Saturday, May 21, 2016


There is a reason why Greek men are constantly at war with their fathers,” my obsessed with Greek mythology friend once told me. “The ancient Greeks knew this, which is why it appears in the ancient myths. Gaia, in her quest for emancipation from her husband, Ouranos, gave her son Cronos a sickle, and made him cleave off his father’s genitals. Rhea, Cronos’ wife, gave Zeus the knowledge to defeat his father. The Titanomachy can thus be explained as the struggle for emancipation by a younger Greek generation, against their fathers, who are bent on oppressing them and preventing them from growing up.”
There can be no doubt that in ‘Fathers from the Edge,’ a recently published compendium of narratives examining the complex and multi-faceted relationship between Greek-Australian writers and their fathers, examples of latent and sometimes not so latent forms of progenitoral aggression are manifest. As the editor, academic Helen Nickas, for whom this book is a companion to her much acclaimed ‘Mothers from the Edge,’ states: “While there is much affection in the depiction of fathers, these are not from an idealized perspective. The writers don’t seek to romanticize their fathers but to understand them, especially as time has mellowed and matured their feelings about family relationships.” This ‘warts and all’ (from the offspring’s perspective) portrayal of Greek fathers has as its aim, to provide a glimpse of the manifold ways in which life lived within two cultures can impact upon a familial relationship, paving the way to understanding and ultimately compassion.
In many respects, the above mythological analysis is an apt one. In most of the twenty-four stories comprising the collection, fathers are portrayed as remote, unintelligible and Sphinx-like figures, impossible to comprehend. Such relationships as are formed between such fathers and their progeny, rather than a meeting of minds, are based on delineation and demarcation of boundaries. Fathers are left to battle their own impenetrable demons, most of which have to do with the trauma of dislocation and relocation to another country, war, or family breakdown, often appearing selfish and thus subverting the Greek-Australian stereotype of the selfless all-providing father, while their Australian-born or reared children look on incomprehensibly and with increasing feelings of resentment and dislocation, a resentment that was often mutual. As Despina Michael writes in ‘The Orange Grove:’ “Dad loved us, but resented us at the same time. We had colonized him. He could never leave.”
These titanic fathers, are often figures of childhood terror. Dmetri Kami writes of his father in ‘The Fisherman from Tenedos’: “Although I forgive him for striking his wife, I am haunted by the screams and sobs that put my sister and I to sleep for the first years of our lives.” In ‘Those Three Words’  Dimitri Gonis gives voice to his own Titan, a father formidable and gigantic, whose dimensions can only be appreciated and reconciled with the passage of time and the utterance of the magic words ‘I love you:’ “The truth is, we kids feared my father, We’d hear him turning the key and instead of running to the door, we’d run away from it.” Such intimidating fathers, problematic as they are, (Vrasidas Karalis opens his story ‘The Age of the Father’ thus: “When he died, they all sighed with relief; he had been a problem for years”) also remain an obstacle in their children’s own maturation, for their impenetrability, causes their children to be unable to identify with them and cleaves a rift of culture, time and personality between the generations. Until that rift is healed, it remains as a wound, rendering all before it dysfunctional. “For the son, he remained an enigma,” writes Karalis. “An indecipherable palindrome.”
Some authors, such as Nick Trakakis, attempt to render their fathers effable by resorting to classical history, geography and literature. In ‘Of Blood and Spirit,’ Trakakis makes the following observation in his quest to understand his father: “But there is something else, something more remarkable, I have found. My father, as I said is Cretan. And what are Cretan renown for? Love of freedom: fierce independence. Nobility…” It is almost as if a return to the fundamentals, that of ancestral place of origin, provides the key to our viewing of our Titans in a more humane perspective. It is not without coincidence then Dmetri Kakmi defines his father primarily as being ‘from Tenedos.’ As Tina Haralambakis writes in ‘Offshoots:’ “My life-long obsession with my parents’ homeland most likely began in early childhood, while listening to my father strum his guitar and sing along to his old recordings of Greek tangos.” She makes an important point. As progenitors, our fathers defy and transcend temporal classifications. They are both past and present, suggesting that our present with them must in subtle ways, be qualified by the past. Such an idea is taken up by Helen Nickas, when she feels to ask her father in: ‘A Belated Letter from a Daughter ‘Down Under’: “How do I feel about my homeland? Is it still home for me?”
On the other hand, in Victoria Kyriakopoulos’ brilliant piece: ‘KISSmania,’ the life-rejecting negativity of the protagonist’s father stems from his geographical background which does not permit him to come to terms with his new environment, and impedes his offsprings’ engagement with their world: “No was her father’s standard, inflexible response to anything alien and threatening from the outside world. Helen was expected to respect his authority, his better judgment, no questions asked.” In that world, dethronement of the Titan is personified in a supreme act of resistance: Attending a KISS concert in defiance of the father’s prohibition.
The inability of fathers and their children to find a common language within which to articulate their relationship is often expressed as a possible impediment to its natural progression within the stories. Dmetri Kakmi, for instance asks: “Would things be different if he and I spoke the same language? Would we be able to share intimate thoughts and feelings, or does he belong to a generation that has no place for such shilly-shallying?” In Justice Emilios Kyrou’s story: ‘Yiannis Kyrou, a courageous spirit,’ such questions are turned on their head, as is the relationship of provider/protector, beneficiary/suppliant, as Justice Kyrou uses his knowledge of the English language in order to shield his parents from experiencing racism. Justice Kyrou’s story is to be distinguished from most of the other contributions as, even though he was made to feel ashamed of his origin, it is apparent throughout the text that he not only fully understood his parents’ perspective, but also shared their values and aspirations. As such, the only gap here, was one of education and considering that in obtaining this, Justice Kyrou was fulfilling his father’s expectations, this in no way impinged upon the maintenance of a close and loving relationship.
When I was asked for a contribution to ‘Fathers from the Edge,’ I was unsure as to how to proceed. Unlike Dmetri Kakmi, my father and I do have a common language in which to articulate our relationship: English. Unlike many of the other authors, I have no use or need to seek recourse to history, geography or a grief-stricken past to explain my father to myself, for he arrived in Australia when he was four and has no memory of Greece. Our values, aspirations, attitudes and level of education are commensurate with each other and I revel in no one’s company more than his. Furthermore, how do I put into words my admiration and love for my own creator, friend, advisor and guide, a person who to this day, constitutes my ultimate male role-model, being possessed with a nobility of soul and plethora of attributes that I continue to aspire to attain, despite the flaws in my own character? 
            Ultimately, I decided to attempt to provide an account of what happens when the gods descend from Mount Olympus, assume human form and choose to walk among us, as equals. My story, “Coming out Greek,” is therefore a tale of how my father and I grew up together, seeking to embrace a common ethnic and cultural identity, while reconciling the disparate strands of a linguistic, historical and social melting pot, which we discovered side by side. The act of emancipation that forms the climax of the story is not my own, but rather my father’s, in coming to terms with the same type of racism faced by Justice Kyrou in his own past, but resolving its effects in a radically different way.
            Helen Nickas’ publication of ‘Fathers from the Edge,’ is timely given how many of our fathers and custodians of the foundation myth of our community are now slipping way. Now is the time, if not to reconcile but at least to analyse and appreciate the complexities of a relationship that forms the social and psychological background to the entire history of the Greek community in Australia.
Fathers from the Edge will be launched on Tuesday, 24 May at 6:30pm at the Greek Centre, 168 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.  
First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 May 2016

