Tuesday, March 25, 2014
The origin of this week’s diatribe, is the exasperation of a friend at the particularly crackpot, even by FYROMian standards allegation of a historian, that Greek archaeologists had deliberately planted Greek artefacts in the bordering Former Yugoslav Republic, in order to lay claim to the region. “This is ridiculous,” the aforementioned friend cried. “it is as if the Greeks took a time machine, loaded it with artefacts and went back in time and planted the stuff.” My response was simple. Such a time machine does exist. And Greek history has indeed been altered by time travelers.
In the eighth episode of the fourth season of the Doctor Who spin-off series “Torchwood,” Greece declares bankruptcy. Given that this episode was screened in 2011, it is obvious some type of temporal interference took place in order to ensure Greece’s solvency and it is to the Gallifreyan time-lord who operated under the name and style of “The Doctor,” that owe such intervention. We know, from the 2006, episode “Fear Her,” where the Doctor claimed to have visited the very first Olympic Games and watched naked men throwing a discus before a giant crowd, that Greece has been a constant place of return for him, and not only as a spectator.
Intervention in the affairs of Greece seems to be customary for the Doctor, for throughout the half century of its history, the television series Doctor Who has seen the Doctor return to Ancient Greece again and again, his activities altering the course of history – only, according to Gallifreyan ethics, when and where the events the Doctor wishes to influence, are not fixed points in space or time.
The Trojan War for example, was definitely not such an event, for when the first incarnation of the Doctor landed upon the plains of the bronze age city of Troy, in the 1965 episode entitled “the Myth Makers,” he was mistaken by Achilles for Zeus. It is the Doctor who suggests to Odysseus that Troy be taken by means of the Trojan Horse and it is thus to him that we owe the Iliad and the Odyssey, for an estimation of the course of Greek civilization without Homer’s epics ideologically underpinning it would be inconceivable. The Doctor also reveals to us that the Elysian Fields, as the place of abode for the righteous departed exists, when his Trojan companion, removed from Troy and compelled to follow him around the universe, dies and is placed there.
In the episodes The Keys of Marinus (1964) and Robot (1974) he claims to have met the first cousins Alexander the Great and King Pyrrhus of Epirus, implying that their conquests were as a result of his intervention. It is at this precise moment that some Fyromian historians allege that a plant of Greek archaeological artefacts took place.According to the novel The Slitheen Excursion, the tenth incarnation of the Doctor and his companion June visited Greece in 1500 BC, where they stopped the flatulent Slitheen, whome the ancient Greeks believed to be gods, from exploiting the local humans and destroying the Parthenon, eaving that job for the Venetians and Lord Elgin.
As if it were not enough for the good Doctor to be responsible for the fall of Troy, three Doctor Who episodes appear to suggest that he is also responsible for the ultimate destruction of the fabled city of Atlantis, as a result of an epic battled between his Nemesis, the Master, in which Kronos, the Titan is unleashed, in “The Time Monster.” Returning to the scientific conception of time as “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” stuff, in the 1967 episode: “The Underwater Menace,” the Doctor is responsible for destroying Atlantis a second time, when thwarting its survivors’ efforts to raise the city from the sea.
Interestingly enough, the Doctor, during his peregrinations around the universe has also had much to do with Greek mythological monsters. In the aforementioned “The Time Monster,” the Doctor meets the Minotaur and oversees its destruction. Yet the next year, in “The Mind Robber,” the Doctor meets Rapunzel, she of the long flowing locks and in the process of navigating a labyrinth in her tower, encounters both the Minotaur and Medusa, whom he dispatches by declaring they do not exist. Nonetheless, the Minotaur returns in the 1979 episode “The Horns of Nimon,” in a retelling of the myth, set on the planet Skonnos. The Minotaur will return a fourth time, in the 2011 episode, the God Complex, as a creature inhabiting a labyrinthine hotel and feeding of the fears of trapped patrons. Medusa, on the other hand, will only return in the spin off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, where, in “The Eye of the Gorgon,” an alien Medusa with the power to turn people to stone is discovered disguised as a nun.
Further Greek myths are transposed to various parts of the universe, suggesting an alternative place of origin for the ancient Greek myths. The 1978 episode Underworld, is a version of Jason and the Argonauts, featuring the characters Jackson and Herrick, Orfe and Tala, thinly disguised versions of Jason, Heracles, Orpheus and Talaus. The connection is highlighted at the end of the episode, with the Doctor likening Jackson and his journey to Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece.
The connection with Greek mythology is further cemented in the episode “Greeks Bearing Gifts,” of the spin-off series Torchwood, where the lesbian alien ‘Mary’ likens herself to the Greek hero, Philoctetes, on Lemnos for ten years. In the “Curse of the Black Spot,” the Doctor battles with the mythological Sirens, where else, on a pirate ship.
