Saturday, October 31, 2015
"Death commands respect," Ismail Kadare, “The General of the Dead Army.’
When the sun rose that day, it could not be seen. All was hidden in the stultifying greyness that try as it might, could not hide the bulk of the mountain looming ominously, as it has done for eternity, over the small stone village perched precariously at its roots. Winter was only a month away and already, winds more irritated than enraged, were descending from the peaks and entering through the cracks in the window frames and the doors, whining and scolding complaints and laments that have been passed down the generations since the door of time.
The old woman, grey as the stones around here and ever so more weathered, was tying her headscarf. Unlike her sisters across the border, while she wore black, her headscarf was a brilliant white and she wrapped it over the thinning remains of her plait over and around her temples over and over again fashioning a strange square top-knot. Turning towards the creased cardboard icon next to the window, she began to cross herself. There was a knock at the door. Turning to me, shivering at the fireplace, she whispered: «Άιντε μάνα᾽μ, ετοιμάσου.»
The wooden door creaked open and a man of indeterminate age entered. In his calloused hands, he bore a clarinet with remarkable gentleness and extreme reverence, as if he was cradling his first-born son in his arms. Together, we walked down the cobblestoned path, past the road towards the fields. Once, not so long ago, these fields were closely planted with crops, watered by the great river solemnly slinking over the rocks in parallel with the road and fed by the blood and bone of those who suffered to till them. Now, the young people had gone in droves, seeking a better life in the south and the fields lay fallow and grey, a chthonic reflection of the cloud piercing mountains above them.
There was nothing to mark the spot in the middle of the field, as particularly significant: no monument, statue, or other structure to proclaim its importance. Instead, a mound of stones and a rudimentary cross, fashioned from the river reeds and tied with string. The man was gazing at the cross silently, smoking a cigarette in one hand, never letting go of the clarinet in the other. Upon finishing his cigarette, he turned to the cross and raising the clarinet to his lips, emitted a heart-rendering dirge. Its modulations appeared to emanate from under the ground, resonating among the river reeds, only to use the clarinet as a mere amplifier. As a solitary tear descended down the man’s left cheek, the old woman, pushing back her headscarf and clawing at her cheeks began to wail:
«Για σή- μωρέ για σήκω καπετάνιε μου.
Άιντε καημένε καπετάνιε και κάτσε παραπάνω.
Με τι μωρέ με τι ποδάρια να σκωθώ;
Άιντε καημένε καπετάνιε και χέρια ν᾽ακουμπήσω;
Εχώ μωρέ εχώ το γόνα τρίμματα,
Άιντε καημένε καπετάνιε, τον πλάτη τσάκισμενο.
Εχώ μωρέ εχώ, δυο-τρεις λαβωματιές,
Άιντε καημένε κάπετανιε, τρία μαυρά μολύβια.»
(Rise my captain, rise my poor captain and sit up. With what feet can I rise, with what hands can I support myself?My knee is in shreds, my back broken.I have two or three wounds, three black bullets.”
Only in Epirus, where in ancient times existed the entrance of Hades do its grey inhabitants, neither dead nor alive, presume to transcend the divide between the living and the dead and call upon the dead to rise from their graves. Again, only they have the temerity to presume to answer for those dead and explain why such a course of action is impossible.
“They were young boys, a little younger than you, when they came to Vouliarati” said the old woman, her lament over, becoming possessed with a startling loquacity. “We hung Greek flags from our windows and ran out to meet them and shower them with flowers. All of us believed that this time, they were here to stay, that our subjugation was over, and that from that moment on, we would be free.” Wiping her eyes, she continued: “Whenever we would find them, we would bring them here and bury them. All the boys that we had brought food and clothing to. Asimakis was the first. Giorgos, who was called Gakis next, then Nako. For the next fifteen minutes, she recited a list of first names and surnames that she and many other women of Northern Epirus had been reciting to themselves every night since 1940.
“Yes I remember them all, even the villages they came from. Names just like ours. Boys, just like ours who never came back. They were not here to stay. After a few months, the whole army left and we were left alone, to endure ‘them.’ For the first few years we would hold memorial services properly, with a priest like Christians. Whenever we would find a corpse or some bones in the fields, the mountains or the ravines, we would try to bring it here to be with its brothers. Then when Enver came, [here she spat on the ground], may his bones be consigned to the eternal flame, he got rid of all the priests. He said that we were celebrating the forces of fascism and reaction and we were forbidden to bury any more bodies or pray over them. All the crosses were uprooted but we never forgot where we buried them and when we worked in the fields we would whisper the prayers and recite the names of those we knew so that they would not remain unforgiven. We will never forget our boys. They fought for our freedom and when we remained enslaved, they stayed with us. God forgive them and us too.”
In a bend of the road a short distance from the approach to Vouliarati, I had already seen the remains of one of “our boys,” from the car. At a newly excavated shoulder, a human femur reflected the muted light. “There are an estimated 8,000 Greek soldiers unaccounted for,” the driver told me. “Whenever they dig around here, they always find Greek bones. Used to drive the communists mad.”
In the sixties, Enver Hoxha, the leader of one of the most autocratic and xenophobic regimes in history, permitted the Italians, who had annexed and colonized Albania, to locate and bury those of their soldiers who had perished in the mountains of Northern Epirus, paying with their lives for their leader’s decision to invade Greece on 28 October 1940. No such dignity or respect was offered to the Greek slain. A Greek invasion that never came was expected daily between 1945 to 1991 and the entire native Greek population of Northern Epirus was considered and treated as ethnically and ideologically dangerous. As a mad King Creon, he decreed that Antigone-like, the corpses of the Greek soldiers would lie, unhonoured, uncommemorated, unburied and hopefully forgotten.
