Saturday, November 30, 2013
Hasan Fehmi Bey:
“Why did we impute the title of murderer to our race? Why did we enter into such decisive and difficult struggle? That was done just for securing the future of our country that we know as more precious and sacred than our lives.”
"The clearance of race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act could be...There is no reason to doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons. The opportunity presented itself for clearing Turkish soil of a Christian race opposed to all Turkish ambitions." Winston Churchill
ABC political analyst Michael Brissenden recently tweeted: “Is Parliament House the right place for genocide deniers. We wouldn’t give a committee room to David Irving.” He was of course referring to the lecture, booked by Labor MP Laurie Ferguson, to be given by one of the world's most strident genocide deniers. Professor Justin McCarthy, an American history academic, who is well known for his denial of the Armenian, and by implication, Assyrian and Greek genocide in Anatolia. According to Michael Brissenden, he is considered by Armenians to be what David Irving is to the Jewish Holocaust.
Interestingly enough, the same gentleman was scheduled to speak at the University of Melbourne and the Art Gallery of NSW. However, after certain interested members of the public drew the University and the Gallery’s attention to both the content of the lecture and Justin McCarthy’s active campaigning against genocide recognition, it was announced that the lecture was not to take place.
Of late, the campaign for Australian recognition of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Genocides has intensified and the issue has reached the Australian mainstream like never before. Further, the Australian media are beginning to realise both the enormity of the crime and the fact that it involved not just the Armenians, but also other Christian peoples of Anatolia. Thus, in his recent report on Lateline, Michael Brissended took pains to point out that: “Although it's known as the Armenian genocide, thousands of Assyrians and Pontian Greeks were also killed.” Hundreds of thousands would have been a more accurate description but the fact that this connection is being made at all, is encouraging for all those activists who campaign for recognition of what is, a crime that has largely gone unrecognised. Furthermore, as we have seen this year, more and more Australians have become indignant at the manner in which the Turkish government seeks to quash a groundswell of Australian public support for the recognition of the genocide, by seeking to hold the Gallipoli celebrations to ransom. As the Speaker of the Turkish Grand National Assembly Mr Cemil Cicek has stated: "One of only two things … could disrupt good relations between Turkey and Australia." One is for Australia "to support any claims about genocide without hearing the Turkish side ... this could cause huge rifts between the nations and even jeopardise commemorations around Gallipoli." In handling this matter so clumsily, all they have managed to do, is to show the Australian public, that they have something to hide. As NSW Premier Barry O ‘Farrell comments: ''It's deplorable anyone associated with the Turkish government would try and use next year's centenary of the Gallipoli landing for political purposes.''
Such attempts at bullying are not new. Australian scholars who study the genocide have been known to receive abusive emails and threats from genocide deniers and this is especially so if they belong to an ethnic community that was a victim of the genocide. Leading genocide recognition campaigner Dr Panayiotis Diamadis has, over the years, been the recipient of a barrage of quite disturbing and threating emails which have only intensified as the campaign gains momentum and more and more Australians become sensitive to the issue. Even the Diatribe is not immune, with one incensed reader writing in to state in May of this year: “Panayiotis Diamadis & yourself are prime examples of the hypocritical human (although Diamadis's credentials are highly doubtful) who come across as good and noble, because you are against genocide, and who is going to argue with that?
But in reality, both of you are exploiting human suffering for political and professional gain. You are determining who the villains and victims are, and your determinants have little to do with legitimate history. In addition, by avoiding the crimes perpetrated by those you have designated as the victims, you are telling us that one people are more worthy than another.
Some may call that “human rights” "search for justice" etc., but by choosing the better human group (one side is completely bad, the other completely good), what both of you are advocating might be better termed as “racism.”
We have taken note of your racist attitude.”
My response was to point out that in previous articles I have not shied away from discussing Greek brutalities committed upon innocent Turkish civilians during the 1821 War of Independence and challenged the writers to meet me in the middle by condemning the brutalities committed by their own people. I received no response and of course it seems far beyond the bullies to realise that if we are to prevent genocide, we must condemn it in all its forms. This has nothing to do with asserting the relative merits of one race over another. History has shown that we are all capable of the heinous as well as the sublime. The manner in which we acknowledge faults and take steps not to repeat them, forms a measure of our humanity. The apology to the Stolen Generations of indigenous Australians is a prime example. The inverse is true when we try to cover up crimes.
Given these gross attempts to sweep under the carpet, a genocide for which there is ample contemporary eyewitness and documentary evidence, evidence that even Turkish scholars such as Taner Akcam openly acknowledge as condemnatory, the fact that a Labor MP would use the chief symbol of Australian democracy as a forum for a genocide denier to promote his views is mystifying and thoroughly hurtful. At first glance, it reeks of Orientalism. According to this view, Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks rank lower in the hierarchy of races, so that any event of concern to them is of lesser importance to the mainstream than it would have been if the same event had been visited upon other “high ranking races.” This may provide an extra dimension to Joe Hockey’s 2011 comment: “The Armenian genocide ''is one of the least known, least understood and least respected human tragedies of the modern era''. Accordingly, politicians and others can use such events to play politics or curry favour with interest groups, knowing that the public outcry will not be significant or politically damaging. Further, as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry points out in a recent letter, there is a fine line between freedom of speech and racial vilification. The council supports the contention that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were slaughtered with “genocidal intent,” and argues that Parliament is being “misused” by acting as a forum for the genocide deniers in question.
