Saturday, July 23, 2016


I always feel uneasy around Nelly’s photographs. Being black and white, I am enthralled by the way she is able to juxtapose, reconcile or set the absolutes of light and dark at odds. Given that her most famous photographs are portraits of muscular scantily clad or nude men and women among ancient ruins, the way she manages to distill and interpret the cliché of «το Ελληνικό φως» (the Greek sunlight) onto paper is fascinating. For a person who dealt in absolutes, the disquiet she manages to imbue her photographs with through the ambiguous chiaroscuro interplay of light is thoroughly engrossing. It is as if she is either making a confession and retracting it simultaneously, or despite her evident belief in totalitarian ideals, subconsciously revealing her own misgivings about them. Similarly, while her photos at first glance feel lithe, graceful and full of life, subsequent glances evoke feelings of titanic solidity and lifelessness. If anything then, Nelly’s is the master of the art of visual contradiction.
Nelly’s, the soubriquet of Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari was born in Aidini, now Aydin of Asia Minor in 1899 and was related to the great Greek composer Mihalis Sougioul. Prior to the Asia Minor catastrophe, she went to study photography in Germany under Hugo Erfurth and Franz Fiedler, who initiated her into a new approach in photography and European Neο-Romanticism. Settling in Greece in 1924, having lost her home, she opened her first studio at Ermou street in Athens and her lens captured important personalities and themes of that time, such as the famous dancer of Opera Comique Mona Paeva dancing nude in the Parthenon, the Delphic Festival, Eva Sikelianou, and Dimitris Mitropoulos, principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera of New York. It is not known to what extent the trauma of losing ancestral homeland or the training she received in Germany during the heady days of the Weimar republic, when German society increasingly became polarized and more willing than ever before to embrace absolutist political theories influenced her worldview, but upon her arrival in Greece, Nelly’s appears to have adopted a naive nationalistic and conservative approach to her work.
Such an approach, in particular seeking to portray statuesque modern Greek models amidst stark ancient ruins, as if to underline not the continuity but the unchangeability of the Greek people since times ancient, appealed to various Greek governments, who wished to develop an idealized view of Greece and the Greeks, for export to the West and the promotion of tourism. In this way, Nelly’s can be viewed alternatively as the first Greek national image-maker or, regime propagandist, especially after her appointment as official photographer of the newly established Greek Ministry of Tourism.
In 1929, her avant-garde pictures of the nude Mona Paeva on the Parthenon, published in “Illustration de Paris” shocked Athenian society and her work was defended by intellectual Pavlos Nirvanas in his column in Elefthero Vima newspaper. ''I imagine on the one hand,'' he wrote, ''the beautiful priestess, unfastening her girdle in front of Apollo, throwing all the robes covering her divine nudity and bathing in the light, a body like a statue and a rosy complexion like the smile of dawn. And on the other hand I see respectable gentlemen sitting around a table, scratching their heads and writing about desecration. Desecration would occur if, in the throes of archaeological enthusiasm, they happened to throw off their clothes on the Parthenon marbles and pretended to be Hermes of Praxiteles...''
In the picture, typical of her work, a nude Mona Paeva, entwines herself around a veil as sinuous as the snakes in the famous ancient statue of Lacoon and his children. Her fluid jumping form is in stark contrast to the forest of perpendicular and massive columns of the Parthenon behind her. In her work Nelly’s uses artificial light, leaving one part of the form in the dark, while the background remains empty, as a reference to the Great Masters of the Renaissance. This is supposed to symbolize the search for the spiritual element, a poetic atmosphere and the demonstration of the form’s most profound essence.
I think it is Nelly’s removal of backgrounds elements by focusing her attention on the theme, resulting in a reversal of the normal references of orientation, so that the final image to be formed is a mix of realistic and abstract types that creates the most disquiet in me. Somehow, Nelly’s manages to incorporate the spectator’s wonder as an element of the image and as a result I become indignant at this attempt of violation of my perspective, so that in order to relieve the tension, I begin to hope that somewhere underneath her monolithic aesthetic, lurks a subversive satirical picture poem.
I remain eternally hopeful. On occasion, Nelly’s was referred to as "the Greek Leni Riefenstahl." This is because in 1936, she photographed the Berlin Olympic Games, where she met Leni Riefenstahl, accompanied her to Olympia and assisted her during the filming of the Nazi propaganda movie "Triumph of the Will." It is not easy to discern who influenced who. Leni Riefenstahl displays a similar attitude to light as Nelly’s and the people that populate her works are very similar to Nelly’s – classical profiles, thin, wiry, statuesque bodies powerfully affecting ancient Greek attitudes. The new man of tomorrow, for Nelly’s and the Nazis, would certainly be, in Hitler’s words: “slim and trim, swift as a greyhound, tough as leather and hard as Krupp steel…” Consequently, Nelly’s models would not look out of place upon the pediment of the New Reich Chancellery.