Despite this, the Greeks of Northern Epirus, those whose hopes for their own freedom were pegged upon the backs of and shared the same fate as the slain soldiers of 1940, did not forget. Defying the edicts of the mad dynast, and under pain of death or torture, they secretly maintained and passed on knowledge of the whereabouts of the dead, their names and deeds, surreptitiously performing religious rites that were strictly prohibited. For, as is the case for the rest of the Greeks, 28 October 1940 was a triumph and a miracle, proving how a small but valorous people can best an unjust aggressor. Unlike the rest of the Greeks however, the occupation of their lands never ended, one occupier being exchanged for another, ever more brutal and the bones of the fallen Greek soldiers became, in the long decades of their painful solitude, their companions in suffering and dreams cherished but long betrayed.
The old lady who chanted the dirge that cold 28th of October no longer chants for she has gone to join those she tended so faithfully, and the dead she lamented now lie in a proper dedicated cemetery. Every year, Greek dignitaries, on the anniversary of OXI, Greek dignitaries visit and make effusive speeches about valour, courage and pride. And when all the mummery is done and the empty words dissipate in the ether, a solitary man raises his clarinet to his lips and calls upon the dead to rise once more…
First published in NKEE on 31 October 2015
Saturday, October 24, 2015
STAN THE MAN
Though I am largely indifferent to sporting pursuits in general, I despise kickboxing and ascribe blame for my aversion to it, to the great Stan (the Man) Longinidis, at least indirectly. For it was his fame, long before I ever knew of his existence, that contributed in no small measure, to my early adolescent suffering, in the late eighties. My cousin, who at the age of fifteen had already attained the height of six feet, was a fanaticised devotee, a fact I came to acknowledge when, sitting quietly one day, he surreptitiously insinuated himself within my vicinity and landed what is known in technical parlance as a "roundhouse kick," to my left shoulder. "Pow!" he exclaimed. "Stan the Man!" "Stan the what, μουλαροτρίφτη;" I responded indignantly, believing at the time that there could be no worse a curse than to be accused of rubbing down mules.
By way of a riposte, my cousin executed a jab, cross and a jump kick that sent me sprawling. "It's Stan the Man Longinidis, and yes, he's won the championship over Muay Thai champion Four-Eyes!" he offered by way of commentary, as I searched blindly for my spectacles.. For the next year, every time my cousin and I would meet, which was uncomfortably often, I would be successively poked, jabbed, kicked and punched, all in the name of the nebulous Stan the Man.
"Do you know why they call him Stan the Man Longinidis?" my cousin asked me one day as he expertly performed a sidekick upon my personage. "I don't know," I responded, "picking myself off the floor. Maybe because he is a man?" "No vre," my cousin barked, following up with four rapidly delivered punches to my sternum. "Do you know why they call him Longinidis?" I posited that the -idis suffix denoted Pontian descent and that Longinus was the name of the Roman soldier who pierced the side of Jesus Christ on the cross and then believed. An illegal ear tweak and nipple cripple soon disabused me of my misapprehension. "They call him Longinidis," my cousin emphasized with the clipped tones of a Gestapo torturer, "because he can take you out of action for a long time."
To add insult to injury, my cousin felt that my understanding of the art of kickboxing as a condition precedent to my compulsory adulation of Stan the Man would benefit from viewing the recently released "Kickboxer," movie a total of thirty times and its sequels (there are an excruciating four of them) another ten times each. In my mind, my image of Stan "the Man" gradually fused with that of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and when my cousin, in our rougher sparrings accidentally drew blood, his Tong Po-like exclamation: "You bleed like Mai Li. Mai Li, good.." would elicit a convincing Van Dammian/Longinidian: "Nooooooooo.." from my good self. After being compelled to watch yet another Van Damme blockbuster, this time "Over the Top," on the subject of arm-wrestling and possibly the worst movie ever made, I gradually grew dismissive of Stan "the Man", secure in the knowledge that I could probably best him in a thumb-wrestle. When my grandmother, on one of her random patrols in the garden, apprehended my cousin and I making plaster of Paris and smashing bottles in order to fight Muay Thai in the "ancient way," our kickboxing careers abruptly came to an end as she attempted, and almost succeeded in impaling us upon her tomato stakes. Soon after, my cousin, abjuring Stan "the Man's" impeccable mullet coiffure, discovered the New Kids on the Block and imposed upon me a hairstyle akin to that sported by Jordan Knight before becoming obsessed with Kendo. For this, and much else, my grandmother and her tomato stakes are to blame.
All the while, the real Stan "the Man" Longinidis was becoming the champion we all know and love. He is after all, is one of the few fighters to have won World titles in three different styles: International Rules Kickboxing, Full Contact and Muay Thai. Furthermore, on 10 October he became the first Australian from any Martial Arts fighting code to be inducted in the Australian Sports Hall Of Fame. As such he more than deserves our admiration more so because he is one of those brave people who have dared to live their dream. Quitting his day job as a computer programmer, (and I have heard pundits describe his fighting style as 'analytical,') in order to train, he managed to win the North American and USA Heavyweight Kickboxing Titles as well as the Australian Heavyweight title. In April 1990 he became the first Australian to win a World Kickboxing Title when he achieved the K.I.C.K Full Contact Super Heavyweight Title and added another two World Titles to his name in 1991.
I remember Stan's bout with Dennis Alexio, which received widespread coverage in Australia. That match fight lasted for six seconds, with Longinidis dealing the famed Alexio a low kick which broke his leg. For weeks later, my cousin would attempt to re-enact that kick upon my own spindly shanks, all the while ruminating over whether parallels could be drawn between Stan "the Man" and Alexio and Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.
