Saturday, December 03, 2016

GREEKS AND COMMERCE AND INDUSTRY



The inscription goes further to say that the purpose of the Zosimas brothers’ sponsorship is to ensure that the book, which is a philosophical treatise summarizing the major currents of thought prevailing in Europe at that time, is distributed among Greek youth free of charge, for the purpose of their edification and the cultivation of their souls.
The breadth of the Zosimas brothers’ vision is breathtaking. Having made vast fortunes in Italy and Russia, they and many other Greek pre and post-revolution merchants and businessmen living abroad, most of whom came from Epirus, arguably the most impoverished region of the Greek world at that time, set about securing the necessary infrastructure that would ensure the viability of an emerging Greek state.
Thus, Evangelos Zappas, from Lambovo in Northern Epirus, provided the necessary funds of the revival of the modern Olympic Games. He also founded Greek schools in several Greek-populated villages and towns, all over Northern Epirus. In Constantinople, which until 1955 had a large Greek population, he also founded a complex of nurseries, primary and secondary schools, which were collectively known as the Zappeion Institute. Quite apart from funding the modern day Zappeion building in Athens, he also was deposited a large amount of money in the National Bank of Greece to provide scholarships for Greek agricultural students in order to conduct postgraduate studies in Western Europe.
George Sinas, from Moschopolis in Northern Epirus, who became chief director of the bank of Austria in turn, financed the construction of the university of Athens, a number of medical and archaeological institutions, as well as the Athens National Observatory.
Apostolos Arsakis, from Hotahova in Nothern Epirus, who at one time served as interim Prime Minister of Romania, provided large sums of money for the establishment of a female educational institution in Athens, housed in a luxurious mansions at the city center and known as the Arskeion School.
George Averoff, from Metsovo, Epirus, founded of the School of Agriculture in Larisa, funded the construction of the Evelpidon Military Academy, donated to the Athens Conservatory, and provided for the refurbishment of the Panathenian Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held. He also funded the completion of the National Technical University of Athens and provided a donation for building the Averoff flagship of the Greek Navy.
Christakis Zografos, from Kestorati in Northern Epirus, donated an enormous amount of money for the erection of middle level schools in Constantinople, one (the Zographeion Lyceum) in the district of Pera in Constantinople and another, a girl’s school in Yeniköy on the Bosporus, as well as sponsoring the rebuilding of a Greek library in the city. At the Universities of Munich and Paris he made an 1,000 Franc endowment for awards in the fields of Greek literature and history. He also founded a teachers college, known as the Zographeion School in Epirus.
Similarly, George Stavros, from Ioannina in Epirus, founded the National Bank of Greece and served as its first director. At the same time, he, like most of the other great Greek benefactors, provided ample funds for the construction of institutions to serve the Greek communities abroad in which they lived and thrived.
Ioannis Pangas, from Korytsa, Northern Epirus, provided the most extreme form of philanthropy yet. Not content with building schools in his hometown, on 16 August 1889, he donated his entire fortune to the Greek state and all of his possessions, as an act of philanthropy to aid the rebuilding of Athens and the growth of the panfully emerging Greek state. He retained only 1,000 drachmas per month in order to lead a decent life.
A common thread can be perceived in all the above-mentioned benefactor’s activities. They all believed that it was vital, if the Greek nation was to be liberated and stand upon its feet in the modern world, that the Greek people were educated, understood the context and zeitgeist of the region in which they lived and able to play a significant role in the broader global community, as they had done, in the countries to which they migrated, George Sinas for one, being responsible for the founding of many of Vienna’s beautiful buildings. This then is the reason why the Zosimas brothers felt it necessary to distribute philosophical treatises to the book-starved youth of Greece, for free. True emancipation, in their view, had its starting in the mind and soul and not in the physical. True liberation would be achieved only when the book worked in concert with the sword and of course the moneymen. In order to achieve this lofty goal, the book would have to be given precedence, something which along the way, the feuding hoplarchs, oligarchs and politicians of modern Greece seem to have forgotten.
For it is trite to mention that without commerce and industry and without the active involvement of its practitioners in the founding of Modern Greece, it is unlikely that the said state would have been able to get up off the ground, let alone endure as a going concern. Their example that of planned, ideologically driven but methodical benefaction, is one we here in the Antipodes could emulate and it is for this reason that community groups that have been founded and exist to celebrate Greek involvement in commerce and industry provide exciting scope, not only for organized involvement with the current cultural, social and welfare activities of the broader Greek community, but also in setting the foundations for a future.
Henry Ford was prescient when he opined: “If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.” However, undoubtedly, being able to target and fund endeavours that fulfill perceived needs without having to constantly go cap in hand to various government agencies and navigate the ever changing swirl of policies and priorities that dictate grants does offer a modicum of independence to a community whose current community institutions are, in their majority, outmoded, and failing their members.
Though the Greek communities of Constantinople and Alexandria have been decimated by the vicissitudes of politics and fate, their welfare is still being provided for to the present day by the generous and far-sighted donations of the Epirote benefactors over a century ago. That in itself speaks volumes as to how a Greek community, could, in partnership with commerce and industry conduct its affairs so as to independently plan its future as a coherent and cohesive whole, where as many people as possible are provided for.
Discarding the already well-worn ethos of pat on the back social clubs for wealthy Greeks that have made it, let us all embrace Greek commerce and industry community institutions that a) can provide or facilitate vocational training for young Greeks within the businesses of the community b) can mentor promising or needy young Greeks throughout their schooling or early professional life c) can identify key areas of communal need such as aged care, child care, kindergartens and Greek schools and set up coherent funding strategies, via peer funding and d) identify key areas of expansion to meet the needs of the future such as credit co-operatives, programs facilitating enhanced contact with Greece, and e) fund those engaging with and assisting newly arrived members of the Greek community. The fact that our current commerce and industry community institutions appear willing to engage in this way, with a community in transition, is as invigorating as it is inspiring. For time is of the essence…
 
I have in my collection, an 1805 book by the great scholar of the Greek enlightenment and bishop Evgenios Voulgaris, entitled “What Philosophers Prefer.” On the cover page, there exists an inscription informing readers that the costs for publishing this book were borne by the Zosimas brothers, wealthy businessmen from Ioannina in Epirus, who among other things, financed the construction of the Monetary Museum of Athens, the National Library, of Adamantios Korais, one of the major contributors of the Greek Enlightenment movement, the Zosimaia college in Ioannina, and an orphanage in Patmos, as well as donating significant sums to the Philiki Etaireia for the purposes of carrying out the revolution.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 December 2016

Saturday, November 26, 2016

ΠΑΡΑΜΥΘΙΑ


My three and a half year old daughter’s favourite bedtime story goes something like this: There was once a little girl, paradoxically enough sharing the same name as her, who, in contravention of her father’s instructions, ventured into a deep, dark wood. As she inched further and further into the wood, it became progressively darker. The boughs of the trees bent lower and lower, the ivy grew thicker and more tangled, the wind picked up, becoming ever the more forceful and icy, strange sounds could be heard emanating from the gaping hollows of the gnarled tree-trunks…. «και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς και πήρε το κοριτσάκι από το χέρι, και το πήγε σπίτι του,» my daughter invariably interjects after about five minutes.