Nelly’s collaboration with the Metaxas 4th of August Regime, of which she was one of its most prolific photographers seems to be in keeping with this world view though how it is that the “new man” would emerge from the “Third Greek Civilization,” when that new man was expected to assume the form of a very old archetypal man is a question left unanswered. Nonetheless, for Nelly's and Metaxas, there is no room for the ambiguous fusion of Orient and Occident within the Greek. All historical elements not conforming to the official stereotype of rational, powerful, disciplined, logical and of course obedient Greek are to be excised from view. This is, in my opinion, the true reason for the starkness of the background in Nelly’s photographs. Apart from directing the spectator’s gaze through the lens of the camera and that he will identify with her position, and accentuated the awe felt by viewers in reading her image in a double way in relation to the earth’s horizon, Nelly’s is removing all historical, cultural or social impediments that would impede the viewer from accepting the premise and parameters of the new fascist ideology. Nonetheless, there is a sense of tragic melancholy in her photos, a tremendous sense of loss and wistfulness that is not present in the works of Riefenstahl, possibly because her assertion of identity is one of aspiration, retrogression and not triumphal dominance.
One could therefore hazard that the ruins in her photographs are always symbols of the ruins of Greek Aidinio. The background is stark and empty because there can be no return. The figures, however much they hearken back to an imagined past, no longer belong in that landscape. They are as foreign and anachronistic as she is, as a refugee. I feel more comfortable with this form of analysis.
Considered more than trustworthy, in 1939, she was commissioned with the decoration of the interior of the Greek pavilion at the New York's World Fair, which she did with gigantic collages expressing in an extremely selective manner the physical similarities between ancient and modern Greeks and attempting to prove their racial continuity. Nelly’s chose to settle in the United States and thus was spared the horrors of the Second World War.
To focus solely on her “ancient Greek,” work would be to portray only one part of Nelly’s sensitivities. She also dealt with the wounds of her old homeland, creating a unity entitled 'The yearnings of the Refugees', depicting the refugee settlements of the Athenian neighbourhood of Kessariani. Furthermore, fascinated by her neighbourhood in Plaka, she prepared a series of sixty photographs; a guided tour, historical and emotional, through the cobbled roads of modern Plaka, and its houses with the small yards built in the shadow of the Acropolis. These photos were printed by the Bromoil method where, through appropriate chemical treatment the paper becomes relief and the photographer, using paintbrushes and oils, intervenes so that the outlines and the gradation of the tones are softened. The result is the appearance of the eerie figures that mark the last aspects of the Romantic Movement, their transitory feel inducing further unease and melancholy.
When Nelly’s returned to Greece in March 1966, she lived with her husband Angelos Seraidaris at Nea Smyrni and gave up photography, mercifully not using her arts in the service of the Junta, whose leaders were artistic philistines. She died in deep old age in 1998, venerated for her prowess, her ideological predilections largely forgiven, for her photos helped shaped the visual image of Greece in the Western mind and conversely, the West's visual image of Greece in the Greek mind. So powerful is that visual image and so poignantly was it rendered by Nelly’s that it endures to the present day.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 July 2016

Saturday, July 16, 2016


In his interesting recently published book “In Praise of Forgetting,” David Rieff questions the utility of remembering or commemorating terrible historical crimes such as genocide, ethnic cleansing or massacres. He wonders whether remembrance ever truly has, or indeed ever could, “inoculate” the present against repeating the crimes of the past. Instead, argues that rubbing raw historical wounds—whether self-inflicted or imposed by outside forces—neither remedies injustice nor confers reconciliation. If he is right, then historical memory is not a moral imperative but rather a moral option—sometimes called for, sometimes not. Collective remembrance can be toxic. Sometimes, Rieff concludes, it may be more moral to forget.
Such a stance is therefore directly relevant to the work of the Justice for Cyprus Co-ordinating Committee (SEKA), which, for the past forty two years, has been campaigning for the liberation of Cyprus from its Turkish occupiers and/ or the granting of Justice to Cyprus, under the slogan “Δεν Ξεχνώ” (‘I don’t forget’). Though David Rieff’s questions are directly mostly towards events that are no longer within living memory, and the invasion of Cyprus was only four decades ago, the fact that embarrassingly few members of Melbourne’s large Cypriot community can now be bothered attending the annual ‘Justice for Cyprus’ rally outside Parliament suggests that either, the vast majority of Melbournian Cypriots have read and agree with Rieff’s argument that it is futile to perpetuate bitterness over a de facto reality that appears unlikely to change, or, having re-made their lives in Australia and being quite comfortably therein, the past no longer has immediacy, and while possibly it is not forgotten in the SEKA sense, it no longer inspires the feelings of outrage that once it did.
This is possibly because, over the course of the four decades since the invasion and occupation of Cyprus by Turkey, the nature of it has gradually been transformed. From an invasion of a sovereign nation and thus a criminal act condemned by United Nations resolutions it has gradually become a ‘dispute’ that requires ‘resolution,’ or a ‘problem’ which requires a ‘solution.’ And of course, when the victims of the erstwhile’ crime do not agree to a ‘solution’ concocted by a United Nations that no longer sees the aggressors as criminals but rather as victims of a face-saving international non-recognition of their pseudo-state and in fact legitimizes the original invasion, then those victims who seek ‘Justice’ become the oppressors and the aggressors themselves. 
This was no more evident that in western outrage at Cyprus’ rejection of the infamous Annan plan in 2004, a plan which rewarded, rather than punished, the invaders of the island. Suggestive of the fact that maybe we should forget all about ‘justice’ when it comes to the United Nations and the world powers is this disturbing comment by Baron Hannay of Chiswick, the British architect of the unjust Annan Plan:"If the Greek-Cypriots say 'no' to the Annan plan, we will take them to a new referendum, until they say yes." Indeed, one of Cyprus’ EU partners, the Austrian foreign minister at the time, Benito Ferrero-Waldner, had this to say:  “The fact that the referendum resulted in a positive vote on the Turkish side of Cyprus should be appropriately honored by the international community."