1996, the year Stan "the Man" became the first westerner to fight for and attain the WMC World Super heavyweight Muay Thai Title in Thailand, was a watershed year for me because it was at this moment that I divested myself of my pro-republican views, embracing instead a monarchist position, solely because Stan "the Man" was crowned as champion by the King of Thailand, and I felt that if as a community , we supported the republic, such crownings as these would be rendered null and void. As if in acknowledgement of such consideration, Stan "the Man" persevered, despite a serious knee injury that threatened to end his career, necessitating a complete knee reconstruction in 1997.
Stan "the Man" Longinidis continued to amaze and enthrall my cousin and I until 2000 where he retired after beating Peter "The Chief" Graham in Melbourne, coming out of retirement for one fight in 2003 before leaving the ring permanently. It says much for his professionalism and ethos that at a French martial arts expo in 2000, he was awarded lifetime achievement award recognizing his major influential impact on the early days of the sport, and his status as one of the most famous names and brands in the history of kickboxing. Jean-Claude Van Damme was nowhere to be seen.
What many people do not know, is that Stan "the Man" has acted as a role model and mentor to many younger Greek-Australians. His perseverance, trail-blazing commitment to excellence and willingness to engage with the youth in diverse areas has earned him the undying gratitude of many sections of the community. One of the most proud of these, is the Pontian community and it is for this reason that Pontiaki Estia, (of which Stan's father has been a dedicated and active member for many years, laying the Pontian lyra on a voluntary basis at functions since 1976,) has seen fit to honour one of its greatest and most humble of sons, at a dedicated function in his honour, on 30 October 2015. Given that his achievements were attained in the context of a society that was only just becoming used to migrants assuming a high profile in sport, an entire generation was uplifted and made confident in their own identity by virtue of his victories. For this, and much more besides, the honours Pontiaki Estia seek to bestow upon him are timely and well deserved.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 October 2015
Saturday, October 17, 2015
THE SABOTAGE DIARIES
“Memory is that diary which we all carry with us.” Oscar Wilde.
A recent article on Katherine Barnes recently published novel ‘The Sabotage Diaries,’ in the Canberra Times bears the title: “The Sabotage Diaries tells of mission to disrupt Rommel's supply lines.” If I was asked what ‘The Sabotage Diaries’ tells of however, I would have much more to say.
This multifaceted quality of Katherine Barnes’ booked, based on the wartime diaries of her father in law, Tom Barnes, is one of the most engaging aspects of her work. While the story literally tells itself, given the deep involvement of Tom Barnes in the Greek resistance, Katherine Barnes has conducted extensive research into occupied Greece in order to add context and flesh out a historical background that springs alive from the words of the page. In doing so, her words are imbued with a cinematic quality, a vividness that is truly startling in its ability to ensnare readers and ultimately involve them intimately in the heroic and often harrowing exploits of the brave and doughty Tom Barnes. Even when there are a few historical slip ups,such as the claim that Epirus was liberated in 1848 (it was liberated in 1913), these can be justified byv the process in which intrepid, open minded and thoroughly decent New Zealander who became an Australian, engaged with the history and the people he came to love, in Greece, during his mission.
Primarily, The Sabotage Diaries, recount Tom's exploits in Greece after he was co-opted by the British Special Operations for "Operation Harling" – a mission which required him, with little training, to parachute with a small party behind enemy lines and blow up a bridge used by the Germans to supply their army in North Africa. That bridge was at Gorgopotamos and its destruction arguably formed the most important chapter in the Greek resistance movement and as well as being one of the few times in which the rival Greek leftist and rightist resistance groups were able to put aside their enormous differences and hostility towards each other and collaborate. This, in no small part was due to the members of the British mission, of which Tom was one. So, paraphrasing the Canberra Times, “The Sabotage Diaries tells of the destruction of the bridge at Gorgopotamos.” We Greeks tend to forget that broader strategic significance of that that event. In any event, Katherine Barne’s narration of the this key act of sabotage is as thrilling as watching the blowing up of the bridge in the film “Force 10 from Navarone,” which itself was inspired by the event in which Tom Barnes played such a pivotal part.
Yet in her treatment of Tom Barnes and war-ravaged Greece, Katherine Barnes is as microscopic as she is macroscopic in providing us with the bigger picture, with regards to the strategic place of Greece and its resistance movement, such as it was, within Allied plans for fighting the Second World War. She mentions, but does not dwell incessantly upon the hardships faced by the Greek populace, especially those in the impoverished mountain regions of Epirus and Central Greece, as a result of German and partisan brutality, juxtaposing the chaos and fear that characterized their daily lives, against their propensity to place their lives in danger in order to assist and provide succor to Tom Barnes and the other members of his mission. Remarkably, through Tom’s eyes, the Greek people are afforded immense dignity, and Katherine Barnes shies away from presenting them in a sentimentalized or orientalised fashion. Most significantly, from a Greek-Australian perspective, Katherine Barnes, through Tom, picks up on one key aspect of the relationship between the Greek people and their Allies that has caused lasting trauma: though they were generous to the point of risking and losing their own lives, the Greek people expected to be materially rewarded for their sacrifices for the Allies. The fact that no such rewards were provided, goes a long way in understanding Greek attitudes to the West, as well as the form post-war Greek politics took.