On the odd occasion, I tell her, «όχι ακόμη,» continuing my narration of an ever darkening, ever cooling, increasingly claustrophobic and lonely world. This rarely lasts for more than a minute before she interjects repeatedly and with increasing urgency, insisting: «και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς.» At this stage in her development, it is vital for her to know that μπαμπά will always be there, to clasp her hand and lead her out of the dark. This is how she consoles herself. It is also why her favourite story, is a παραμύθι.

In modern times, the words fairy story and παραμύθι are considered to be synonymous, yet in antiquity, the Greek term had decidedly different connotations. Used as a verb by Plato, (παραμυθησόμεθα) it meant to encourage or exhort, while in Herodotus and Thucydides, (παραμυθοῦμαι) it has the meaning that has persisted among traditional communities until now: to console, or to relieve, or to abate. Thus in the Deipnosophistae, Theophrastus, was held to have said that: «Παραμυθεῖται γὰρ ὁ οἶνος καὶ τὴν τοῦ γήρως δυσθυμίαν,»meaning that wine relieves or consoles, the melancholy of old age.

Similarly, the city of Paramythia, in Epirus, is, at least according to some, named thus, not because its inhabitants are particularly adept story-tellers (though I consider Paramythia to be a perfect name to give a Greek equivalent of Disneyland), but rather because its towers provided aid and safety to the local inhabitants from marauding barbarians of diverse descriptions, throughout its war-blighted history.

In his melancholy 1847 painting, also entitled «Παραμυθιά,» Greek painter Theodoros Vryzakis depicts a mother consoling her daughter on the loss of her beloved, on a backdrop of the Acropolis. The luminous folk costume of the grief-stricken women far outshines that of the ancient marbles, which loom above them, distant and disconnected and is juxtaposed against the darkness of their mourning. It is almost as if Vryzakis is insinuating that the old myths that supposedly exist to offer us guidance and consolation, are too remote and peripheral to provide us with anything remotely relevant or useful to apply to our contemporary predicament, which eerily enough, is perennially the same, throughout the ages.

Though I have been fascinated by Vryzakis’ painting from a very young age, I harbour vague childhood memories of the first time I learned of the connotation of solace to the term paramythi. These involve black-clad, harsh-browed, windswept old women visiting relatives during a time of loss and overtly handing over packages of coffee, «για παραμυθιά,» as they would say. Between the weeping, the lamenting of their fate and the inevitable gossiping that would ensue, I was incensed to come to the realisation that no fairy story was forthcoming, save maybe those myths that we weave about ourselves to convince, or rather console us, that our lives have especial meaning. Perhaps I unwittingly understood Vryzakis after all.

It was my daughter’s favourite παραμύθι as well as Vryzakis’ painting that came to mind during an exchange over coffee, with a couple of friends who revel in the newfound Hellenism of their ethnicity. “We are a race of warriors,” one proclaimed proudly, extending his inordinately muscular forearm, upon which the Star of Vergina was painstakingly tattooed, in order to place his short black into his custody. “Look at the Spartans. They are an enduring example for all Greeks.”

“Why?” I asked. We were at Degani, specifically chosen by my friends, because, as they advised, Oakleigh excepting, Degani is where they go when they want to “get their Greek fix.” This particular Degani was in a “white” neighbourhood. It did not purvey Greek coffee, which is my beverage of choice and as a result I was compelled to do penance via the sipping of a soy latte, because, as I opined, we are all σόι. This remark received the scant attention it deserved.

“Re, the Spartans are the bodyguards of the Greek nation,” the Spartan-lover with the corrugated iron abdominal muscles responded, with an immediacy that implied that the events he was recalling had transpired just a few days previously. “They fought for the safety of all the Greeks and got rid of the Persians. They were a lean, mean fighting machine who stood up against tyranny and gave freedom to all of us.”

“You think?” I replied. Having downed my soy latte, I proceeded to turn the glass upside down, distributing the coffee dregs around it in an anti-clockwise fashion until they had dried along the sides. Picking it up, I scrutinised it carefully, for within, lay my future. I was, after all, at Degani. “Except that Sparta, if you believe the stories, was run as a military camp. Weak babies were killed, and really, save for a few key battles, history teaches us that Sparta was mostly interested in preserving its own freedom rather than that of Greece and indeed, during the Peloponnesian War, sought to enlist the assistance or arbitration of Persia against Athens. As for them fighting against tyranny, it was the Spartans who removed democratic regimes from Greek city states and imposed oligarchies, in order to make the Greek world safe for aristocracy. They even hired themselves out as mercenaries for a Persian contender to the throne during the time of Xenophon. Furthermore,” I continued, gasping as I noted the design of a stunted, chromosome missing double headed eagle in my latte glass, “the whole of Spartan society was based on their subjugation of the Messenians, who they enslaved and used like animals. So much for freedom fighters.”

My interlocutor’s biceps twinged nervously as he considered the implication of my words. Briefly, we mooted what would happen if the Laconian Brotherhood of Melbourne, inspired by the historical precedent of its ancestors, decided to conquer the nearby Pan-Messenians, seizing their club-house and subordinating its committee and members to the status of B-class members, the ones who constitutionally may join and pay a fee, but have strictly no voting rights.

“Anyway, we are the greatest people that has ever walked this earth,” our second companion interjected. Besuited, in one of those bespoke, ultra slim fit, cuffs above the ankles numbers that masquerade as serious men’s fashion these days, resplendent with thick black-rimmed glasses, immaculately spiked hair reminiscent of Superman’s polar hiding place and possessed of a dazzling smile, he was the intellectual of our parea, having read all the important Positive Thinking books, such as “Rewire Your Brain,” “Think and Grow Rich” and the classic “As a Man Thinketh,” which he derides as modish and outdated. “Look at Alexander the Great. At such a young age, he created the greatest empire in history. He willed it and it happened. He united all the Greeks. Now that’s the power of positive thinking. Now there is a model for modern Greece to follow.”