The Doctor’s intervention in Greece also involves some luminaries that would otherwise have been lost in the mists of obscurity. In the 1982 episode “Four to Doomsday,” Bigon, originally a Greek philosopher. is abducted by Monarch on his fourth visit to Earth and converted into androids. Retaining his Greek attributes, though Bigon was promised he would rule over Europe once the planet had been conquered, he rejects this offer, believing democracy to be the best form of government. Nonetheless, Monarch retained him to provide an element of doubt in his perfect society, believing that Bigon was an intellectual galvaniser. Said Bigon helped the fifth reincarnation of the Doctor to defeat Monarch and oust the androids from Earth.
Unanswered questions remain as to where Doctor Who was during the Asia Minor catastrophe and indeed in 1453 when Constantinople fell. While the revelation of the Doctor’s involvement in the Battle of Navarino, a glimpse of his Tardis around Souli, as he emerges, clad in foustanella, or the resistance’s blowing up of the bridge at Gorgopotamos would by now leave us all unsurprised, the future unmasking by the Doctor of Eleni Menegaki as an Auton bent on World Domination or of the hideously imitative Stavento as the brain-washing vanguard of the Dalek invasion are all events that we would most likely have to brace ourselves for. And in the days to come, when the Doctor has exposed the current inhabitants of the Parliament of Greece, as flatulent Slitheen and exiled them to their home planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius, we will all breathe a sigh of relief and gird our loins, for the next galactic onslaught.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 March 2014
Saturday, March 15, 2014
GREEK ANARCHISTS IN THE UKRAINE
I have always been attracted to the theory that government, in all of its manifestations, is a form of social oppression. It is for this reason that I find the Makhnovshchina, that is, the largest, best organized and almost successful Ukrainian anarchist movement led by Nestor Makhno during the Russian revolution to be enthralling. During the breakup of the Russian Empire, while Reds fought Whites and numerous other warlords, a new movement emerged, that of the “Greens” or anarchists, in the southern Ukraine. Unlike the Bolsheviks who believed in strong central control, Nestor Makhno sought to abolish capitalism and the state by organizing themselves into village assemblies, communes and free councils. The land and factories were expropriated and put under nominal peasant and worker control by means of self-governing committees, while town mayors and many officials were drawn directly from the ranks of Makhno's military and political leadership. Ultimately, Makhno’s experiment would founder under the pressures of fighting the remnants of the Tsarist army, and then that of the Bolsheviks who, while previously allies, were determined to be the sole repository of power in the lands of the former Russian Empire.
Nestor Makhno’s government and the five principles underpinning it, are well known, these being: rejection of all political parties, rejection of all forms of dictatorships (including the dictatorship of the proletariat, viewed by Makhnovists and many anarchists of the day as a term synonymous with the dictatorship of the Bolshevik communist party), negation of any concept of a central state, rejection of a so-called "transitional period" necessitating a temporary dictatorship of the proletariat, and self-management of all workers through free local workers' councils. What is not as widely known, is that Makhno’s anarchist movement captured the imagination of the large Greek community of the Ukraine and that in fact, as early as the 1920’s it was claimed within the USSR that the Ukrainian anarchist movement was actually a Greek one.
Such a claim may not be as far fetched as first appears. Greeks had been living along the north coast of the Black Sea from at least the 5th Century BC. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were around 180,000 of these Greeks, mostly speaking a Pontic dialiect, in the region. The Greek community’s involvement in armed conflict in the region is said to stem from the withdrawal of the Austrian and German armies from the Ukraine in 1918. At that time, the anti-communist White forces of General Denikin attempted to enforce conscription upon the politically neutral local Greek population of the Marioupolis area and met with armed resistance from them. These Greeks also resisted Denikin’s attempts to requisition food and were appalled by the rape of local Greek women and the brutality of the White forces. Consequently, they felt compelled to organize self defence units in the spring of 1919. It was natural that these locally organized groups should be attracted to Nestor Makhno’s ideas of self-run, autonomous communities.
Much of what we know of the Greek invoIment in the Ukrainian anarchist movement comes from Isaac Teper, a Makhnovist militant and editor of the Voice of the Makhnovists publication in Kharkhov. Captured by the Bolsheviks and recruited to the Cheka or secret police, he thereafter spying on the Makhnovists. In 1924 at Kharkhov he wrote a booklet on the Makhnovist movement, in which he claimed that the Makhnovist movement originated among the Black Sea Greeks. In support of this claim, he provided evidence suggesting that twenty per cent of the Makhnovist forces were Greek. He further commented that the Greek anarchist units were noted for their strong self-discipline, organisation and durability. One Greek anarchist commander mentioned, a certain Papadopoulos was celebrated in a Makhnovist song and was renowned among the Pontic Greeks for decades. Other prominent Greek anarchists include the Mavroudis brothers from the Greek village of Kermenchik, who are mentioned by an ex-Makhnovist known as Belash in his testimony to the Cheka. According to Belash, after the collapse of the Makhnovist movement, one brother joined the Communist Party and worked in the Volnovaskyi area. His younger brother remained an anarchist and was disgusted by Lenin’s New Economic Policy which he felt made the rich peasants richer and the poor peasants poorer. Prior to disappearing, he was also involved in the Makhnovist, anarchist cultural-educational section, popularizing the setting up of anarchist communes.