Ultimately, Tom ‘goes native,’ always a problem for operatives working overseas. In the Sabotage Diaries, Katherine Barnes presents a British High Command that views its various smaller Allies as pawns in a broader game, to be moved around and sacrificed at will. Cleverly, she contrasts this with the unshakeable belief, from Greek political and resistance leaders downwards to the most insignificant peasant, of the immutable importance of Greece in Allied strategic planning. Like Tom, we marvel at the incoherency of British policy in Greece, swayed by the sympathies or biases of eloquent or well-connected officials with no real information as to the facts on the ground. Tom’s own arrival in Greece is a rude shock based on such misinformation: not only is her parachuted to the wrong area and provided insufficient equipment for his stated tasks, he also learns that the British understanding of the relative strengths and attitudes of the various Greek resistance groups are limited to say the least. As the novel progresses, Tom subtly identifies the misconceptions in British intelligence that lead to bumbling interventions in Greece, culminating in the civil war. In Tom’s view, these are: 1. Imposing the unpopular King of Greece upon a people that did wish his return and 2. An inability to truly understand the motives and modus operandi of the ELAS resistance movement and the abrupt termination of support for that movement, leading to lasting resentment.
Owing to his posting, which placed him in close proximity with EDES resistance leader Napoleon Zervas, Tom comes to sympathise with him, though he does not shy away from recording his foibles, a love of creature comforts such as whisky to be provided by the British compared with the mad and bad yet formidable Aris Velouhiotis, leader of ELAS demand for boots for his men. While Katherine Barnes’ Tom, cannot believe other British agents’ intimations that Zervas may have collaborated with the Germans, details of which the author has gleaned from the wartime accounts of Chris Woodhouse, he fascinatingly observes, upon seeing Velouhiotis and Zervas rolling around in hay and sharing jokes that they are in many way kindred spirits. One wonders if he knew that these two rivals were third cousins. Ultimately upon his untimely death in a car accident, it is Zervas, who sends a typically florid tribute to Tom’s wife, further cementing the bond between these two remarkable men.
Given the above context, The Sabotage Diaries is of much greater significance for Greek Australians than a mere retelling of a sideshow in the Second World War. Instead it provides an important meta-narrative for the background and causes of our own migration story, told from a unique perspective, that of a visitor, an agent of another’s vested interests, who comes to sympathise with the people he lives with. The marrying of this context with the perspective of an 'Australian' ( it should be noted that while Tom settled in Australia, he proudly and resolutely maintain his attachment to his New Zealand origin) is original and praiseworthy. After all, it was the valorous and courteous conduct of the Australian soldiers many Greeks came into contact with, that predisposed Greek migrants to choose Australia as their new home. Specifically, Sotirios Manolopoulos, in his recently published autobiography “A Migrant’s Hopeful Dawn,” writes about an Australian solider very similar to Tom Barnes, who was so generous and his memory proved the prime motivation for him choosing to settle in Australia.
Katherine Barnes’ “The Sabotage Diaries,” from the Greek Australian point of view, is thus less about annoying Rommel and rather more about two nations whose destinies and people have become intertwined as a result of the conflict that catapulted Tom Barnes into Greece seven decades ago. For anyone who seeks to understand the complexity of the British mission and the resistance movement in occupied Greece, and for anyone who wishes to understand the enduring nature of the bond between Greece and Australia, “The Sabotage Diaries,” are a must read.
The Sabotage Diaries will be launched by Dean Kalimniou and the author at the GOCMV Building, Mezzanine, at 7pm 22 October 2015.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 17 October 2015
Saturday, October 10, 2015
NA ME ΛΕΤΕ ΑΙΜΙΛΙΟ
«Μαμά, μπαμπά, σας ευχαριστώ για όλα που κάνατε για μένα.» This sequence of words is the only one that did not require rendering into English, in Georgina Dimopoulos' recently released Greek translation of His Honour Justice Emilios Kyrou's autobiography: "Call Me Emilios." The Greek translation: «Να Με Λέτε Αιμίλιο,» is a unique contribution to the already well-established Greek-Australian genre of autobiography and as such, merits special attention.
Most Greek-Australian autobiographies deal with the migrant experience. In almost all cases, their structure is similar: moderate to extreme privation, a long journey to Australia, hardship and difficulties in establishing oneself and acclimatizing to a new environment, ultimate material success and perhaps in conclusion, some undertones of ennui at a lifestyle irrevocably lost. When English translations of these autobiographies are commissioned, the authors usually cite three reasons for seeking these: a) they want their story to be maintained and not lost, in the future, b) they hope that their story can reach the broader mainstream and most importantly, c) they want their story rendered in an intelligible form so that their children and other descendants will have some understanding of "where they came from," and what their progenitors "went through." Underlying this desire is a tacit assumption that the Greek language as a means of preserving history and of basic communication is largely redundant and also, that the latter generations are in need of a "founding myth" that will explain not only how they came to be, but also, just how the guiding principles and values of their forefathers, such as hard-work and thrift, should be maintained throughout the succeeding generations. This myth and its ancillary set of values is imposed, rather than negotiated, by way of translations of autobiographies.
Justice Kyrou, also a first generation migrant, in writing his autobiography in English and then choosing to have it translated into Greek is thus subverting common practice, though in many respects, his autobiography espouses many of the values and structures that characterise the Greek-Australian autobiographical tradition. Having already established an English-speaking audience, he consciously renders his story intelligible to first generation Greek-speakers, who, at first glance, would have intimate knowledge of it in the first place. In so doing, he is mirroring the attempts of his colleagues in the field, to bridge the generation and communication gap, but from the opposite direction.
Justice Kyrou belongs to that generation of migrants that arrived in Australia at an early age and rather than being socially marginalised by being shunted off into factories as cheap labour as their parents were, they were inducted into the school system and were thus compelled to confront and attempt to negotiate their way into a society that at that time, was unprepared to accept them or their cultural background. The racism experienced by that generation forms much of the bulk of Justice Kyrou's Australian narrative. He writes about taking circuitous routes to Greek school in order to avoid the ridicule of classmates, being beaten, avoiding speaking Greek in public and being made to feel ashamed of his identity to the point where he, like many others changed his name, the most obvious indicator of that offending identity. In this way, Justice Kyrou provides us with a unique insight into a traumatized generation, whose ambivalence about their identity has, despite the overwhelming dominance of the monolingual Greek speaking migrant's narrative in our understanding of ourselves, profoundly influenced the development of our community, in ways that cry out for serious study.
