Tuesday, February 02, 2016
I was predisposed not to enjoy the book. In particular, the title, coupled with a pixelated Turkish-flag bedraped coastline looming over a fragmented Greek-flag covered shore tended to suggest to me that this latest work by Greek-American journalist, writer and Neos Kosmos contributor Alexander Billinis, was but one of a series within the yawn-worthy genre of: «Τούρκος εγώ και εσύ Ρωμιός….εγώ λαός και εσύ λαός…» books that seem to be popular nowadays, in which it is tacitly argued that the peoples of the Mediterranean belong to the same cultural heritage and it is only prejudice and politics that keeps them from indulging in a perpetual love-fest.. ‘Yes, there are mosaics and there are melting pots,’ I yawned as I reached for the book…”but what we need are more fondues.” And yet, when Billinis writes, one would do well to pay attention.
The first page immediately disabused me of my ridiculous prejudices. As a journalist, this being his first foray into fiction, Billinis’ prose is firm and muscular. It is refreshingly unadorned by literary tropes or clichés and sufficiently light (without in any way being superficial) to permit the reader to immerse themselves completely in what is a breathtaking story. It is trite to mention that I was so absorbed by his text that I read the book in one sitting. It is noteworthy however, to admit that in the following days, I re-read it another three times, seeking to wring every last drop from the essential oils contained therein.
A chance meeting between a Greek tourist and his Turkish doppelganger in Smyrna sets off a tumultuous chain of events that climax in both of them discovering that they are not only related, but also compelled to reassess much of the lore, mythology and social constructs that comprise both their national and personal identities. Along the way, we are introduced to poignant, but relatively unspoken and unstudied elements of a shared Greek-Turkish history, the most important being: the plight of Greek muslims fleeing from their Christian compatriots’ revolutionary wrath and their subsequent re-settlement in Asia Minor, the survival and integration of crypto-Christians within Ataturk’s Turkey and the traumatic and often schizophrenic negotiation of elements of one’s personal identity and history with the changing narrative of the nation state, whether this be secularism, Islam or glorification of the Ottoman Empire in the case of Turkish society, or in the case of the Greeks, any number of the diachronic elements from times ancient, through to Byzantium and beyond that comprise both our sense of superiority and victimhood.
All these elements come together to confront the main protagonists of the novel in a concatenation of circumstances whose heart-arresting climax would appear unlikely and implausible in any other part of the world save the Balkans. The author agrees that “truth is [usually] stranger than fiction,” and in his case this is definitely so, for his narrative is loosely inspired by discoveries, one, in his own family history, of the existence of a Muslim ancestor who converted to Christianity after the Greek War of Independence and another, while on a trip to Smyrna, of a Turkish man speaking in a form of Greek which he referred to as “Kritika.”
Alexander Billinis is perhaps uniquely positioned to examine the narratives of history and identity that remain on the margins of officially sanctioned ideology and their effects upon the daily lives of individuals. As a Greek-American of partial Arvanite descent, a journalist, an investment banker, a lawyer and a traveler, he has a unique and dexterous grasp of the marginal and its subtext. Furthermore, he has conducted extensive explorations and research within the Balkans and Turkey, producing incisive, gem-like texts about the way civilizations and cultural elements lap away at each other and often, subsume each other. The book’s front cover is thus symbolic of this process and has as its inspiration, the whitewashing of the frescoes of Saint Sophia. As such, the book is a crucible in which all of his careful observations, gleaned over years of travel, are reduced, faithfully revealing in microcosm, not only a personal drama but a region in flux and in crisis, beneath the “plaster” of the Blue and White of the Greek Flag, or the Turkish Red and White, just as an archeologist would liberate the Saint Sophia mosaics from their veil of gypsum.
Perhaps reflecting Billinis’ own inclusive and cosmopolitan outlook (he is entranced by what he perceives to be the cultural inclusiveness of Byzantium, give or take a heresy or two), his Greek and Turkish counterparts appear, despite the heavy price they have to pay (in loss of loved ones), willing to accept the peeling away of the scab of ignorance that has clouded their sense of self and reach out to one another. In the meantime however, and this is where “Hidden Mosaics,” becomes ever more so valuable, Billinis, with the finesse of an impressionist, paints a sensitive representation of all of the forces within Greek and Turkish society that are threatened by such a revelation, whether these be the Ataturk secularists of the Turkish protagonist’s family, his Islam-focused boss and work rivals or in the case of the Greek main character, Golden Dawn adherent with a particular monolithic view of Greece and their own identity, often forged amidst fires of great pain and personal tragedy. Juxtaposed cleverly against these are marginal figures created by modern society, gays, members of ethnic minorities and trans-religious couples, all of whom make cameo appearances as if belonging to an ancient Greek chorus, in order to add yet another tessera to the complex mosaic that Billinis so expertly reveals to us.
Hidden Mosaics is not a happy ever after novel. Billinis takes his leave of his main characters as they ‘return to the ground,’ in order to address their own serious existential problems, including that of whether it is worth abandoning the region and seeking a better life elsewhere by means of emigration. Even here, Billinis’ deconstructive approach to identity and history is subtly made manifest. While his Turkish protagonist is quick to admire western and in particular American history and culture, he is reminded by a Greek academic that his object of admiration committed genocide against its native population (much like Turkey). A close reading of the text will reveal many such parallels, circularities and incongruities that will delight the reader and provide ample pause for reflection.
An Aegean region without the whitewash of ideology, mythology and nationalism would be a brave and possibly unrecognizable new world indeed. It is the mark of a true storyteller that Alexander Billinis has been able to deftly weave his preoccupations within the warp and the weft of a broader social tapestry that is in the process of unravelling, without his narrative appearing implausible, preachy or doctrinaire. For this, and for the thrill of plunging into a tale that comes together so brilliantly, “Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale,” makes for compulsory summer reading.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 January 2015
Saturday, January 16, 2016
“Θέλει η ζωή μας αλλαγές και ας τσαντίζονται πολλές
δεν δίνω φράγκο κάθε μια τι θα μου σούρει
και το πουλί για να τραφεί πρέπει ν’ αλλάζει τη τροφή
κι όχι σκέτο κανναβούρι κανναβούρι.”