Saturday, May 14, 2016


Just over a month prior to the recent conflagration which caused untold damage to the Annunciation (Evangelismos) Church in East Melbourne, Athena Giankoulidis undertook an extensive mission to photograph almost every inch of that church accessible to the laity. Her actions were prescient, as the community is now possessed of an archive of photos that could prove invaluable as guides to restoration, should it be determined that the church be restored to exactly the same condition or style as it was prior to the fire, or at least, bear historical witness to the décor of the church and the manner in which the restoration diverged from it.
Of course, much of the interior is irreplaceable. Granted, much of the iconography was executed in the hyper-mannerist, super-baroque Romanesque, cringeworthy style of the late eighteen hundreds and early nineteen hundreds, still to be found in a multitude of Greek island churches and beyond. It is neither rare nor important from an art-historical point of view. Yet when I view Athena’s photograph of the now destroyed icon of the Nativity in the church, I cannot help but choke back tears. For the inscription below the icon informs us that this was a donation by Sophia, the mother of the first Greek Orthodox priest in Melbourne, Athanasios Kantopoulos, way back in 1902. The prayers of this pious woman, whose gesture, was made at a time when iconography was extremely costly, in support of a community she knew nothing about and her son’s mission in a completely unknown land have finally come to an end.
Being an old people, we Greeks have a strange, almost contradictory relationship with time. Centuries of history can be conflated into minutes so that the Fall of Constantinople or the Battle of Salamis can be treated in the popular consciousness as if they took place only recently. Conversely, time can also be surprisingly telescoped. The Macedonian struggle of 1908 or the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 are treated by many Greek-Australians as current events, (especially on facebook), but when it comes to our consciousness of our own community’s history, the year 1900, being when the Evangelismos Church was founded, is felt to have taken place aeons ago and is shrouded within the obscurity of the temporal nebulae.
Thus, while many Greek-Australians can identify with an imagined past of at least three millennia prescribed by a modern Greek historical narrative, there appears to be no analogous identification or sense of continuity with the founders of our community, a mere century ago. Rather than inherit a corpus of anecdotes or local lore, there seems to be an almost complete disconnect of knowledge or identification between successive Greek-Australian generations. For most of us, our Greek-Australian community creation myth begins with the arrival of our parents of grandparents on these shores, and it is their values rather than their deeds and those of their peers that are idealized and passed on.
Consequently, the works and deeds of our early pioneers are left to be discovered in the works of dedicated historians such as Hugh Gilchrist, which is where, incidentally, I first came to appreciate the significance of the Evangelismos Church, as a teenager. Prior to that, Evangelismos featured dimly in my own familial tradition as a place my grandparents and father had to travel an inordinate distance in order to celebrate Easter, prior to the erection of our own local church, which is when my own Greek-Melburnian temporal consciousness begins, though it intersects strangely with that of its first Greek priest, with whom being of Samian descent, we all sympathized as a compatriot.
Originally well regarded, Father Athanasios Kantopoulos of Samos, gradually alienated himself from the Greek parishioners of Evangelismos via his insistence upon ministering to the Arabic-speaking members of his flock (for contrary to our version of the founding myth, the Evangelismos was founded as a multi-cultural church for all Orthodox Melburnians, including the Lebanese, Syrians, Russians and Bulgarians) and not excluding them from church governance, despite the insistence of local Greek bourgeois powerbrokers. As a result, Father Athanasios was expelled from the church, along with the Arabic-speaking faithful, who eventually formed the parish of Saint Nicholas a few blocks down, in the same street, in 1932. It is therefore the height of historical irony, but also a lovingly symbolic act of absolution that the descendants of these same exiles from a community that was happy to take their money but not to respect their ethno-linguistic diversity, will house the faithful of Evangelismos in Saint Nicholas, until such time as Evangelismos is liturgical once more (pun definitely intended). In such cases, historical amnesia maybe for the best though sadly, the icons dedicated by the Syrian members of Evangelismos have been destroyed, erasing physical witness to their contribution to this church forever.
No amount of new iconography can bring this, or the fervent prayers of Sophia Kantopoulou back and perhaps the community could look into publishing a photo memoir of the church in its undamaged state in order to act as a point of reference for the future, for I feel that the burning of this church marks a historical watershed in our community, to which the historians of tomorrow will return.
The fact is that despite the rhetoric, Evangelismos was largely neglected and unloved by the majority of Greek-Melburnians. Caught between an ugly and ultimately useless turf war between the Community and the Archdiocese for decades, it remained a reminder of the type of strife celebrated only by the most fervent of partisans on either side. In the meantime, as everyone else built their local brotherhoods, in opposition to or complete disregard of the GOCMV and founded largely architecturally-challenged churches in suburbs close to home, Evangelismos was allowed to lapse into obscurity, the defacing of its foundation stone being symbolic of our lack of historical consciousness and continuity.
In this way, the past tradition of ecclesiastical strife as embodied by Evangelismos arguably constitutes a burden, especially for younger members of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, who question why their institution should be tasked with overseeing matters of religion and indeed, no longer view the terms ‘Greek’ and ‘Orthodox’ as inextricably entwined. Symptomatic of this, is the recent tacit dropping of the word ‘Orthodox,’ from that entity’s informal communications, hinting that a new direction away from the traditional, is being considered. If so, then the burning of the most significant symbol of the perceived fetters of the past, grants the casting of that new direction, immense bittersweet poignancy.
Nothing ever goes on as before and the real chord struck in the hearts of most of us at the devastation of our community's foundation point, is that it constitutes evidence that the constant niggling feeling we have, that our communal works and deeds will prove to be ephemeral, is now palpable. Yet this does not have to be so. Already the leadership of the GOCMV, with the surprising energy and deep respect for the past that is so characteristic of it, has secured the devastated premises and in consultation with the Archdiocese, is planning its restoration. In doing so, it can tap into the immense groundswell of community sympathy and support it has been able to garner through its astute management of its other projects, as well as the residual and now, in the aftermath of the fire, resurgent attachment to Evangelismos church.
Regardless of the form that such architectural restoration takes, or of the future ideological and religious direction of our institutions, if we can as a whole, memorialise and celebrate the history of Evangelismos, granting it a unique and viable (rather than tokenistic) role within the Greek community, as well as restoring it to its rightful place as the fundament, not only of our own but of all Orthodox communities in Melbourne, making it a place of pilgrimage and a multi-cultural touchstone of identity for all ethnicities that played a role in its foundation, then we have its ensured its relevance and justified the prayers of its donors, if not for eternity (Orthodox conception of time is even more otherworldly than Greek), then at least for the considerable future.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 May 2016