In «Να Με Λέτε Αιμήλιο,» and also in a recent essay about his father, Justice Kyrou outlines a generation gap that is rarely given a voice within the canon of our literature. According to him, owing to his parents' relegation to the sidelines of Australian society, they were not able to appreciate his own challenges in carving his own niche within the mainstream. They were unable to comprehend, let alone address the level of racism he experienced at the hands of his peers. They had no conception of, let alone the skills to offer advice or guidance as to the most effective ways in which he could acclimatize to his new reality, without invalidating his own cultural background. Consequently, his self-consciousness about exhibiting aspects of his Greek identity were incomprehensible to his parents, who like most Greek migrants did not at that time have a coherent vision of their place within Australia. Though this is not specifically mentioned by Justice Kyrou, except for brief and amusing anecdotes about the manner in which he and his brother contrived to obtain the trappings of cool teenage-hood by way of fashionable haircuts and jeans, one can also see how such a state of affairs as delineated by him would result both in the youth of the age divesting themselves of aspects of their Greek identity no longer relevant or advantageous, in the society they were forced to embrace and in their parents' complete mystification as to how this could have occurred, and insistence that all Greek cultural norms, however arcane be enforced and retained.
Viewed in this manner, Justice Kyrou, in having his work translated into Greek, is uniquely reaching out to the previous generation of monolingual Greek migrants, in order to give to them, in their own language, some inkling of his generation's own battles in enduring the migrant experience, just as their idiom of discourse, which currently still controls the dominant identity narrative, is beginning its terminal decline. Here, the narrative becomes a dialectic. Making the translation even more poignant, is the fact that it has been superbly rendered by Georgina Dimopoulos, a member of the second-generation of Greek-Australians, proving poetically that a good deal of unfinished business needs to be completed between the generations before we feel comfortable enough to mould an identity that will accommodate all narratives and take us into the future.
The generation gap notwithstanding, Justice Kyrou also another aims, in pursuing a Greek translation of his autobiography. The untranslated phrase: «Μαμά, μπαμπά, σας ευχαριστώ για όλα που κάνατε για μένα,» is of historical significance because it ultimately derives from the first ever appointment speech of a Judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria to be delivered in Greek. The act of translation therefore becomes an act of homage and tribute to an imperfect but eminently honourable, courageous, far-sighted generation that is deserving of our respect and devotion.
One of the most immediate observations I made upon first reading the English version of "Call Me Emilios," was how "traditionally Greek," it was in structure. Rather than focusing upon himself, as is the case within the Anglosphere, Justice Kyrou traces his ancestry and seeks to place himself within the context of his village and relations, a recurring theme as has striven to maintain those ties throughout his life. In the Greek translation, this process not only acts as a bridge between the first generation and those following but also serves to place the migrant experience, as recounted by Justice Kyrou, squarely within the narrative of modern Greek history. This is a noteworthy achievement.
In the original English, Justice Kyrou employs a clear, concise and structured style, that Georgina Dimopoulos ably preserves in her masterly Greek rendition, eschewing the histrionics and hyperbole that have become almost compulsory when writing about the migrant experience in Greek. The multi-faceted and complex approach taken by Justice Kyrou and his translator to issues of our community, identity, psychology and the traumas that lie therein make both the English and recently published Greek versions of his autobiography compulsory reading.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 10 October 2015
Saturday, October 03, 2015
According to Newton's Third Law, for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Transposing this into Australian Greek community physics, for every σύλλογο, there is a vociferously opposing and equal σύλλογο. While Newton's Third Law was used by him to derive the law of conservation of momentum, most of the σύλλογοι of the Greek community appear innately to understand this concept, having, after their cell division, mostly done or achieved, absolutely nothing at all other than the erosion of an immense amount of good will. Save for a few isolated cases, when all is said and done in the organizations of Greek community, a good deal more is said, (via expletives, defamation or gossip) than actually ever done. The division within our community organisations, just here in Melbourne (three Epirot groups, five Pontian groups, two Messenian groups and the list goes on), tends to indicate that we are (at least those who still identify with or are active within such organisations) a fratricidal mob, perpetually at war with each other and ourselves, often over the most trivial and ridiculous issues.
In the past, the organized Greek community has been divided not only by the geography of the homeland (Ithacans v Samians in the early Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria) but also by religion (Archdiocese versus Communities, Archdiocese versus various schismatic groups, Archdiocese versus Jerusalem Patriarchate Exarchate), politics (Communists v Royalists, Communists v Socialists, Communists v Archdiocese, PASOK Supporters v New Democracy Supporters, and innumerable other combinations and permutations), ideology (during the Monarchy and the Junta, the Consulate-General of Greece spied upon and encouraged members of the community to also report upon Greek-Australians whose ideological opinions or activities were considered as inimical to Greece), and even education, with the Greek Consulate having historically received hundreds of often defamatory and ill-intentioned complaints from stakeholders in the Greek language education industry about Greek educators attached to the Consulate, or other independent Greek schools.