My first introduction to the word κανναβούρι, as a child, was from the above song, sung in 1976 by the great Christakis. “Mum, what is κανναβούρι?” I asked. My father gave her a knowing glance. My mother paused for a moment and responded confidently: “Birdseed. Definitely birdseed. Especially for canaries.” This made sense to me, as the sound of the word κανναβούρι presented similarities to the word for canary, καναρίνι. I locked this information away and gave it not a second thought. A few years later however, in a Greek school essay, I wrote that I had fed my canary some κανναβούρι. “Are you sure you know what this means?” my Greek school teacher asked me when she returned the essay to me, highlighting the word in angry red pen. “Yes,” I replied nonchalantly. “And where did you get this κανναβούρι?” the teacher asked softly. “From my parents,” I responded, watching the arches of her eyebrows rise in incredulity. She duly avoided me for the rest of the term.
My teacher’s shock can be justified by the fact that κανναβούρι is not actually birdseed but rather, cannabis (or hemp) seed. Interestingly enough, the oldest written record of cannabis usage seems to be a reference by the Greek historian Herodotus, to the central Eurasian Scythians, taking cannabis steam baths. As Herodotus wrote in his Histories, at about 440BC, "The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy."
The joys of the Scythians, not withstanding, cannabis seeds were known and used for medicinal purposes in Ancient Greece. In around 460 BC, the philosopher Democritus described a concoction known as potamaugis or potamasgis, which was a blend of wine, cannabis and myrrh that was said to cause hallucinatory, visionary states. It is on the basis of this concoction, that scholars argue that an ever earlier reference to cannabis exists in Homer’s Odyssey. Polydamna, the wife of the Egyptian Thonos, gave Helen, wife of Menelaus, “nepenthe,” a drug that has “the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories” and which Helen slipped into the wine that Telemachus and Menelaus were drinking. It is supposed that this was an early form of potamasgis.
Our ancient ancestors also used cannabis to dress wounds and sores on their horses. In 70AD, the physician Dioscorides recorded cannabis in his “Pharmacopoeia.” According to him, cannabis leaf was commonly prescribed as a cure for nosebleeds, and the seeds were used to treat tapeworms, earache and inflammation. In humans, dried leaves of cannabis were used to treat nose bleeds, and cannabis seeds were used to expel tapeworms. The most frequently described use of cannabis in humans was to steep green seeds of cannabis in either water or wine, later taking the seeds out and using the warm extract to treat inflammation and pain resulting from obstruction of the ear. Fascinatingly, the ancient doctor recorded that cannabis seed consumed in large quantities was believed to reduce the ‘nocturnal emissions’ suffered by teenage boys going through puberty.
Even the great physicial Galen of Pergamon, dealt with cannabis seed in his writing. in De alimentorum facultatibus, penned around 150 AD, he focused upon the seed’s negative properties, describing the process of “getting high”:
“the cannabis’ plant is not similar to agnocastus’ and the cannabis’ seed is somewhat similar to agnocastus’ as concerns its power, but it is very different, as it is difficult to digest and gives pain to the stomach and to the head and spoils humours. Anyway, some people eat it toasted together with other teasers. What I call “teasers” is what is eaten for pleasure of drinking during the meal. Cannabis’ seed heatens sufficiently and it is because of this characteristics that it hits the head, if it is ingested in too much quantity in a short time, and sends hot pharmaceutical fumes to it.”
Galen went on to confirm the observations of Dioscordes before him: “The cannabis’ fruit does not create gas and is so dry that it can dry male sperm, if it is eaten in a quite big quantity. Some people, pulling out the juice from it when it is not ripe, use it against ears’ pains, due to an occlusion, as I believe.”
Further in his writings Galen commented upon the cannabis seed’s desiccating power and that cannabis was used to cure gonorrhea and epistaxis. He repeats his earlier observations that cannabis is kephalalgis (literally “painful for the head,” which is related to its heating characteristics): “among things that hit the head [there are] . . . the fruit of cannabis . . . and red, dry wine: and all perfumed wines…”
Euripides’ famous tragedy, “The Bacchae” where Pentheus, the unlucky king of Thebes, is described as being torn to shreds by the female devotees of Dionysus, which included his mother, Agave, may also provide some evidence as to the mind-altering states that cannabis could have induced in their secret rites. In particular, the following dialogue is considered to describe the process of “coming off” the drug:
“-Look to the sky!
-Here I look. But why have you made me do that?
-Is your look always the same or is it changed?
-It has more light than before and it seems more transparent. -And is your soul still lost?
-I cannot understand . . . but I feel as I have come again in my
senses, my thoughts are changed and me too . . . “
Cannabis persisted being used throughout Ottoman times in Greece, though it was made illegal in 1890, when the Greek Department of the Interior announced the prohibition of cultivation, importation and sale. Nonetheless Greek and Ottoman Greek farmers continued to grow the crop and it continued to be used as a drug until modern times, as is attested by countless rebetika lyrics, including: «Ώρες με θρέφει ο λουλάς,» «Της μαστούρας ο χορός,» and «Βάλε χασίς απ’ το καλό να μας ζαλίσεις το μυαλό και δώσε μας το μπαγλαμά ν’ ακούσεις τη διπλή πενιά.»