In other words, because the Turkish Cypriots, which includes the 25% who are settlers from Turkey, voted in favour of a western imposed plan that legitimises the ethnic cleansing of 450,000 Greek Cypriots from northern Cyprus and prevents them from returning home, they are rewarded by those self same powers by a tacit lifting of sanctions that were imposed to ‘punish’ them. 
Seeking ‘Justice’ from a United Nations and an international polity that is fundamentally flawed is a process to which the comment “ξέχασέ το” would be apt. Former United Nations high ranking official and human rights expert Alfred de Zayas, had this to say about the UN and the world’s efforts in attempting to impose an unjust resolution in Cyprus: “It is so incompatible with international law and international human rights norms that it is nothing less than shocking that the organisation would bend to political pressure and political interest on the part of my country of nationality [the USA] and Great Britain, in order to cater for the interests of a NATO partner.... I think it is not salvageable, quite honestly. I think it cannot be saved, and if it were saved I think it would be a major disservice not only to the Cypriot people but a disservice to international law; because everything that we at the UN have tried to build over 60 years, the norms of international law that have emerged in international treaties, in resolutions of the Security Council, would be weakened if not made ridiculous by an arrangement that essentially ignores them, makes them irrelevant or acts completely against the letter and spirit of those treaties and resolutions."
Former Director-General of the Israeli foreign ministry and professor Shlomo Avieri stated: "It appeared that the UN and the EU were bent on legitimising at least some of the consequences of the Turkish invasion of 1974, because the EU wanted to take the Cyprus issue off the table in order to facilitate negotiations on Turkey's accession to the EU... Greek Cypriots would not have freedom of movement in their own country. In a way, the Greek Cypriots would have been ghettoised." 
Further showing the perfidy of the powers invested with resolving the tragedy, and the manner in which tragedies can be exploited in order to achieve other geopolitical aims, according to former British MP Christopher Price: “Urged on by the EU and the US, Annan accepted the proposal that Turkish troops remain in the island in perpetuity. This concession was calculated to smooth the path of Turkey towards EU membership and to demonise the Greek Cypriots as scapegoats if a political solution did not materialise.”
            Since 2004 which marks the last major effort to ‘resolve’ the Cyprus tragedy, other tragedies have taken place, none of which the World Powers and its institutions have been able to prevent or mitigate and all of which have shown the United Nations for what they really are – a bankrupt, League of Nations doppelganger, a velvet glove encasing the iron manipulative fist of powerful nation-puppeteers, in order to delude the meek of the world that mechanisms to effect justice do exist and that the global system, though capable of flaws, will ultimately correct itself.
         The existence of 65 million refugees in the world (based on UN estimates) in which the displaced Cypriots of the criminal invasion must be included, is a savage indictment upon humanity and justifiably should erode our belief in the efficacy of the post-world war institutions that were supposedly created in order to prevent or resolve violent conflict. Cyprus stands no longer upon the proscenium of world concern and a litany of other iniquities, such as those visited upon the hapless people of Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, take precedence in waiting upon the world to fail them as well, as humanity lurches from one organized mass murder to the other. If we are then to maintain our misplaced belief in humanity and its ability to achieve a paradise of peace upon the earth based on its own endeavours, then perhaps David Rieff is right and by inference, we must forget Cyprus.
            Yet when the mothers, sisters and daughters of the slain Cypriots agonise their way to State Parliament on Sunday 17 July 2016, their eyes read and the horror they have witnesses etched indelibly upon their countenances, their cry for Justice will not be directed towards the hypocrites masquerading as saviours, nor against the criminals who have managed, through their adept manipulation of their geopolitical position, to rebrand themselves as ‘partners’ in any ‘solution.’ Nor will it be directed towards the Greek neophytes who would castigate them for their recalcitrance in refusing to forget. Instead, that almost silent, lonely (for want of any significant participation from the Greek community) yet immensely dignified cry, is the most poignant cry of all – a cry of desperation towards a world that has failed them and all of us, a cry that compels all of us never to forget the enormity of the crimes visited upon humanity by the powerful, nor the sickening manner in which the sycophants seek to cover them up. 
            And it is because unlike David Rieff, I believe that the moral imperative is never to forget the tragedy of Cyprus or the perfidy of its minders; that to forget that the ineptitude, collusion and/or willful blindness of the world powers and its collective institutions permitted them to abandon the people of Cyprus to their pain, is to allow them to evade responsibility for all the misery of the conflicts that have since followed, that I will be there, at the silent grey steps of Parliament on Sunday 17 July 2016, to shout, with the few Cypriots and their Greek compatriots who refuse to forget: “Δεν ξεχνώ.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 July 2016

Saturday, July 09, 2016


“The future came and went in the mildly discouraging way that futures do.” Neil Gaiman

Ἑ ρε γλέντια῾  Karagiozis

It is an incontrovertible truth of the human condition that all things change and nothing ever remains the same. Thus, some members of our community still remember the Oakleigh Greek Glendi in its previous manifestation, the panegyri of the Unmercenary  Saints Cosmas and Damianos (that’s Agioi Anargyroi to the rest of us), a decidedly Orthodox Festival.  As one member reminisces: “I remember when we had chicken and potatoes in the Church hall and after Father Nicholas Moutafis blessed the food, he talked about the saints and what miracles they still performed for the sick.. Everyone knew that apolytikion back to front inside out...”