It is for this reason that the ruling party of Greece, SYRIZA's latest vision for Greeks Abroad is, well, bizarre to say the least. According to Yiannis Bournous, impossibly appointed spokesperson of SYRIZA for matters pertaining to Greeks Abroad, (the impossible here referring to the fact that he looks as if he is no older than fifteen), SYRIZA supports electoral reforms that would a) facilitate the equal participation of all Greek political parties in seeking the vote from Greeks Abroad and most importantly, b) ensure that Greeks Abroad can participate in Greek politics without this subverting the will of the Greeks of the Greek State. According to the youthful Yiannis Bournous, this will be achieved by creating Greek electorates throughout the diaspora, and said diasporan Greeks who are entitled to vote, will vote for their own local representatives, who will then represent them in Greek parliament.
The proposal is not a new one, and various active and ambitious members of the Greek community with political aspirations have been waiting in the lists for decades and currying favour with their Greek party of choice in order to assume the mantle of Greek-Australian political leadership. Nonetheless, the proposal displays some concerning misconceptions about the place of Greeks Abroad both within Greece and in our case, Australia and they consequently require closer scrutiny.
This far into this article, it is trite to state that having an already fragmented Greek community further divided through "the equal participation of all Greek political parties in seeking the vote from Greeks Abroad," will most likely result in the disintegration of what is left of our organized local structures and the total alienation of the latter and disinterested Greek-Australian generations. After all, some of us still carry with us, vivid memories of witnessing our elders wreak physical violence upon each other at social events, over differences in Greek political affiliations. For others, the memories of being excluded from participating in various important Greek-Australian organisations because of their or their family's perceived Greek political orientation are still painfully recent.
The prospect of witnessing members of our atrophying community organisations engage in even more fruitless internecine strife in order to 'represent' a constituency whose material interests lie not in Greece but in Australia, is therefore not a particularly savoury or logical one. The challenges we face as a community, these being maintaining a sense of cohesion and developing welfare and educational structures that will ensure that we retain our unique sense of ethnolinguistic identity into the future, must be met not in Greece, (and in fact the Greek state, well intentioned or not, has historically hindered rather than helped in this regard) are matters directly relevant to Australia and its people, not Greece. There are matters intrinsic to our survival as a distinct entity and must not be a plaything of politics. The violation of Australian sovereignty by drawing Greek electoral boundaries within Australian territory therefore appears nonsensical.
Nonetheless, if Greece wanted to provide Greeks Abroad with the opportunity to vote in Greek elections from the countries in which they reside, the SYRIZA proposal would have some benefits. Currently, Greek citizens residing abroad, must travel to vote in the electorates in which they are enrolled. Consequently, not only are they arguably removed from the day to day issues that affect those electorates, but also, are not possessed of a direct interest in the politics of that electorate, save perhaps as landowners. Furthermore, being resident in Australia, for example, they are largely cut off from the networks of clientilism, nepotism and patronage that are so important to every-day living in Greece. Through their residence in Australia, they have become imbued with concepts of democracy and meritocracy that are alien to the Greek state and are potentially subversive, should Australian-based Greek voters decide to assert them. Much better then for the status quo, rather than permitting a postal vote, to keep such harm away from the Greek state by isolating their political involvement within a migrant ghetto in another country, where their participation can be manipulated and ultimately contained. This is what migrant participation "without this subverting the will of the Greeks of the Greek State," means: the creation of two classes of citizens, in order to prop up a defunct and superseded political discourse.
It comes as no surprise that the SYRIZA proposal appears not to be underwritten by any coherent vision of the place of Greeks Abroad within modern Greek society. A sophisticated approach to a diaspora community would be one that balances integration within the society of the motherland for those who seek this with tight support networks overseas, rather than tokenistic expressions of solidarity. Yiannis Bournous' recently expressed vision of a SYRIZA diasporan education policy that would: "guarantee the Hellenism [of young Greeks] and inhibit their compulsory assimilation into the communities in which they live," proves that we need to keep Greek politics totally away from our community, for it is inimical to our integration as an ethnic group within the broader fabric of Australian society.
Emma Goldman may have quipped that "If voting changed anything, they would make it illegal," but for diasporan Greeks, the right to participate in Greek elections is less about effecting change and more about retaining a link, however tenuous, with the land of their birth. This link is best served by the current voting arrangements. If the Greek government is serious about harnessing or integrating the resources of diverse diasporan Greek communities throughout the world, then this must be done in a sophisticated and consultative matter, having regard for their obligations as citizens to their countries of residence and the vested and most often opposing interests of Greeks residing in Greece. Somehow, we can be forgiven for thinking that this is not the Greek government's intention.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 October 2015
Saturday, September 26, 2015
ICARUS OF MELBOURNE
"And, burned because I beauty loved/ I shall not know the highest bliss,/ And give my name to the abyss/ Which waits to claim me as its own." Charles Baudelaire
"Do you remember that statue of Icarus that used to be at the Departure Gate of Melbourne Airport?" a friend asked me recently. "You know the one, you couldn't miss it. We would always stand around it. It's not there anymore. What do you think happened to it?"
I remember the Melburnian Icarus well, for he was the personification of my childhood longing for a land in which I felt I belonged, even though I had never stepped foot in it. In those days, travelling to Greece was an event of significant and the entire extended family would turn out tearfully to bid their loved ones goodbye. Congregating around the statue of Icarus, they would make cryptic comments about «αποδημητικά πουλιά,» (migratory birds) returning home, before reaching into their bags and springing last minute presents to be passed on to relatives, upon the only partially unsuspecting travelers.
For my part, as an infant, I would circumambulate the statue of Icarus in dolorous fashion, wallowing in my own misery. Not only would I lose the company of my cousins for the next three months, but of all my cousins, I was the only one that had never been to Greece, and the prospects of my visiting the mythical land of my ancestors any time soon, where Greek sailors perched upon the rigging of brightly painted but decidedly rickety vessels, liable to break out in spontaneous song at any moment, were, according to my parents, inordinately dim.