This white Degani did not serve chips with oregano and feta cheese and I felt dirty as I ordered a calamari salad. As I relinquished hold of the menu, I mentioned how Alexander, who he idolized, was paranoid to the extent that he felt it necessary to murder his friends and star employees. Far from uniting the Greeks, he not only destroyed the city of Thebes, but also ordered the deaths of Greeks whose ancestors had colonized a city in Central Asia a century prior to his arrival. By most Greek city states, used as they were to running their own affairs themselves, Alexander was a tyrant, not a liberator or a leader. Furthermore, Alexander’s Empire, was slightly smaller than that of the Persians, whose Empire he basically appropriated, and nowhere near as large, or as organized as that of the Romans, or indeed the Mongols, whose empire was not only the largest, but also, when they weren’t killing those who resisted them, the most religiously tolerant. And why, I asked, in these times, was it necessary not just to idolise a person, but consider him worthy of emulation, simply on the basis that he took over more of other people’s homelands than any one else?

“No, no, no!!!” my friends cried in unison. “How can you say that about Alexander? He is the last pureblood Greek king!”
“Really? I asked. “Then why is it that both Plutarch and Libanius mention that his grandmother, Eurydice, was actually Illyrian?”
“No! Lies!” they pleaded.
“And why is it so important that he be a pureblood Greek anyway?” I asked. The answer of course, was that everything is Greek culture was pure and existed ab initio. We owed nothing to anyone and we, the pure-bloods, maintain the same germs of genius within our DNA today.

In the heated exchange that followed, which took the form equivalent of that extended the dark forest path which my daughter traverses in her own paramythi, I showed my friends how archaic Greek sculpture had its origins in that of the Egyptians and the Assyrians, how Persian religion was just as rich and possibly more theologically sophisticated than that of the contemporary Greeks and, of course, how a good sprinkling of both ancient Greek deities and ancient Greek heroes were, even in their own time, considered to have been of foreign origin. The more I delved, the more violent the reaction came until such time as I felt it was time we were out of the forest.

“Re that was funny, you being the devil’s advocate and all that,” Spartan-lover patted me on the back as I paid the bill. “You had me going there with that Eurydice thing,” Positive Thinker guffawed. “But everyone knows that Eurydice is a modern name. Couldn’t have been Alexander’s grandmother. Imagine what we would do if we had a modern equivalent today. A corporate takeover giant. There is one in all of us. The Greek business genius is second to none….”

“What an Empire needs is muscle,” Spartan-lover mused. “That’s why within the DNA of every Greek lies the discipline of the Spartans. This is why neither the Germans, nor the Turks will keep us down…But wait till we get access to those pools of oil under Thasos. We are sitting on the largest oilfield in the world. Then they will see.”

«Και μετά, ήρθε ο μπαμπάς..... » I whispered, as I walked away, lamenting that for my people, there is no Balm in Gilead, merely coffee, in diverse cups, by way of παραμυθιά.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on 26 November 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

DI PASTA GRECA

“Seriously, the way you Greeks carry on about inventing everything!” my Italian school friend observed. “But you haven’t invented anything that people actually like. Look at us Italians. No we didn’t invent geometry, or theatre, but we invented fashion and of course, pasta. Everyone over the entire world eats pasta. Not everyone eats souvlaki.”
This conversation took place when I was in year 9 and I had available to me no counter-arguments by way of riposte. My own inordinate love of pasta was the subject of family mirth and it was widely accepted that I must have been an Italian in a previous life, it being accepted without question that pasta was of Italian provenance, given that a rebetiko song observes: « Έλληνας φασολάς, Ιταλός μακαρονάς.» As a last resort, I reverted to the tried and tested schoolyard Parthian shot: “I don’t know why you are so proud of the Italians. You are from Sicily, therefore you are actually Greek.” This earned me what was in those days termed, a sconing.
Years later, while at university, I was invited by a pneumatic, in the Huxleian sense, Italian classmate, to her home where she demonstrated to me how home-made pasta was produced. Feeding the dough into a ruby red pasta machine, with slow, considered movements, she flicked back her flowing locks and glancing over her shoulder in what could only have been described as a Nigella-like flourish, save for the fact that Nigella had not yet been invented, she glided her long, sinuous fingers across the machine languidly, purring: “Don’t you just love its smooth lines?”
I didn’t. There seemed something perversely self-indulgent about a machine that reminded me of an ancient Greek water organ extruding lengths of self-indulgent dough from its multifarious orifices, yet I held my peace. For it was only much later that I discovered that according to Greek mythology, the great god of all artificers, Hephaestus invented a device that made strings of dough. His then, is the earliest reference to a pasta maker, suggesting that pasta, a foodstuff synonymous with Italy, is in fact Greek.
Or then again maybe not. Hephaestus’s forges were said to be located underneath Mount Aetna, in Sicily, so it is probably safer to speak of a Magna Grecian provenance for pasta, rather than a broader Greek one.
As Greeks, we generally don’t use the word pasta, except by those culturally suspect Heptanesians who have introduced us to pastitsio. Yet the Italian word, meaning dough or a pastry cake, is, according to scholars, a latinisation of the Greek παστά, being a form of barley porridge. Instead, as early as the works of the 2nd century AD Greek physician Galen, we find mention of the word itrion, signifying homogeneous compounds made of flour and water. This word must have been in use in Sicily right up until the Arab conquest for it passed into Arabic as “Itriyya,” in turn giving rise to “trie” in Italian, signifying long strips such as tagliatelle and trenette.
By comparison, the Greek word referring to pasta in all its manifold forms, is μακαρόνια, appearing also in Italian as maccheroni. Yet this seemingly Latin word also attests to the usages and customs of the Greeks of Magna Graecia, that is, of Southern Italy, who settled there as colonists in ancient times. For academic consensus supports that the word is derived from the Greek μακαρία a kind of barley broth which was served to commemorate the dead, much as Orthodox Greeks make kollyva to commemorate their dead in memorial services today. Makaria, in turn, is held to derive from μάκαρες, meaning "blessed dead", which is the word used to describe them in the Orthodox memorial service and ultimately from μακάριος, collateral of μάκαρ which means "blessed” or “happy,” which is exactly how I feel when I consume said μακαρόνια, especially alla puttanesca, which is always the source of saucy and imaginative conversation around the family dinner table.
Italian linguist Giorgio Alessio has looked further into the provenance of the world. He traces it to the Byzantine Greek μακαρώνεια, which was a funeral meal, comparable to the rice-based dish served at funerals in Eastern Thrace until modern times, which was known as μαχαρωνιά. Consequently, Alessio posits the term would be composed of the double root of μακάριος, meaning "blessed" and αἰωνίος meaning "eternal," always in keeping with Orthodox funerary customs.
Enough evidence exists however, to suggest a much older provenance for pasta and in particular, believe it or not, lasagna, which is about as Greek a dish as it gets. We know that lasagne has been eaten in Italy since Roman times, as a dish similar to the traditional lasagne called lasana or lasanum ( which is Latin word for "container", is described in the book De Re Coquinaria by Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the oldest ever cookbooks. It also appears in the first century writings of Horace, as lagana, described as fine sheets of fried dough and as being an everyday foodstuff. Nonetheless, scholars hold that the word has a more ancient origin and is derived from the Greek λάγανον a flat sheet of pasta dough cut into strips. Other theories hold the Latin to be derived from the Greek λάσανα or λάσανον meaning a “trivet or stand for a pot" and it is postulated that Romans used the Greek word to refer to the dish in which lasagne is made and gradually, the name of the food took on the name of the serving dish, in the same way as Middle Easterners refer to a dish roast vegetables as «ταψί».
Greek rhetorician and grammarian Athenaeus of Naucratis, in his second century work “Deipnosophistae,” or “Dinner-table Philosophers, ” provides a mouth-watering recipe for lagana which he attributes to the first century Chrysippus of Tyana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour and the juice of crushed lettuce, then flavoured with spices and deep-fried in oil. The word lagana, of course, is still used in Greek today to mean a flat thin type of unleavened bread baked for the Clean Monday holiday, at the beginning of Lent.
Somewhere within the mists that shroud our history, the Greek people lost their macaroni making propensities. This is a great shame, as we were nowhere to be seen when the Italian pasta eating craze took over the world by store and were thus, unable to profit from it, our cuisine losing the sexiness that it might otherwise have had. This, it should be emphasized, took place through no fault of our own, but rather, as a result of Roman commercial aggression. Athenaeus described the Greeks of Italy as having created the first patents . According to his “Deipnosophistae” in 500 BC, in the Greek city of Sybaris in southern Italy, there were annual culinary competitions. The victor was given the exclusive right to prepare and sell his masterchef signature dish for one year. This is a practice that obviously was discontinued after the city was taken over by the Romans along with all intellectual property therein. Nonetheless, there is something truly comforting in knowing that our kitchen ruled aeons before George Kalombaris was assembled by the Australian television networks. Had we been able to cling to those patents and preserved them, chances are the Magna Graecian resturants of today, would be purveying Spaghetti alla dolmadaque, fettucini γιαχνί, ravioli γεμιστά and making an absolute killing. After all, while watching two star crossed lovers commence sucking at opposite ends of a strand of spaghetti in order for their lips to meet in the middle, witnessing two erotically charged Greeks gulp down chunks of souvlaki, tzatziki dripping ominously onto their chins, in order to achieve the same effect, is downright ridiculous.
Patents aside, the enduring Hellenic affiliation to pasta is best expressed by the late lamented Thanasis Veggos, in the movie: «Ο παλαβός κόσμος του Θανάση». Hired το participate in an advertisement for spaghetti, he cannot contain himself and gorges himself on the entire plate, all the while signing the jingle: «Τρώτε μακαρόνια, τρώτε μακαρόνια, είναι μια απόλαυση υγιεινή!
Τρώνε οι παππούδες, τρώνε και τα εγγόνια, είναι μια απόλαυση σωστή!» Move over then Elgin Marbles. It’s time we reclaimed our heritage. We are hungry for it.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 November 2016