Considering this historical precedent, it is no wonder that my Greek school teacher was gravely disquieted by my parents’ purported supply of κανναβούρι, to me. Yet in my progenitors’ defence, they did not engage in deceptive or misleading conduct. For as my godfather recently related, his father continued to grow cannabis for its seeds on the island of Samos, right up until the fifties. Those seeds were sold as birdseed, for it was common practice for canaries to be fed κανναβούρι, as this made their feathers brighter and encouraged prolific singing. It was also used by some fishermen as bait for certain species of carp. When the local gendarmes arrived to uproot the crop, my godfather’s father held them at bay with a shotgun, leading to his prosecution and, this being Samos, ultimate acquittal, after which time, he took to growing γλιστρίδα, or purslane, which has the same effect, and is perfectly legal.
Since my experience with my Greek school teacher I have not kept any pet birds. These days, I am considering that I am desirous of procuring a particular perspicacious parrot, that could be taught to sing the following cannabis infused rebetika lyrics:
«Όταν καπνίζει ο λουλάς
εσύ δεν πρέπει να μιλάς.
Κοίταξε τριγύρω οι μάγκες
κάνουν όλοι, κάνουν τουμπεκί.
Άκου που παίζει ο μπαγλαμάς
και πάτα αργιλέ για μας.
Σα θα γίνουμε μαστούρια,
θα ‘μαστε πολύ προσεχτικοί.
Κανένα μάτι μη μας δει
και μας μπλοκάρουν δηλαδή.
Να μη βρούνε καμιάν αιτία
και μας πάνε όλους φυλακή.»
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 January 2016
Saturday, January 09, 2016
THE TURN OF THE SEASON IN NORTHERN EPIRUS
It was as cold as was necessary to remove the expression: “cuts like a knife” from the realms of the cliché. Among the inhabitants of the stone town of Argyrokastro, it was referred to as ῾διαπεραστικό῾, that is, it passes right through you, just like a well honed blade. The water which had pooled between the smooth cobblestones that wound their way up the hill towards the castle looming over the city to which it gave its name, more ashen than silver, whispering maledictions with every assault of the daggered wing, had frozen into ice, transforming the road into a slide. The hike up to our place of abode was thus almost impossible, and we only reached it by slipping and falling onto the walls of the houses fringing the road innumerable times. When we reached the double storied stone home with the grey slate roof, we were as impenetrably frozen as the road and exhausted. Vavo Makhi, a wizened old woman, clad in black with a white headscarf would around her hair and fastened with a topknot, looked up from the fire she was tending: Ἥφερες το πουρνάρι;῾ (Did you bring the yew branch?”)
My companion, her grandson, approached her and removing the yew branch he had secreted under his jacket, placed it slowly and reverently upon the fire. Then he gestured for me to do the same. All the while, Vavo Makhi looked at me intently, hiding a half smirk of her wizened lips with her calloused hands. With a sweep of her hand, she bade me sit upon the low stool next to her. The yew branches had caught alight and the sharp staccato of their crackling filled the room. “A long time ago, probably even before the time of Alexander,” Vavo Makhi began to intone as she poked the yew branches into place, sending sparks flying up the chimney, “Jesus was born. The angels appeared to three shepherds and told them to go and prostrate themselves at his feet. They had to walk through the pitch black night in order to find him. How could they see where they were going? What if they were attacked? The shepherds, who came from the villages around here, thought of setting fire to dry branches of yew which they could hold during their long journey. The crackling of the branches was a blessing. It kept the robbers and the kalikantzaroi at bay.”
It was Christmas eve in this southernmost city of Albania, the erstwhile capital of the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. Clearing the fog from the window, I watched as a few men stumbled past, grasping flaming branches of yew. Every so often, the door of the house would creak open, propelling blasts of icy wind towards the fire. The tired and cold men would enter with their branches. “Και του χρόνου βάβω Μάχη," they would say, as they bent over to kiss her hand, departing soon after. “As the branches squeak and rattle, so may your wishes reach the ears of God,” the old lady exclaimed, time and time again. “God protect them and all the Christians on this terrible night,” she then sighed, crossing herself three times.
“Why terrible?” I asked. “Is this not the night that Jesus is born?” Vavo Makhi’s eyes grew wide as she clutched at the buttons of her jacket. “Yes, and the demons are angry. They are out in force tonight, trying to waylay any god-faring Christian who strays from his path while trying to get home.” “ Surely you don’t believe in the kalikantzaroi?” I laughed.“Make no jest about them,” Vavo Makhi snapped suddenly. “They are legion and take many forms. Take "Psilovelonis" (thin needle), for example. He is a crafty one, that black one, with very long and thin fingers and a forked tail. He is so thin that he can squeeze in through all the cracks and keyholes of the house. Sometimes, it is food that goes missing, other times, babies – you can never tell. Then there is their leader, Mandrakoukos Zimaromitis (the dough-nosed). He holds a shepherd's klitsa as if it’s the scepter of a king and flits among the sheepfolds and shepherds' trails. He knits his hat from pig hairs, but it is not long enough to cover his ears, because they are the same size and shape as those of a donkey. On Christmas night, Mandrakoukos throws a hook down the chimney and takes food from the fire. Most of the time, he steals sheep. There are more. Anemi Kopsomesitis (the thin-waisted) has a very thin and long waist and his upper body turns round and round like a spinning top. He gets caught in the warp of the loom and breaks the yarn that is being spun. Then there is Tragopodis (the goat footed), who is hairy with the legs and tail of a goat. You mark my words. If I do not take precautions tonight, he will steal the Christopsomo I’ve made or soil it.”
“How come there aren’t any female kalikantzaroi Vavo?” her grandson sniggered. “Don’t the men get lonely?” “Bite your tongue,” Vavo Makhi breathed sharply. “There is the accursed Vervezou, the Trimouri Tzoghia, with the three faces. She is the curser of infants, the bane of pregnant women everywhere. God protect us all on this perilous night.” And she crossed herself over and over again.