Looking up at the strong arms of Icarus, gazing rapturously up towards the ceiling and holding what looked like an elongated pair of Inuit snow-shoes rather than wings, I would variously imagine that a) I could climb onto his back and ask him to fly me to Greece himself, or that b) if they were not wings but rather (more plausibly) paddles, I could compel him to paddle me to Greece Arion and the dolphin style. This in my opinion, would most poetically symbolize the Greek migration story: arriving here via sea, returning there by air. Failing that, Icarus' wings/paddles could always be used to scoop up luggage from a distance, from the rotating luggage conveyor belt at Arrivals.
At some stage after this I was introduced to Greek mythology and began to appreciate the wisdom of the airport authorities choosing to afford pride of place in the Departure Lounge, a statue of the first ever pilot in human history. What seemed paradoxical however, was the fact that he happened to also be the first ever air crash victim in human history. Was this in fact a giant legal disclaimer? Was it connected to the renaming of the Hellenic Air Force Academy as the "Icarus School" and was this wise given the propensity of Greek fighter jets to fall out of the sky? Mentioning this to an aged aunt who was about to fly to the motherland, I received a clip on the ear as she spat at her breasts three times and crossed herself. «Σκάσε γρουσόυζικο,» she muttered as she tried to zip up her handbag over an electric blender, cursing me and telling me that she would hold me personally responsible should her aeroplane actually crash.
Being of neo-hellenic extraction and thus having absolutely no understanding of hubris as a concept, in my early teens, I could not understand the purpose of Icarus. Why celebrate a victim of his father's design flaws? Why were we told at school to bend and stretch and reach for the stars, if flying too far towards the sun would bring about our certain demise? Would not Perseus, with his winged booties that evolved over time to become Reebok Wings, have been more suitable? Would not Pegasus, an ungulate mammal capable of airborne locomotion have been more fitting? After all, it was his rider Bellerophon's hubris after killing the Chimera, not Pegasus' that caused him to attempt to fly to Mount Olympus. Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, causing Bellerophon to fall all the way back to Earth, whereupon Pegasus successfully completed the flight to Olympus where Zeus used him as a pack horse for his thunderbolts, thus becoming the first ever aeroplane and fighter jet, all neatly combined into one.
Nonetheless, the statue of Icarus became synonymous in my consciousness both with departure and also of being grounded, given my inability to go to Greece. This is because I observed that although Icarus seemed to take off for the heavens, the base of his statue, a remnant of the labyrinth in which he was imprisoned, was contriving to capture his legs and keep them firmly fixed upon the ground, causing me to identify with him completely and, at a later date upon learning that Icarus is an extremely important piece of Australian art, sculpted in 1971 by acclaimed artist, John Stuart Dowie, assistant to Australia's official war sculptor, Lyndon Dadswell and one of the Rats of Tobruk, to appreciate the artists' immense genius at such a subtle interpretation of the Icarus myth, especially so, considering that the very name Icarus means "follower," Dowie ensuring that his creation would prevent itself from doing anything of the sort.
There are many would-be Icaroi in world mythology but none approach Icarus for sheer patheticity. Jatayu, the Hindu demi-god was saved by his brother when flying to close to the sun and while his brother lost his wings, he got off unscathed. Etana, the Babylonian king was taken up to the heaven of the god Anu by an eagle, but unlike the brave and foolhardy Icarus, he became afraid while in the air and was returned safely to the ground. It is only when we get to the necromancer British King Bladud, who through his art of divination through raising the spirits of the dead, constructed wings for himself and to have tried to fly to the temple of Apollo in Trinovantum (London) only to die when he hit a wall, that we get anywhere near Icarus and even then, Icarus is far more sympathetic. He is the victim of the gravity that in its multifarious forms, afflicts us all.
Upon attaining the age of fifteen, I finally managed to get to Greece by means of a winter program. Though I remember glancing at the stylized wings on the Departure Gate, I gave Icarus not even a sideways glance, having at last been, at least in my own opinion, emancipated from my enforced solidarity with him. Somewhere within the ten journeys to Greece that I have undertaken since that time, the statue of Icarus was imperceptibly removed from Melbourne Airport and he remained unmissed and invisible to me until prompted recently by my friend's enquiry.
It transpires that John Dowie's Icarus is now housed in the Langwarrin Gallery and Sculpture Park. No longer enclosed within a terminal, Icarus is now free to gaze at the sun he so lusted after, his feet still firmly restrained by his pedestal, for Occupational Health and Safety reasons of course. These days, as life and its ancillary obligations have conspired to keep me from becoming airborne for an insufferably long time, I find myself once more identifying with and missing Melburnian Icarus terribly. One of these days, I will make the pilgrimage to Langwarrin and instead of reciting to him, Oscar Wilde-style: "Never regret thy fall,/O Icarus of the fearless flight/ For the greatest tragedy of them all /Is never to feel the burning light," I will pay homage to an old and dear friend by way of pouring him a libation, from an aluminum can of Red Bull, of course.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 September 2015
Saturday, September 19, 2015
SYRIA AND THE GREEK REVOLUTION
Currently, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria have or are travelling to Greece, in order to seek refuge from the brutal war that has blighted their homeland, a war that has arguably been fomented by some Western Powers. Two hundred years previously, it was the Greek freedom fighters that sought to enlist the assistance of Syria in their quest for independence, through an ill fated campaign that had unforeseen consequences in the Levant.