Saturday, November 12, 2016

THE HELLENISTIC AGE


Ὁ αετός πεθαίνει στον αέρα, ελεύθερος και δύνατος,’ crooned Notis Sfakianakis. In that, the year of our Lord 1998, Sfakianakis’, name was so holy that it could not be pronounced in full, being truncated instead to the tetragrammaton ‘Sfax.’ Indeed, it was the year of tetragrammata, since the wall I was leaning against structurally supported a temple that bore the name Kivotos, which, in like fashion, was referred to by patrons during times profane as “Kivo,” as this was the ark of all dances sanctified to the old gods of neohellenic music, the cult of the Dark Deity Phoebus who would dethrone them, still lurking ominously in the shadows of its infancy.
The lanky youth with the purple microfibre shirt and the square sideburns extended his arms as if to emulate an eagle, executed a turn with a flourish, and concluded with a jump meticulously timed so that he was to be found perched upon his haunches as the final beats of the liturgical canticle faded away. Then, being raised by a coterie of admiring friends all dressed in similar fashion, he wiped the sweat glistening from his exposed chest, simultaneously grasping the Cosmopolitan that was thrust into his hand by a gushing female admirer. He downed it nonchalantly, evidently proving he was more than manly enough for it. He was, I was informed, a Greek bar promoter, a perfectly plausible profession of limitless opportunity, in those heady days.
Yet almost immediately as his sun reached its zenith, its brilliance was eclipsed by the intrusion upon the dance floor of a vast monolithic sculpture of a man, bulging in places titillating and unimaginable. Σὠμα μου, the great god Sfax crooned, σώμα μου φτιαγμένο από πηλό... As he danced, the monolith slid his impossibly fleshy hands languidly and sensuously over the ripples of his muscular torso. Here we were in the processing of witnessing, not the execution of another zeimbekiko but rather the birth of a form of auto-Dirty Dancing, one that I believe cannot and will not ever be replicated. Female and male patrons alike remained transfixed as they beheld this remarkable display of neohellenic self-love, remarking in hushed tones that the dancer was a body-builder.
“I wonder if he realizes that this song is about drug addiction?” I mused. “Or that to have a body made of clay is symbolic of the fragility of the human existence?”
Monolith was so entranced by his theosis with Sfax’s godhead that he ended his cycle of terpsichorean innovations with a stamp of the foot on the downbeat, a full bar after the voice of the deity had been silenced. He remained immovable on the dance floor, bellowing ῾Δεν πάω πουθενά πουθενά, εδώ θα φύγω,῾ at the top of his voice, eliciting the acclamation of his peers, no doubt appreciating in the artful and subtle way in which he had subverted Vasilis Karas’ manifesto so that it became a poignant expression of the existential crises of modern man, unable to escape, unwilling to leave.
Μαλάκα, τἀχω παίξει παντελώς, he exclaimed, to no one in particular, as he finally lurched towards the bar. Apparently, he had picked up this expression, which, as he readily admitted during the brief conversation I had with him, he did not really know the meaning of, while on a recent holiday in Mykonos. It was there apparently that his epiphany took place. Having been hand-reared on stories of the village in Melbourne, his understanding of the Greek identity involved working out which suburban deli sold the cheapest olives per kilo and compiling copious lists of which relative owned which investment property, while trying to deduce the source of income that made its acquisition possible. In Mykonos, among the cocktails, the ethereal beauties and the music that became the soundtrack to his life, he discovered true Hellenism and thus was born again.
“You know re,” he emphasized. “The Greek culture is so powerful. There is a Greek song to cover every single situation. Even saying goodbye. Modern Greeks say it like Alkaios: Με δυο μαρμάρινα φιλιά και πέτρα τώρα την καρδιά σου λέω αντίο να΄σαι πάντα καλά.”
“That’s also got to do with the Parthenon Marbles, how we had to say goodbye to them,” a gum chewing university student interrupted, looking invitingly at the monolith from under her fake eyelashes. Monolith instinctively clenched his biceps, paraphrasing, in the heavily accented Greek of the Melbourne-born, Christos Dantis’ epic poem, thus: Κάποιος μ᾽αγαπάει, είμαι εγώ,᾽ a provocative paean to modern narcissism if there ever was one. “Oh my God, παίζεις με τη φλόgα,” she responded. They both looked at each other and in that sharing of lyrical Greek passwords, a code was unscrambled and a connection made so strong that it could break out of the seventh circle of Dante’s Hell.
It was at this stage that my fearsome leather clad, grey-eyed companion grabbed me by the arm and marched me briskly to the door. “Seriously,” she exclaimed. “I’ve had enough of these Danti-loving troglodytes. I can’t take it anymore. What the hell is wrong with them?” Sotiria too, was a born again Hellene, but her anabaptism had taken place not in the fleshpots of Diogenis Pallas but rather among the puddles of Exarcheia in Athens. “When I breathe that air, which is laden with history, (I always thought it was carbon monoxide pollution), I am immediately at peace,” she was often given to repeating at almost every given opportunity, more to convince herself than anyone else. As Sotiria embraced a Hellenism that entailed reading “alternative literature” and listening to a type of music that she termed “entechni” and which bore no relation to techno whatsoever.