Vavo Makhi’s Christopsomo lovingly placed underneath the icons, was artfully decorated with the shape of a plough, for her late husband was a farmer and in this part of the Greek world, Christmas breads are decorated with shapes representative of the family’s occupation. “I should have placed bottles on it,” she snorted and she made the sign of the cross over it. “For that was the only occupation my prokomenos was ever good at.” Additional small loaves, were placed next to the main Christopsomo. “These kouloures, are for our animals in the village, the donkeys, sheep, and goats, they are all God’s creatures after all. We will break them up and feed them to them tomorrow so that they don’t get sick during the year.” Pointing to some Daliesque loaves shaped like a figure eight, she continued: “These koliantines are for my grandchildren. With God’s will, after they eat these, they will remain healthy all throughout the year. Praise God a thousand times, His Son and His long-suffering Mother. What we women suffer. Not even the Mother of God was spared the suffering of this life.”
The physical exertion of battling the elements to arrive at Vavo Makhi’s home relatively unscathed, the close atmosphere created by a chimney that appeared not to have been cleaned for decades and the knowledge that at the break of dawn, not so far away, we would have to brave the freeze once more, making our way through the mercilessly glacial town to the 18th century church of the Transfiguration for the Christmas liturgy, had made me inordinately sleepy. I was only dimly aware of playing a traditional children’s Christmas game of lining up walnuts and then flicking other nuts at them in order to dislodge them. My vision was blurry, my aim lamentable. For a person that lacked the rudiments of teeth, Vavo Makhi was not only adept at hitting the walnuts but cracking them open and eating them as well, cackling with glee as she did so. The fire seemed a darker blacker shade of yellow now and in my delirium, I was certain that I was a baby in a cradle, surrounded by burning yew branches, witnessing Mandrakoukos emerging from the flames, a clawed hand reaching for me…
“Άϊντε μάνα᾽ μ σήκω” came Vavo Makhi’s voice. It was the cold and her icy grip upon my shoulder that roused me from my torpor. In her other hand she held a small glass of tsipouro. Drink it up your nose,” she urged. “Otherwise you will never get your nose to stop running. Now take yourself off to church, my son. The Saviour of the world is born. Χρόνια πολλά. God bless you a thousand times. Now go!”
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 January 2016
Monday, December 21, 2015
THE ROAST OF TSOUKALAS
In the "Prophecy" (Προφτητικόν) section of his famous poem of fall and renewal, the Dodecalogue of the Gypsy, (Ο Δωδεκάλογος του Γύφτου), Kostis Palamas, prophesied that the renaissance of the Greek nation would only take place "when there will be no more steps to fall further down the stairs of evil," (και μην έχοντας πιο κάτου άλλο σκαλί/ να κατρακυλήσεις πιο βαθιά/ στου Κακού τη σκάλα,/ για τ' ανέβασμα ξανά που σε καλεί).
Of late it appears that the downward rungs of Palamas' ladder of decline are endless and that just when one believes that the Greek state is scraping the absolute bottom of the barrel, all it is doing is discovering an abysmal chasm of decay in which to fall further.
Indicative of this downward plummet, both in confidence and competency is the member of the ruling party of Greece, SYRIZA's central committee and general secretary for Administrative Reform, Dimitris Tsoukalas' recent callous and bizarre statements on the death of an illegal immigrant on the Greco-FYROMIAN border.
A hapless 22 year old Moroccan youth (he remains unnamed in the news reports, possibly indicative of the way much of the Greek mainstream media has begun, for many reasons, to dehumanize the hordes of refugees and illegal immigrants that have overwhelmed Greece of late), met a tragic death by electrocution, while attempting to cross an electrified border fence. As is common knowledge, refugees and illegal immigrants often face life-threatening obstacles in their quest to reach the country of their choice and the terrible demise of this young man could have been the starting point of a discussion with regard to the broader ramifications both of global and European policy on the conflicts that have caused this massive movement of peoples and its management.
Instead, the Greek people are subjected to Dimitris Tsoukalas. As general secretary for Administrative Reform, one would have thought that he would have been able, at least to provide a semblance of being able to intelligently discuss reform proposals that could streamline processing of refugees, provide them with humanitarian assistance, or even identify them adequately, this last element being important, given that Greece's inability to properly assess just who is passing through its borders almost saw it ejected from the Schengen zone.
Tsoukalas discussed none of these important matters. Instead, when veteran journalist Popi Tsapanidou asked him what exactly had happened, he responded flippantly: «είχαμε ψητό Μαροκινό,» ie "we had a Moroccan Roast."
In any decent western country, the public utterance of such disgusting remarks which appear to display firstly, an inherent racism, in that the reprehensible Tsoukalas feels free to emphasise the ethnicity of the deceased, in order to denigrate him, dehumanize him and parody his death, and secondly an astounding sense of impropriety given that it appears almost inconceivable that a public servant in his right mind would publicly find humour in the heinous death by electrocution of an innocent human being, would have resulted in an immediate request for said public servant's resignation. Tsoukalas however has not been disciplined by his party. Instead of apologizing or withdrawing his hurtful remarks, he has gone on the offensive, making the ridiculous claim that his interview with Tsapanidou was montaged and "taken out of context."
When senior public officials and key members of the ruling party make a jest not only of people's ethnicity but also of the manner in which they lose their life and are permitted to do so with impunity, this sends as number of deeply disquieting Kafkaesque messages. Firstly, to the people of Morocco and indeed to the entire Arab world (a world with which Greece has, cultivated close relations for years) that the supposedly left-wing, progressive, internationalist SYRIZA led government is composed of racists, who view the Arab peoples as lesser beings and thus prime candidates for denigration. Secondly, to the global community, that the government is comprised of heartless, alexithymic, inept hacks with the emotional intelligence of a sociopathic teenager, who cannot even govern their own emotions, let alone the country itself. Lastly, to the people of Greece, (if they have the capacity to perceive it, given that for many, their critical faculties have been eroded by the rhetoric and empty promises made by successive political parties for the past thirty years, to the extent where they have difficulty in distinguishing myth from reality), that the members of the government they have elected do not sympathise with those who suffer and instead pour scorn upon their plight, even at the most extreme moments, affording them not even dignity in death.
