Saturday, August 11, 2018


“The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.”

One of the elements that make Melbourne special for me, is its plethora of signs in other languages and alphabets that can be found identifying businesses. From Chinese characters employed for the various Chinese and Vietnamese languages, to Arabic, Ethiopian and tentatively hanging on in an age of assimilation, partly as relics, partly in a last linguistic assertion of dynamism, Greek and Italian, navigating the streets of Melbourne truly is a multi-lingual experience, one that pays tribute and bears testament to the enterprising nature of our vibrant ethnic communities.
In the context of multicultural Melbourne, signs like the one  here reproduced, on the shopfront of Liquorland in Oakleigh, welcoming all and sundry to the locality are thus entirely unremarkable. Displayed variously, are salutations and wishes of good health customarily proffered before or while imbibing beverages. Languages featured range from Dutch, Italian, French, Hawaiian, Spanish and Gaelic, though the Gaelic Sláinte, is misspelt, lacking an e. Also, in questionable transliteration, Japanese and Hindi make an appearance, the rendering of the words Namaste, Kanpai and Konnichiwa (sic) appearing to be an aid in pronunciation, while the Mandarin Chinese greeting Nĭ hăo is admirably provided in the romanised pinyin form. Its intent is clear, to greet potential customers and the populace at large in a large gamut of languages, and to wish them good health, implying that in this great Babel of the South, the one true language that unites us all is that of enjoying a decent alcoholic beverage, presumably, one purchased therein.
Sadly, not all of us appear to be called to partake of this grand linguistic communion of intoxication, something that has given rise to dysphoria among local members of the Greek community, who feel, like the virgins in the Parable of the Bridegroom, left out of the festivities. The Greek language inexplicably appears nowhere on Liquorland’s sign, neither as a greeting, nor as an aspirational expression for the overall well-being of the Hellenic would be consumer.
Sundry members of the Greek community who reside in Oakleigh and espouse the conviction that its locality is synonymous with the Melbournian Greek identity have interpreted the omission of Greek as a slight. Given the axiomatic importance of the Greek community to the municipal entity and the city itself, it is inconceivable to them that such an omission could be due to oversight, or disinterest. Instead, deep, dark, nefarious purposes are at play here, as locals variously commented: “An insult to the Greek community!” “Racism!” and “I reckon they done it on purpose.” Others used the omission to assert demographic claims of superiority over the region, bordering on the irredentist, thus: “Something is missing….the majority are Greek speaking, ” “Someone didn’t do their research about the main demographic in Oakleigh,” and the perceptive: “No need for Greek, it is the official language of Oakleigh, this sign is only for the ‘foreigners.’”
Of course, the Menander the Great prize for Greco-Bactrian excellence is awarded to the gentleman who perspicaciously pointed out on social media, that Greek is already represented in the form “Namaste’ (‘here we are,’) highlighting the polysemy of the Hindu greeting and the ancient links between our two venerable civilisations. After all, Dionysus, the god of wine, was said to have come from India.
What is noteworthy about all of these observations is just how tightly the conception of the Greek identity is enfolded within their Australian place of residence.  Consequently, any act or omission that elides or obfuscates their presence in that residence is tantamount to effacing the existence of Greeks itself, resulting in a particularly hurtful negation of the individual Hellenic hypostasis.
Yet I would argue that the exclusion of Greek from Liquorland’s signage is not just a slight, it marks the height of ingratitude. Long before the English language existed, the ancient Greeks invented the liquor trade, going so far as to sell their wares to the French. In fact, it is estimated that the Greeks of hallowed antiquity shipped nearly ten million litres of wine into Gaul each year through their colony Massalia, modern day Marseilles, while discoveries of grave goods in the Burgundy region reveal a heavy prevalence of Greek-made kraters, designed to hold over 1,000 litres of wine. An acknowledgment of France’s debt to Greek viticulture should ordinarily entitle each and every Greek to a complimentary bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac, but the French are the French and Liquorland is but a parvenu in the annals of wine purveyance.