Further reinforcing Teper’s claims, Bolshevik and anarchist renegade Dybets, also stated that the Greek anarchist units were the most stable and reliable units of the Makhnovists and that Nestor Makhno had great respect for their courage and fighting ability, placing them in combat on the most dangerous fronts. Lev Yarkutsky, in his 1993 book on Marioupolis corroborates this, claiming that the Greeks in this region were the first to respond to the appeals of Makhno and that he could not find proof of their participation in the outrages and lootings characteristic of the Makhnovist poor peasants.
A key factor in the Greeks rallying to the anarchist movement was Nestor Makhno’s proclamations on the rights of different national minorities to their own language, costume, dress and culture whilst strongly denouncing nationalism and explicitly taking an internationalist position. This was in stark contrast to the repressive policies of the White Army and the Bolsheviks. In his memoirs, Makhno himself recalls that he planned a raid in the south-eastern region of Berntiansk-Marioupolus-Iouzovka in order to incite revolt. After a battle fought at Bolshoi Mikhailovka when the insurgents decided to make Makhno their leader, the Greek village of Komar was invaded and a unit of the Ukrainian National Guard driven out. Following this Makhno addressed the local population with revolutionary speeches. Many local Greeks immediately joined the Makhnovist forces with their own horses. Makhno then proceeded to Bogatyr, the village occupied by Urum Greeks who spoke a dialect of Turkish, and on to the villages of Veliky Yanisol and Maly Yanisol which were also Greek. According to Nestor Makhno’s own testimony, the Marioupolis Greeks were thus the first to respond to his call to arms.
Unsurprisingly, the capture of Marioupolis from French and Denikinist forces on 29 March 1919 was largely due in to the activities of the Greek ninth division led by Tachtamisev. A Greek Makhnovist regiment also fought alongside a Jewish one in a battle against the Whites in June 1919 and owing to the local Greeks’ commitment to the anarchist cause, the Marioupolis area was soon considered a safe haven for the Makhnovists. It was to the Greek village of Veliky Yanisol that the Makhnovist commander Lashkevich fled when he managed to escape from the Bolshevik encirclement of Gulyai Polye with the Makhnovist treasury of thousands of roubles. Here he was sheltered by a Greek grandfather. When he embezzled these funds, the local Greeks shot him in the main square of their village.
Predictably, the Greek anarchists suffered greatly at the hands of the Whites and the Bolsheviks for their attachment to the anarchist cause. A complicating factor was the arrival of Greek forces from Greece, sent by Venizelos to assist the Whites against the Bolsheviks. This allowed the Whites to portray the anarchists as not only traitors to Russia, but also to their Greek compatriots. In the aftermath of the White defeat, the Greeks also faced Bolshevik repression. In March 1920, a Bolshevik punitive detachment arrived in the area shooting 7 people in Komar, 10 in Bogatyr and 12 in Konstantinovka. Further reprisals followed over the next few years. Stalin in particular saw the entire Greek population of the Ukraine as politically suspect because of its attachment to the anarchist movement. The Greek community was accused of creating an insurgent counterrevolutionary organization that aimed at uniting part of the territory of the USSR to Greece. The number of arrests as so great that Yarutsky has compared the scale of the repression in he Greek villages with genocide.
It is fascinating to speculate how different the future of the world would have been and indeed how social economic theory would have developed, had Makhno prevailed against the enemies of the anarchist movement. Makhnovism, which builds upon and elaborates the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, and serves as the philosophical basis for anarchist communism, theoretically without the need for repression (though Makhno’s movement, given its emergence within the Russian Civil War was anything but peaceful) was embraced by the Greeks of the Ukraine as a movement that would permit all peoples to retain their own particular identity and emancipate them, allowing them to be responsible for taking the decisions key to their welfare and future. While a comparison of Greek Makhnovist activism with Greek participation in the current conflict in the Ukraine may be of interest, it is high time that the sacrifices of these idealistic and progressive Greeks of the diaspora are appreciated in their own right.
First punlished in NKEE on Saturday 15 March 2014
Saturday, March 08, 2014
THE AUTONOMY OF NORTHERN EPIRUS
The 28th of February 1914, was 100 years ago. It is a date that falls within the last gasp of the ‘Belle Epoque’, which is as historically remote to us today, as was the Battle of Waterloo to the people of the time. More significantly, it was a time of hope for Balkan nationalities, where borders were fluid and irredentist aspirations were rife. Identities were being formed and destroyed and the technological advancements of the age infused all with a sense of excitement for the ‘modern era’ and the ‘new improved’human, who having harnessed nature, would tread upon a path leading to a golden age of rationality and modernity.