One would have thought that at this divisive time, when the veil of that which masqueraded as social cohesion has been torn to shreds and civil trust is at an all-time low in Geece, that governmental expressions of sympathy, solidarity and determination are sorely needed. If Greece is going to rebuild itself, its civic society needs to coalesce around key events that could provide a sense of unity. The death of the Moroccan youth could have been one of those events, in permitting Greek citizens just for a brief moment to focus on their innate humanity and all the commonalities that flow from that. In emphasizing these elements, the necessary relationships of cooperation can begin to be re-forged, that are necessary if Greece is according to Palamas, regain the "great and bright wings" of her past.
Tsoukalas and his party have provided no such leadership. Instead, they have contributed further to the fragmentation of what little sense of unity and trust the Greek people have for their society. Inept and amateurish posturings, such as Greek Education Minister Filis' denial of the Pontian Genocide, again without impunity, and this regardless of the fact that denial of the Pontian Genocide by a public figure is a criminal offence, show that the current government, (which has also taken no effective steps to curb or address the violence and damage to public and private property that recently was visited upon Athens on the anniversary of the death of Alexandros Grigoropoulos - a death that took place seven years ago and is still used as an excuse for a descent into anarchy by certain sections of the political spectrum) is not running the country, or even superintending the chaos that it is contributing to. If we did not know better, we would be forgiven for thinking that the SYRIZA government does not exist, but rather, are lords of misrule, appointed to preside over a bizarre Hellenic Saturnalia.
When Tsoukalas, who as a financial services union representative sported, expensive blazers, Italian jeans, and designer cowboy makes a parody of the death of a nameless Moroccan who happened to trespass upon Greek borders in order to seek a better life elsewhere, he makes a parody of the Greek people and the last vestiges of faith they have in their country. Sadly, his parody assumes more the form of a sick joke played upon the hopes and aspirations of all of those who desperately seek a way out of the current malaise but instead are subjected to political apparatchiks and hacks who thrive upon their unaccountability in the face of an anarchic political and social discourse. This makes the smugness of his inhumanity ever the more hurtful.
The most patriotic act that the current "government "could perform for the Greek people is to resign for it has become brutally clear that it exists only for the sake of itself. Its own Prime Minister until recently did not know that the islands of Lesvos and Mytilene are one and the same. Prior to its resignation, the "government" must fire Tsoukalas for his contemptibly racist actions and then compel him to face the poor Moroccan man's family, in order to get them to appreciate, the cleverness of his joke.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 December 2015
Saturday, December 12, 2015
The inner city terrace houses of my youth were constantly wreathed in darkness. In winter, their denizens would sit out the cold and darkness in woolen jumpers, their unheated living rooms illuminated only by the flickering light of the television set, for it was by contrivances such as these that they purported to save enough money to pay for their daughter's wedding and first home. This was a mouldy darkness, of foreboding and ancestral memories of far harsher winters that they did their best not to remember and never to relate.
Enter one of these homes in the summer however, with the pitiless sun burning down upon inexorably upon their brick exterior and the ensuing darkness, created by a confluence of the windowless design of the hallway and the blinds sheathing the few sash windows, would immediately envelop you with coolness, coaxing and caressing you in the manner of a corpulent aged aunt, into the "good room," where it was incumbent upon the youthful visitor to insinuate himself into an inconspicuous position at a respectful distance from the carved coffee table, having care not to disturb in any way, the anti-macassars and doilies shrouding the inordinately hard couches, or the glass ashtrays, enclosing lovingly rendered tapestries of roses on the adjoining side tables.
I remember the first two times various terrace dwelling οικοδέσποινες emerged from their cavernous kitchens bearing upon their impeccably balanced silver trays, long glass tumblers into which had been dipped a spoon, whose bowl seemed to be incased in a luminous white substance. Not knowing the identity of this mysterious conglomeration of artifacts the first time and seeking to quench my summer thirst, I drank the water in one gulp. Denuded of water, the white substance became sticky and I found it impossible to remove it from my lips and my teeth. Convinced that this substance was a form of edible putty, designed to ensure that little boys are seen but not heard and in considerable distress, since my hands and face were by now covered with minute shreds of the serviette I had employed in vain to assist me in divesting myself of my viscous nemesis, I interposed myself between the cadences of my aunt's monologue on village news: "What is this?"
"Υποβρύχιο είναι," my aunt-tormenter replied absent-mindedly, before re-absorbing herself in her narration. This meant nothing to me whatsoever. "Τι είναι υποβρύχιο;" I asked again. To interrupt one's aged aunt at the height of their physical and intellectual powers in the eighties was tantamount to inviting the four horsemen of the Apocalypse to run the Melbourne Cup upon your personage. Her eyes grew wide, her brow furrowed and finally, pointing an oversized fungus covered nail in the direction of my glass, she spluttered, "Αυτό είναι υποβρύχιο," before exploding into paroxysms of laughter, the various folds of her torso rippling in timed succession as she did so.
The second time this questionable dessert was imposed upon me was at the home of a well to do, intellectual couple. Unlike the rest of us, they did not Greek souvenir objects d' art upon their walls and there was not a doily in sight. They had never heard of Stratos Dionysiou and instead, would at Greek dances, remain conspicuously seated while everyone else danced the kalamatiano and tsamiko, rising only to dance what was referred to as the "tango," though it bore no resemblance to the Argentinian dance of the same name, to the affected strains of what were known as "Ελαφρά Λαϊκά". They had no garden, did not own a barbeque and instead indulged in mysterious pastimes such as discussing literature and politics.
"Have an υποβρύχιο, my boy," our bespectacled hostess offered. "You do know what means don't you? It's a submarine." I found the provision of this information more hurtful than my aunt's joke at my expense a few weeks before. According to the song we had just learnt at school, submarines were yellow and people lived in them. This substance on the other hand, was a potential harbinger of ultimate doom given that it bore an uncanny resemblance to the "stuff," a seemingly innocuous but thoroughly dangerous material that threatened to envelop mankind in the eponymous film my morbidly sadistic cousins had made me watch the night before.