As Islam tended only to distinguish between religions, nationality being an irrelevant concept in its worldview, the Ottomans considered all followers of the Greek Orthodox Church to form a homogenous unit. As such, with the onset of the Greek Revolution, all Greek Orthodox Christians were considered as potentially disloyal and the province of Syria, containing modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, did not escape Ottoman punitive measures. Fearing that the Orthodox (known as the “Rum” or Romioi) of Syria might rise up to join the Greek Revolution, the Sublime Porte issued an order that all Christians should be disarmed. In Jerusalem, the city’s Christian population, who were estimated to make up around 20 percent of the city's total were also forced by the Ottoman authorities to relinquish their weapons, wear black, and help improve the city's fortifications. Just as the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregorios V was executed in Constantinople, so too did the Ottomans order the execution of the Patriarch of Antioch as well. However, local officials neglected to carry out these orders. Finally, in the aftermath of a daring Greek landing in Beirut, various Greek Orthodox holy sites, such as the Monastery of the Panagia of Balamand, located just south of the city of Tripoli in Lebanon, an important centre of Orthodox spirituality, were subjected to vandalism and revenge attacks, and the monks of Balamand were forced to abandon their monastery until 1830.
The inspiration for a Greek landing in Syria supposedly came from a Lebanese monk who met with Montenegrin freedom fighter, Vasos Mavrovouniotis, one of the few guerilla fighters not to be defeated by Ibrahim’s Egyptian forces that nearly destroyed the Greek forces in the Peloponnese and imperiled the Greek Revolution. Tearfully, the monk outlined the various outrages committed against the Syrian Christians by the Ottomans and begged Mavrovouniotis to liberate them. The leader of Free Greece, Ioannis Kolettis, believed that, given the parlous state of the Revolution in Greece, a successful uprising in Syria could divert troops away from the Greek mainland and ultimately save the revolution. Consequently, he approved of the expedition, sending to accompany him, the Epirot captain Hatzimhihalis Dalianis, who was already in secret correspondence with the Emir of Lebanon, Bashir Shihab.
Bashir Shihab, was remarkable in that he was a Muslim convert to Maronite Christianity. Already a seasoned and wily diplomat, he had refused to aid Napoleon during his siege of Acre, and was the ultimate cause of his failure to capture Syria. A year prior to the Greek expedition, he had collaborated with the Ottomans in removing the rival Druze Jumblatt family from Mount Lebanon. Being beholden to the Ottomans for his position, it is unclear what, if any advantage a Greek rebellion in his territory would be to him, with scholars speculating that he possibly hoped that such a landing would grant him further aid against his Druze rivals.
On 18 March 1826, after first having landed in Cyprus in order to loot and pillage, so as to pay their troops, a flotilla of around fifteen Greek ships, led by Mavrvouniotis and Dalianis landed in Beirut. Their exploits were documented by the Smyrna-born British Consul John Barker, stationed in Aleppo, in a memo to British Ambassador Stratford Canning in Constantinople. Barker viewed the landing more as an act of piracy given that Greek pirates were reknown for such types of raids in the Mediterranean. He reported that the Greek “assailants scaled part of the defence walls, while ships cannonaded the town." Caught off guard, "in the absence of all regular military force" and with "a very scanty supply of firearms and ammunition," the fort that was supposed to secure the town from sea invasion "was as ill provided as the inhabitants." Resistance surfaced, however, thanks to a local mufti who "distinguished himself in instructing and animating the townspeople" to defend Beirut. The fighting resulted in casualties: "the loss sustained by the besiegers was in all 40 or so persons," while the besieged suffered "14 killed and 20 wounded." The town incurred damage "from 500 cannon balls, of which 2 struck the French consular house and 3 that
of the Austrian agent." Although rebuffed, Greek invaders did not immediately depart but took refuge near the seashore, occupying "a number of detached houses in the silk grounds, but that being chiefly inhabited by Christians," the Greeks "did not injure them." The attackers, according to one of Barker's sources, appealed to the Christians "to rise and join them." He opined: “If so, they must have entertained a most erroneous idea of the number and power of the Christians in Beirut. It is also said they sent an invitation to the chief of the Druzes to unite his forces to the Christian standard.”
Seeking help from Bashir Shihab’s rivals seems to have fatally compromised the expedition. He immediately mobilised troops to dislodge the Greeks from their positions and they, having received no aid, retreated back into their ships. The landing however, had serious repercussions for the Christians of the region. A few days after the Greek withdrawal, on 23 March 1826, after the departure of the Greeks, an Ottoman lieutenant arrived with nearly 500 Albanian irregular forces and wreaked havoc among Beiruti Christians. According to Barker, "The inhabitants suffered more in their property from these undisciplined troops than the invasion of the Greeks had inflicted upon them, and the Christian part of the population, without distinction of Latin, Maronite, or Greek, was pursued and persecuted in a most merciless manner by the established authorities, while the Europeans themselves were not secure as well from the effects of the insolence and rapacity of the soldiery ... " A French merchant and an American missionary under British protection felt the direct impact of random violence when local troops forcibly entered their dwellings: "these gentlemen and their families were put in fear of their lives, maltreated, and robbed." Only with great difficulty did European consuls "repel" the "insolent attempts" of the attackers and "protect the rayahs in their service from sharing the fate of the other Christians, whose houses and silk plantations were confiscated, and all that could be seized were reduced to beggary after having been tortured for the purpose of extorting from them sums, which it was impossible for them to raise by the immediate sale of all their effects."
The arbitrary and unwarranted acts of reprisal against the Christians by the Ottomans as a result of the Greek landing destroyed the hitherto largely peaceful equilibrium existing between the various denominations in western Syria. As people of the region of long memories (the Shihab and Jumblatt families are still major players in the politics of Lebanon today), some have argued that this singular attempt to bring Syria into the Greek War of Independence sparked off a chain of events that led ultimately to the Lebanese Civil War, and possibly, the present conflict.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 19 September 2015