The 28thof February 1914 also marks the declaration of the autonomous state of Northern Epirus. This declaration came about because the Works Powers, not being able to work out exactly how to divide up the region between themselves, decided to award it to Albania, without regard for the wishes of its population, and with no safeguards as to its laws and customs. As Giorgos Christakis-Zografos, the president of Autonomous Northern Epirus stated: “Under these conditions and in the absence of a solution that would suffice to safeguard Epirus, a solution it would have been otherwise easy to discover, the Epirote populace is forced to declare to the Powers that it cannot submit to their decision. It will declare its independence and will struggle for its existence, its traditions and its right.” This plucky declaration was met with analogous enthusiasm by the Greek-speaking world. It was seen by the Greeks of Greece as yet another step towards the realization of the Megali Idea – ensuring that all lands once ruled by Greeks are incorporated into one entity. For the Northern Epirotes, as well as sharing this ideal, it guaranteed the prospects of the area crawling out of the Ottoman yoke and into the twenty first century. The ambitious social welfare program of the newly formed state, including free schooling and health care also looked forward to the era of the‘new’ human. The new state was to have freedom of expression in all languages, a gendarmerie and Greek speaking legal system as well as a progressive system of local governance.
Unfortunately for the aspirants for local independence, the advent of the First World War and the subsequent occupation of parts of Northern Epirus by French and Italian troops ensued the ephemeral quality of the autonomous state. The treaty of Florence in 1918 returned the region to Albania and thereafter, the Albanian authorities began a targeted program against Greek cultural and religious expression in the region, culminating in the landmark 1935 World Court case, where Albania was ordered to re-open the Greek language schools it had closed down.
During the communist era, Greeks were seen as suspect owing to their cultural affiliations and thousands were incarcerated in brutal work camps. Greeks also played an inadvertent role in prising Albania away from a dependence on the USSR, this taking place when Khrushchev suggested to Albanian leader Enver Hoxha that he should re-establish the Greek autonomous region in Northern Epirus.
Today, if one surveys the mouldering concrete bunkers strewn throughout Northern Epirus as well as the crumbling, faceless Eastern Bloc architecture of the government buildings and the rusted tank and tractor parts abandoned on the side of the road, it can be seen that the pipe-dream of 100 years ago has been shattered on the rock of totalitarianism, nationalism and despondency.
Few groups now advocate autonomy for this shattered region. For one, the ethnic composition has changed. Most Northern Epirots have abandoned their homes and fled south in droves, while others, because they found it expedient to do so career-wise or because they were forcibly dislocated during the Communist era to the north, have become assimilated. It is no longer correct to speak just of Northern Epirots in Northern Epirus, when they are diffused over the length and breadth of Albania. In 1914, the Northern Epirot city of Korytsa played a leading role in the struggle for autonomy. Today, the majority of its inhabitants, while Orthodox Christians, have Vlach or Albanian as their mother tongue. Of the Vlachs, a disquieting minority identifies with Romania. Even so, Korytsa is the only Albanian city that freely flies a Greek flag in its city centre. This is due to the stalwart efforts of the non-Greek speaking but patriotic Vlachs.
Traditional ways of life have also changed. The paranoid, totalitarian collectivized regime of Enver Hoxha which did not allow people to move from their villages or even speak to others without being spied on squeezed out initiative, the love of beauty and the progressiveness which Greeks of 1914 found so appealing in Northern Epirots. Now the prevailing mood is one of immense fatigue and residuary paranoia. Everyone is tired, including the Albanians of the region who are sick of being told they should be wary of a threat from the South, the illusion of which has kept them afraid for one hundred years and has never materialized. Northern Epirots are also tired, of being afraid, of being persecuted but also of being ignored by their compatriots for so many decades as they suffered in silence.
Life is unbearably hard in Northern Epirus. Provision of basic services is intermittent and in winter, sometimes impossible. Those who remain behind eke out a living slowly and painfully, as if they were drops of water, eating away at the living rock. Meantime, the Albanian government is bent upon a course of denial when it comes to the Greek community of Cheimarra, a region comprised of seven villages sprawled upon one of the most captivating and investment-inviting coastlines of the world. The Albanian government refuses to accept that the inhabitants of that region are Greek, just as they refuse to return land illegally confiscated, to its lawful Greek inhabitants.