Michael Brissenden’s insightful Lateline report, as well as his inspired ‘tweet’ highlight the dangers of such a trivial approach to important historical events. This also marks a watershed in the campaign for genocide recognition as the Australian public begins to question the appropriateness of using important and respected Australian institutions for the purposes of subverting traumatic events. Laurie Ferguson, who declined to comment to Lateline, would do well to spend some time with the survivors of genocide and their descendants. He should hear accounts of Armenian orphans forced into Turkish orphanages in Syria and beaten when they spoke their mother tongue, during their process of Turkification. He should read the chilling accounts of Hasan Fehmi, who wrote: “Why did we impute the title of murderer to our race? Why did we enter into such decisive and difficult struggle? That was done just for securing the future of our country that we know as more precious and sacred than our lives.” He should also have regard to Halil Pasha who wrote: "The Armenian nation, which I had tried to annihilate to the last member of it…if you… try to betray Turks and the Turkish homeland, I will order my forces which surround all your country and I won't leave even a single breathing Armenian all over the earth. Get your mind." Then he should be asked what qualifications or special insights he possesses that permit him to encourage the denial of the massacre of millions and whether he believes that insulting the memories of over a million innocent victims of a massacre and their descendants is appropriate for a member of the Australian parliament. The party that he represents should also be asked the same question. In the meantime, the clock is ticking, and with every passing moment, more and more Australians are looking to their elected representatives to do the right thing: To honour the victims of imperialism, racism and brutality. After all, their ancestors fought for them and it is upon this foundation that our nation is based.
First published in NKEE on 30 November 2013
Saturday, November 23, 2013
THESSALONIANS AND JEWS
Last week, the Thessaloniki Association “White Tower,” in the course of various annual events celebrating the liberation of Thessaloniki and the sisterhood between that city and that of Melbourne, organised a lecture on the topic of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, which yours truly was asked to deliver.
The choice of topic created somewhat of a stir within sections of the community. “That’s a very brave choice of topic,” one pundit opined. “You will be criticised for this,” another cautioned. It is easy to see why such caveats were placed on what is ostensibly, an innocuous topic. Thessaloniki is, after all, the capital of Macedonia, a region considered central to various competing ethnic identities. Accordingly, for some, any suggestion that any ethnic group other than the Greeks may have played an intrinsic role in the history of that city, seems to compromise their conception of Macedonia as a purely Hellenic construct. Furthermore, according to a few misguided individuals, Jewish culture is inimically opposed to Greek culture, having had a corrosive influence upon it, and thus one should not draw attention to it and quite the opposite, actively oppose it.
That the Jewish and Greek cultures are inextricably linked in an aeons long dialogue and dialectic cannot be denied. From the time the Philistines, who were a Cretan, early Greek speaking people, set foot in the land of Canaan, both cultures have come into conflict with each other, influenced and informed each other. In Hellenistic times, Jewish rabbis were concerned with the level of Hellenisation of their youth and the penetration of Greek philosophic ideas into their religion. In Alexandria, a truly multicultural city, the extremely large and prominent Jewish community largely adopted the Greek language, making the translation of the Old Testament into Greek necessary, culminating in the Septuagint, which has exercised a profound influence over the development of Greek literature as well as Greek Christianity. In the same period, Hellenised Jewish philosophers such as Philo are making immense contributions to philosophy.
In many ways, Alexandria, a truly multicultural Hellenistic, as opposed to a Hellenic city, was the prototype for Thessaloniki and it comes as no surprise to learn that Jews from Alexandria were probably the first to settle in Thessaloniki. Their continued presence is well-attested in Roman times by their compatriot St Paul of Tarsus, who visited their synagogues and preached a new religion to them.
It is widely held that it the prominent place afforded to the Jews of Thessaloniki was primarily owed to their expulsion from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Reconquista, and their resettlement by a friendly and tolerant Ottoman government. According to this narrative, Greeks and Christianity were unfriendly towards the Jews, who only flourished under the rule of the new conquerors. So ingrained is this belief within the psyche of Thessalonian Greeks that they were pleasantly shocked to learn that there were few instances of the persecution of Jews within Byzantium and that unlike the rest of Europe, where continuous and organised acts of harassment and persecution took place, Jews in Thessaloniki were left alone. In 1176, the Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela wrote an account of the city in which we spoke of a Jewish community of 500, serviced by three rabbis. In the following years, the Jewish community of the city was constantly being replenished by other European Jews fleeing the depredations of their European persecutors. In 1376, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing progroms in Hungary and Germany would find their way into the city and in 1394, Jews fleeing Provence would also settle in the city, along with Jews from Italy in the period between 1423 to 1430. The composition and constitution of Thessaloniki’s Jewry was thus as complex and tribal as our own Greek community here in Melbourne, each with its own synagogues and welfare centres, based on the place of their original embarkation.
Being already known as a safe haven for at least one hundred years, the 20,000 expelled Jews of Spain chose Thessaloniki as their destination in 1492. They brought with them an immense array of skills and their own language, a Spanish-Hebrew hybrid known as Ladino, written in the Hebrew alphabet, which would remain as one of the main languages spoken in Thessaloniki right up until the end of the Second World War.
The Thessalonians who attended the lecture did not seem to be perturbed by the fact that the Jews of Thessaloniki made the city so much their own that in 1537, visiting Jewish poet from Ferrara Samuel Uscue named the city: “The Mother of Israel.” Nor were they particular disturbed to learn that between them the Jewish synagogues of their city managed to obtain a contract with the Ottoman government to exclusively supply the army with cloth, thus ensuring the financial security of the community. On the contrary, they exclaimed in appreciation. One psychiatrist, recently arrived from Thessaloniki, was surprised and delighted to learn of the existence of a Jewish run psychiatric asylum known as Lieto Noah, decades before the existence of a similar government institution anywhere within the bounds of what became the modern Greek state. Further, the revelation that at the turn of the nineteenth century, the 70,000 strong Jewish community of Thessaloniki was the largest ethno-religious group, at about 50% of the population did not seem in anyway to compromise their understanding of their own city.