Saturday, May 07, 2016


As a boy, I was entranced by Gerald Durrell's description, in his brilliant account of his idyllic childhood in Corfu "My Family and other Animals," of how he came to name his coracle-shaped boat the "Bootle," only to have appended onto it, the word "Bumtrinket," at the suggested of his brother, the famous author, Lawrence Durrell.

 My first car was similarly roundish in shape and beetle-like. By that stage, personalized number plates were no longer a novelty of the rich or the petrol-headed but were widely in use. The "Bootle-Bumtrinket" being much too long to fit on a Victorian license plate, I wanted to acquire to the plate: "Bizdouno," a word that I felt carried phonetically beetle-like connotations. The fervor of my youthful enthusiasm was quickly doused by my horrified mother. "You can't call your car 'Bizdouno,'" she exclaimed. "It's the name your aunt uses to refer to one of her neighbours. She will find out and think you've set out to offend her." Apparently the lady in question was given a nickname that referred to her place of origin, Bizdouni, in Epirus. My motor vehicle on the other hand, originated in an assembly line in Geelong, a considerable distance away.

 Unperturbed, I insisted upon my chosen name, or by way of compromise, "Bitsoulas" being a contraction of "Glymbitsoulas" a fictional bogeyman used to scare children, having been told that my driving has similar properties. I was all set to register a plate bearing this name, when I discovered that "Bitsoulas" was the name of an extremely popular discotheque in the Athenian suburb of Glyfada, in the nineteen eighties. In the end, having also rejected other options such "Freno" (to remind me to apply the same in a timely fashion) and "Zhaba" the local word in my maternal ancestral village for a large fat female toad (which is exactly what my car looked like), I finally settled upon a license plate bearing the word KAPO, which is good Greek-Australian for motor-vehicle which is why, I believe, my father surreptitiously consulted Vicroads and obtained personalized license plates n my behalf, bearing my Greek initials, KK. Now, whenever I pull up to family or community functions, I am invariably accosted with the question: "Hey KK, what happened to the E?" referring to the fact that the abbreviation of the Communist Party of Greece is KKE in Greek. "I'm a member of the Communist International," I always reply, "We believe the Revolution will sweep away borders which are bourgeois constructions created in order to dominate workers and thus have no need for the E (which stands for Greece)." This exposition is enough to permit my interlocutors to move on to the next topic.

'Greek' license plates in Victoria are fascinating as they provide a unique insight not only into how their owners view their identity but also, how they choose to express this down the generations. Whereas Anglo-Australians may choose to put their names or nicknames on their plates, the first generation of Greek plate holders have invariably sought to place on their vehicles, their place of origin. Thus, I have throughout the years, beheld plates proudly bearing the words Samos, Sparta, Kalamata, Epirus 1 (whose owner drove on the freeway in front of me, at the same tempo as an Epirot funeral dirge,) Fteri (a village in Achaia), Korinthos, Kriti, Lefkada, Lamia, and countless others. As His Honour Justice Emilios Kyrou outlines in his book "Call Me Emilios," such public assertions of identity can often be liberating for those who have had to suppress aspects of their ethnic origin for whichever reason. The owner of the license plate 'Kosma,' could certainly relate to this.

 Proving that one's region can supply a way of expression of one's personal identity, driving around Melbourne, one can come across Pontos, Pontus and even Pontia, to describe the female of the species. With such plates, one has to be careful however. The owner of Assos, turned out not to be a Greek claiming that he was the best at everything, but rather, a Turk from the homonymous town, on the Asia Minor coast opposite Lesbos. The owner of the license plate Coglan (meaning young boy or catamite), from which the Greek word τσογλάνι (scoundrel) is derived, was also Turkish. This license plate is a menace to society as I almost smashed into a tree when first I noticed it.