Seeking to neutralize the "stuff" and remembering my previous clumsy attempts to consume it, I earnestly took up the spoon and placed it in my mouth, slowly teasing its contents into my throat with my tongue. Having completed my task, I made another error of judgment, emptying the glass of water in one gulp. This meant that after the next "γλυκό του κουταλιού" was served, a deceptively innocuous looking cluster of sour cherries in an intricate glass bowl, (which our hostess identified mysteriously as being "μποχιμιακρίσταλ" and which days later became the villain in a story I was writing,) I developed a vicious thirst that was impossible to slake, for my allotted glass of water had been misused and in those days of haute etiquette, to have the temerity to ask for another glass was tantamount to implying that the hosts' hospitality was somehow deficient, inviting social Armageddon. I suffered in silence, politely refusing my hosts' subsequent offer of an ice cream the requisite the three times, for to accept after consuming so many previously proffered comestibles was to imply that I was not adequately fed at home.
My early misadventures notwithstanding, I grew to love my ypovrykhio, also known as vanilla, though it is in actual fact made industrially by beating mastic resin with table sugar. With claims that it is the official dessert of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and verifiable evidence that it has been successfully introduced into Japan, though my attempts to have same in a martini glass (stirred, not shaken), have found a largely unappreciative audience, it is difficult for me to understand why the Hellenic submarine does not have global appeal.
The same goes for all of the so-called "spoon sweets." Sitting in a grandmother's kitchen, slowly and gently boiling kumquats in water and sugar over several hours or days, until the divine oracle with whom the matriarchal progenitor was communing would reveal that the syrup had set, being inducted into the more macrifluvious mysteries of the arcane art: (ie adding some lemon juice can preserve the fruit's original color, as the citric acid prevents oxidation, a small quantity of blanched almonds, added to baby eggplants, apples or grapes provides a satisfying crunch, and the addition while boiling of a quill of cinnamon bark, a mint bouquet, or the green, fragrant leaves of apple geranium add some astringency and a slight aroma of frankincense which is particularly prized), truly was a Greek-Australian rite of passage.
With summer approaching, I already have procured the requisite stocks of spoon sweets. On particularly fine days, I prepare my ypovrykhio and venture out into my back yard. Seated under the verandah, as I lovingly cajole the mastic from the spoon, into my mouth, I see before me the verdant paradise that was my grandparents' garden. We are seated upon milk crates underneath an immense grapevine and my grandmother is peeling the cucumbers she has just picked, as I hastily down my glass of water before the mastic seals my mouth. My grandfather looks down and smiles. There are preserved figs, quinces, walnuts and prunes all within arms reach. It is twilight, yet the sun will never go down. As I pick the remaining obstinate remnants of mastic from my teeth, I drink my water slowly, giving thanks for the eternal Greek-Australian summer and the liturgical vessels sacred to its memory: the tumbler, the spoon and the bohemia crystal serving dish.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 12 December 2015
Saturday, December 05, 2015
RIKA AND THE BANK IN THE SKY
It is not often that one gets to behold their idols in the flesh. Greek journalist and media personality Rika Vagianni entered my pantheon when, at an early age, I saw her play the young neglected wife of a rembeti in the classic “To Minore tis Avgis.” The fire and tension she infused into her role was palpable. Years later I would be enthralled by the manner in which she could, in her popular current affairs program on ERT, plunge the entire show into chaos, via her frequent fits of laughter, providing a much needed human element to the telescreen. Her stint as a candidate with the “Potami” party in the recent elections left me bemused but ardent enough to welcome her arrival, along with her husband, Professor Nikos Stefanis, Professor of Psychiatry at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, at the University Melbourne, in order to launch two Greek-Australian Fellowships in Neuropsychiatry, by co-presenting a public lecture entitled: “The Psychological Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Greek Population.”
Professor Nikos Stefanis’ brief talk focused mainly on data between 2008 to 2013 that linked depression to suicide, tracking both how the suicide rate increased as the economic crisis worsened, but also how such rates defied general trends, with depression and suicide rates of males in the so-called productive years of 35-45, being on par with those of females. Alluding to the research undertaken to collate such statistics, Professor Stefanis mentioned that most of this is done without funding by the Greek state. In fact, a catastrophic collapse of infrastructure and services has seen a dramatic increase in cases of HIV/AIDS afflict Greece and even diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, which one would have thought had been previously eradicated, are making a concerning return, while other mosquito-borne viruses, such as West Nile River Virus, are also making themselves manifest. Clearly then, there is a direct link between the economic crisis/collapse of the Greek state and the physical and mental well being of the Greek people.
Professor Stefanis’ insightful talk was valuable in that it gave rise to pertinent questions and future possible areas of research. In particular, it would be pertinent to discover whether one can trace the psychological impacts of previous crises afflicting the Greek nation upon its inhabitants, and tracing how this affected the development of Greek society. It may, for example, be of value to see if data exists about the suicide rates and other psychological problems faced by survivors of the Asia Minor catastrophe and genocide, or the German Occupation and Civil War, in which it is well known that suicide rates were high. Having obtained this information, it may then be of use to compare it with the data gleaned from the current crisis in order to see exactly which factors create psychological trauma in people and whether any parallels can be drawn.One does not of course need to deal only with suicide rates. General violence, fear, uncertainty and social dislocation all can create traumas that mutate the manner in which people relate to one another and chase the course of a society. Furthermore, psychological traumas or at least their effects can be passed on, or inherited.