There appeared to be no need to cast the Jews in the light of a loyal minority working in the interests of the Greek state. The audience was able to learn that the Young-Turk movement, which was founded in Thessaloniki, also included some Islamised Jews within its ranks and among its ideologues but this did not unduly disturb them. In learning that the Jewish socialist party in Thessalinki “Federacion” was a vital early constituent of the Communist Party of Greece, they did not even bat an eyelid. In true Thessalonian cosmopolitan fashion, they accepted this nugget of history as part of their own, and placed it within context accordingly.
It was when describing the trials and travails of the Jewish population at the hands of the Nazis that I was almost moved to tears. The members of the audience let out audible groans, shifted their legs uncomfortably, clucked their tongues and shook their heads as they heard how the Jews were duped into providing a full census of themselves and their property holdings, only to have this serve as the means to dispossess them of everything they owned and finally, lead them to their tragic end. They were also fascinated to learn that in 1955, in the aftermath of the pogrom against the Greeks of Constantinople, a few Jews who were affected by that brutal bout of ethnic cleansing, sought refuge in Thessaloniki. Fascination turned to wonderment when they learned that local writer Tom Petsinis has written and produced an acclaimed play, entitled “Salonika Bound,” dealing with the legacy of the Jewish community of Thessaloniki in Melbourne.
At this point the audience did two remarkable things. In the first instance, they began to share their own memories of the Jews in Thessaloniki. Some related how their parents were entrusted with valuables by Jews and kept them for years, vainly excepting their friends’ return. Others spoke of playing or hiding in the cavities of destroyed Jewish tombs and others yet, of their parents attempts to save or hide Jews from the genocidal mania of the Nazis. Remarkably, a few spoke of chance meetings here in multicultural Melbourne with Jews originally from Thessaloniki, taking great pains to emphasise the love and sense of loss they expressed towards that city. This was a generation that had only a passing and limited acquaintance or contact with the Jews of Thessaloniki and yet their destruction left a void and a longing in the souls of Thessalonians that endures even to the present.
Subsequently, it was spontaneously resolved that a commemorative event of the nature of the lecture, would be useless without the presence of those it was commemorating. As such, the Thessalonians excitedly discussed the prospect of formally instituting an annual commemorative event to honour the Jews of Thessaloniki, to which members of the Melbourne Jewish community would be invited. In short, supported by the indefatigable State Member for Northern Metropolitan, Jenny Mikakos, they are now attempting to reconstitute their own ideal of a multicultural, tolerant Thessaloniki in the heart of multicultural, tolerant Melbourne. This is the Greek spirit at its finest.
If anything is to be learned from such an occasion, surely it is this: Though the first generation Greek migrant may be opinionated, bigoted and given to conspiracy theories, such opinion are worn lightly upon their sleeve, for the self-same Greek is also generous, hospitable, and having endured more trials and travails that they would care to mention, unless of course they are lecturing their young, compassionate, sympathetic to the plight of others and able to embrace all. It is that love of life and of humanity that exists in the Thessalonians of Melbourne in spades. Until next week, then, le chaim!
First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 November 2013
Saturday, November 16, 2013
FILM FESTIVALS AND ΑΓΕΛΑΔΕΣ
"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder."
I have had an idea for a movie for a very long time and have already written the screenplay. It involves a corpulent and hirsute Athenian setting off of for the Varvakeios market, there to buy the drawn and quartered components of a cow. Upon his return from the said market, clutching blood stained plastic bags, he arranges everything on his kitchen table. Then, to the accompaniment of Mozart's Requiem, he sets to work with needle and thread, re-constituting the dripping pieces of meat and bone into their archetypal bovine form. Just as he manages to sew a cowhide over the gruesome form, he caresses the cow's horns, steps back and admires his handiwork. Subsequently, he leans forward towards the cows jaws and intones sonorously: "Moooooo!" I entitle this work of avant garde cinema "Pygmalion," and it is a deconstruction of the myth of the Cypriot king Pygmalion and his quest to find perfection in the statue of Galatea. It is also as post-modern commentary on the aspirations of the Modern Greeks in their search for an identity. Most importantly, it serves as an outlet for one of my not so readily defensible tenets of belief: that all art is butchery.
Sadly, the local film directors I have spoken to have seemed reluctant to challenge themselves in the creation of such a ground-breaking motion picture, citing budget constraints and ethical reservations, despite the fact that I am willing to interpose between the credits, a disclaimer that states that no animal was unduly inconvenienced during the making of the same. Lamentably, I readily believe that it shall be doomed never to see the light of any screen, except the silk screen behind which I will endeavour to enact it with shadow puppets, as a sideshow to a future Antipodean Greek Film Festival launch, possibly the thirtieth anniversary of the same, in tribute to its fine work in presenting to a wide audience, a broad cross section of Greek film and as a symbol of our desperate need to deconstruct and thus understand our cultural heritage. Meanwhile, the screenplay for my film about three Oakleigh ultranationalists who, fed up with the British refusal to hand over the Elgin Marbles resolve to travel to London and steal them themselves, is currently being written.
This year, of course, marks the twentieth anniversary of what has become both an institution and a highlight of the Melburnian cultural calendar. The Greek Film Festival, a flagship event of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria has in that time, been embraced not only by the Greek community at large but also, by the broader community as well. It is easy to see why. Going to the movies is passive and anonymous. Further, the silver screen, accompanied by subtitles, provides a general and easily accessible insight into the complexities, assumptions and contexts of Modern Greek life, without demanding much in return and this is why Jim Morrison observed that film spectators are quiet vampires. Thus, in many ways, the Greek Film Festival is nothing more than the evolution of the nineteen eighties staple pastime of the whole family congregating in large numbers at a designated uncle's house, simply because he had in his possession, power and/or custody, the latest VHS release from Stavros Video. Today, the family is the entire Greek community and it is the good chairpersons of the Greek Film Festival, along with their cohorts, familiars and retainers who are so generously doing the sharing.