There is not much unmercenarism to be found among the businesses of Greek Oakleigh these days. Instead, the Oakleigh Greek Glendi, removed from its original religious context has evolved to the point where it is seen by most Greeks of Melbourne as an expression of ethnic exuberance, a carousal of Antipodean conviviality and celebration of all that we have come to believe make us who we are, in the heart of the area in which dynamic Greek forces have demographically coalesced. Thus when the Greeks of Oakleigh indulge in their glendi, one of the key events of the Graeco-Victorian calendar, they do so with an infinite amount of joie vis a vis their own collective and particular vivre. That is to say, they take great delight not only in celebrating their own Greekness but also making that sense of identity manifest within the framework of a multiethnic polity. The Oakleigh Greek Glendi thus constitutes a powerful manifesto of the role we believe we occupy as an ethno-cultural entity within Australia.
It is for this reason that the recently updated Oakleigh Glendi logo has caused consternation within sections of the community. The word “Greek” which hitherto was prominent is excised and underneath the words Oakleigh Glendi can be found the qualifying words “Food, Music and Culture.” What can we read into such a ‘re-branding and in particular what if anything is significant about the deliberate (if it is such) discarding of the ethnic identifier ‘Greek’? 
One should note from the outset that the loss of ethnonyms from the title of festivals should not necessarily be deemed as an attempt to resile from the culture of their organisers. The long running Lygon Street Fiesta, never contained the word Italian in its title yet there was absolutely never any doubt in the minds of attendees, as to the ethnic provenance or character of its organisers. Similarly, the Antipodes Festival, now known as Lonsdale Street Glendi has never contained the word “Greek” within it and yet there can be no mistake about it being the peak Greek cultural festival of Melbourne. That Glendi’s recent name change can be distinguished from the Oakleigh one by reference to the fact that Antipodes is actually a word employed in English as a fancy way of saying “Down-Under” whereas by its renaming, the whole Lonsdale precinct, the historical heartland of the Greek community is being showcased and celebrated within that Festival.
Like Fiesta but even more so, the word Glendi in and of itself denotes the ethnic group to whom the language belongs. In this manner it could be argued that the inclusion of the word “Greek” is a pleonasm and its removal makes good syntactic sense. On the other hand, the removal of the word Greek from a Glendi that can be mistaken as nothing else than Greek seems to many to be superfluous, an unnecessary act within which is encrypted a great deal of uneasiness either about the way we see ourselves or how we believe others see us within the multicultural paradigm. 
Many have posited that the removal of the word can be linked to a desire to make the festival more accessible to other members of the community. If this is so, one must ask why it is felt that the retaining of the word Greek inhibits the participation of others in multicultural activities. Indeed, what does this say about the way contemporary multiculturalism operates, if the very terms employed to denote the various cultures that comprise the multicultural construct become causes for intimidation and exclusion rather than inclusion? Furthermore, assuming that this is the rationale for the word “Greek’s” removal from the festive diptychs, what representations or prevailing societal indicators could caused the organisers to feel that by stating their ethnicity, they were actively or passively alienating other Australians? 
As a corollary, various Oakleigh Greeks speculate that the name change is being made at the request of government funding bodies, in the interests of fostering “inclusion” and “diversity.” There appears to be no means by which to verify such speculation. If it is correct, then possibly we are witnessing an important waypoint in the development of Australian multiculturalism; its evolution from a mosaic, in which all self-contained and self-proclaimed cultures in and of their own right are autonomous tesserae within a broader picture, to that of a melting pot, where the vital ingredients of each culture are dissolved and melded into something new and unrecognisable in the quest for social cohesion. As such, do we therefore proceed to rebrand the Chinese New Year Festival simply the New Year Festival in the interests of homogeneity, or is it a case that while within the melting-pot, all cultures assimilate, some assimilate quicker and better than others?
The Chinese New Year Festival forms an interesting parallel because here, the ethnic identifier does exclude the other south Asian nations that also celebrate that festival from acknowledgment. In this case, then, rather than making statements about our own identity, are we in actual fact conforming to unconsciously accepted stereotypical expectations of the dominant culture as to how our own ethnic and cultural expressions shall be manifested. The Oakleigh Glendi logo is a case in point. The ancient-like font employed much like Chinese character-like English font, employed in the relevant marketing paraphernalia conveys a sense of Hellenism to the non-Greek viewer. As mentioned previously, the Festival is physically and semantically underscored by the triad: “Food, Music and Culture.” (In years past the underlying buzzwords were “Unity through Diversity”). The triad’s order possibly is not coincidental, as it is provender, followed by the aural apparition of the muses, rather than an appreciation of the history, mentality or other important characteristics of a people, that are cited by the dominant culture as the key methods according to which they can appreciate the existence of other ethnicities. If marketing is the means by which the purveyor may find a common language with which to entice the consumer then certainly it will be the consumer who will dictate the manner in which the merchantable entity is conveyed. Possibly the same applies to the removal of the word Greek. As one critic mentioned somewhat acerbically:
Terms like "inclusiveness" and "diversity" are a one way cultural current, and have always been: an attempt to please a bunch of appropriating plunderers who want to feel less guilty about their position of cultural dominance by stuffing their gaping bearded maws with loukoumades and embracing our lowly provincial rustic earthy culture with their arrhythmic dancing.”