Even the earliest reference to a named wine is from the lyrical poet Alkman of Sparta. In the seventh century BC, he praised “Denthis,” a wine from the western foothills of Mount Taygetus as “anthosmias” (smelling of flowers.) No less a personage than Aristotle made a detailed description of the Lemnia grape, which he stated was the specialty of the island of Limnos, the same as the modern day Lemnio varietal, this being a red wine, possessed of a bouquet of oregano and thyme. Lemnio is thus the oldest known varietal still in cultivation, and Liquorland ought to pay the requisite homage. But then again, Heraclitus did observe that: “It is better to hide ignorance, but it is hard to do this when we relax over wine.” Or multilingual signs for that matter.
Those who would deny us the juices of the fruit of the vine do so at their peril. After all, it was the great Shakespeare who recorded in Richard III that the unfortunate Duke of Clarence met his death by being drowned by his brother Edward IV in a butt of Malmsey, a wine originating in Crete, and one of the most popular alcoholic beverages of northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Even before that, Commandaria wine from Cyprus, was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart. Furthermore, such was the Constantinopolitans’ adoration of wine and skill in trading it in times Byzantine, that the City earned the following appellation from denizens of Northern Europe: “Winburg,” which in the vulgar parlance, loosely translates as ‘Liquorland.’ Now the true reason for the absence of Greek is made abundantly clear. You didn’t think we would find out, did you, o hapless Liquorlanders? Ultimately therefore, not just a case, but the entire stock of the modern corporate entity that has appropriated our trading name is properly owed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, payment to be made by way of delivery to its various sub-branches situated in those parishes proximate to  Liquorland stores, in order to save on logistics. The proverb: “Byzantium conquers all with its wine,” is particularly apt here, even though its source is unattested, and is probably spurious, which is for the best really, given that the ACCC is not that tolerant of monopolies these days and the Emperors predictable enough neglected annually to renew their business name.
To those who postulate: “while you were still swinging in trees, we were building the Parthenon, the historian Thucydides adds: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.”
Euripides perhaps says it better: “Where there is no wine, there is no love.” For ultimately, that is all we ever wanted, Liquorland. To be invited in for a quick snifter, to love and be loved. And you did neither, at least not in the beginning. Such was the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from the Hellenic holdfasts of Oakleigh that Liquorland has come to realise the error of its ways and has proclaimed its resolve to include Greek among the languages upon its welcome board. As yet, there is no news about the status of negotiations as to the Byzantine naming dispute, although I am reliably informed that “Southern Winburg” and “Australo-Liquorland” have made the solution shortlist.
The last time I walked into a Liquorland store, I was in search of retsina. The young man at the counter looked at me quizzically, and informed me that it was not in stock. As I walked away, he remarked: “How can you drink that stuff? You know that Liutprand of Cremona said of retsina: "To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable?"
“Yes” I replied, “and an excess of undiluted retsina was supposedly lethal for King Eric I of Denmark and Sigurd I of Norway. Pouring oenopoeic scorn upon the Greek and his works places one in mortal danger.”  
“Relax,” he soothed me emolliently. “Was it not Homer, who said “The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken?”
“I’m pretty sure that was UB40,” I responded, “but I applaud your sentiments.” Now that an entire Greek community is once more made welcome at Oakleigh through the graces of Liquorland, let us descend upon it en masse, bearing dockets, in search of discounts, mindful always of the words of the great cynic Diogenes: “I like best the wine drunk at the cost of others.” It’s your shout.