Professor Stefanis, who has a close relationship with Australia having taught in Perth in recent years could also provide the inspiration for a study closer to home: researching the psychological impact of previous Greek crises upon Greek migrants in Australia and tracing how their reaction to such crises shaped or warped the development of the Greek community therein. Behaviour patterns such as aggression, paranoia, excessive rudeness, could all thus be traced to specific traumas and their after-effects analyzed, for there exist in Melbourne, at least, many psychologically damaged elderly people. I have come across not a few of them who enjoy torturing animals, an unhappy mode of behaviour that appears to derive from harrowing childhood experiences involving seeing their relatives kill others during the Greek Civil War. Even such seemingly innocuous modes of behaviour such as excessive parsimony can be linked to the austerity of the Occupation era and interesting parallels or juxtapositions could be drawn with corresponding behavioural patterns arising out of the current economic crisis.
Rika Vagianni on the other hand commenced her talk about the social aspects of the Greek economic crisis by citing Greek composer Manos Hatzidakis’ famous allusion to the “bank in the sky” where he stored the deposits that he felt, made him rich: his artistic journey. According to Rika, the Greek people also have a bank in the sky, that is their civilization. To prove this point, Rika attempted to contrast the fees payable for the rights to put on a show such as ‘Mammia Mia’ ($200,000 apparently) with those payable by those who put on a Sophoclean tragedy (nil). While the parallel was not particularly instructive, especially since Sophoclean tragedies are over two millennia old and Shakespeare too, is free, she went on to suggest that while others put a price tag in various inventions or phenomena, such ‘Greek’ developments as democracy or the Olympic flame are not withheld for profit but rather, are freely bestowed upon the world by Greece, even though the Olympic flame has no Greek precedent, having been introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, while the torch relay also has no ancient precedent, being introduced by Carl Diem at the Nazi 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
The aforementioned notwithstanding, Rika made an important point, that is, that in times of crisis, symbols can become important and people rally around them. Recent migrants from Greece for example, relate that while living Greece, they felt that such things as Independence Day marches, flying the Greek flag or attending religious ceremonies seemed to them to be kitsch but have now taken on a special significance for them as a link to an identity. An exposition of those symbols deposited in the vaults of Greece’s “bank in the sky,” that are deemed to be of importance to those enduring the current crisis and how these are used, would have been fascinating but unfortunately Rika did not appear to provide insights in this regard. Instead, she provided case studies of Greeks who, despite the crisis have managed to make a success of themselves: a fashion designer, a taxi app designer, and the executive of an NGO that is so efficient in assisting refugees that it has been able to donate its surplus funds and provisions to other welfare organsiations. According to Rika, any multinational company should be privileged to have them. The purpose behind citing these examples appears to be unclear, unless Rika intended achieving success according to the market values of the haute bourgeoisie to be valuable interest bearing deposits in her celestial bank. Even if such examples are to be held up as symbols of future hope for success in the form of material happiness, to a downtrodden and frustrated general populace with a 25% unemployment rate, it is easily foreseeable that they can easily also become symbols of alienation and frustration, especially given that felicity eerily seems to lie in espousing forms of western capitalism. A quick perusal of Professor Vrasidas Karalis’ recently published book “Demons of Athens” is indicative of how pervasive despondency is and how seemingly irredeemable, the psychologically damaged of Greece appear to be.
While presenting her audience with a Pandora’s Box of symbolic deposits, Pandora like, the effervescent Rika left hope for last, emphasizing the importance of giving dreams wings so that they may soar. At this point, it would have been instructive for Rika to have pointed out incidents of altruism, which, if extrapolated and celebrated, could lead to increased social cohesion, such as the many Greeks who are involved in charitable works such as organizing soup kitchens or who are visiting the lonely and the isolated. Further than this, it would have been of assistance if she could have mentioned, from her point of view as a journalist, which, if any role, the Greek media could play in exercising the necessary critiques of the Greek political sphere to ensure much needed reform that will permit citizens to play a more organic role in the society in which they life, liberated from the all pervasive current structure of the client supplicating the patron for favour.
Bizarrely, in my view, Rika then interposed within her talk, the following extract from a poem by Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis, (she made much of Greece's two Nobel Prize winners, Elytis and Seferis, though it is important to note by way of parallel, that of the fifteen Australian Nobel laureates, two have been awarded this honour for services to literature): "Whenever evil finds you, whenever your mind is clouded, remember Solomos and Alexandros Papdiamandis." Stirring stuff but arguably of small consolation to a victim of child abuse (an increasing problem in a disintegrating community, the psychological effects of which did not rate a mention in both speakers' talks), domestic violence (again ignored), or the evicted (ignored). Perhaps there was an ulterior motive here: to exemplify the grand disconnect between the rhetorical flourishes that so characterize what purports to be modern Greek discourse and bitter reality. Ultimately, the problem with the "bank in the sky" analogy appears to be, that our account within it, appears to have been grossly overdrawn and now, the world is foreclosing upon the myths that have sustained it for so many years.
Professor Stefanis’ and Rika Vagianni’s insights into the psychological impact of the Greek crisis are nonetheless deeply felt and thought-provoking. Their presence here, marking the commencement of a partnership between Greece and Australia in the field of Neuropsychiatry is deeply exciting. It is hoped that it proves the catalyst for a deep scientific analysis of the traumas that have shaped our own understanding of who we are and how we relate to one another.DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 December 2015
Saturday, November 28, 2015
I have in my collection, a silver coin of Phraates IV of Parthia, the successor state to the Persian Empire. On that coin, his title, the very Persian "Shahanshah" that is, "King of Kings," is inscribed in Greek as ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ. Beside a relief of the King shaking hands with Zeus, is the inscription: ΕΥΕΡΓΕΤΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΚΑΙ ΦΙΛΕΛΛΗΝΟΣ containing all the necessary attributes of a king, as benefactor, manifest and, mysteriously enough for a Parthian king existing on the fringes or beyond the borders of the Hellenic world, a Philhellene.
Every time I hold it in my hands, the verses of Cavafy's poem, "Philhellene" course through my mind:
Make sure the engraving is done skillfully.
The expression serious, majestic.
The diadem preferably somewhat narrow:
I don't like that broad kind the Parthians wear.
