribution of the Albanian people to our region when our major city, Ioannina is defined by the mosques they built?”
“Tell me,” the man grinned, “switching to broken Greek, “if the people of Himara are truly Greek like they claim, why do they mourn their dead in Albanian?”
“For the same reason that you are speaking to me in Greek,” I responded. We stood arm in arm and proceeded to accompany him on the violin as he sang a traditional Albanian funeral dirge. When we parted, he enveloped me in an asphyxiating bear hug and pecked me vigorously on the cheek. “We are one people,” he declared. “One people.”
Funnily enough, this is also what many visitors to the stall whose origins lie in the Indian subcontinent told me. They found similarities between the exhibits and their own traditions of metalworking and embroidery, and attributed this to the arrival of Alexander the Great in the Punjab. When I told them of Roma, the itinerant craftsmen that migrated from India to the Balkans centuries ago and still speak Romani, the only Indo-Aryan language outside the Indian subcontinent, they were astounded. They were even more astounded to learn that they still exist in large groups within Greece and that some of them are our most accomplished traditional Epirotic musicians. “So Indians are Greek and Greeks are Indian,” one man laughed. “We are the same.”
Many of my Chinese visitors told me that the exhibits reminded them of the clothes worn in the region of Xinjiang, in Western China. I spoke to them of the vanished kingdom of Dayuan (Great Ionia) a Greek state on the border with China, founded by Greco-Bactrians fleeing the conquest of their own kingdom and a tributary of the Chinese Empire. However, it was when they heard us play songs from the Pogoni region that they truly became astonished. “This is exactly like our music,” they gasped. “It makes sense,” I replied, in Chinese. “Both our musical traditions are based on the pentatonic scale. That is why they sound so similar.” “Do you know,” one elderly gentleman remarked, “out of all the nations in the world, we respect the Greeks the most. Do you want to know why? Because you have the same values as us, the same long history and the insight that comes with it. We feel very close to you. We are one people.”
A friend brought his breathtakingly tall girlfriend to the stall. By way of prologue, even before telling me her name, almost by way of excuse, he pronunced: “She identifies as Aromanian.” The lovely young lady proceeded to explain that her Vlach-speaking ancestors came from Ioannina and Grammos and migrated to the country currently ruled from the city of Skopje one hundred years ago. Vlach is her native language and she is fluent in it. “Brilliant,” I responded. “My grandfather was a Vlach and our president, the man in the corner playing the clarinet, is also a Vlach. Go and converse with him.” Although the august president of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia rejoices in his Vlachness, his proficiency in the language is diminishing. I derived perverse pleasure out watching him struggle to find the correct words to complete his sentences because to me, it seemed the inverse of what usually happens in Greek-Australia, where the younger generations often flounder in their attempts to find the requisite vocabulary with which to converse with their elders. Now the shoe, or rather the tsaroukhi, was on the other foot.
“I love this Vlach costume,” the young lady fondled the conical headdress on the mannequin was had on display, lovingly. “My grandmother had one exactly like it. I had heard of the Vlachs of Greece but never really met any or appreciated just how similar we all are. We are one people.” And with that, she draped her arm lovingly around her boyfriend’s shoulders and sauntered off towards the main stage.
I wish she could have been at our tent when we had the unique privilege of jamming with visiting musicians from Northern Epirus, Robert Selfo and Kita Caraoshi. When Kita, a Vlach from Elbasan began to sing in the Vlach language, almost simultaneously, a large crowd gathered. «Τιείναι αυτά;» some of  the older ladies asked. «Αυτά είναι αρχαία ελληνικά,» I informed them, semi-maliciously, chuckling in morbid glee as they walked off, commenting knowledgeably to each other: “This is the language of Socrates.”
Whether the words are in Greek, Vlach or Albanian, the music is the same and one who derives from its tradition, knows how to perform it. “It grounds you,” a Pontian dance instructor suggested, when I tried to explain it to him. “No,” I elaborated. “It undergrounds you. It connects you with all those people under the earth who have been and gone before you, with the bare bones of the earth that are yet to be revealed. You are their larynx and they speak through you. As we played, and sang, in Vlach and Greek, we nodded to each other in unspoken understanding. At that exact moment, when pitch, rhythm and the polyphony melded into the primeval perfect expression of who we are, we were one.
Packing up at the conclusion of the Festival, a curly haired beaming Persian lady asked me: “Can you translate some of what you were singing?” I summarized the story of Osman Tako, central character of the Siamantaka song, a bandit, whose final request prior to being executed was to dance a most manly dance. “Oh my,” she exclaimed. “We have a poem that is almost exactly the same.” We conversed further and she was confounded by my revelation that prized poet Rumi also wrote poems in Greek. “We have so much common history, so many similarities,” she marveled. “We are…”
“Yes, I know,” I completed her sentence and limped off into the night, feet swollen from being encased in tsaroukhia. “We are one people, and it takes a Lonsdale Street Greek Festival to show that to its fullest extent.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 March 2019