By the time we reached Rebelos, a few doors down from Kivo, my arm was aching from the pressure she had exerted upon in. I did not want to enter. Last time I had done so, I had laughed out loud while a long haired denizen grabbed me by the shoulders, sending alcohol fuelled cadences of Vasilis Papakostantinou’s: Χαιρετίσματα λοιπόν στην Εξουσία, mistakenly down my olfactory nerves, this almost resulting in my immediate defenestration. This time, I restrained myself through the conversations of the uniformly black-wearing patrons ending every single sentence with ναι μωρέ, or σώπα μωρέ. Infuriatingly for Greek Australians, they refrained from mixing their Greek with their English, did not employ the term re, and furthermore, would, while sitting in silence with expressionless faces for over fifteen minutes, listening to modes of music that had reached the apex of popularity in Australia two generations previously, would mutter by way of a mantra: Καλή η φάση.
Having been previously instructed so to do, I attempted to fit in by wearing a black skivvy. However, it was my question as to whether Lavrentis’ Machairitsas’ lyrics: Ζηλεύω το μικρό σου το γατί, are just a euphemism for the innate westernophilia of the Greek pseudo-socialist coupled with a musing as to why the establishment did not play Mixalis Sogioul’s Ο Τραμπαρίφας, which includes the word rebelos in the following form: ‘Απόψε που την έβγαλα τη μπέμπελη, γουστάρω νύχτα δροσερή και ρέμπελη,’ which finally betrayed my heretical tendencies
“Who are you calling a bebeli, ξενέρωτε;” came the furious voice of Sotiria. “You are just like all those other chauvinist Marios. Get lost. Το έτερον σου ήμισυ δεν το᾽χεις σε εκτίμηση.” This for me was mystifying as I was unaware up until that point that I was considered to be her other half, and sought clarification upon that point. The dim memory I still retain involves me being pushed out of Rebelos by a horde (probably one of two) of enraged patrons. I had not the heart to tell Sotiria that bebeli is a Slavic derived form of nineteen fifties Greek slang that simply means that it is very hot. From what I have been able to ascertain, for we never spoke again, Sotiria fulfilled her life-long dream of relocating to Greece, where she is happily married and trying desperately to convince her husband to migrate to Australia. To this day, I am inordinately proud of the fact that I managed to conceal from her, in ways dark and nefarious, that my appreciation of Greek music is decidedly non-born again Hellenic, consisting as it did and still does, of demotic songs with a heavily sprinkling of rebetika and Tolis Voskopoulos thrown in.
Ι avoided Pegasus bar, for just as I strolled past it I heard the accusatory voice of Natasa Theodoridou enquiring: ᾽Πού περπατάς;᾽ choosing instead to enter Zenith just as Sakis Rouvas was lamenting: ῾Τώρα αρχίζουν τα δύσκολα.῾ At that time, patrons were preparing themselves for a long night ahead. As I was informed, Apocalypsi, on adjacent Lonsdale Street, was about to «go off.» Invited to join my interlocutor therein, I excused myself by saying that I was feeling unwell, whereupon she unnervingly launched into the most gravelly, deep and frighteningly accurate impression of Vasilis Karas: ῾Τηλεφώνησέ μου,῾ I had ever heard. I bolted.
We, the epigonoi of the first generation migrants were kings back then and ruled our limitless world. Exulting in what we beeived to be our rediscovery of things Hellenic, our sway extended down Russell Street, into Lonsdale, all the way down to the Colonial Hotel on King Street, which we rebaptised, the “Ellinadiko, Ennea Mouses.” Truly we believed that our time upon this earth would never end and that we, the Hellenistics, would continue to imbibe from a font of culture constantly refreshed by the importation of the latest Bigalis CD by Caras Music or a cruise of the Greek islands, oblivious to the existence of the non-Hellenes around us, seeking to delight in, breed and converse, only with ourselves. Yet slowly and inexorably, one by one, the barakia shut their doors on us forever, leaving us, the diet-Coke of the Hellenistic nineties, unfulfilled, disgruntled, and eternally melancholy, even before the demise of the Gamma Bar.
Last time I walked past where I remembered Kivotos to have been, I was surprised that I could no longer remember its exact position, it having been subsumed by a redeveloped architect designed tower, much as archeologists today debate the questionable sites of Alexander's colonies. I continued along my way, sullenly whispering, without being able to stop myself: Αμά δεις τα παιδιά, πες ένα γεια.᾽

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on 12 November 2016

 

Saturday, November 05, 2016

ON NANNIES, CORPOSES AND FAILED STATES


In his masterful foray into the theatre of the absurd, Ὁι Νταντάδες" (The Nannies), Giorgos Skourtis casts the everyman as defenseless prisoners of a thoroughly degraded society, which is so morally, politically and socially flawed, mired as it is in falsehood and injustice, that they are compelled to inhabit a refuge in a cul de sac of threadbare ideologies and nonsensical constructs, much like the buzzwords of today, all the while being forced to deny the duality of life and death as being able to offer a means of escape, given that what the system offers to its inmates are fraudulent survival options and substitutes for real life itself.

Answering an advertisement for a twenty-four hour babysitting position, the two protagonists of the play soon find out that they are required to look after a hideously disfigured corpse. Not content with his charges watching over the corpse, their employer demands that they lament over it and exhibit genuine grief over its condition, much in the same way as we today in the corporate world are expected to display inordinate amounts of pre-orgasmic excitement about our companies’ success and as a corollary, express the appropriate amounts of grief and contrition as we undergo Maoist self-criticism sessions when confronted with a non-compliance with key performance indicators. As the play progresses, we learn that the corpse, which all along we expect to be a metaphor for society, is not even a corpse, but rather, a loathsome papier-mâché construct. What is disturbing, is not that the fact that the society in question is not real, but rather, that in certain poignant points in the play, the protagonists lament, based on self-interest, the promise of remuneration and fear of punishment, IS decidedly real.