First published in NKEE on 11 August 2018

Saturday, August 04, 2018


The almost apocalyptic catastrophe afflicting Athens recently is truly immense. Over eighty people have perished and hundreds more have suffered terrible wounds in sense reminiscent of the 1922 Smyrna conflagration. Is this a tragedy? Absolutely. Is it a ‘Greek tragedy?’ Arguably, it is.

A Greek tragedy, as opposed to any other type, broadly refers to a form of theatre whereby the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.

Applying this definition, Greece, a country of immense importance to the world for reasons that are well known and superfluous to mention here, has experienced disaster owing to circumstances it could not deal with. Arguably, ‘personal’ failings may have contributed to that disaster in the sense that ailing and beleaguered Greek society, struggling for almost a decade under an economic, social and political crisis that threatens to pull apart the country at the seams, has produced, it is widely believed, the arsonists that are responsible for this heinous crime. It is also being argued that fire prevention and protection readiness was nowhere near what it should have been and that this is a major failing of the state. As such, all the elements are there to plausibly maintain that the fires do signify, a Greek tragedy.

Given the above, why do we as Greek-Australians, instinctively recoil at Adelaide advertiser cartoonist Jos Valdman’s cartoon entitled: “Another Greek Tragedy?” Why have Greek-Australians found it demeaning and chafe at its connotations? Ostensibly, the cartoon does not appear to offend. To the right, it depicts some burly hoplites bearing water filled amphorae, engaged in the process of extinguishing the fire. The conflagration itself is suggested by a few wisps of flame to the extreme upper and lower right, as if the cartoonist wishes to draw the viewers’ attention away from it and onto the humans who are suffering as a result of it.

To the left, a Grecian couple is locked in an embrace. Dignified in their sorrow, they shed bitter tears. A determined man kneeling behind them, his stern gaze imbued with a sense of purpose, seems to be collecting those tears in an amphora, suggesting that this vessel, brining with tears will be handed to the heroic aquarii, who will then use them to put out the fire. The message here seems to be one of a Greek people who are utterly alone, stripped bare and totally dispossessed of any means to protect themselves, reduced to using their own tears, a powerful symbol of mourning, in order to deal with the latest catastrophe to afflict them. Nonetheless, they do not flee, nor do they give up. Nourished by the collective anguish of the Greek people, the stronger amongst them, hasten to protect them and provide them succour. Owing to their resourcefulness in the face of adversity, they have not let the flames consume them. Instead, they have banished the flames to the edge of the cartoon. On the extreme right, one of the hoplite fire-fighters bears a shield emblazoned with the image of Pegasus. Not only is the white Pegasus a symbol of purity, his white wings are a symbol of hope, suggesting that the Greek people can and will manage to see their spirits soar as they slowly recover from the tragedy. Moreover, according to Greek mythology, everywhere this winged horse struck his hoof to the earth, an inspiring water spring would burst forth. Triumph over adversity. The victory of life, over death.

The ancient Greek vase the tableau unfolds itself upon is cracked, but it is not broken. Some cracks can be mended, some cannot, but this particular crack does not appear to affect the structural integrity of the vessel. The cartoonist here seems to imply that though Greece is battered and bruised, she is not damaged beyond repair. She will endure. And she will reach the heights once more, not through the intervention of other parties, but rather through the endeavours of its own people.

Valdman’s cartoon, is thus an extremely well-considered pictorial representation of a tragedy, imbued with a multiplicity of meanings that are designed to evoke in their decoder, sympathy but not condescension. Instead, he has afforded both the victims and the Greek people themselves immense nobility. There is a synergy to the figures portrayed on the vase that suggests that the Greek people, though afflicted have, to use the vernacular, “got this.” They have the inner resources to deal with every single tragedy that comes their way. The depiction of the modern Greeks in the guise of their ancient forebears further reinforces this message, as does the title of the cartoon, where the word ‘Another’ is of vital significance to the overall meaning of the piece: The Greeks are a very old people who have being dealing with tragedy since the dawn of time. They will overcome.

There is thus nothing offensive about Valdman’s sensitive and respectful cartoon. Granted, Greek-Australians profoundly dislike being stereotyped and are often indignant at the perceived inability of the mainstream to deal with or portray Greeks on their own terms, as they really are, without resorting to clichés that reduce and ultimately trivialize Greeks, portraying them either as an eternal subversive, an antiquated relic, or a trifling, orientalised entity of little or no substance, thus relegating them to the margins of the discourse. Yet this is definitely not the situation with Valdman’s ‘Another Greek Tragedy.’