The popular success of the Greek Film Festival seems counter-intuitive. One would have thought that the advent of Greek satellite television and its accessibility to a multitude of Greek-Australian homes would have spelled the end for the need for organised viewings, such viewings being more easily undertaken in the comfort and privacy of one's home. Militating against this view however are two key factors, firstly that Greek commercial television programming is so inane and toxic that relief in the form of alternative forms of visual media is a necessity and secondly, the nature and character of our community as an intricate connection of personal and institutional networks that coalesce into a large family construct, is such that the need for large, broad based viewing events has increased rather than diminished. It says much for the cultural sensitivity and grass-roots contact with our community possessed by the chairpersons of the Greek Film Festival, the aethereal and multifaceted Tammy Iliou and the irrepressibly suave and debonair Leonidas Vlahakis, as well as its director, the inexpressibly omniscient Penny Kyprianou, that they have, during their able and inspired administration, presided over a Film Festival that is not so arty and obscure so as to be rendered elitist and inaccessible and at the same time, not so trashy and pedestrian as to be rendered irrelevant. In the least, they inspire infinitely more confidence in us than the great Christina Aguilera who famously asked: "So where is the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?" Instead, their careful selection and presentation of films endeavours to present the latest development in Modern Greek film, with all of the cultural baggage that is contained therein.
In doing so, they have provided us with some of the finest moments of our collective experience, throughout the years. I will never forget the beaming feel-good smiles of the audience emerging from the cautionary classic: «Η Κάλπικη Λύρα.» Similarly, the group tears and cries of passion emerging unsolicited from the audience and in unison during the screening of "Touch of Spice" or "Brides," were I believe, moments of historical importance for our sense of community. Finally, I will never forget watching elderly viewers squirm and shield their eyes while watching homosexual acts between a young boy masquerading as a nun and an escaped Janissary in the thoroughly disturbing and engrossing "Black Field." The tension in the cinema reached a crescendo as the love scenes became more pronounced. Then, during a scene where the boy, straddling the Janissary lifts his nun's robes in order to reveal male genitalia belief, someone in the audience blurted out: «Θέλω να με κάνεις να νιώσω γυναίκα.» All of a sudden, the tension was dispelled as the audience was racked with peals of continuous laughter, elaborating upon Samuel Goldwyn's belief that while a wide screen makes a bad movie twice as bad, it can also make it twice as funny. It is of moments of these that our collective experience is comprised.
This year, the Film Festival offers up the usual cross section of modern Greek films, characterised as they are by their bleak though not completely nihilistic outlook on life, anarchic tendencies, incisive humour and uncompromising honesty. These perennial traits, which many of the older generations brought up on the more genteel mass productions of the fifties and sixties find so confronting, have formed the undercurrent of Greek film from its inception. As a retrospective, the Film Festival also showcases old favourites that have been loved and appreciated by cinema goers in previous festivals. Finally, and most importantly, the Festival showcases the efforts of Greek-Australian short film-makers, via the Greek-Australian Short Film Festival, one that deserves the same if probably not more attention. This is because the Festival provides us with a unique and valuable opportunity to analyse how Greek-Australians interpret the place of a culture that is inherited more than experienced, within an Australian context and how such interpretations can be expressed in visual form. Truly their films, to paraphrase Cocteau are a veritable fountain of thought and it is to the Greek Film Festival's credit that local films are given their deserved prominence.
It was the great Orson Welles who maintained that : "A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." This is my selling pitch of Pygmalion, a film that deserves a Film Festival all of its own, for after all, Jean Luc Godard is right in maintaining that "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world." It is to this fraudulent beauty that this year's Greek Film Festival offers a well needed and artful escape from convention and the daily chewing of the cud.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 November 2013
Saturday, November 09, 2013
Not much survives the demise of the infamous Council of Greeks Abroad, also known as SAE. After a babble of world and local councils (babble being the collective known to describe such talkfests), after the disbursement of millions in order to fly and accommodate delegates from the various continents in Thessaloniki, the so-called world capital of Hellenes Abroad, after an inordinate amount of local skulduggery and jockeying in order to obtain a place in SAE, and so secure a free trip to the motherland, the whole unsteady edifice lies in a heap of smoking ruins, and this, especially after it was announced that the said organisation had to be self-funding.
Out of all the promises and rhetoric however, an unlikely survivor has emerged, one which encapsulates the spirit but not the inefficiency or political agendas of its parent organisation. This survivor is none other than the Panhellenic Games, whose recent games were held in Canberra, and were, according to all accounts, a resounding success.
The Panhellenic Games were a brainchild of SAE Oceania and were initially partly funded by the Greek government. It says much not only for the enduring importance of this institution but also of the SAE delegates who were involved in its organisation that after the dissolution of SAE, they saw fit, of their own volition, quietly and without the fanfare that usually accompanies office-bearers of community organisations, to continue to concern themselves with the perpetuation of the Games. As a result of their dedication, the Panhellenic Games have become a fixture on our community scene, on a Pan-Australian level, uniting young Greek-Australians in an unprecedented way.
Along the way, there have been teething problems. Earlier this year, groups of discontented newly arrived Greek migrants accused the organisers of the Games of deliberately excluding them from participating in the Games, going so far as to accuse them of discrimination. The Games organisers in turn responded by stating that while their focus is primarily to provide a forum for young Greek- Australians, largely disengaged with the organised community, to associate with each other, the inclusion of young Greek migrants in future Games is not necessarily precluded.