The inscription, as usual, in Greek:
nothing excessive, nothing pompous-
we don't want the proconsul to take it the wrong way:
he's always nosing things out and reporting back to Rome-
but of course giving me due honour.
Something very special on the other side:
some discus-thrower, young, good-looking.
Above all I urge you to see to it
(Sithaspis, for God's sake don't let them forget)
that after "King" and "Savior,"
they engrave "Philhellene" in elegant characters.
Now don't try to be clever
with your "where are the Greeks?" and "what things Greek
here behind Zagros, out beyond Phraata?"
Since so many others more barbarian than ourselves
choose to inscribe it, we will inscribe it too.
And besides, don't forget that sometimes
sophists do come to us from Syria,
and versifiers, and other triflers of that kind.
So we are not, I think, un-Greek.
Much as we do as a community here, Cavafy's unnamed Philhellene inhabits a borderland world between east and west, Hellene and Other. Yet the very poem's title suggests that this is a person who is consciously seeking to align himself with the Hellenic world, this being evidenced by his concern for the quality of the coin's engraving as well as the messages, both visual and verbal that we wishes the coin to convey. Though his kingdom, beyond the Zagros mountains of Persia, is far removed from Greece, here Hellenism has been standardized into an unfelt aesthetic and ethical ideal.
It is an ideal the acceptance of which is ambivalent: The young, good-looking discus thrower the king wants inscribed at the back of his coin is not imagined with desire or is a product if his memory. Instead this is a desensualised aesthetic, as is evidenced by the king's detached casual instruction: "something special on the other side."
Similarly, the Philhellene king's ostensible love of all things Hellenic is undermined by his seeming contempt for the actual purveyors of Hellenism, sophists..from Syria,
and versifiers, and other triflers of that kind.." who occasionally turn up at his doorstep. The concluding verse, "So we are not, I think, un-Greek," for me, at least is an eerie look forward to our own purveyors of Hellenism, in the form of the odd visiting Greek politician or singer, who is purposely shipped out here in order to remind us time and time again, that we are "more Greek than the Greeks."
For us to require this reassurance, obviously there exists an underlying insecurity within us as to our identity. Like the Philhellenic king, we take great pains to make our adherence to our own conception of "Hellenism" manifest, through staging events where as one recent writer on the fringes of Hellenism stated, we can: "Get our Greek on," panygiria, where we don traditional regalia, the music we listen to, and dance to, the organization of our pastimes, or our unquestioning adoption of "Hellenic" pastimes with which we have no connection, such as the drinking of the ubiquitous frappe, or being moved by the profundity of Hatziyiannis lyrics. Ultimately, our responses to our own identity, are shaped by our responses to other's responses to ours with regard to our identity.
For Edmund Keeley, the Philhellene King is at best, an instance of "unlettered aspiration," and at worst, of "cultural affectation and imitation. He is, a "parody of the Hellene he aspires to be," a charge not a few Helladic Greeks or newly arrived Greeks often level at us, "barbarian pretenders." There exists among many of them, the tendency to deny the validity and worth of any transformation at the periphery, of what was originally drawn from the centre. Similarly Sonia Ilinskaya writes of the inevitable "degeneration of Hellenistic civilization, itself, worn thin.in those branches of it that reached into the eastern provinces." According to this view, then, it is inevitable that Hellenistic (ie. Greek-seeming but not Greek) culture in the Antipodes, which is as far away from the mother culture as possible "here behind the Zagros, out beyond Phraata" can only ever be a pale ersatz form of the original product.
However, Alekos Sengopoulos, who knew the poet, suggests that Cavafy is actually sympathetic towards the Philhellene king, as is suggested not only by his verbal insistence on restraint and simplicity (nothing excessive or pompous), but also his awareness of his geographical remoteness from anything Greek, one that is mirrored by Cafavy's own sense of cultural displacement, living in Egypt, far from the metropolitan centres of Greek culture. That sense, is by and large, shared by most Greek-Australians certainly of the first and probably of the second generation.
Rather than mocking us for our inauthenticity, an insecurity about which we ourselves bring back to Australia, every time we return from Greece, ("Why so silent? Ask your heart:/didn't you too feel happier/ the farther we got from Greece?/ What's the point of fooling ourselves?/ That would hardly be properly Greek." Cavafy asks in one poem), the poet may be merely highlighting a cultural phenomenon and instead, castigating the detached pedantic types for whom memory comes by imperative and feeling is constantly checked against convention. This is ever more so evident in Cavafy's "Returning From Greece," where the poet mocks those puritans who in their quest to maintain purity of blood and custom, would pour scorn at the Philhellene king, and by implication, all of us Ersatzians: "It isn't right, Hermippos, for us philosophers/ to be like some of our petty kings.who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,/ Macedonian exteriors (naturally),/ let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then, a bit of Media they can't keep back. And to what laughable lengths the fools went trying to cover it up! / No, that's not at all right for us./ For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won't do./ We must not be ashamed/ of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;/ we should really honour it, take pride in it."
In 'Returning from Greece,' Cavafy finds a way to liberate the Philhellene king and all of us, from our deep-rooted Antipodean cultural cringe, our Poseidonian devotion to forms and symbols that somehow will preserve our identity by way of a momentous 'coming out' confession: "It's time we admitted the truth:/ we are Greeks also-what else are we?-/ but with Asiatic affections and feelings,/ affections and feelings/ sometimes alien to Hellenism." Phraates IV's coin in my hand then, serves to remind me of the exoticism and excitement that comes with belonging to a "buffer community," occupying a fascinatingly ambiguous ground between a particular and a global culture. As Martin McKinsey wrote, where Cavafy refers "to a particular instance of Hellenisation in the late antique Middle East as "a means to arrive," here we might more accurately speak of it as [our] local culture's means to survive," liberated from the pedants and the purists who are pained rather than take pleasure in the periphery.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 28 November 2015