Rather than stereotype the Greek people, the cartoonist has employed his arts expertly, in finding a common denominator that will speak to the heart of the non-Greek viewer and assist him to find common ground with the victims of the fires. Valdman has achieved this by recognizing that ancient Greece is widely considered to by the foundation of western civilization and drawing from that knowledge. In depicting the fire-fighters as hoplites, he hearkens back to the heroic battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, events that in the West have become synonymous with valour, dedication and courage. He implies that the modern Greeks who stand in their ancestors shoes retain the same attributed. He connotes that such values are eternal within the Greek. In fact, in choosing to portray the modern Greek victims of the terrible fires as ancient Greeks, (and how many times do we as Greeks shove our ancient past in the faces of westerners, demanding homage as a consequence of it, and how many times do we use it as a birch twig with which to flagellate ourselves for our perceived comparative incompetency?) Valdman has cleverly broken down barriers of bigotry in order to find a common cultural denominator where victim and empathiser can look upon each other, not as equals, but as one. This is a remarkable achievement and one that deserves praise, not condemnation.

If there is a tragedy outside of Valdman’s inspired cartoon, it is this: that in our own ontopathology, enmeshed within a quagmire of conflicted attitudes to our identity and the way we and others represent it, we are unable to accept a compliment and a genuine gesture of solidarity when it is proffered, unless we dictate its terms. It is sad the editor of the Adelaide Advertiser was compelled to apologise to righteously indignat Greeks stating: "The cartoon was meant to be a poignant tribute to the Greek people, both the tragedy they are now facing and their undeniable resilience.....It was never our intention to add to the hurt or distress the Greek community has been suffering as a result of the fires."

Ultimately, in castigating the well-meaning and fabulously polysemic efforts of Valdman to laud the Greek people, respect the victims and lionize the firefighters who have saved their lives, we run the risk of contributing to our own, tragedy of pettiness and our complete alienation from the mainstream narrative, for fear of offence.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 4 August 2018

Saturday, July 28, 2018


My Melburnian geography is one of lost Greek landmarks. As I drive down the main drag of my suburb, I look at the thriving Greek restaurants and commemorate the demise of those who didn’t quite make it. To my right, the Chinese bread shop in the place of a Greek café that sold inordinately stale cakes. To my left, a Malaysian restaurant is busy asserting itself in the remains of a Greek restaurant that failed to gain the confidence of the populace at large, for it would sell Microwave reheated, pre-prepared food. Further down, the three Greek restaurants that are doing a brisk trade. I only ever patronise one, a most excellent purveyor of gyros newly arrived from the motherland, but the others truly are landmarks, for they have been there for years.
Two main roads away and I am in the area where my people settled en masse before moving out to outlying suburbs. I drive through streets and identify the homes in which aunts, uncles or people from my parents’ village once lived. There are no longer there. Their homes have either been sold, or demolished by their descendants and units erected in their place. In the main street of that neighbourhood, I see ghosts: the ghosts of Greeks walking up and down doing their daily shopping. There was a time when it was impossible to venture into the street without running into someone you knew, or more likely, someone who you didn’t know, but who definitely knew you. I run into no one now and in the remains of the great market that once stood behind the street, a vibrant marketplace that housed over ten Greek businesses selling everything from fruit, to chickens to fish and chips, fabric and everything in between, a true focal point for the community, there now looms a faceless, stereotypical mall. I don’t recognise anyone there now. Our communal encounters have, in the face of the changing demographic and the ravages of urban planning, receded to the point where they largely take place around one brilliant restaurant whose proprietor hands out business cards proclaiming that he is a “μπιζιναδόρος” and the two churches that bookend our suburban hypostasis. Yet daily, reality and memories converge as we navigate the topography of our communal loss.
I don’t need to stretch my imagination much to remember the Greek precinct when it was replete with Greek businesses and bursting with life. I return again and again to the Cambodian eatery that was once the Greek restaurant in which over the course of a year or so, I managed to beguile my wife into believing I was worth entwining her fate to. I return again and again to the bar that was once Medallion Café, a business that even inspired a song by composer Christos Ioannides:: ῾Στο Μεντάλλιον για καφέ, για καφέ και χαβαλέ, στο Μεντάλλιον για γλυκό και για κάτι ελληνικό.” This was a place in which it was almost impossible to find a seat and even more impossible to view who was inside, through the thick veil of cigarette smoke. It was here that I had or witnessed the most intense discussions of a political or historical nature, here, that so many Greek community deals were brokered, here that marked the epicentre of community enthusiasm at Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Cup. Now, a solitary stele on Lonsdale Street provided by the Council commemorates a heart of Hellenism that no longer beats. It exists, in the memories of Salapatas and Pitsilidis but it is stilled. In what was once Dion and is now a Chinese “Caribbean Fish Grill Bar,” the fossils of the bare bones of that existence remain: a plaster Hellenistic relief sculpture juxtaposed against the gaudy piratical decoration of the rest of the store, significant to those who remember, unintelligent, to those without those memories. As I walk down Swanston Street, I acknowledge the shops that once were Greek hamburger eateries, serving the greasiest and most satisfying hamburgers known to man. Time and time again I was the recipient of the kindness of their proprietors, upon them learning I was Greek, until their ultimate extinction. Enshrining continuity of memory as a tradition not being our forte as a community, I have no emotional response to the long since gone pioneering businesses of Stanley Young (Yiannopoulos) or Alfredos Kouris (Alfredo's) that the previous generation remember with fondness.