Saturday, February 23, 2019


“Odysseus, noble son of Laertes, stop this warful strife, or Zeus will be angry with you.” Homer, the Odyssey.
The summary of perhaps Cavafy’s most famous poem ‘Ithaca,’ “It’s not the journey but the destination,” has been so often quoted that it has passed beyond the realms of the trite and well and truly entered the territory of the cliché.

Cavafy drew from the Homeric epic return journey of Odysseus for his inspiration. According to most readings, the idea of nostos, homecoming, is a particularly powerful one. We all seek a return, one that will see us venture out into the unknown, gain a wealth of experiences that will, to use the most contemporary buzzwords, enrich us, expand our skill sets and enable us to grow.
“As you set out for Ithaca
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.”
Odysseus’ journey was a particularly lengthy one. Because he inadvertently angered the gods by appropriating their wagyu beef, they made sure that the wily but hapless traveller took a decade to reach his home after a series of harrowing near death experiences. Rather than being a paean to the idea that immersed in lives of haste, and easy, instantaneous rewards, it is easy to forget that the path, or any kind of process, is not only that which can teach us the most but that which is also the most enjoyable, one cannot help shake off the suspicion that the polysemic Cavafy is actually engaging in the type of deadpan irony that is latent in all of his work.
“Laestrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laestrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.”
The usual reading of these lines entail the conviction that perils are endogenous, that in fact, our own demons impede us in the process of achieving our goals. Apparently, this motivational advice is of significant ontological implication, to be applied to the simplest and most mundane of life’s processes, with surprising, illuminating results. It has among certain practitioners of mindfulness, led to the creation of a philosophy of life, that relates in a profound way to meditation, to the work of keeping our minds in the present.
Except that Odysseus’ actual experience was acutely different. He met, through no real fault of his own, not only Laestrygonians and Cyclopes, but also Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis and the particularly ardent Circe and Calypso who imprisoned him and used him for carnal pursuits. Having escaped from the perils of these vicious monsters (Scylla for example, was a frightful beast with four eyes and six long snaky necks equipped with grisly heads, each of which contained three rows of sharp shark's teeth, while her body consisted of twelve tentacle-like legs and a cat's tail, while six dog's heads ringed her waist,) and borderline psychotic women by the skin of his teeth, a traumatised Odysseus could only take Cavafy’s pious wish: “Hope your road is a long one,” as a travesty in the poorest of tastes. To suggest to someone that has just avoided being eaten by one-eyed giants, killed by singing winged female assassins, enveloped by a whirlpool created by the belching of a sea-monster, and metamorphosed into a pig by a precursor to Doctor Moreau, that they could have avoided their ordeal had they maintained a positive outlook, is the epitome of insensitivity, one that would have required Odysseus, had he lived in the present, to indulge in years of therapy, soy lattes and interminable attempts at body art, in order to recover.
“May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.”
Gaining experiences that will change and assist one to evolve is the yardstick of growth in life, in accord with modern conceptions of life-long learning and re-skilling. Yet Cavafy well knows that Odysseus’ sojourn in Egypt was occasioned in the context of a violent and failed raid of that country by him. In the Odyssey, Odysseus makes no representation that he learnt anything from the erudite Egyptians. Instead, he claims simply not only of having been spared in the wake of the Egyptian raid, but of spending a subsequent seven years in the land of the pharaohs, during which he gathered great wealth. Similarly, in the Odyssey, while he praises their skills at craftmanship, calling them polydaedalic, Homer is ambivalent about the Phoenicians, having Odysseus tell the plausible lie that the Phoenicians stole steal all his accumulated wealth from the Trojan war and left him stranded. Time and time throughout the text, Homer depicts them as scheming traders obsessed with material wealth as opposed to the heroism of the Greeks and Trojans. By subverting the myth, Cavafy is clearly making the opposite point to that which is commonly wrung from these lines: that pursuit, of whatever substance, is often futile, or tainted by motivation.