This small dispute illustrates the key significance of the Games. Some one hundred years after the founding or our communities and some fifty years after the commencement of Greek mass migration to this country, the community we term as Greek, is as diverse as never before. It is comprised of persons fluent in Greek and integrated within the community, others who have no contact with the Greek community apart from their own family and friends, those who are of Greek descent but do not speak the language and are not engaged or exposed to “Greek culture,” the surprisingly numerous non-Greek partners of Greeks who speak Greek and lately of course, recent arrivals from the beleaguered motherland. It is trite to mention that it is inordinately difficult to find an overarching identity for all these categories of Greeks, let alone serve their needs within the community.
This is because on the whole, our organised community purveys a form of Hellenism that is political in structure (engaging in brotherhood politics seems to have been the major pastime for many years) and agro-cultural in outlook. This means that if you aren’t interested in the annual Sardine or Ouzo festival, if you aren’t into Greek dancing, yawn at the sound of traditional Greek music or Greek attempts to ape western music cacophonously, do not blink at the mention of the poet Cavafy, can’t even spell Polytechnic let alone know what it is and are intimidated by the sound of a Greek language that is unfamiliar to you, there isn’t much that the Greek community has to offer you and chances are it will not embrace you, given that you don’t fit the salient criteria for inclusion within the ethno-cultural group.
The Panhellenic Games are therefore a most invaluable tessera within the mosaic of our broader Greek-Australian community. Sport has the capacity to transcend cultural, linguistic and other boundaries in a way that no other activity openly practised within the Greek community can. As such, the fact that the ancient Greeks used the ancient Olympics as a way of reaffirming a common identity between diverse tribes, should not escape us. Furthermore, given that in Australia sport is less of a pastime and more of a religion, it constitutes an ideal method to attract participation from those of Hellenic descent who feel excluded by or do not understand, other, more traditionally “Hellenic” pursuits.
Thus, at the recent Canberra Games, attended by young Greeks from throughout Australia, the participation by Greek-Australians of limited Greek language skills or of whom only one parent or grand-parent was Greek was noteworthy and encouraging. Such participants eagerly embraced the opportunity to meet and enjoy the company of others who call themselves Greek, engaging with the concept of an identity with which they may only have a passing acquaintance, possibly creating or deconstructing from that intercourse their own distinctive conception of a Greek identity, all the while, engaging in a pursuit that they enjoy, and feel comfortable with, without being imposed upon to act or speak a certain way. For those already possessed of various rudiments of Greek culture, the opportunity to socialise and compete with their peers was equally enjoyed.
The term Panhellenic encapsulates within it a lofty ideal, that of being open to all Hellenes. In a culture, at least here in Australia that has historically attempted to define itself by the exclusion of others, this is no easy task. The organisers of the Panhellenic Games are to be commended for their persistence in striving to achieve this ideal, abjuring lauds and publicity but carrying on what is effectively a ministry to the large corpus of the youth whose interests are not represented or engaged by the current pursuits or structures of the organised Greek community. Given the groundswell of grass-roots support for their endeavours, along with the well-deserved attention of various State Governments, it is quite likely that the Games will only expand in scope in the future.
If anything, the success of the Panhellenic Games teach us this: that we must constantly be in search of new methods to engage with an increasingly diversified Greek community. Our current organisations and structures present an antiquated view of the composition of our community. If some sense of cohesion is to be maintained, novel approaches catering to traditionally “non-Greek” interests must be explored and embraced. We leave you this week expressing the pious wish that at the re-convening of the without a doubt well attended next Panhellenic Games, a marathon event be introduced, compelling athletes to compete, clad, in Spiridon Louis fashion, in foustanella, while being chased by the protesting citizens of Berwick. May the games begin.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 9 November 2013
Monday, November 04, 2013
FORMER PROVINCE OF PUERILE PONTIFICATION
In complete disregard for Peter Ekonomides feelings, he of the “Rebranding Greece” fame, the fair country of Hellas has been rebranded. No longer is it to be called the “Hellenic Republic,” or indeed “Greece” for unenlightened westerners. Those who fear that Greece has been purchased by a Middle Eastern Airline for sponsorship purposes can rest assured that it is not to labour under the soubriquet of the Republic of Etihad, or indeed, Gulf Air Republic. Furthermore, Greece has not been acquired by Richard Branson and renamed Bransonia, and though Greece is in thrall to the Germans and the troika, technically Greece is not in liquidation, so it has not yet been deemed necessary to offer the business name on the market, though rumours that the name was offered but there were no takers, abound.
Who then is our godfather? None other than the president of Greece’s neighbour, Nikolass Gruevski, who in a recent speech referred to our motherland as “Former Ottoman Province of Greece.” No doubt what he was trying to do, is to give the Greeks a taste of their own medicine and see how they like being referred to as the former constituent of someone else’s country. What he has achieved, however, is to emphasise for the umpteenth time, just how dispossessed of historical knowledge, the fraternal governing clique at Skopje actually is. Such ahistoricity is instructive, for it goes far in explaining why our northern friends seem particularly facile at adopting historical identities not their own and why no amount of rational argument will disabuse them of their misapprehensions.