When a friend recently called me in distress to lament the closure of a Greek coffee shop in his neighbourhood, Northcote, the gentrification of another into a faceless establishment catering to hipsters and the closure of an eatery that was particularly good, at least, in the beginning, before it changed proprietors, he made a bold suggestion: that the community at large communally invest in the acquisition of commercial premises in proximity to each other, which could be leased out to Greek businesses at concessionary rates, thus encouraging the growth of Greek commercial precincts in target areas. My initial reaction was to snort dismissively: private trade after all, when viewed in a vacuum, is an entirely selfish pursuit. It is the communal endeavours that should be enhanced with funding. Yet to view Greek businesses along these terms is to completely ignore the context in which they exist.
Although we have been in Melbourne for over a century, and even though we have created a thousand negative stereotypes about the manner in which we relate to each other as compatriots, we persist upon invariably seeking out Greek businesses in order to entrust our custom to them. Conversely, it is those businesses that sponsor the endeavours of Greek community organisations, whether these be festivals, dinner, dances or charitable events, and it is those businesses whose advertising subsidises our community print and airwave media. In the suburbs, the social interaction stemming from these businesses have been responsible for the formation of many Greek-Melbournian sub-cultures, and are often the only means of interaction within a Greek context, for many otherwise isolated or disengaged members of the community. Apart from being the means by which their proprietors feed themselves and their families, they constitute not only the oil in our communal engine, but also as a visible point of reference for those sharing the same identity, our public face, the very means for asserting that identity openly, within the context of multicultural Melbourne.
It is for this reason that the closure of a Greek business, an unremarkable event in the ordinary course of commerce, is met with such force of emotion for many Greeks in Melbourne. When a Greek business closes or vanishes, we feel that we are all diminished as a result and thus lament its loss, whether or not we were patrons, or held its wares in esteem. For us it is the mere presence of an identifiably Greek business as a point of reference in our local geography that is important and when we lose such points, we become disoriented. Further, the social structures that have evolved around them unravel in much the same manner in which life withers away upon the extinguishment of hydrothermal vents, Bridge Road in Richmond being but one of many examples.
Despite the fact that many post-war migrants emphasised tertiary education to the extent where large numbers of their offspring have sought “desk-job” employment, commerce and business occupy a significant portion of the members of our community. As time passes, much of this business is no longer conducted in an overtly “Greek” fashion, the target market being the entire social fabric of an area and not specifically a Greek clientele. Outside certain areas, the ubiquitous signs proclaiming: “Παντοπωλείον” or in one glorious instance: “Φρουτοπωλείον,” are now hard to come by, owing to marketing and linguistic assimilation. Rather than advocate a planned approach to the articulation of the identity of Greek businesses that perpetuates past forms of social interaction and enshrines the nostalgia that is omnipresent in all of us, perhaps all we can do is celebrate the significant contributions made by such businesses to the culture of our organised community and enjoy all these have to offer, for as long as it is relevant to do so. It is through attrition, interaction and mutual support that the relationship of Greek businesses to the evolving Greek community and its identity, will be negotiated.
In the meantime, as we pass by the stelae that mark our passage through time, let us rejoice that we, as the Pharaohs before us, get to choose the manner in which we are remembered, at least, for a little while.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 July 2018