As an aside, it has been suggested that ensuring that the Festival is given no ethnic name is but a marketing gimmick by the homonymous No Name Greek restaurant, though of course, we can give this highly imaginative conspiracy theory short shrift.
Quite possibly all or none of the abovementioned considerations inform the decision of its organisers to divest the Oakleigh Glendi’s title of the word “Greek.” Nonetheless, that decision has caused ripples of disquiet throughout a community that is very sensitive about the way it is perceived as well as how it constructs those perceptions in turn. Whatever the motivation behind the dehellenisation of the title of the Oakleigh Glendi, one this is certain, where there is a Glendi, there are reveling Greeks, keen to unselfconsciously project their identity through the haze of the expected souvlaki smoke, amidst the cadences of the klarino or the laouto, over the rooftops of Oakleigh and beyond, proclaiming to all Melburnians, named or not, the vital zest, earthy compassion and elemental harmony that is at the core of what it is to be a Greek. And like all elemental forces, they defy description.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 July 2016

Saturday, July 02, 2016


It is perhaps trite to mention that Story-telling is just possibly, the most ancient of ancient Greek professions. Whereas in other cultures, the powerful or the violent may be glorified and thus lust after immortality, our heroes are characters that exist within a story expounded by story-tellers, so revered, that they assume a position of startling immediacy within the modern Greek consciousness. In the case of Homer and his near contemporary, Hesiod, the web of accounts woven in order to place accounts of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages, the origin of human woes and the origin of sacrificial practices within a human context, could be said to constitute the foundation of the Greek identity. Indeed, such is the power of these story-telling archetypes, that their words have ever formed sacred texts for the Greek people, being continuously studied, critiqued, and routinely pillages for themes, characters and even words, throughout antiquity, the Byzantine period and beyond. When one considers that Herodotus, the compiler of stories with the aim of telling us who we are and why things came to be, put the story into Hi-story, only to be surpassed by Thucydides, who made sure it stayed there, and from there, to remember that in Athens, attendance at public story-telling by way of theatre, was compulsory, to contend that we are a nation reared upon stories and are natural story-tellers, is merely, to enunciate the painfully obvious.
 That stories shape and mould our identity is beyond doubt. Within them are encoded a vast quantity of attitudes, values and unique thought processes and perspectives, all of which constitute culture and if passed down, ensure the continuity of that culture throughout the generations. This is never more so evident than in the works of the ancient historians. As they tell their tales, they try to define who the Greek people are. Some two and a half thousand years later, we are still trying to do the same, weaving our own strands upon the warp and the weft of the tapestry they so expertly began for us.
 Here in our community, we have created a multiplicity of stories and narratives and actively create opportunities to tell them or to pass them on to others. Whether this takes place in the form of the written word through books and the print media, through theatre and traditional dance, education (which again provides a story within a story), or through religious observances, (which are after all the story not only of who we are but also of who we should be), we all generally have a highly developed sense of who we are based on the stories that have been passed down to us and to which we identify.
 Given the above, it is thus mystifying that the basic formal art of Greek story-telling appears to be entering a decline within our community, with regard to the later generations. Gone are those halcyon multicultural days when a kindly Rena Frangioudaki could manifest her voice upon public radio and even on one memorable occasion, commercial Australian television to televisually tell stories to Greek-Australian children, in the Greek language. Nowadays, just a decade after our community reached its cultural peak, our children get their Greek stories, if at all, via an English-language filter, losing in the process, much of the linguistic context within which their true genius, and valuable codes of continuity, are encoded.
 It comes as no surprise then, that the Olympian Society, (those of Olympia rather than Olympus) decided to commence their story-telling sessions for children last Saturday, with the story of Icarus, the boy who flew close too close to the sun. Alternately a cautionary tale about hubris or (I suspect in the Greek-Australian context), about the necessity of listening to one’s parents. Entering their premises in Thornbury, unsuspecting off-spring were immediately submerged within the Icarian Sea, via master story-teller and early learning specialist Konstantina Mastoropoulou’s dexterous arrangement of pillows and a cloth of blue velvet. A few minutes later, seated along the shores of that wide and tempestuous sea, the children were carried away by the sheer magic of Konstantina’s words. Their eyes were visibly uplifted as they followed Icarus’ heady self-confident ascent towards the heavens, the story-teller’s hands almost having grown the wings that withered and caused his terminal decline. As Konstantina’s words sent the tragic insubordinate youth hurtling to his death, the children unconsciously moved back along the velvet, almost as if in order to give Icarus the requisite room for him to plunge into the debts. Remarkably, though the story-telling took place in Greek, the children present who were not confident in that language, neither complained or lost their concentration. Later, while colouring in pictures of Icarus or reviewing the English version provided to them by Konstantina, one could hear such words as «Δαίδαλος» and «Λαβύρινθος» escape their lips, culminating in almighty «Ικάριο Πέλαγος,» as they bounced up and down upon the pillows comprising the virtual death sea, in order to check out its fatal propensities for themselves.
 The brainchild of Olympian Society treasurer and educator John Vithoulkas, Saturday Story-telling has a two-fold purpose: firstly, to provide a facility in which the old and traditional stories can be passed on to the latter generations. Most importantly however, this is being done in the local, suburban, easily accessible, laid-back and friendly environment of a club building. While many Greek clubs jealously guard themselves from the egress of strangers and are thus sinking under the weight of their own introspection (one club in the vicinity, whose doors are never open bears a sign demanding: MEMBERS ONLY), the Olympian Society has realized that if suburban clubs are to remain relevant in the future, they will need to make themselves accessibly to local needs. Story-telling thus provides the glue that will permit these children to construct and give form to their own identities. The premises of the Olympian Society, will serve as the frame in which such a construction can take place. 