 Interestingly enough, just as some personalized number plates display affiliations to community groups such as football teams, (there are numerous Greek Australian license plates bearing versions of Greek football team names, 'PAOK' and 'AEK' being the most common,) members of our community often feel so proud of their local clubs or brotherhoods, that they choose to brand their cars with their names. Thus, in the previous decades, there was a spate of members of the Pontian Association "Pontiaki Estia" obtaining license plates such as 'ESTIA 1,' 'ESTIA 2' and so on. Such persons still continue to drive among us, displaying a dedication to their club that members of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria have not. I am fully in favour of an alteration to that organisation's constitution in order to compel its president to drive around with GOCMV 1 license plates, or in the alternative 'Chief' or its Greek equivalent 'Tsiftis,' though I am reliably informed that the latter has already been taken. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is possessed of numerous number plates bearing the initials GA. Furthermore, I would love to see how the president of the Benevolent Brotherhood of Kolindros, Pafsilypos would devise a number plate for himself.

 Further than ascribing to their cars, their place of origin, Greeks also give them labels denoting abstract concepts, as in the case of 'Agapi,' unquestionably the 'Love Bug' of Greek Australia and paradoxically enough, 'Oneiro' for a motor vehicle that does not appear to be particular expensive, leading the viewer to muse whether in fact the owner is dreaming of a better car, or, whether, owing to limited means, his current mode of conveyance represents the extent of his capacity to dream. I regularly see driving around in my local area an 'Aetos,' though how the vehicle can fly like an eagle given the proliferation of speed humps in our suburb, is anyone's guess. 'Telios,' could well be as described, though evidently he cannot spell, and as for 'Alitis,' the less said about him, the better.

 Finally, driving around Pascoe Vale a few days ago, I came 'Atheos,' meaning Atheist. The fact that someone felt so deeply about denying the existence of a Creator, that they were moved not only to state this in an utterly most public way, but also in Greek, made a profound impression upon me. In years to come, scholars may view this as a public manifestation of the debate that perennially rages within the Greek pages of Neos Kosmos as to the desirability or veracity of Christianity. My own view is that this license plate has been painstakingly calculated so as to elicit the response: «Πω, πω, αυτός δεν έχει το Θεό του.» Incidentally, my parish priest swears that Atheos is often to e seen parked outside the church, for its owner often pops in to light a candle..

As the Greek Australian community becomes assimilated, fewer of its members are choosing to employ Greek upon their personalized license plates, considering such a phenomenon to be outmoded or too 'woggy.' Those that do, often attempt to employ words in their wrong context, such as an acquaintance who attempted to register 'Komvio' because in Google translate, this was provided as the equivalent of 'Stud,' showing how the phenomenon can be used to trace our community's level of understanding of the Greek language and its accompanying cultural connotations and express these in an intelligible form. Yet for Komvio and for others, such as the owner of 'Romios' (literally meaning Roman but referring to a Byzantine/Orthodox identity) the personalised license plate is still a powerful and emotive medium for asserting one's identity within the context of a multicultural society. Historians and sociologists would do well to study this phenomenon, outlining the social and psychological reasons for its existence as it provides a novel yardstick for the acculturation of our community, prior to its inevitable demise.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 May 2016