In Athens, in Melbourne and wherever there are Northern Epirots in the world, the century since the declaration of the autonomy Northern Epirus has been commemorated. Impassioned speeches have made, exalting the brave fighters who selflessly lost their lives and curses hurled at those who allowed this region to suffer so much, or as the ultranationalists say, ‘slip through our fingers.’These cliché speeches, orated by people who have absolutely no idea about the current situation and view history as a set of lines and maps on a page rather than the collective and needless sufferings of a wretched people, usually end with the vow that one day, autonomy will return. Conversely, those Greeks who inexplicably sympathise with the collapsed regime, deprecate those who remember Northern Epirus, identifying in the place of historic commemoration, intolerance and jingoism.
All this is may be fine and dandy, the event and the region being far removed from our daily lives. Yet one hundred years on, the grandiose promise of autonomy, the hypocritical assurance of Greek politicians who have divided the political leadership of the Nrothern Epirots and enmeshed them in internecine conflict, that they have their best interests at heart, and the deprecation of the last of the hardcore ideologues, who cannot accept that the regime that was to being about paradise actually proved inimical to the existence of the Greek people in Northern Epirus, is of little consequence to the Cheimarriot whose child is not allowed to consider itself Greek. Nor will it make a difference to the migrant from Dervitsiani, who returns home and builds himself a modern concrete monstrosity in the middle of his beautiful traditional village.
The romanticisation of nationalism and a lack of respect for human dignity led to the Kosovo debacle just over the border. It is well that all Greeks remember the historical day of the autonomy as an important event in our history, signifying what might have been. Let them also know however that to the Northern Epirot, whose very existence was denied by many Greek-Australians ten years ago, and whose suffering is still denied by just as many, cares not a fig for politics or autonomy. All he wants, is to live and die as he has always done, in silence but without suffering.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 8 March 2014
Saturday, March 01, 2014
As far as it is possible for me to know, my earliest memories of being among Greek people are inextricably interwoven with the alcoholic beverage known as Victoria Bitter, herein after referred to as VB. As such, I am able to conjure up vague, sepia tinted images of sitting on milk crates in sundry persons' garages, listening to LP's reproducing the latest sounds from the motherland, while aged grandfathers, grand uncles and other male relatives spoke longingly of the village, their right hands lovingly embracing the neck of a 750ml, brown "long neck" VB bottle. If the said occasion for the gathering was a nameday, the heavy smell of the VB would be intermingled with the acrid fumes of Marlboro cigarettes, chemically conjoined with the fat laden aromas emanating from a well tempered barbeque upon which chops were sizzling, my folk having been here since the fifties and as such, possessed of the belief that a souvla was a frivolous extravagance.
Long necks were ubiquitous in those days. One could locate them at the epicenter of the table at Greek dances, flanked by the impossibly incandescent pink tarama-substitute and the olives. By the end of the dance, a multitude of said bottles would be lined up around the perimeter of the table, with some vest clad, open shirted, pencil mustachioed revelers clumsily gazing into their necks, in pursuit of remnants. Their wives would turn away from them in exasperation, fiddling the long stem of a brandy glass or a tumbler with lemonade. VB was off limits to Greeks of the fairer sex, and the logic behind this does not lie in sexism, but rather in there being need for a designated person to pull the men off each other, when, in their VB induced fervor, their discussion of community or overseas politics, would lead to exhibitions of amateur pugilism.
My first taste of VB was at such an event at the tender age of five. One of my uncles felt it would be amusing to offer me a glass of the amber coloured beverage. The heady smell, which to me was possessed of the disconcerting familiarity of stale urine assailed my nostrils, almost causing me to wretch. Summoning all my resolve, I took a deep long sip and before I knew it, I had consumed the entire contents of the glass. Soon after, a warm, floating feeling made itself manifest and the room to gyrate around me gently like a merry go round. There is not much else I remember except waking up in my bedroom to the sounds of my parents cursing my uncle, who soon after, appeared in my room, bearing a five dollar note and seeking indulgence. This, I found most pleasing and possibly lucrative, until the proceeds of the crime were confiscated by my progenitors and returned to the offender.
VB, I learned in my university days, was the drink of choice of the tradesman. In one of my summer jobs, servicing industrial scales, I was paired with a Greek-Australian gent whose family had been here since the thirties and whose knowledge of Greek was minimal. Before the days of the GPS, he knew the location of every single pub in Melbourne and his exact distance therefrom. At lunch, he would procure two 350ml VB bottles, lovingly secreted in an esky in his ute and compel me to accompany him in their consumption. "Get that into ya, old diamond," he would cajole. "Go, on, all the way down." His nostrils, the largest I have ever seen on a human nose, would flare continuously as he would down the beer in audible gulps. Then, wiping his lips on his sleeve which was covered in grease, he would invariably sigh and muse: "Yeah, beer's the only drink for the workin' man. Whisky makes ya silly and plonk'll rot ya boots." Then he would launch into a detailed and critical history of the development of drinking establishments in Melbourne, lamenting the loss of not a few waterholes, as faithless Melbournians sacrificed their passion on the altar of development and pseudo-sophistication. When I took my leave of him that summer, he made me promise that I would not drink any other alcoholic beverage until the end of my days. "If ya can't get VB, any other beer'll do," he proclaimed solemnly, grasping my hand. "But not light beer. Light beer's for poofs."