 In an increasingly diversified and fragmented Greek community, in which a considerable number of second and third generation Greek-Australians are disengaged from the organisations that purport to represent them, and in a zeitgeist within which collective and communal activity has been replaced by more individualistic pursuits, Saturday Story-telling provides a unique opportunity to re-establish a sense of community from the place it should always have been created: the grass-roots. It is hoped that while imbibing the stories that form the foundation of our ethno-linguistic consciousness, the story-hearers will develop social ties with each other, learn the value of associating with each other as Greeks and, as a result, project the ethos of mutual assistance and solidarity that characterises the Greek community when at its best, far into the future.
 None of these considerations would have been at the forefront of the children’s minds as they waxed lyrical (if one pardon’s the pun) over Icarus’ questionable choice in waxed air gear. As they chased each other and delighted in each other’s company and their newly discovered world of Greek myths, they rolling their tongues over their newly found vocabulary, their Daedalus, the artful Konstantina was visibly moved, as she prepared for next month’s tale.
 The final word to the story, if there ever is one, belongs to my three year old daughter, who arriving home from story-telling clutching a drawing of Icarus, proceeded to re-tell his tale to her non-Greek cousins in surprising detail. Upon being requested to furnish them with details of said hero’s provenance, she reflected for a moment and then stated with confidence: “From my father’s village, I think.” How is that then, for total and utter identification.
 Saturday Story-Telling takes place one Saturday a month at the Olympic Society, 317 Victoria Road, Thornbury. Details can be found on the Olympic Society’s Facebook page.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 July 2016

Saturday, June 25, 2016


Though I am not of Pontian descent, and lack the decidedly Pontic features of the bowed legs and prominent nose that serve as readily identifiable markers for all those who would be members of the clan, Pontiaki Estia has always been part of my life. The Central Pontian Organisation: Pontiaki Estia was founded one year prior to my birth and its first club rooms were in my neighbourhood. They exercised an intense fascination upon me during my early days as the lettering adorning the looming yellow and black edifice: ΠΟΝΤΙΑΚΗ ΕCTIA, was the only public Greek signage in my immediate area, upon which I could test my Greek literary skills. Furthermore, the existence of what appeared to be an English C in an otherwise Greek title, was a source of wonderment to me. Long before, I knew precisely what Pontians were, I learned, from them, the Byzantine alphabet.
I became obsessed with the clubrooms and would create stories in my head about what would go on there. Finally, after much nagging, my parents consented to take me to a function. I was very young and dimly remember the prevalence of black chairs and a multitude of people. What did manage to inextricably etch itself into my memory, was the sound of the music that assailed my ear drums. I had never hear anything like it, and just having started to learn to play the violin, I was entranced at the way in which the Pontic kemenche is used almost like a percussion instrument in the Pontic tradition. At that time, Pontian music had melded with the local Macedonian musical traditions found by Pontic refugees in their places of refuge and it was difficult to separate their disparate strands and locate the authentic tradition beneath, something that Pontiaki Estia has, over the years become expert at. On that day, I resolved to a) acquire a kemenche, something that I did almost twenty years later, a flimsy, balsa wood construction from an impoverished Russo-Pontian at Omonoia, and b) find out more about these mysterious, marginal and yet fascinating Pontic beings. This last strand of my resolve, I completed hand in hand with the good people from Pontiaki Estia.
Estia of course, in Greek, now denotes a home but in ancient Greek, it signified a hearth, fireplace, or altar. It is also no coincidence then that the ancient Greek goddess Estia, was the virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, and the state. Over the four decades of its existence, Pontiaki Estia has provided just that function. Countless people have been warmed at the hearth of its members fervor for Pontic culture in all of its diverse and manifold forms, or have been illuminated by the light of the fire burning within some of it more intrepid members as they went on their own journeys of self-discovery, learning much about some of the more obscure of dark chapters in their ancestor’s history, and so many others have worshipped at the altar of togetherness, solidarity and communalism that best exemplifies the culture of Pontiaki Estia. Defying the trend of Greek organisations that gradually become more insular and seek to exclude ‘others,’ whether by ideology or background, Estia has extended its guest friendship to the wider community, absorbing dancers, thinkers, historians and countless others, which is how I came to find my home there. So closely have its members begun to identify with Pontiaki Estia, as their Estia, way from their own estia, that they have even placed the words “Estia” on their number plates, in a profound and telling statement of identity. 
At the recent function commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of Pontiaki Estia, the dance floor was filled with youth from the various dance groups, all sporting versions of their diverse national costume. I commented that there were more dancers than some Greek brotherhoods currently have members. A young woman who was sitting beside me launched into a lengthy and learned disquisition into the regional variants of the Pontic costume, which can be distinguished by time, marital status, class and geography, all of which have been carefully and painstakingly preserved by the youth of Pontiaki Estia, I was amazed and heartened, though the extent of her erudition should not have come as a surprise. In a club that is now run by its younger members, (a transition that took a decade of conflict to achieve) these second generation Pontians have, to employ the buzz-word, taken “ownership” of their traditional culture. There are to be found within its ranks, specialists on Pontian song, dance, (of late they have been experimenting with new fusions, exploring common threads with Cretan music, showing how a tradition does not have to be oppressive but rather can be teased, explored and transformed into something entirely novel) costume, traditional lifestyle, cookery and of course the Pontian Genocide.  