Saturday, April 30, 2016


"I don't get it. If Macedonia is Greek, how come the Macedonians don't speak Greek?" the elderly Assyrian man asked. I launched for the third time, into a detailed historical account of the history of Macedonia, from times ancient, through to Byzantine, Ottoman and beyond. Half an hour later, the elderly man smoothed his luxurious moustache and asked: "So the Macedonians are not Greek. Then why are you Greeks saying that Macedonia is Greek?"
Explaining what Macedonomachs around the world term "historical truths," should not be so difficult. It was time to change tactic. "Put it this way," I answered. "What if I told you that you are not Assyrian, but rather a Chaldean?" My aged interlocutor turned various hues of purple. I was convinced that even his white moustache had turned a darker shade. "What?" He spluttered. "That's garbage! There is no such thing as a Chaldean people! There never was. This is an identity that was made up in order to divide our people! Look at the history.."
Scholars generally agree that historically, there was no such thing as a Chaldean people, just as most scholars agree that the ancient Macedonians were not a people, but rather a sub-set of broader Greek tribal confederations. Yet tell the approximately 700,000 Syriac-speaking people that identify as Chaldeans that they are in fact Assyrian and tell the millions of Slavonic-speaking people that identify as 'Macedonians' that they are in fact Bulgarian and pandemonium ensues. It seems therefore that we are not the only people struggling with what we term, 'historical distortions,' or in Greek: «πλαστογράφηση της ιστορίας.»As is the case with many people whose origins lie in western Macedonia, theoretical discussions of identity are keenly felt within many Assyrian and Chaldean families, who are compelled to 'choose sides,' providing useful parallels with our own "name dispute," but also making such choices all the more sad and poignant.
Variously described as Syrians or Assyrians in ancient Greek texts as far back as Herodotus, ( I derive perverse pleasure out of telling Assyrian friends that it was we Greeks who put the Ass into Ass-yrian), the modern day Assyrians who, up until the Assyrian genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans, the genocide of Simele perpetrated by the Iraqi army and the genocide perpetrated by ISIS, resided in the lands of Mesopotamia shared between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, trace their ancestry to the ancient Assyrian Empire. Conquered by the Persians, who subjected them to immense persecution for their religious beliefs, conquered in turn by the Muslims who unleashed even more vicious persecution upon them, theirs is a story of survival despite overwhelming odds. Along the way, they played an immense and now largely uncredited role in preserving ancient Greek civilization, for it was the Assyrian monks who translated key works of the ancient orders for the benefit of their Arabic masters, in time for these to be appropriated by the Crusaders and brought to the West. Furthermore, up until the 17th century, the primary liturgical language in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, was Syriac, the language of the Assyrians and saints such as Saint John of Damascus and Saint Ephraim the Syrian, were native speakers of Syriac.
The Syriac-speaking peoples have entered into the twenty-first century not as one but as three distinct peoples. Their identities have been largely created by those that have ruled over them and reflect religious, rather than ethnic or linguistic differences within an otherwise relatively homogenous people. Syriac speaking adherents of the Nestorian Church of the East, once widespread from Byzantium to Mongolia, as well as former members whose ancestors converted to Protestantism, generally identify as Assyrian. They can point to a long, documented history of a continued presence in their ancestral homelands. Interest in them and fascination with their links to ancient Assyria emerged in the nineteenth century when British missionaries and archaeologists 'discovered" them, along with ancient Assyria during their excavations in the area. In many respects then, the western reconstruction of the Greek and Assyrian identities has followed surprisingly similar paths.
Whereas up until the nineteen thirties, the members of the Monophysite Syriac Orthodox Church identified themselves as Assyrian, due to pressure from Syria's Baath party, they began to refer to themselves as Arabs and lately, as "Arameans." In Sweden, where a large Syriac Orthodox expatriate community exists, the community is split down the middle, with one half supporting the Assyriska football team (and hence stating their affiliation with the Assyrian identity), and the other half, the "Aramean" Syrianska football team, in a manner reflecting similar debates about ethnic identity in the early history of the Heidelberg United soccer club here in Melbourne.
It is the Catholic Syriac-speakers who identify not as Assyrian but as Chaldeans. This is because the Chaldean Catholic Church was founded as a Uniate church for Assyrians, in Cyprus, in the sixteenth century. In choosing the term Chaldean, the Catholic church sought to link the Assyrians with the lands from which Abraham came, according to the Bible. Most members of this church are descendants of Nestorians who converted to Catholicism en masse in the late nineteenth century in the hopes that adherence to a 'western' church would save them from persecution. As such, their former affiliation should be almost within living memory. Indeed, the late Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Raphael Bidawid, commented in 2003: The name 'Chaldean' does not represent an ethnicity... We have to separate what is ethnicity and what is religion... I myself, my sect is Chaldean, but ethnically, I am Assyrian." Nonetheless, apart from a few exceptions, Chaldeans today are convinced that they are not Assyrian, instead drawing their heritage from the (ethnically similar) Babylonians who, paradoxically enough differ from the historical Chaldeans. Indeed, most will react with anger or incredulity when taken through the historical evidence indicating that their chosen identity does not accord with history or ethnography, citing spurious folklore or discredited history in defence of their claim. It is quite amusing to sit in on a heated debate between a Chaldean and an Assyrian about the ethnic origins of Nebuchadnezzar, until it becomes disquietingly apparent that the same vitriol, the same appeal to emotions rather than to logic and the same distortion of historical sources takes place as in an argument between an Greek, a FYROMIAN and an Albanian about the ethnic origins of Alexander the Great and his Adidas footwear.
Patriotic Assyrians lamenting the sundering of their diverse tribes cannot understand why the world, and especially friendly countries such as Australia which play host to both communities, allow the Chaldeans to persist in their historical delusions, much as deeply perturbed Greeks find it strange that despite constant re-hashings of the historical evidence, the world continues to indulge those who ethnically identify as 'Macedonians,' their fantasies, even joining in, by agreeing to call them by their desired names. In the meantime, while Assyrian and Greek uber-patriots become enraged each time the mainstream media refers to 'Macedonia' (ie. FYROM) or the Chaldeans, these appellations are so widespread that even Greek politicians are now referring to FYROMites as Macedonians and then excusing themselves as having made a 'gaffe.' Whereas enlightened Greeks offer 'Slav-Macedonian' as a compromise solution, enlightened Assyrians refer to an 'Assyro-Chaldean' identity, in an effort to bridge the gap, an effort, the majority of Chaldeans reject, primarily because they have no need of an Assyrian identity and possibly, because the 'Assyro' is placed here before the 'Chaldean.'
The fact of the matter is that ancient history used as an anachronism to imagine a nation, is not the only determinant of ethnic or national consciousness. Politics too plays a major role as can be evidenced by the existence of a German, Austrian, Swiss German, Luxembourgish and Liechtensteinian national identity, for a multitude of German speaking peoples, or a separate Ukrainian, Belarussian, Rusyn and Russian ethnic identity for speakers of dialects of the Russian language. Similarly, of late, we are witnessing the possible birth of a "Cypriot" ethnic identity, with more and more Cypriots distinguishing themselves from 'Greeks,' especially in the diaspora. As such, while there may not have been a 'Macedonian' or Chaldean ethnicity or consciousness in the past, it cannot be doubted that one exists now, valid or otherwise, because the world has deemed it expedient to allow its creation and millions have subscribed to it and have lived within it, for at least three generations, enough time to allow historic delusion to become overlooked and the comparative reality of living with a manufactured identity to become history itself. Indeed, if Malcolm Turnbull's smug asides are to be taken seriously, Australia is a haven for all those fleeing the conflict arising from such delusions.
While naming or shaming those who make slips of the tongue is fruitless and counter-productive in the face of the inexorable grind of the steamroller of delusion, both the Assyrian and the Greek communities will fight the good fight, for morally, they can do naught else, continuously hoping for "historic justice," as one fervent patriot put it recently, as the world and the new ethnic identities that are constantly being formed, constructed, dissolved and re-imagined, pass us all by.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 April 2016

Saturday, April 23, 2016


The Coptic Orthodox Church of Saint Mary in Kensington is holding a public breakfast, open to all members of the community, in honour of Anzac Day. This is a beautiful gesture which shows how a community, of Middle Eastern origin, that has ostensibly at least, no historical ties with one of the most enduring and hallowed of Australian commemorations, can integrate itself within the context of that commemoration, in a respectful and meaningful way, proving that one does not need to be of the same race as those who underwent the severe trials of Gallipoli, in order to pay tribute to the eternal human virtues of courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. Our community institutions have much to learn from the Coptic approach which, at its heart is truly multi-cultural.