Such is the enduring allure of VB, that the memory of its taste lingers long in the memories of expatriot Greek Australians, subsisting on European beers in the homeland. I remember one overseas visitor, on a return visit to Australia after many years, staying at my parents' house, who, having the propensity to consume vast quantities of alcohol, made a voluble request for the provision of beer. My father, wishing to impress him, had already stocked the fridge with a surprisingly diverse array of European and Japanese beers. "What would you like?" he asked. "We have all the Greek beers here. Mythos, Fix... Heineken". The visitor's lips tightened as his eyes opened wide with horror. «Τι να τις κάνω αυτές τις μ...... μπύρες;» he finally exploded. «Φέρε μου μιαVB γ.....ω την [insert blasphemy here.]" Chastened and reluctant to deplete his own secret stash, my father hurried to do his bidding. I was then treated to a lecture by our connoisseur guest as to the relative merits of VB over all other beers in the world. When I timidly ventured to suggest that German beers were vastly superior since they were made without. preservatives and were discarded after seven days, I was ordered from table.
The long neck is seldom found at Greek functions these days. We are a wine and coffee culture now, and the mega beer-swillers of yore, simply are not with us any more. Yet just the other week, at a function for the liberation of Ioannina at one of the Epirot clubs in Melbourne, peopled largely by people whose youthful days belonged to yesteryear, I was privileged to witness the revival of an old and hallowed custom - the ritual handing out of VB's, albeit in the 350ml size. In keeping with aged observance, beers were handed out to each male on our table and the only woman on our table, who just happened to the Greek Consul-General in Melbourne, Ms Christina Simantiraki, was pointedly left out. As the males on the table lavishly dished up praise as to her state of preservation, I noticed that the diplomat's gaze was fixed upon the bottles of VB. As the tension grew across the table, imperceptible to anyone else, I reached over, twisted the top and watched her beam with excitement, as just a hint of froth emerged. "Is that VB?" she asked. "Yes it is," I confirmed. "It is our national drink and it is imperative that you try it." With the subtlety of a connoisseur and the panache of a veteran, she took forth the bottle and raised it to her lips. Sadly, she was absent at the annual liberation dinner dance, where long neck VB's took pride of place on each table. Yet in crossing the great cultural divide and indulging in the ritual of consuming the saccharification of starch, she is now at one with us. Happy was the Babylonian who wrote in the Epic of Gilgamesh on the consumption of beer: "Fill your belly. Day and night make merry." It is our fervent wish that in the aeons to come, archaeologists will find a similar elegy to VB, penned by one of our own community poets. For VB is the epitome of us. It is hard and it is well-earned.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 March 2014
Saturday, February 22, 2014
GREEKS ON THE MARGIN OF HISTORY
The personage of Chris Moustakis has fascinated me for years. Possessed of a master’s degree in history from Harvard, he was one of Leon Trotsky’s secretaries in Mexico, just months before the old revolutionary’s assassination by a Stalinist agent. Moustakis is enthralling because he is so elusive. Appearing as brief footnote in the life of a great man, what insights could he have shed upon Trotsky’s character? What inside knowledge could have he gleaned about diverse topics pertaining to the Russian Revolution and the inner workings of the Bolsheviks? Sadly, there are a dearth of sources and we shall never know.
Chris Moustakis slight and mysterious presence on the margins of history is one but many. Scratch the surface of many a historical event, and chances are that you will find a Greek, however insignificant, having played a role therein. Take for example the British retreat from Kabul in 1842, marking the first of many failed attempts to conquer Afghanistan in the modern period. The British Army began its retreat from Kabul following the killing of the two British representatives there. The nearest British garrison was in Jalalabad, 140 km away, and the army would need to go through mountain passes with the January snow hindering them. 4,500 military personnel and 12,000 civilian camp followers set out for Jalalabad, on the understanding that they had been offered safe passage. However, Afghan tribesmen intercepted them and proceeded to massacre them during the next seven days. The British garrison in Jalalabad came across a Dr Brydon. Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword and he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood's Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor's life. While Dr Brydon became widely famous for being the only survivor of the entire army, according to his own testimony, he was not alone. Apparently, a Greek merchant, a Mr Baness, also made it to Jalalabad, arriving two days after Brydon but surviving for only one day. Who this Mr Baness was and what he was doing in tribal Afghanistan is a complete mystery, yet it is absorbing to contemplate Greek merchants of the nineteenth century traversing such remote and dangerous areas of the world, all the while become witnesses to events that would eventually become enshrined in myth and legend. Baness, like Moustakis, is a tantalising signpost to a road that has now become lost in obscurity.