Recent Greek media commentary over the funeral of the Old Calendarist Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop of Fthiotis Kallinikos, reveals an unnerving Dadaesque preoccupation with his corpse. During the funeral service, the late bishop was sat upon his hierarchical throne before being carried out of the church at the conclusion of the rite, to his burial. Almost immediately, a media furore erupted, with various pundits opining as to the barbarity and retrogression of such a ritual, equating it, in one orientalist instance, to the religious customs of the Shiites of Iran and ascribing the keeping of this strange (in the eyes of the punters) custom with all that is wrong with modern Greek society. One particularly poetic commentator posited that the presence of the late bishop’s corpse upon his throne, symbolized the Church of Greece, which, as he put it, was a living corpse, a thing, neither living or dead, robbed of its vitality, merely going through the motions while compelling all those around it, believers and the state, to prop up its illusory and irrelevant existence.

The shock displayed by the mainstream media is thought-provoking and mystifying, given that the bishop in question does not belong to the canonical Church of Greece, but rather a small, rigorist splinter group. Furthermore, the Greek Orthodox have conducted the funeral services of their hierarchs in this fashion, in a rite that persists unchanged for more than a millennium. In fact, the installation of the deceased hierarch upon his throne, is a practice that has and is still followed by the millions of adherents of the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Assyrian Church of the East and the various Eastern-Rite Churches of the Indian subcontinent, in an unbroken cultural continuum, unsundered by doctrinal differences, from the Balkans to Lake Victoria and to the Himalayas. One wonders why then, the Greek media did not express similar sentiments of outrage when exactly the same practices were followed at the recent funerals of Coptic Pope Shenouda, or Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius. Most probably, because in the minds of the indignant, the adherents of those churches, who are culturally indistinguishable from us, are oriental, and are thus prone to such ghastly forms of sentimentality. We, it is to be implied, are made of sterner, European stock, and such incomprehensible practices are obstacles to the achievement of our aspirations, which ill behoove us.

The outraged indeed have short memories, though their bewilderment can be partially excused that the Church of Greece, which enjoys a light tinkering with Orthodox ritual now and again, (notably replacing the words βασιλεύσι, from the hymn Σώσον Κύριε, because it offends anti-royalists, even though in this context the word refers to rulers and has nothing to do with the Greek political system) has discontinued the practice of enthroning their dead bishops during their funeral service over the past fifty years, though prior to that, in 1951 for example, the Metropolitan of Thessaloniki was buried in exactly the same way.

The reasons why the hierarchs, in the Eastern Tradition, are propped up upon their perch, are Dadaesque. One the one hand, they are, as hierarchs, presiding over a service and leading the faithful one last time. One the other hand, much as Skourtis’ corpse in the Νταντάδες, while the faithful perform their leave-taking, their hierarch is no longer there, and in a sense, is not real, his essence having departed (one hopes) for a rest sublime. The presence of his corpse is thus a reminder of the futility of clinging to the chthonic things of life, a powerful man, ensconced upon his throne in death, being a potent symbol of the fleeting and ultimately illusory nature of that power, in which we invest so much importance. Similarly, in the crypts of the St Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, one comes across the skeletons of abbots clad in their cassocks. The experience is a confronting one, but then again, so is death itself. One may not agree with the aesthetics of the practice, and in fact, some Orthodox clerics find it disturbing, (one of these commenting: "it displays an ungodly fearlessness in the face of the impending judgement and a frightening disregard for the humility required even to appear before the Judge who is both a God of love and a God of justice,") but it cannot be doubted that as a symbol of the absurdity of all man-made pretensions, the corpse of the hierarch is an exceedingly powerful one.

It is not clear what makes this tradition any more or less ludicrous or barbaric than the disposing of any given hierarch in a cardboard box. What is clear however, is that in pouring scorn upon the inoffensive rituals of a traditionalist Orthodox group and seeking to use these to denigrate the Church of Greece, which no longer continues the practice and which has over the past few years devoted itself to a tremendous grass roots endeavour to alleviate the plight of impoverished Greek people and refugees, the disingenuous, self-righteous commentators and harbingers of progress, have unwittingly assumed the role of the employer of Skourtis’ Dadades, abrogating to themselves the right to dictate to us the system we are to worship, all the while prescribing and proscribing the forms in which that worship will take. They do so, completely oblivious to the deep cultural and historical context from which the proscribed practice arose, and in complete ignorance of the manner in which Greece, a country culturally and geographically on the cusp of two great civilisations, having given of itself freely to both, has been able to synthesise and conflate past, present and future, in a fashion uniquely its own. Instead, in their onto pathologic self-loathing, they accuse others (a marginal group within the broader Greek societal sphere) of being irrelevant to the modern zeitgeist, all the while displaying a complete ignorance of the foundations of that zeitgeist, which are more polyvalent and multi-faceted then they would like to admit.

Rebranding a corpse makes it no less a corpse and says more about the cultural complexes of those who would not afford to the departed, the respect they would have appreciated, within they context that they would have understood, than about those who, reared in that tradition, instinctively follow it. Nor is the late bishop Kallinikos a metaphor for the putrescent and rapidly decomposing dreams of economic greatness and first-world acceptance of Greece as an equal. In seeking out and deriding such simplistic scapegoats, we are participating in our own theatre of the absurd, grieving over a papier-mâché parody of an aspiration that was never entirely real, long after its final exhalation has taken place. May its memory be eternal.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on 5 November 2016

Saturday, October 29, 2016

OXI

In 1960, Warren Cowgill theorized that the strange, un-Indo-European οὐχί, from which the modern όχι is derived, stems from an early form of proto-Greek: “ne hoyu kwid,” a double negative like the French “ne….pas..” meaning: “not in this lifetime.”

The Greek attitude to the negative is thus subtle and nuanced, given than it confers a temporal quality to the absolute; it is given a duration, whether this is the span of a person’s life or beyond. As such, the Greek OXI, by its very nature, proclaims that it is by no means immutable, and is subject to change and review, depending on seasonal availability and a host of other factors affecting supply.

This is the reason why, during the crucial points in Greek history in which a negative was offered, it never actually took the form of the word OXI. Take for example, the exhortation by the invading Persians to the Greeks to lay down their arms, just before the battle of Thermopylae. Rather than a straight negative, Spartan King Leonidas, offered instead, an aorist active participle in the perfective aspect: Μολών Λαβέ, meaning, Peter Russell Clarkean fashion, “Come and Get It.” The Persians duly did so, proving Leonidas right in a manner that could not have been possible, if his response had been a mere OXI.