            The word ostensibly is used above because the Copts do have a link with the ANZACs, one  that like so many others is generally glossed over by an official public narrative that had until recently emphasized the role of certain key participants such as the British, the Australians, New Zealanders and Turk and is only now, gradually coming to acknowledge the role of other minor protagonists. One of these are the Copts, the native, non-Arab people of Egypt. As a Christian minority that had been relegated to the inferior status of a dhimmi (non-Muslim) people under Islamic rule, the Copts felt a natural affinity towards the 'Christian' west and avidly supported Britain's appropriation of Egypt in the latter part of the nineteenth century. With their western orientation and superior education, they were able to achieve important bureaucratic positions within the British administration.

Thus during World War I, Coptic community of Egypt held many fundraisers in order to assist the Allied war effort. As well, Coptic public servants played a key role in co-ordinating supplies, provisions and accommodation for ANZAC soldiers billeted in Egypt on the way to the front. Such a task was not always easy.  Egyptian Nobel prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz describes in several of his works, the difficulty faced in controlling the rowdiness of Australian ANZAC soldiers, with their tendency to get drunk and become overly friendly with the local women, in violation of Egyptian social codes. Furthermore, vocal Coptic support of the Anzacs directly defied the call for jihad against the Allies, issued by the Ottoman sultan, who was also the caliph of Islam. Egypt was still technically a part of the Ottoman Empire and much of the muslim population of Egypt was sympathetic to the Sultan's call. The fact that a subjugated minority had the temerity to defy this call and actively assist the perceived enemy did not go unforgotten or unpunished and Copts have over the years paid a terrible price for what is perceived to be, their western orientation

            It is hoped that the Coptic contribution to the ANZAC cause becomes more widely known and more broadly studied in years to come. In the meantime, local Greek community activists, including former members of Parliament Lee Tarlamis and John Pandazopoulos, along with the indefatigable military historian and honorary Greek Jim Claven, through the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee have, after years of hard work, managed to raise increased awareness the Greek contribution to the ANZAC cause, especially with regards to Lemnos. This is of immense importance, as Lemnos was the major base of ANZAC operations, the place where the Anzacs practiced the landings, where the Australian nurses and medical staff established their hospitals, where the sick and injured soldiers returned for treatment and where the soldiers returned for brief periods of rest.  It was also where the war that began at Gallipoli in 1915 ended in 1918, with the Armistice of Mudros, a bay of Lemnos. Joy Damoussi, in her recent book, Memory and Migration in the Shadow of War: Australia's Greek Immigrants after World War II and the Greek Civil War', writes just how instrumental shared experiences of war were, in forging links between Greeks and Australians.

            Furthermore, historians such as Panayiotis Diamandis in Sydney have, through their research, also highlighted the terrible human cost suffered by Greeks as a result of the ANZAC campaign. An estimated 15,000 native Greek inhabitants of the Gallipoli peninsula were forcibly removed and or ethnically cleansed by the Ottoman army, in their bid to secure the gateway to the Dardanelles. As well, he argues convincingly, that the order to intensify the deportation of Greeks and Armenians within the Ottoman Empire, which is considered to have constituted a genocide, was made as direct reaction to the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. The Greek Australian community is thus inextricably woven into the warp and the weft of the ANZAC legend and we can and must do more to explore and commemorate that involvement and historical presence within the broader context of Australian ANZAC commemorations.

            One aspect of Greek involvement in the ANZAC legend is generally overlooked sits in parallel with the Coptic experience. During World War I, a relatively large, wealthy and politically significant Greek community was resident in Egypt, especially around Alexandria and Cairo. The connection of that community with the ANZACs in a fascinating one because its wealthy leaders, industry and property magnates with political interests in Greece, variously aligned themselves with the royalist (anti-war) or Venizelist (pro-Allied) factions within that country, polarizing the Greek-Egyptian community in the process. Works of literature such as Dimitris Stefanakis' epic 'Days of Alexandria,' («Ημέρες Αλεξάνδρειας»), portray just how riven by internecine strife the Greek community was at that period, with one half actively supporting the British, the wives of wealthy Greek businessmen holding fundraisers for the ANZAC troops and seeking to organize entertainment for them, (and indeed, some female members of the Greek-Egyptian community formed attachments of love with ANZAC soldiers) while the other half of the Greek community embroiled themselves in numerous arguments with their compatriots, dissolved friendships and on occasion, found themselves at odds with the British authorities as a result of their opposition to the Allied cause. It would be fascinating to study the considerations which led the Greeks of Egypt to actively support or oppose the ANZACs for in doing so, a microcosm of contemporary Greek society is revealed while contemporaneously providing one more link between our community and the ANZACs. Sadly, no such attempts have been made here in Australia to date and it would be of great benefit if the various Greek-Egyptian-Australian organizations that operate here, could turn their minds to such an important task. In the meantime, we should also do more to raise awareness of and celebrate the contributions of the small Greek-Australian community at the time, to the ANZAC effort.

            One doesn't have to be an Anglo-Australian to honour or appreciate the ANZAC legend. Nor does one have to be an imperialist, colonialist, or nationalist. One cannot help but admire the courage, steadfastness, loyalty and resourcefulness of the young Australian soldiers, who were placed in the most horrific of circumstances but nonetheless remained committed to sacrificing their lives for what they believed to be the greater good. There's is a very human achievement, that reminds us that even in a place of utmost evil, love and friendship can endure. That the Greek people both within Greece and outside of it, and others, stood beside the ANZACs, cheered them on, tended to their wounds, fed them, provided them with comfort and held their hands as they died is something our community can be inordinately proud of. In all of these ways, ANZAC day is of vital importance to the Greek-Australian community. It is OUR day, not only as Australians, but as Greeks as well and judging by the large number of Greeks attending my local RSL's pre-Anzac day commemoration, these are sentiments which laudably, are shared by the majority of the Greek Australian community. On the 25 of April this year, and on every day thereafter, we the Greeks of Australia will remember them, and because we are an old people, with incredibly long memories, we will never forget.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 April 2016