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Ours is a world based on speed and consumption, or rather of speed of consumption. Daily, we are assailed by messages telling us which products to buy, which stars to emulate, which fallen footballers to empathise with, which news to believe. And daily, we are assailed by the problems of the world, in easily digestible sound and vision bites, just enough to let us express our humanity to our peers by pressing like on facebook, while posting photographs of our shoes, or hash-tagging a #feelingblessed on twitter, just enough to let us believe we are being intellectual by watching pundits pontificate on socially progressive current affairs shows while practising mindfulness in yoga pants, just enough so we don’t have to invest too much emotion on the terrible things that people do to one another in the civilised world.

Just enough, to make us feel safe.

As Cypriot poet Kyriakos Charalambides said in Rise from Sleep: “The eyes see whatever is an optical illusion./ All the rest are kept in the memory of the Gods.”

A cursory glance at what purports to be news, will reveal that there are currently sixty million refugees in the world. We are yet to figure out what to do with half a million Rohingas, a million Iraqi refugees, or five million Syrian refugees, except perhaps for posting a like on a relevant facebook post, summarising the sum total of our social activism, for all to see.

In the meantime, we have no idea what to do with Central and South American children finding their way across the US border.  Charalambides points out in ‘The Third Dimension’: “It’s a shame then that we subject ourselves. To physical barriers; that we don’t control/ every molecule that grows on the planet – look at the city, it is in agony.”

 “War rises up on crutches from the ruins like a brother of the sun,” Charalambides informs us in his poem ‘Submission.’

Given the particularly dense humanitarian quagmire the world continuously finds itself in, why should we continue to care about Cyprus, and in particular Ammochostos, the city of Famagusta?

I remember the first time I saw Ammochostos. I was in the refugee settlements of Deryneia, in free Cyprus, in the company of its last elected mayor, Andreas Pougiouros. Beyond the wire fence, barring us from the city, I saw looming across the sand, a long array of concrete buildings slowly mouldering away in silence. In that part of the city, Varosha, time had stood still. Empty, unoccupied, hollow and dead. A parody of all of mankind’s  aspirations towards civilization and high esteem for its achievements. There, on a balmy summer’s day, while languidly sipping a frappe, was the entire human tragedy of the Cyprus invasion visually represented, by means of dignified decay of a ravaged and then abandoned Queen. The words of Charalambides’ poem ‘Baton’ sprang to mind: “The city was asleep in her dream/ precious and alone,/ dissipating every associated evil/ felt that tomorrow would be better./ She wakes and sees black death before her.”Facebook of course hadn’t been invented then. Had it existed, then chances are that this poem and my evocation of it, would have been expressed instead, with a weepy face emoticon.

Andreas Pougiouros was pointing out to me the various plans he had made for the city. He spread his arms out lovingly, as if to embrace her, showing me which buildings were under construction, which zones, earmarked for tourism were going to prove the most lucrative. One could see that in his eyes at least, the city was a living, breathing organism, full and life, and most importantly, unsullied by the heinous events of those decades ago. “I adore imagination./ Seeing you and imagining that I don’t see you/ fascinates me most,” Charalambides mused in ‘The Wind God.’

As the sun set, Andreas Pougioros sensuously gestured to his Galatea as a veritable Pygmalion with his fingers and called to her in a soft crooning voice. Charalambides once more insinuated himself within the silence of my contemplation: “How beautiful is man,/ sweet is the star that covers him/ day and night in cold and in rain/ who laughs and howls at the sun.”