A similar Μολών Λαβέ was offered to British colonial troops by EOKA second in command Grigoris Afxentiou, when, cornered in his hideout near Machairas Monastery in Cyprus, he was asked to surrender. The civilized British proceeded to set fire to his hideout and roast him to death, corroborating Afxentiou’s assumption that they would not take a mere ‘no” for an answer.

 

Byzantine OXI’s on the other hand, are incredibly long winded, being full of sentences that self-embellish, only to break themselves upon the shores of their own classical allusions as their contrived structure irrigates the placid fountains of their syntax. Thus, when enjoined by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II to surrender Constantinople to him, the last Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos, deigned not to answer monolectically. Instead, where a simple OXI would have sufficed, the Emperor responded: “Giving you though the city depends neither on me nor on anyone else among its inhabitants; as we have all decided to die with our own free will and we shall not consider our lives.” Some historians posit that the Empire gained an additional two days of existence as the Ottoman dragomans attempted to decipher just what it was that the Emperor meant.

Equally loquacious, but infinitely more poetic, was the form of OXI offered to the Turks by the hero of the Greek Revolutionary War Athanasios Diakos. By the time of his martyrdom, Diakos was already as seasoned naysayer, legend maintaining that he responded to the amorous proposals of a Turkish officer, visiting the monastery in which he was serving, not with a simple ‘no,’ but rather, by the physical act of killing him. Thus, when captured and encouraged to spare himself by embracing Islam, Diakos, instead of a dry “OXI,” was able to immediately offer up a negative of Palaeologian length, in perfect 15-syllable demotic form, without even flinching: “Go, get lost, you apostates and your religion. I was born and Greek, I shall die a Greek.” ("Πάτε κι εσείς κ΄ η πίστις σας μουρτάτες να χαθείτε. Εγώ Γραικός γεννήθηκα, Γραικός θέλ΄ αποθάνω....) Significantly, he chose not, in his final hour, to call himself, as is the fashion among Melbournian Greeks anxious to prove their patriotic credentials these days, a Hellene. Now if being Greek is good enough for someone who can compose poetry in perfect meter while being roasted to his death, (led to the instrument of his martyrdom, he remarked, again in meter, “Look at the time Death chose to take me, now that the branches are flowering, and the earth sends forth grass” -a powerful metaphor for the regenesis of an enslaved nation) it is certainly good enough for me.

Greek Dictator Ioannis Metaxas’ purported OXI, which the Greek people commemorate in Australia every 28 October, through the ritual mocking of the physical, sexual and mental prowess of Italian Australians, (going so far as to make gross generalisations about the Italian race altogether, which is counterintuitive, given that Greek-Australians generally consider all Italian-Australians to be lapsed Greeks, as encapsulated by the maxim: μία φάτσα, una razza), was, following established precedent, not monolectic. In a marked departure from hallowed tradition, it was not even Greek. Instead, when the Italian envoy presented a thoroughly disgruntled, pyjama-clad Metaxas with Mussolini’s demand that Greece surrender to him, various militarily strategic positions, Metaxas chose to respond in French, with a not so resounding: “Alors, c’est la guerre,” (So, its war).

Undoubtedly, it was the retouching of this simple statement into a brief but indomitable OXI (facilitated by the fact that the technology of the time did not permit the Italian envoy to a) video Metaxas’ reaction with his phone and b) upload it onto youtube), that galvanized an entire nation into a remarkable fight for freedom and inspired them to achieve the impossible: the repelling of the invader. In such a retouching, a powerful myth was born, one whose legacy endures to the present day.

Consequently, it was the power of this myth, the myth of the grand negative, that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sought to subvert to his own ends, when, last year, he called the Helladites to referendum. Flipping the legacy of Constantine Palaeologus on its head, it was not the answer, but the referendum question, which assumed an uncanny Byzantine form: “Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted?” Again, in a radical break with millennia of Greek history, the suggested responses to the question neither included: “Oh well, its war,” nor “Come and Get It,” nor an admonition to prepare the barbeque, the rumour that former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis offered to submit himself to fiscal waterboarding on behalf of the Greek people, while simultaneously offering economic witticisms in meter to an ecstatic, self-lubricating Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, if only the Troika would let Greece breathe, having only just recently been debunked. Instead, the Helladites (and their apodemic cousins, living moments of similar grandeur via facebook and puerile protests in the cities of their abode) were led to think by their leader that they must partake of a Metaxas moment and vote OXI.

Thus, sixty-one percent of the Helladites, conflating Greece’s desperate hours with those of 1940, voted for an OXI of their own. Soon after, Alexis Tsipras and his government, completely ignored that OXI, signaling their adherence to the memorandum they had asked their people to reject.

This marks a historic watershed in the history of Greek negatives. For it suggests that Greek negatives can be rendered non-existent through non-recognition. Consider the impact of Diakos’ sacrifice, if, upon having delivered his poem to his captors, excoriating them and their religion, the Turks had, instead of taken him at his word, responded, “well you’re a Muslim anyway.” Quite possibly, this is the reason why the prudent Greeks of yore avoided using the term OXI in the first place, anticipating the semantic reforms of Tsipras, as arguably, did the Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, when he stated: “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”

In imposing his semantic progression upon the diachronic linguistics of the Greek language, is Tsipras, in rendering OXI redundant merely adhering to a hidden clause within the Bailout Agreement that provides for the eradication of dissent and thought? Further, is Tsipras, in fact, the Troika’s Orwellian O’Brien, tasked with the elimination of all words from the Greek language that inhibit compliance with lending criteria, starting with the most potent, the most enduring, OXI?

“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller…”

When all is lost, salvation appears in the form of Sabaton, the Swedish Heavy Metal Band, who in their song “Coat of Arms,” seek to remind the Greek people, of the glories of negativity as well as the fact that while the enemies, of yesteryear charged from the hills, today they charge from behind the counter, in the form of bank fees: “At dawn envoy arrives, morning of October 28th/"No day" proven by deed/ Descendants of Sparta, Athens and Crete/Look north, ready to fight/Enemies charge from the hills/ To arms, facing defeat/There's no surrender, there's no retreat.”
Until next time then, OXI, and we bloody mean it.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on 29 October 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

ΒΕΥΟND THE POSEIDONIANS

Whereas in the Poseidonians, the Greek poet Cavafy portrays a group of Greeks on the verge of assimilation aping old customs without knowing exactly what they signify, (an immensely strong metaphor of the apodemic condition) in his poem, “Of the Jews” (50AD), Cavafy paints the picture of a beautiful male, in the Wildean sense, not so much caught between two cultures, as in the process of feeling guilt for adopting one, new, exciting and catering to his sense of aesthetic, while discarding that belonging to his ancestors. That process is not without guilt, as can be seen below:

 

“Ianthes, son of Antonius, was beautiful like Endymion;

a painter and a poet, a runner and a thrower of the disc;

of a family with a leaning for the Synagogue.