Saturday, April 16, 2016


The montage accompanying this diatribe is doing the rounds of social media these days. In juxtaposing the veiled Catholic and Orthodox nuns, along with manifestly Muslim women wearing the burka against the parade of nubile, healthy young women clad in what purports to be the ancient Greek style among the ruins of Olympia, the monteur is attempting to both hold up the ancient Greek tradition as one of progressive enlightenment, worthy of emulation, while dismissing modern Abrahamic religious traditions as being dark, reactionary and oppressive; all the conditions precedent for making the imposition of a sumptuary injunction upon female adherents to wear the veil. The monteur of course assumes that the viewer, consciously or subconsciously accepts that the veil is a garment closely associated with female subjugation and oriental "otherness." In short, it is not 'Greek.'
Of course, the monteur, for the purposes of his argument, completely disregards the fact that the religious ritual he has captured his desirable ancient Greek caryatids in the process of performing is a complete fabrication, created in order to add colour to the modern Olympic Games. Furthermore, in deliberately choosing to associate ancient Greece with the absence of the veil, the monteur is ignoring an extremely important fact: that the veil was widely worn by ancient Greek women since Homeric times. In the Odyssey for example, Penelope is referred to as wearing a veil, on no less than five separate occasions. A reading of the Homeric epics leads one to draw the conclusion that in the early archaic period the veil was the prerogative of elite women and their personal attendants. Iconographic evidence suggests that exclusive use of the veil by elites came to an end in the late archaic period and points to a broader adoption of the veil in democratic Athens and even more widespread use of the veil in the Hellenistic world.
Scholars maintain that the wearing of the veil by ancient Greek women was a component of a prevailing male ideology that endorsed female silence and invisibility. While women who veiled their heads subscribed to this ideology, the act of veiling did not simply entail female powerlessness in the face of male authority. Instead, veiling allowed women a certain degree of freedom of movement and provided them with opportunities to comment on their social standing, their sexuality, and their emotional state. If these arguments sound familiar, it is because they also appear in modern debates about the use of the veil within Islam and its relationship with the western world.
Just as in the Islamic world, a variety of words and definitions for the veil exist in the ancient sources, further demonstrating that the veil was a familiar and important garment in the ancient Greek world. A plethora of archeological evidence exists to prove the prevalence of veil wearing in ancient Greece. In surviving statues and vase paintings, some of the women merely have their hair covered. In others, the women have drawn the veil across their mouths in a manner reminiscent of Islamic usages today, a style which scholars such as Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones consider to have become fashionable in the late classical period.
The dichotomy between the literary evidence of veiling and artistic depictions of women uncovered and on display can be explained by the fact that except in the case of the late fifth-century terracotta figurines of veiled women and the occasional representations of veiled women on vases the veil appears to be absent in many female-related artistic compositions. Nonetheless, scholars have convincingly shown that Greek vase-painters often created scenes that allude to the veil by means of a variety of elements, including female veiling gestures and the presence of garments such as the pharos or himation, which could be used as veils. In particular, much is made of the "anakalypsis (unveiling) gesture." This gesture in Greek art is usually performed by a female who raises part of her veil in front of her face, or simply touches the veil. This gesture, which seems to accord with the abundant textual evidence supporting the habitual veiling of women, when out of doors, appears to be a motif reminding the viewer of Greek art of the female figure's aidos without obstructing the view of her physical beauty.
Proving that certain attitudes can become entrenched for millennia, veiling, like sexual separation, was employed to preserve the Greek female's chastity, thus ensuring both the legitimacy of her husband's offspring but also, the highly valued honour of her menfolk. As in modern Islamic cultures, when the woman emerged from her home and the protection of her male guardians, the veil rendered her both socially invisible and sexually inviolate and marked her as the property of the male whose honour was reinforced by both her invisibility and chastity. It is important here to consider the ancient Greeks' view of the veil as a barrier against women's naturally dangerous miasma and uncontrolled sexuality, both of which posed serious threats to the social order. The veil shielded males from the female's dangerously sexualized gaze and controlled her sexually enticing hair.
Llewellyn-Jones has shown that the veil would first be worn by girls who had reached puberty and had experienced menarche. Evidence for this is found in the fifth-century stone-inscribed catalogues of textile dedications to Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian acropolis and the fourth-century clothing inscriptions from Miletus and Tanagra, where young women dedicated their veils to the goddess.
Confining women and on the other hand creating a "safe" domestic" space for them in which to operate, the veil's seemingly contradictory ability to both control and liberate women also assists in explaining the counterintuitive appearance of the face-veil known as the tegidion in the Hellenistic world, in an era marked by increased participation by women. Scholar Llewellyn-Jones argues that the tegidion, by making the female even more socially invisible, allowed women correspondingly more freedom to go out in public. Increasing female freedom of movement and the growing control over female sexuality were thus intertwined in ways again eerily reminiscent of the practices of the Islamic world.
Proving again how ancient women negotiated the male ideology of veiling and found ways to express themselves and gain control over their movement and status in the male domain, veiling could be used to express a wide gamut of emotions. The rendering of the veil could be used to express anger or grief, while it could also be used to accentuate sexuality, in a manner akin to the Orientalising movement of the nineteenth century.
Making use the veil as the symbol of the enlightenment of 'Greece and the West' compared with the darkness of the 'East,' is thus unhelpful, as well as historically inaccurate. Instead, the tradition of female veiling, with all its ancillary issues of sexual mores, gender relations, and the construction of personal identity, must be placed within the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, which includes ancient Greece.
Re-evaluating the place of the Greek veil within Greek history and society (and there appears to be a diachronic continuity since the veil was present also in Byzantine and Ottoman times, right up until the present, under differing conditions but largely using the same rationale), is to view a complex cultural icon in its proper historical and social context. Such a perspective, rather than obfuscate issues of gender repression under an imagined and unrealistic illusion of a past based on equality or intellectual superiority, will serve as one of the necessary steps in identifying the historical roots of misogyny within Greek society, and one would hope, lead to their excision.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 April 2016