In the interests then of enlightening Mr Gruevski, it should be noted that in Ottoman times, there was no Greece. Greece as an administrative entity had no existence in the Ottoman consciousness. Instead, the lands now comprising the bulk of the modern Greek state were known as Rumeli, that is, the land of the Romans. This is because two millennia prior to the felicitous manifestation of Peter Ekonomides’ corporeal presence upon this earth, Greece underwent one of its most long-lived and famous re-brandings. Having been conquered by the Romans, in the words of Horace: “Captive Greece took captive her fierce conqueror, and introduced her arts into rude Latium.” As a result, in no small thanks to Constantine who moved the focus of the Roman Empire to the lands of the Greeks, the Greeks found themselves inheriting the Empire that had stripped them of their liberty. When one inherits the trappings of power, the next logical step is to assume the identity of the source of that power and that is precisely what the Greeks did, divesting themselves of the name Hellene, a name that in time came to refer to an idol-worshipper and becoming Romans. They remained as Romans for the next millennium, which is as long as the Byzantine Empire lasted and retained the identifier “Romios,” well into the twentieth century. Thus, if Mr Gruevski were to provide verisimilitude to his petulant attempt to perpetuate a futile dispute, he should have referred to Greece alternatively as the Former Ottoman Province of Rumeli.
Of course, if Gruevski were to go further back in history, as those of his ilk are want to do, parading in their town squares in plastic Roman armour that appears to have been derived from a Royal Melbourne Show show-bag, he could also refer to our motherland as the Federation of the Former Byzantine Themes of Thrace, Macedonia, Strymon, Thessaloniki, Nikopolis, Peloponnesos, Kefallinia, Aegeon and of course Hellas, this last theme comprising of Attica, Boetia and Thessaly. For the sake of completeness, Mr Gruevksi could add to that the theme of Boulgaria, whose capital at the time of Emperor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, was Skoupoi, now known as Skopje. Therefore, if the principle behind the schoolyard rhyme: “Tit for tat, butter for fat, if you will kick my dog, I’ll kick your cat,” was to be applied, we could soothe Mr Gruevski’s sensitivities by referred to FYROM as the Former Byzantine theme of Boulgaria. There you go. Problem solved, or rather re-branded.
Unlike Mr Gruevski, though we may be unsecured vis a vis funds with which to discharge our financial obligations, we are secure enough in our identity to call ourselves and be called any name under the sun. We appear in the early Hittite texts as the pestiferous Ahiyyawa or sea-peoples, raiding the coast of Asia Minor and creating mischief. Our Cretan brethren appear in the Hebrew Bible as the dreaded and contentious Philistines. In Homer, we appear variously as Danaans, Achaeans, Myrmidons and with a myriad of other exotic appellations. Thus, we were re-branding Greece long before the concept was a neurosynapse in Peter Ekonomides’ cerebellum or a shudder along the spine of the incoherent Gruevski.
The very people who gave us the name by which Gruevski refers to us, the Graecoi, were a mere tribe of Dorians living in Epirus. Aristotle used the term Graikos in his Meteorologica and claimed that it was the name originally used by the Illyrians for the Dorians of Graii, the word deriving from the Greek word for an aged person. Homer, while reciting the Boeotian forces in the Iliad's Catalogue of Ships, provides the first known reference to a region named Graea, and Pausanias mentions that the ancient city of Tanagra was for a time called Graea, adding that "no one knows where this Graea really was. Aristotle thought it was near Oropus, further east on the same coast as Delion. German classical historian Busolt claimed that the name was given by the Romans originally to the Greek colonists from Graea who helped to found Cumae the important city in southern Italy where the Latins first encountered the Greeks and then to all Greeks, in yet another non-Ekonomides bout of re-branding.
A similar form of re-branding takes place in relation to the name Hellenes, which many uber-patriots prefer as being more correct that that of “Greeks.” Aristotle also places ancient Hellas in the region of Achelous river around Dodona in Epirus where in his opinion the great deluge of Deucalion must have occurred. The priests of Zeus in Dodona were called Selloi which could lead to Sellanes and then to Hellanes-Hellenes. Hellenes in the wider meaning of the word appears in writing for the first time in an inscription by Echembrotus, dedicated to Heracles for his victory in the Amphictyonic Games, in the 48th Olympiad of 584 BC. After the Greco-Persian Wars, an inscription was written in Delphi celebrating victory over the Persians and calling Pausanias the leading general of the Hellenes.
Hall, in his ground-breaking book “Hellenicity” suggests that Hellenism may have been an aggregrative ethnicity that operated across geographically contiguous regions to weld together a transregional aristocracy against lesser status groups. According to him, "Hellenicity" clearly emerges only in the fifth century B.C, and then, rather than being a universally accepted identifier, was largely the production of imperial Athens, which acted as "the new self-appointed arbiter of cultural authenticity." Hellenic identity thus came to be measured increasingly in terms of culture and education rather than of putative descent groups through a process that reached its completion during the Hellenistic age.
Many scholars, Dr Vrasidas Karalis prefer the term Panhellenes, meaning “all the Greeks,” which marks a step away from 19th century monolithic and all-encompassing conceptions of race, connoting in its stead, a confederation of individuals, which is exactly what the highly individualistic Greek people are. Re-branding Greece in this manner may serve to prise the ingenuity of the individual Greek from the quagmire of a corrupt and dysfunctional state that acts as a barrier to further development.
It was Elbert Hubbard who opined that: “If you can't answer a man's arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.” When all is said and done, Mr Gruevski futile tantrums fail to incense a nation that has far more important things to worry about that a mere title. No amount of historical Viagra dispensed in the erection of kitsch statues of ancient historical personages will serve to mask the true intellectual flaccidity of a Balkan backwater struggling under the weight of competing nationalisms, to construct a coherent national mythology. In this regard, perhaps the name dispute is the final, rapidly de-magnetised pole upon which our northern friends can converge. The last word of course, goes to the eternally fabulous Zsa Zsa Gabor, from which much can be gleaned: “I call everyone 'Darling' because I can't remember their names.” From the Disunited Unfederated Former Republic of Darlings, this much greeting.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 November 2013
Monday, October 28, 2013
The Melbourne-born who would sojourn along the banks of the lake at Ioannina are surprised when dusk falls, to see lights seemingly suspended in mid-air. These are the lights of the villages that are perched upon the slopes of otherwise invisible Mount Mitsikeli, which broods wearily over the lake, a lake, which, if the popular traditions are to be believed, is the repository of the tears of the world.