These embracive rather than prescriptive qualities of Pontiaki Estia are perhaps the key ingredients of its brilliance. One finds on of the stultifying, officious parochiality of other Greek organisations here. Instead, I have found, through my involvement in the Genocide Awareness Workshops, pioneered by Estia and the means by which awareness of this tragic event has been disseminated to the broader community, a desire to embrace the unconventional, to seek new and novel ways to get the message across. While some of these efforts bear more fruit than others, it is this willingness to experiment, to try out new approaches without fear of recrimination or keeping them in thrall to undercurrent strategies in fractious endo-community squabbles, that the true value of Pontiaki Estia lies. Thus, in regards to the genocide, Pontiaki Estia has over the years, approached elements of the Turkish community in order to celebrate commonalities of culture, rather than just focus on death, sought to honour those righteous Muslims who protected Christians during the genocide, rather than merely demonise all Ottomans, pioneered a co-ordinated approach to genocide recognition in concert with the Assyrian and Armenian communities (and as such Pontiaki Estia remains one of them most multi-cultural, outward looking Greek organisations in Melbourne), used the media of drama, song, dance, theatre and film in order to tell its story and has now gone entirely mainstream,  currently engaging with the City of Ballarat to erect a monument to George Devine Treloar, a savior of the Pontian people, in that city. Their immensity of scope is as breathtaking as it is remarkable, and considering the multifaceted means employed to express their identity, historically important.
Even more important is Pontiaki Estia’s harnessing of local resources in the furtherance of their aims. While they remain an inseparable part of the world wide organized Pontian movement and sponsor visits by overseas artists on a regular basis, they also foster the growth and development of their own musicians, teachers, artists, activists and thinkers, in a way that some other Greek organisations who are still emotionally tied to Greece via a strange and complex inferior complex do not. What we are witnessing emerging in Pontiaki Estia is a particularly Australian development of Pontic culture, one to which all Australians, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, are welcome to participate in and are in fact, actively encouraged to do so.
There were tears in the eyes of many of the attendees of Pontiaki Estia’s fortieth birthday function, not only for those who have departed, carving their mark on the organization but also for those who now follow, or rather dance, in their footsteps. Yet for all of the radical innovation and the exciting new directions forged by a most uncanny, and to many Greek-Australians, marginal group, some challenges remain. The Pontic dialect is being lost and most emerging youth now have diminished facility in the modern Greek tongue. How they will negotiate and contextualize their Pontic identity within a superimposed Greek-Australian one remains to be seen. Nonetheless, they have tremendously inspiring precedents to draw from and immense reserves of positivity to sustain them. And some things, such as the dances that enthralled me almost four decades ago as a child, remain, as a touchstone, a staff and a guide, through the uncertain times that are to come. They, like the Pontians, show us how to transcend time itself.
First published in NKEE on 25 June 2016

Saturday, June 18, 2016


ΦΑΝΑΤΩΣ ΤΟΥΣ ΠΡΟΒΟΤΕΣ! proclaims a recent comment on a social media post by an Australian-born EΛΛΗΝΑΡΑ. If, Professor Higgins-like one was called upon to geographically place the said patriot by reference to his phonology as attested to by his post, then one would invariably hazard a guess that his place of residence is Northcote, pronounced Norphcote, though the p is generally silent, among those Australian-born hoplites of Hellenism who have particular difficulties with voiceless fricatives.
There is a funny thing about these Ellinarades. Despite the fact that some of them chose to intone the chant "Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο" at the recent Australia-Greece soccer match (and one would wonder why they chose to do so given that the chances of either Ban Ki Moon, Recep Tayyip Erdogan or indeed any other Turk who is fluent in Greek being present and being sufficiently moved by the aforementioned verse in order to do something to end a four-decade long injustice are rather small) they are nowhere to be seen during the annual Justice for Cyprus march organised by the Cypriot community.
Similarly, despite the fact that some of them have become enraged by what they consider to be the racist prohibition of the display of the flag of Vergina at the Australia-Greece soccer match and the ejection from the game of one particular flag-bearer, despite their enthusiastic participation in the "Ελλάς, Ελλάς, Μακεδονία" chant (again it is important to note that neither Skopjan leader Gruevski, nor United Nations negotiator Matthew Nimetz were present at the game, unless the chant was directed at undercover agents of Skopjan name appropriation), said Ellinarades are strangely absent from all of the activities of the Pan-Macedonian Association, the United Villages of Florina, the Aristotelis Association or even the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies.
In like fashion, at the recent commemoration of the Battle of Crete, the Ellinarades were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, despite some of them chanting: "Τούρκος καλός μόνο νεκρός" at the Australia-Greece soccer match, the Ellinarades were conspicuously absent at the annual events commemorating the Pontian genocide. This is mystifying. If the Ellinarades are so imbued with the love of their motherland and so hurt by other's abuse of her that they require the slightest opportunity to express their love and air their grievances, (hence the pre-match chanting of “Greece, I love you and I will follow you as long as I live,” by ther Lonsdale Street Ellinarades) it appears illogical that they should choose to ignore an event that protests against the massacre of some 350,000 of their innocent compatriots and/or ancestors. Maybe on that day, they were just hurting on the inside.