It is for this reason, that there is relevance in Greek-Australian academic John Milides’ recently released English translation of Kyriakos Charalambides’ elegy to a city lost, but ever present: “Famagusta Regina.” The ‘sand-shoved’ city, as it literally is called, lingers, partially occupied, partially unoccupied, as a telling metaphor for the so-called Cyprus Issue itself: always, if one believes the news, on the cusp of being solved, always awaiting a new initiative that will dissolve the dividing line between its free and the occupied parts but ultimately, elusive and illusory, leaving the victims of brutality to collect an safeguard the shattered shards of their erstwhile existence. Charalambides observes in ‘A Magical Game:’ “Alas/ you assemble her/ among many fragments of various kinds./ One day, in her mass grave you found/ the hand of a child, and on another day- its head./ You assemble her and you identity her./ The limbs of ancient colossi are scattered…”

When reading John Milides’ translation, we are reminded just how bound up our identity is within our soil. Our sense of self derives from its presence within its natural environment. Charalambides may be an exile but so are we, dislocated from our topos and exiled to the artificial realms of the cybersphere. Charalambides is a refugee from Famagusta. We are refugees from reality. We need an exile, to show us the way home.

The very act of translating the work of one of the most renowned and celebrated living Cypriot poets, especially one who adheres so steadfastly to the Greek Cypriot linguistic register is an exacting one. While a replication of the undulating musicality of that register is almost impossible in English, John Milides artfully is able to approximate its cadences, variously through short, staccato like verses that assail the reader, alternating with long, lyrical, mellifluous stanzas that wrap around the reader like a blood-ripe Cypriot sunset.

The very title of the work presents a problem, owing to its polysemy. The word ῾βασιλεύουσα, in the original Greek title: Αμμόχωστος Βασιλεύουσα, is used in Greek to connote only one city, the city which is referred to as “THE CITY,” without the need for further explanation: Constantinople, the enduring spiritual capital of the Greek people. It is a feminine participle, signifying a “reigning.” Other translators have thus called rendered the title as “Ammochostos, Regal Capital,” a rendition that fails to embrace the way in which the poet is appropriating the singularity of Constantinople, and by inference, the importance of its fall, for his own city: Ammochostos. John Milides’ “Famagusta Regina,” is thus inspired, not only because he has been able to provide symmetry, matching the Latin version of the city’s name, with a suitable latinesque version of βασιλεύουσα, but by making Famagusta the “Queen” of Cities, he best aids and abets the poet in his appropriation of the Great Citys emotive cultural legacy, thus emphasing the enormity of the catastrophe that befell it. Moreover, the word Regina also evokes memories of British rule over the island, (ie Victoria Regina and Elizabeth Regina, the British monarchs during whose reign Cyprus was made a colony and finally, granted independence,) a subject that the poet will return to, time and time again. Finally, John Milides, in his careful and thoughtful translation, has regard to the manner in which the poet constructs or rather deconstructs, memory, form, place, name and reality itself: “Could “Famagusta,” the name of a city, be fake?/ A contrived separation of space and land, of utopia?/ Time made of finely crafted sand/ as you gaze at her white breasts.”

The sands of time continue to run through and over Ammochostos, Queen of Cities. As they do, they bury her in the bile of countless more unresolved conflicts that have come after her, serving to desensitize and already distracted people at the plight of the victims of the Cyprus invasion. Thrust among the shifting sands of this maelstrom of modern existence, if it were not for Charalambides, it would be easy to submit to the oblivion of the quicksand. Yet he and his latest translator John Milides draw dignity and strength from futility, even as everything is destined to pass on: “And then,/ the immortal city,/ although tired,/ will fall into a swoon – a monster of the lake;/ that will suddenly reappear to allay silence, and engender a bitter little almond tree….Everything exists; both those lost and those present. Everything is blown away by the wind God.”   Here then, lies the final, fragrant victory of the victims over their oppressors: “A crowd of defenceless martyrs/ from within the rocks and torrents./ A soul with so many flowers around the line of the face/ blossoms sweetly on its mountains and their windows.” (‘Baton’)
In the speaking of the poets words in various tongues, ably assisted by John Milides (“Glossolalia,”) with all its connotations of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the catholicity of a message of peace and reconciliation, “the stars of the Heavens have been purified.”(Free Field-Style Vase) An aspirational work of apokatastasis, John Milides’ translation of “Famagusta Regina,” surely is the panacea that is needed for healing in these most fractious of ages.

Famagusta Regina will be launched on 29 July 2018 at 3pm at the Pontian Community of Melbourne, 345 Victoria Street Brunswick, by Dr Thanasis Spilias and Dean Kalimniou.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 July 2018