Few lights can be seen emanating from Lingiades, for this village has never fully recovered from one of the most brutal and horrific instances of Nazi inhumanity – the slaughter of all of its inhabitants, ninety two men women and children and the immolation of their homes, on 3 October 1943. As late as the nineteen nineties, most of the village still lay in ruins. The enormity of the crime still haunts the people of Epirus, who shudder and speak of the massacre in hushed tones every time they drive up the mountain. Four were the survivors of this heinous crime, two twenty four year old boys who were lucky enough to have the bullets graze but not penetrate their bodies, a young woman, and the then infant Yiannis Babouskas who sought vainly to suckle from his dead mother’s breasts, in a scene evocative of that of Delacroix’s paiting of the Massacre at Chios.
The slaughter of the inhabitants of Lingiades, took place by way of a reprisal by the Nazis for the assassination of veteran Nazi lieutenant colonel Jozef Zalminger by the EDES resistance forces, led by Kostas Tolis. In the view of the German National Socialists, the lives of the undermenschen held no intrinsic value and could be taken away at will in order to secure the obedience of a cowering and terrorised subject population. That the massacre at Lingiades still plays upon raw emotions is amply evidenced by the fact that at a 2007 conference in Munich on crimes of the Wehrmacht in Greece, the son of the Nazi Josef Salminger, , Hermann, who was mayor of Mittenwald, refused to meet with the Greek delegation and in particular, with Yiannis Babouskas, the sole surviving survivor of this terrible crime. His very words: “I will not meet with the Greeks.”
Historian Christoph Schmink-Gustavus maintains that this crime, unlike many others, seems to have been covered up by the German authorities. According to his view, the massacre was subject to an inquiry by the court at Bremen. While thousands of pages of evidence was amassed, the court gave emphasis to the testimony of one Nazi officer who swore: “I did not ever see any village in Epirus burning.” Subsequently the inquiry blamed Hitler and the rest of the Nazi hierarchy for such brutalities as were committed in Greece and the whole event was forgotten. This is despite the report of Sergeant Alfred Schrepel who had reported at that time: “At the village of Lingiades at peaks 1015 and 1277, limited resistance by the enemy was neutralised. Fifty citizens were killed. Lingiades was burnt and 20 mules collected in loot.” It was in this banal way that the murder of thirty four children aged between six month and eleven years, thirty seven women aged between thirty to sixty and eleven elderly inhabitants, along with the destruction of 43 houses, and 57 sheds was reported.
The court at Bremen may have skipped over the incident, the mayor of Mittenwald may harbour resentment at the fact that victims of his father’s belief in German racial superiority refused to accept their domination by a hysterical and genocidal regime but instead, fought valiantly for liberty, seeing, as a result, the wholesale destruction of Lingiades but the inhabitants of Epirus have not forgotten. Indeed, it is easy to see why they have not, for the massacre in Lingiades was not an isolated incident. A few months before, on 12 August 1943, a two-man Wehrmacht reconnaissance team came across a small group of ELAS guerrillas in the village of Kommeno near Arta, and had reported back to divisional headquarters in Ioannina. On the evening of 15 August 1943, Lieutenant Colonel Josef Salminger, whose son was so eager to pour salt in the wounds of Greek victims of his brutality, ordered an attack the village on the following morning. The attack was led by Lieutenant Röser, who personally shot the village priest at the outset of the assault. Men, women and children, seventy four of them under the age of ten, were killed indiscriminately, though thankfully, almost half of the village's population managed to escape by swimming across the Arachthos river. The first Wehrmacht reports recorded that 150 civilians had died. As the reports moved up the command chain, they were amended so that "150 civilians" became "150 enemy". The names of the three hundred and seventeen villagers who were killed are now recorded on a marble monument in the village's main square, a testament to the German totalitarian regime and it was for this crime that the EDES resistance assassinated Salminger and it was for this that the hapless victims of Lingiades paid with their lives.
The Nazis came to my mother’s village too, in 1943, suspecting that its inhabitants were arming the ELAS guerrillas. They rounded up all the inhabitants in the village square and were preparing to gun them down when the village priest offered his life in exchange of that of everyone else. The bemused Nazi office, having concluded his search of the village and found no weapons, dismissed the terrified villagers and permitted them to return to their homes. Had he not done so, I would never have existed. For me, this brings the magnitude of the crimes at Kommeno and Lingiades into stark focus. Generations of people were denied a chance to live as a result of a brutality that has gone unpunished. Hubert Lanz, who ordered the attack on Lingiades and other villages in Epirus, was rewarded in 1951 by being appointed by the Free Democratic Party of Germany as adviser on military and security issues. It is worthwhile mentioning that this was the party that advocated the release of all "so-called war criminals" and welcomed the establishment of the "Association of German soldiers" of former Wehrmacht and SS members, to advance the integration of the nationalist forces in democracy.
When I consider 28 October 1940, our so-called OXI day, I do not conjure up images of a defiant petty dictator Metaxas, or of gallant Greek soldiers repulsing the Italians from the mountains of Epirus. Instead, I think of Lingiades, Kommeno and the many other villages that fell victim to Nazi fascist barbarism. And I scratch my head and wonder how it is possible, given the amount of blood spilled and the enormity of the suffering that was caused, that many so-called ‘patriots’ cannot say OXI to the perverse appeal of fascist ideologies or political viewpoints that demonise and dehumanise others. To the martyrs of Lingiades and Kommeno, then, on this seventieth anniversary of their slaughter, let us resoundingly cry OXI to the besmirchment of their memories and a further OXI to all forms of intolerance and brutality wherever these raise their disgusting heads.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 October 2013
Saturday, October 19, 2013
LORD OF THE ΔΑΧΤΥΛΙΔΙΑ
"One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them."