You won't see the Ellinarades at any events that have to do with Greek language preservation or education. In fact, a good many of them, despite the fact that their cup of love for all things 'Hellenic' (they reject the word Greek as being unhellenic even though both words, Graecos and Hellenas refer to two ancient tribes in Epirus) runneth over, can hardly speak the language, as can be evidenced by their heavy use of the Google translation function when they seek to render their social posts in the mother tongue in order to display their patriotic credentials to their like-minded contacts in the motherland. When this is pointed out to them, they will often argue that speaking the Greek language is irrelevant to the Greek identity. What is important is to have undying love for Hellas, accept its superiority uncritically, rail against the rest of the world which, recognising that superiority, is involved in a conspiracy to degrade and humiliate the Hellenes, punishing them for their brilliance and rooting out all Helleno-traitors who, being in thrall to the Germanic Zionists (figure that one out), are legion.
Ellinarades are conspicuously absent from fund-raising functions for Greek welfare and aged care facilities such as Fronditha and Agapi, or the various Church-organised philoptochos poor relief endeavours. They do not activate their social media networks for the purposes of cajoling their friends to donate generously for the preservation and assistance of local Greek clubs or dance groups. And yet the funds that some of them expend to purchase their blue and white regalia, or execute their scotch-infused, rose-petal strewn zeimbekiko at the ersatz bouzoukia around town would go a decent way in assistance those groups that really ensure the cohesion of our community.
Some of these Ellinarades are on the dole. Others are on carer's pensions. Many have attended government funded public schools and many others have graduated from university by availing themselves of the Australian government's HECS scheme. Most have been born or have lived the vast majority of their lives in Australia. It is therefore perplexing and deeply disquieting that some of them chose, at the recent Australia-Greece soccer match, to boo the national Australian team and the Australian national anthem. In fact, it represents the height of ingratitude both to the country, the community that nurtured them and the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria which lobbied so hard and overcame numerous objections in order to secure the transfer of the match from Newcastle to Melbourne.
As such, the antics of the Ellinarades should not be dismissed as mere youthful exuberance, especially given sections of the broader Australian community have always questioned the commitment of migrants and their Australian-born offspring to this country. As enthusiastic Australian citizens, our communities have achieved a praiseworthy equilibrium between preserving and evolving our ancestral cultures while at the same time integrating ourselves meaningfully within the broader social context. This has been achieved in partnership with government. We can ill afford the antics of the uncouth to disturb that golden mean. Nor can we tolerate those largely disconnected from the Greek community, with a limited and perverted understanding of the Greek tradition imposing upon us their pernicious view of their identity and by corollary, inviting our fellow citizens to view us as cast from the same mould, simply because they lack any other means to "Get their Greek on."
Granted, simian chest-thumping and jungle-cries are part and parcel of the sporting experience regardless of how much they may make us cringe. Justifying anti-social and illegal behaviour by reference to a deification of anti-social antics in Greece which have nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with a society in the process of disintegration, is quite another. The Ellinara who stated: “Flares are all a part of football. You can take it back centuries, it’s all a part of the atmosphere,” is a case in point and we would all be fascinated to learn whether, in 1816, lighting flares at the soccer was a hallowed tradition in his grandmother's village.
In the aftermath of the match, sundry Ellinarades are crying racism at the manner in which the Australian media chose to emphasise the actions of the unruly few and exaggerate the disorder they created before and during the match. In his study ‘The Wogs are at it Again’: The Media Reportage of Australian Soccer ‘Riots, ’John Hughson argues that the Australian soccer stadium has become an arena of contestation, not for rival football teams, but for warring ethnic groups, who use the terraces and playing field as a ‘battleground’ to settle ‘long standing political grievances’. He argues that the commercial media is largely responsible for this perception and that the media treatment of soccer has constituted a form of institutional discrimination that serves to reinforce attitudes hostile to the broader acceptance of multiculturalism, suggesting that the media is not a passive reproducer of social attitude, but, rather, is a producer or co-producer.
Hughson, as well as George Vasilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou who have in their study From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," written broadly about the migrant as an eternal subversive element in the eyes of the mainstream are certainly valid points of references in seeking to analyse unsavoury mainstream media motives for focusing on the Ellinarades and yet the same people who deride the Australian mainstream media for doing so, often accept uncritically, the mainstream Greek media's propensity to act in exactly the same way when portraying the often unsavoury nationalistic antics of ethnic groups within Greece. In this, the Ellinarades mindlessly play into the hands of those whose agenda vis a vis all community groups, is well known.
As a community, we need to explore what are the deep seated cause of our insecurity that compel us, to politicise the most simple of events and make them a cause of controversy and strife or at least, regard them as intrinsic to our ethnic identity. Why do we consider the Star of Vergina (a symbol that, despite its ancient provenance until the nineties appeared on no Greek flag anywhere and is thus not a traditional cultural artefact) or indeed the sickening white supremacist, ultra-right wing flag borne by one Ellinara, appropriate objects to take into a field where a bunch of grown men kick an evolved pig's bladder to each other? Why do we invest so much emotion and importance in the outcome of such a game as if our collective and individual dignity depended on it? And finally, we need to determine how we can prevent the neanderthal ersatz, hateful and often racists Hellenes from sullying our reputation, community and thus jeopardising our legitimate and vibrant cultural activities. Maybe by demanding that they finally grow up and take their place in our community as responsible and useful constituents.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 June 2016