 

“My noblest days are those

on which I forego the pursuit of aesthetic impressions,

when I abandon the beautiful, yet hard, Greek life

with its dominant attachment

to perfectly shapen and corruptible white limbs.

And I become, what I would wish

always to remain, a son of the Jews, of the holy Jews.”

 

Very earnest, this assertion,

“always to remain a son of the Jews, of the holy Jews”.

 

But he did not remain as such at all.

The Hedonism and the Art of Alexandria

had in him a devoted son”

 

Here we have a Jew of Alexandria, a Greek colony in Egypt with a large and important Jewish community, in an advanced state of assimilation. His name is Hellenised, while his father’s is Roman, reflecting a state of affairs that could be paralleled to the Greek-Melbournian experience of a second generation Greek-Australian named, let’s say Dean, for the sake of argument, naming his third generation son, Brian, in order to facilitate his ingress and egress within the mainstream culture.

 

Ianthes’ pastimes also do not conform to the Jewish stereotype. Though he is of a religious family, his interests lie in the Hellenic pursuits of athletics, poetry and the arts, much as a third generation Greek Australian, albeit a scion of a family that is heavily involved in “Greek” pursuits such as attending festivals, dances, church or concerts, much prefers to spend his time watching football and going for a run, rather actively being involved in the collective pursuits of his own community.

 

Yet despite his apparent devotion to the “beautiful” Greek life, Ianthes finds it a burden. His noblest days are those in which he abandons the search for the aesthetic – suggesting that though he may absorbed by it, it is something foreign and unattainable. Instead, Greek life is deemed by him to be “hard”, just as a complete and utter submission to the Australian religion of sport is also hard, requiring, if one is to navigate its multiplicity of doctrines and disciplines, the ability to process and assimilate an innumerable array of statistics, the display of blind uncritical faith towards Australian athletes and one’s team and an adamantine commitment to a training regime that punishes the body and completely dominates any and all free time.

 

This Anglo-Australian pursuit of the body beautiful, was, for the average Greek-Australian migrant, mystifying and to a great extent, culturally incompatible with their own social practices (unless it could be used to make money). It did however provide the key for entry and ultimately acceptance into the mainstream, which is why, when the AFL seeks to laud itself about the catholicity of its communion, it points to the existence of Greek, and other players of a multicultural background within its ministry. Ianthus also perceives sport in the same way. The Greek aesthetic, as expressed through sport, is fixated upon ‘whiteness,’ albeit of corruptible limb. The inference here is that Ianthus is not ‘white’ and that despite his delight in delving into the depths of the hunt for the elusive aesthetic, he is fully cognisant of the fact that his very race disqualifies him from more than an impressionistic dalliance with the subject of his fascination.

 

Ianthus’ therapy for his ontopathology, being a Jew who however hard he tries, believes he can never become a Greek, is to resolve, neither to adapt his Jewishness in order to confirm to the Greek aesthetic, or indeed, to jettison it altogether. Instead, like many Greek-Australians of Melbourne, he determines to “become what he wishes to remain, a son of the Jews.” Does this mean that his guilt and sense that he is truly not being accepted by those who he aspires to become are causing him to abandon his philhellenism and ersatz aestheticism for the stark asceticism of his own people, who are fixated upon the incorruptible?

 

There is much irony in that sentence. For why should Ianthus become something that he already is? If he is a Jew, why does he need to become a Jew? Further, it is significant that he does not call himself a Jew, but rather the son of the Jews, casting the authenticity of his own sense of belonging to his ancestral people into doubt. Quite possibly, Cavafy here has Ianthus qualify his being the son of the Jews, with the words “of the holy Jews,” in order to underline how an identity can become a hallowed doctrine of belief. Here, Ianthus finds his counterpart in the practices of many Greek-Australians, myself included, constantly seeking to find ways, through history, dance, folklore, sport, literature and music to augment their understanding of their parent’s identity, in order to make it their own, for it is sacred. Legion are those among us who seek to transform their understanding and search for Hellenism into an all-encompassing worldview. We too then, here in the Antipodes, in a city colonized, though not founded, as in the case of Alexandria, by Greeks, are the sons of Greeks, the sons of the holy Greeks.

 

Yet, if we are to take Cavafy at face value, Ianthus’ ontopathological battle appears to have been a momentary blip on the radar of his conscience. Despite his stated desire to return to his own people, the soft ways of hedonism and Alexandrian art (which hitherto appeared ‘hard’ to one schooled in the single-minded monotheistic devotion of those who once left Egypt and embraced the desert) appear to have caused Ianthus to embrace assimilation and abandon his ancestral ways.

 

As an exploration of how one is invariably led astray from one’s dedication to a cause of a belief by the allurements of pleasure, Cavafy’s poem still resonates today, as Helladic Greeks and diasporan Greeks point to the often depraved allurements of Western culture and their people’s uncritical adoption of these as a key reason for a perceived ‘loss of authenticity’ or erosion of their ethno-cultural identity. Yet the city in which Hellenism triumphed over Ianthus the insecure Jew is no longer Greek speaking. Neither did the Hellenise Jews triumph over those Jews who remained attached to their ancestor’s ways.

 

This, I believe, is the significance of Cavafy’s dating of his poem at 50AD. For by that time, the Hasmonean revolt that had seen the Hellenistic kings driven from Palestine, as a reaction to their intolerance of Jewish ways, was already a century old.  That revolt caused a reassertion of the Jewish religion, partly by forced conversion  and reduced the influence of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism. Some sixteen years after the date of the poem, another Jewish revolt would break out, one which would be brutally crushed by the Romans and would result in the expulsion of the Jews from their ancestral homeland, converting their culture to a diaspora culture. Arguably, the fall of our own great bastion of Greek civilisation, Constantinople, a millennium and a half later, placed the erstwhile triumphant Hellenes in a similar position.

 

Cavafy did not live to witness the establishment of the state of Israel. However, he would have been aware of the remarkable survival of Jewish culture throughout the European and Near Eastern world, including in his own city, Alexandria, where a Greek colony of migrants was also re-established and had reached its apogee during his time. He also did not live to witness the expulsion of both communities at roughly the same time.  Perhaps then the irony of Ianthus’ final lapse, is to treat anything as final, And just perhaps, Cavafy is making a more than strong  hint that in cultures co-existing and being permeated by others, guilt and pleasure are insurmountable dualities that must be embraced, not fought against, so that the guiltiest of pleasures lies not in exclusion, or puritanism but rather in tasting the comingling of the heady juices of the entire process of Apodemia, while stirring languidly, the multicultural melting pot.

 
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 October 2016