Other Greek merchants display a penchant for being in the right place at the right time. Take for example the massacre of General Hicks’ army in the Sudan by the followers of the Mahdi, one of the first modern Islamic fundamentalist movements that challenged the myth of the invincibility of the British Empire in Africa. Hicks’ force left the Nile at Duem and struck inland across the almost waterless wastes of Kordofan for Obeid, with a mission to smash the forces of the Mahdi. A month later, the army, misled by treacherous guides and thirst-stricken, was ambushed in dense forest at Kashgil, 30 miles south of Obeid. With the exception of some three hundred men the whole force was killed and the Mahdi was able to seize western weaponry. It was this massacre that caused the British command to send General Gordon to hold Khartoum, culminating in the famous siege, and of course, the construction of the famous homonymous movie, starring Charlton Heston. We know details of the massacre, because a Greek merchant, a M. Constantino, who happened to be travelling with the British Army, survived the massacre and gave a blow by blow account of it to the Times, in 1884, detailing how each protagonist was killed, as well as what weapons were seized by the forces of the Mahdi.
Fascinatingly enough, another account of the Hicks’ massacre as well as the arrival of General Gordon’s relieving force in Khartoum survives, this time, provided to the Cairo correspondent of the “Standard” in November 1884 by another Greek merchant, who was captured by the forces by the Mahdi and compelled to embrace Islam. Costis Mouskos, who renamed himself Abdullah, was captured by the Mahdist forces before the Mahdi took Khartoum and was privy to the Mahdi’s machinations in attempting to trap General Hicks’ army, stating that he had sent his solders out to track Hicks’ army, under the pretext of being friendly. Mouskos was a servant to the Mahdi and was thus able to pass on information about his character and personality. Further, he was permitted to go to Khartoum when that city was occupied by General Gordon and was able to get to know General Gordon and his subordinate Colonel Stewart. As a spy for the Mahdi, he was spared death in the ensuing massacre of the British garrison, making his way to Cairo, where he passed on valuable information about the Mahdist forces to the leaders of the British administration in Egypt, Lord Wolseley and Sir Evelyn Baring. All this, Abdullah-Costis Mouskos accomplished at the tender age of just twenty-three. In his account, he also mentions other Greek merchants resident at the time in Khartoum, dealing largely with ostrich feathers, ivory and gum.
To consider that one of the most profound historical events that shook and moved the British Empire to its core, causing it to question the Gladstonian policy of limited empire and instead discarding it for a Disraelian conception of an expanding empire, is known to us largely through the testimonies of a few obscure Greek merchants, plying their trade within the maelstrom of religious and colonial warfare, is to marvel both at the resilience and the determination of these unknown compatriots. Subsisting on the fringes of events far beyond their capacity to control, they either attempted to exploit the opportunities that arose through conflict to their advantage and lived to tell the tale.
Fast forward to the Russian Civil War and the amazingly complex anarchist movement in the Ukraine, known as the Makhnovist movement, led by the anarchist Nestor Makhno. We learn that a certain Pontic Greek, surnamed Papadopoulos was considered to be so effective at fighting both the Tsarist and Bolshevik forces, that he was celebrated in a Makhnovist song and was renowned among the Pontic Greeks for decades. His fate, like that of other Greek Makhnovists such as the Mavroudis brothers has been lost, suppressed in the aftermath of the defeat of the anarchist movement by the Bolsheviks and they exist only as markers in the memoirs of the exiled Nestor Makhno. Somewhere, somehow, it is quite possible that local lore, in the form of memory or song survives and the participation of the anarchist Pontians in the Makhnovist movement offers tantalising opportunities in examining another set of relatively unknown Greeks, influencing the course of history from the margins.
Whether on the proscenium, or backstage, Greeks have the tendency of making themselves apparent in the most unlikely of places. From becoming prime ministers of Siam, to ruling Romania and beyond, it is for us to pay heed to the footnotes of history and do all we can to ensure that our fascinating compatriots who lurk within them, emerge in their fullness.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 February 2014
Saturday, February 15, 2014
THE MOBILE EPIRUS MUSEUM
In Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel, "Museum of Innocence," his hero is so besotted with his beloved that he collects various trivial ephemera arising from the times that he has spent with her and houses them in an otherwise disused apartment. In this, he anticipates the Epirotes of Melbourne who are also so besotted with their culture, history, and the rural life they left behind, that they have, over the years assiduously preserved a large number of artefacts, evocative of times long gone, imagined, or reconstructed.
The culmination of nostalgia, an innate tendency to hoard and an acquisitive nature is the Mobile Epirus Museum, now in its tenth year of operation. During the most of the year, the Museum sleeps in various drawers, cupboards and μπαούλα of Melburnian homes. Come Antipodes Festival time, however, all lovingly preserved items are resurrected, dusted off and carted down to Lonsdale Street, where the indefatigable Epirotes attempt to reassemble their past for the eye of the passing connoisseur.