Cavafy’s ‘Ithaca’ culminated with its grandiloquent conclusion:
“Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.”
Stay the course, eyes on the prize, play the long game, never forget your goal but enjoy the journey, no pain, no gain: these are the clichés that are commonly employed to encapsulate the meaning of these magical stanzas. Yet Odysseus arrived in his home, to find that not even his father recognised him. His faithful dog died at his feet. His house was overrun by suitors lusting after his wife and property and he was compelled to engage in wholesale slaughter in order to set his house in order. The people of Ithaca, enraged at the killing, rise up against him as an interloper and he is only saved by divine intervention. We gain no insight on the change in the relationship between Odysseus and his faithful Penelope, but in subsequent classical embellishments of the myth such as the Telegonia, we learn that rather than arrive, wise but worn at his tranquil terminal point, Odysseus can find no peace in Ithaca. He travels to Thesprotia, marries another woman Kallidike, and finally is killed by Telegonus, the son he had while a sex-slave to Circe. Ithaca is thus not a home but a symbol of the loss of home and rootlessness, a source of eternal torment. It is only when keeping Odysseus’ final fate in mind that we can understand the true message of the ambivalent Cavafy: “you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.” Rather than serving an inspirational new-age influencer, Cavafy has instead, cleverly rendered, an artful, but nonetheless sick parody of human existence and aspiration.
In penning his paean to pessimism, Cavafy seems to have been closely responding to a little known poem penned by Joachim Du Bellay in 1558, in Middle French, that barely rates a mention in most discussions about Cavafy’s Ithaca. However, the parallels are compelling; Du Bellay makes mention of the return journey, and of the acquisition of wisdom. He also maintains that it is better to be poor at home than living in splendour elsewhere:

“Happy he who like Ulysses has returned
successful from his travels, or like he
who sought the Golden Fleece, to rest well earned -
wise to the world - amongst his family.
When shall I see again my place of birth, 
its chimney smoke, and at what time of year, 
when seen that little, modest, plot of earth
which means far more to me than I draw here.
I’m drawn far more to my ancestral home
than to a Roman palace fine and proud, 
prefer fine slate to marble, rather roam
along the Loire than sport midst Tiber’s crowd.
My Liré I prefer to Palatine, 
and to sea air, soft climate Angevine.”
Du Bellay’s work does lend itself to the reading almost universally applied to that of Cavafy’s response to it. Yet Cavafy’s response is infinitely more layered and displaying deep insights into the original Homeric texts that underlies both poems, constitutes a nuanced and psychologically complex analysis, affirmation and simultaneous negation of time, fate and trajectory and humanity’s relationship to it. Viewed from this perspective, that of the work that engendered it, and gauging the extent of Cavafy’s departure from it, the power of his equivocal vision of humanity and the majesty of his contrapuntal treatment of the foundation texts of its civilisation, are granted stark clarity.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 February 2019