The dread Necromancer and Maia of Arda, Sauron, whose name is evocative of the Greek word for lizard, may have forged the One Ring to rule them all, but he certainly was not the first lord of the Rings. Neither was Isildur, king of Gondor who cut the Ring from Sauron's finger, nor indeed Gollum, the grotesque and murderous hobbit who killed his freand in order to obtain it. Finally, Bilbo Baggins and his blue eyed nephew Frodo, who displayed more than a passing interest in the affairs of his batman Samwise, last to possess the Ring are not to be considered true lords of the said item of ornamentation.
This is because the One Ring that renders the wearer invisible when worn is not native to Middle Earth, the imaginary realm of J.R.R Tolkien's legendarium. Instead, even before the whole Lord of the Rings series was but a mere twitch in Tolkiens pencil clutching fingers, Rings of power featured prominently in the mythology of, you guessed it, our ancient and venerable ancestors. Gyges, King of Lydia, was said to have possessed such a ring. Gyges, if the historian Herodotus is to be believed, achieved power by the undemocratic means of a coup. According to his account, said to have been gleaned from the poet Archilochus of Paros, Gyges was a bodyguard of Candaules, the Lydian King, who believed his wife to be the most beautiful woman on Earth. He insisted upon showing the reluctant Gyges his wife when unrobed in order to verify her good looks. When the outraged wife ascertained the existence of the pervs, she gave Gyges the choice of murdering her husband and making himself king, or of being put to death himself. Gyges naturally chose the former. As King, he plied the Oracle at Delphi with numerous gifts, notably six mixing bowls minted of gold extracted from the Pactolus river weighing thirty talents. The Oracle confirmed Gyges as the rightful Lydian King, gave moral support to the Lydians over the Asiatic Greeks, and also claimed that the dynasty of Gyges would be powerful, but due to his usurpation of the throne would fall in the fifth generation, as it did when Croesus succumbed to the Persians.
According to Nicholaos of Damascus, who lived in Augustan times, Gyges was a favourite of Candaules and was dispatched by him to fetch Tudo, the daughter of Arnossus of Mysia, whom the Lydian king wished to make his queen. On the way Gyges fell in love with Tudo, who complained to Sadyates of his conduct. Forewarned that the king intended to punish him with death, Gyges assassinated Candaules in the night and seized the throne. Despite Tudo's comeliness, Gyges became besotted with Magnes, a handsome youth from Smyrna noted for his elegant clothes and fancy korymbos hairstyle which he bound with a golden band. One day he was singing poetry to the local women, which outraged their male relatives, who grabbed Magnes, stripped him of his clothes and cut off his hair. This caused the lovesick Gyges great pain.
Gyges also appears on Plato's Republic and in particular, in the second book, where Socrates encounters a man named Glaucon who uses a mythological story to prove a point about human nature. In the Republic , a different version of Gyges' story is told, one that seems to have been told in Asia Minor for generations. According to this account, .Gyges was a shepherd for the king of Lydia. One day, while tending to his flock, there was an earthquake and Gyges noticed that a new cave had opened up in a rock face. When he went in to see what was there, he noticed a gold ring on the finger of a former king who had been buried in the cave. He took the ring away with him and soon discovered that it allowed the wearer to become invisible. The next time he went to the palace to give the king a report about his sheep, he put the ring on, and predictably seduced the queen, killed the king, and took control of the palace.
Plato used the story of the Ring as a metaphor for the corruption caused by power. In the Republic he has Glaucon argue that men are inherently unjust, and are only restrained from unjust behavior by the fetters of law and society. In the view postulated by Glaucon, unlimited power blurs the difference between just and unjust men. "Suppose there were two such magic rings," he tells Socrates, "and the just man put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market or go into houses and lie with anyone at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point."
The corruptive effects of possessing a ring of power as discussed in the Republic, featured prominently in Tolkien's work. The effect of the Ring and its physical and spiritual after-effects on Bilbo and Frodo are obsessions that have been compared with drug addiction. In his work, the Lady Galadriel, the most powerful woman in Middle Earth refuses to take possession of the Ring, knowing that it would corrupt her. Similarly, Gandalf the Grey, a supernatural being, refuses to bear the burden of the Ring, stating that while he would wield it initially to do good, the concept of unlimited power would soon erode him moral compass. In many ways then, Tolkien's work seems to be a commentary and a riposte to Glaucon, on the one hand stating that people can choose not to be corrupted by denying themselves ultimate power, while on the other hand, agreeing with Glaucon that no one who assumes ultimate power can emerge uncorrupted. In one of his letters, written in 1958, he takes this idea further, stating: "I should say that it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one's direct control."
While taking pains to state that The Lord of the Rings was not allegorical, Tolkien conceded "applicability" as being within the "freedom" of the reader, and the notion of a power too great for humans to safely possess as first evoked in the myth of Gyges and his Rings would have resonated powerfully in a post-atomic and subsequently nuclear age. Today, the legend of Gyges' Ring, as extrapolated and woven into an enduring table of the triumph of justice and courage over might, power and corruption by Tolkien offers a poignant commentary on the structure of global society, underlying that today's moral and political dilemmas are those that pre-occupied and challenged the ancients, who while temporally remote from our times, remain enduringly relevant. The last word of course, belongs to the defeated and rendered impotent Sauron, who divested of his Ring, laments, in the manner of all tyrants: «Μού 'φαγες όλα τα δαχτυλίδια, και κοιμάμαι τώρα, τώρα στα σανίδια.»
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 19 October 2013