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Mάνα μου τα μάνα μου τα κλεφτόπουλα, are the words I hear in my mind, whenever I recall my Greek school days, enunciated by a voice loud, and clear as a bell, each syllable punctuated by a rhythmic clap, executed high above the head. Upon the conclusion of this song, my brain immediately races to the next one, traversing an entire playlist of Greek poems, carols and songs that exists in my memory as a photograph of pages of a scrap-book in which these were once lovingly pasted.
The interpreter of the verses is the same person who provided the pages upon which the lyrics were printed: Κούλα Λιώλιου, co-founder of the Greek Academy of Melbourne, arguably the most significant institution in the history of Greek language education in Australia. Any excuse was sufficient for her to break out into song as she taught us, her eyes gleaming and her face beaming with delight. So earnest was her signing that she made us all believe we were little mountain klephts, bringing the song to life. It is to this remarkable person that I owe, in no small part, my adulation of Greek letters.
At the commencement of the Greek school year, each of us would receive from Kyria Lioliou, apart from a performance of the relevant poems and songs both secular and religious relevant to that time, a paper icon, which we were to paste in an exercise book and write the Lord's Prayer beneath it. In my year, a good deal of wrangling and swapping would take place as we all tried to secure the Byzantine style icons, considering the odd Romanesque type that found its way into the pile as inferior. This book was our ημερολόγιο, or diary, where we were to record our thoughts, musings or write the odd story, to be reviewed by Kyria Lioliou herself, because unlike most teachers who felt themselves tasked merely with delivering a lesson, she was primarily concerned with how we felt, not only about our work but also, the world around us. I soon discovered that I could evade the weighty and onerous task of filling an entire page by writing in verse. Kyria Lioliou seemed not to mind my flouting of the rules, save that my diary would be returned to me all the more heavily annotated and corrected, as the years progressed. In her comments and critiques, she encouraged me to persist in writing poetry in Greek. Some decades and six published collections later, her injunction, given while she clasped my hand and looked fervently into my eyes, still rings in my ears: "We Greeks take poetry very seriously. It is life itself."
Possessed of disarmingly penetrating eyes and a broad, ecumenical embrace, Kyria Lioliou was a beacon of love to which all children (and teenagers, despite themselves), gravitated. She offered that love unconditionally to all and she was to be invariably found, during recess or lunch-time, hugging, playing with her students or comforting them. Her acts of generosity and compassion are ever enduring. When I was ten, my grandfather reached the terminal phase of his illness. I had never experienced death before and I was overwhelmed with fear and immense pain. Somehow, it seemed perfectly naturally for me to confide my sadness to Kyria Lioliou, one day at lunch-time, bursting into tears as I did so. Nestled in her embrace, I cannot remember exactly the words she said to me, something linking the birth of my sister the year before, with the natural cycle of mortal man and the importance of memory but it made absolute sense and gave me the strength to endure what was, the most shattering experience of my childhood. She also attended the funeral. I have loved her like a son ever since.
The sharing of pain for Kyria Lioliou seemed to come as a corollary with building a consciousness. At her school, a strict adherence to the old Greek curriculum meant that we were exposed not only to the rudiments of the Greek language but also to its greatest exponents. In the study of the works of Alexandros Papadiamantis, Grigoris Xenopoulos and Fotis Kontoglou, we were invited to discover the disparate but coherent shards of a particularly Greek outlook upon life. Keenly perceiving my love of the absurd and fascination with the concept of the margin, Kyria Lioliou expertly steered me in the direction of Miltos Sakhtouris and Cavafy. Unlike "English school," which appeared stultifyingly parochial and anglocentric, Kyria Lioliou determined that we should be exposed to world literature. It was through her lessons on passages from Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde that I first discovered that not only did I have a soul, but that I was responsible for addressing pain and misfortune in the souls around me. These then were the seminal gospels from which she taught, that underwrote her own behaviour, imperceptibly inculcating in us, an ideology of social responsibility.
As we grew, so too did the subtlety of her guidance. At high school level, she actively encouraged our interest in modern Greek history, making suggestions, pointing us to sources and having us devour our textbooks in search of arguments with which to defend our interpretations. Never prescribing or dismissing our half-baked adolescent romantic utterances, she cajoled, insinuated and invited. Taking me aside one day, she slipped into my hand, a cassette tape containing Maria Farantouris' rendition of Yiannis Ritsos' "Lianotragouda," a major turning point in my life, as Ritsos' verses have formed a constant touchstone to which I return continuously. Soon after, she beckoned me into the school library, in a corner of which resided a dust covered set of 1962 encyclopaediae. "Take them," she insisted. "They will come in handy." Grossly outdated in so far as statistics go, these tomes have been a valuable resource of Greek ethnography, folklore and references to obscure Greek personages and events. They are a bottomless well of information into which I did my bucket of inquiry endlessly. As I gaze upon the library stamp bearing the legend: Βιβλιοθήκη Ελληνικής Ακαδημίας Μελβούρνης, I am assailed by insurmountable pangs of nostalgia, though Kyria Lioliou, in setting out a moral and intellectual compass for all of our lives, is always with me.
A few weeks ago, I was sent a copy of a Christmas card I wrote to Kyria Lioliou, at the conclusion of my last year of Greek school. In that card, I wrote about my regret in no longer being her student. Her response, delivered personally, was neither soppy nor sentimental. "I want all of you to go out into the world," she smiled, in a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky's 'My Childhood,' "and make me proud." Wherever, we are, and whatever we may do, we, her students, recall her with immense affection and awe. A gifted educator and gargantuan humanitarian, she receives, in her retirement, little formal community recognition for her invaluable work in instilling in successive generations of Greek-Australian children, newly arrived, or locally-born, an immense love of Greece and competency in the Greek language. Yet perhaps this is commensurate with her self-effacing personality, for her achievement is exemplified in the love her students still bear for her and their own endeavours to pass on undiminished, the flame she lit in them, so many years ago.
And not a day goes by in which I do not raise my hands over my head, clap rhythmically and sing to my daughter in sonorous tones: Mάνα μου τα μάνα μου τα κλεφτόπουλα....
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 April 2016