The collection is vast, and most likely, important. At this year's Lonsdale Street festival, the focus was on nineteenth century silver jewellery from Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, said to be the centre of traditional silver-smithing in Greece. The collection included a large number of ornate filigree headpieces, traditionally worn by brides, intricately crafter bracelets, long, complicated pendants, traditional necklaces dripping with Ottoman currency and rather large turquoise encrusted hoop earrings, proving that such items were in vogue much earlier than their popularisation by JLo. Also on display were a number of male items worked in silver, such as the traditional kiousteki, worn over the breast and a palaska, an intricately worked silver ammunition holder. All these items are authentic and have been lovingly kept or acquired by the Museum contributors.
Also on display was one of the many old icons belonging to the Epirus collection. This particular icon is rare, not only because it is two hundred years old, but also because it depicts John the Baptist holding an infant Jesus, surrounded by Saint Nicholas, Saint John the Theolgian, Saint Catherine and Saint Paraskevi, a novel and anachronistic combination. Executed in the traditional egg tempera on gesso technique, it is a marvel in miniature and was so appreciated by passers-by at this year's exhibition, that already, a focus on Epirotic icons is planning for next year.
The Mobile Museum collection also contains a large number of costumes from various regions of Epirus, both reproductions and originals. This year, pride of place was afforded to a one hundred and fifty year old female costume from the region of Zagoria, where remarkably, the fine embroidery in gold thread shows minimum wear and is intact. A lavishly embroidered male vest, approximately one hundred years old, was also on display.
In pride of place on the back wall of the Museum's stall hung a curved scimitar. This scimitar, with its intricate damascened blade and bone inlaid hilt is of some historical importance. It belonged to Esat Pasha, the last Ottoman pasha of Epirus and was handed over to a prominent member of Ioanninan society, after the city's liberation in 1913.
While the abovementioned items seemed to draw the attention of younger visitors as well as non-Greeks, most older Greeks were drawn by the collection of household utensils and cooking pots. Though not older than a century, all of these items (save for a copper souvenir plate depicting King Leonidas of Sparta which inexplicably made its way into the display, we suspect by the neighbouring Maniot stall-holders, though possibly the President of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia had a hand in this affair as well,) were in use by families and an examination of them, reveals where the tin lining has worn off. Older women marvelled at the old, hewn-wood bread making trough, while everyone's eye was drawn to the traditional working loom, upon which a volunteer was demonstrating traditional weaving techniques. This demonstration elicited the sharing of a number of stories by visitors, all of whom spoke of their own parents or grandparents working the loom. Most felicitously, a number of visitors, enthused by the re-awakening of long forgotten memories, generously offered their own lovingly preserved handicrafts, in the form of the traditional woven flokati blankets, or embroidered cloths and woven rugs for the collection. Augmenting the cross-cultural experience, an Assyrian visitor who asked to work the loom, demonstrated a totally different technique used in her homeland.
Standing in a woollen foustanella in the forty degree heat in order to provide some olde worlde colour to the exhibition is a difficult task but a rewarding one. The amount of interest generated in non-Greek visitors to the Lonsdale Street festival is immense and this comprises a novel way to showcase various, not so prominently accessible aspects of Greek culture to broader Australian society. Chinese-Australians were taken by the similarity of traditional Epirote demotic music, also demonstrated through live performances, to that of their own tradition and were enthralled to learn that the reason for this is that both traditions are based upon the pentatonic scale. Indian-Australians identified a commonality with the cooking implements and were enthused when being informed that it was the gypsies, who migrated into Epirus from India aeons ago, who brought with them and preserved, a culture of working in metal that has endured in both regions until the present day. On the other hand, Iranian and Arabian-Australians found commonalities in the traditional clothing and in the antique photographs of Ioannina, wherein the two mosques that remain in the city were featured prominently. They were fascinated to learn of the Islamic history of the city, the survival of some Islamic customs in the traditional life of the Greeks of the region and of course, of the respect of the Epirotes for the cultural monuments that the Islamic population of the region left behind them. It appeared that the possibilities for the forging of cultural links between diverse peoples and Epirus were endless.
Particularly heart-warming was the passage of an innumerable number of younger members of the Greek community through the exhibition. Both their parents and the exhibitors took great pains to point out various artefacts that evoked aspects of traditional life, culminating in a photo with yours truly in Sarakatsanian form, said children posing with a traditional carved klitsa or Shepherd's staff, with some hesitation but no cringing. One could see their wonder at being able to examine, touch, ponder and peruse items of immense age at their leisure.
Without the support of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, year after year, the Epirus Mobile Museum's mission, one of outreach to the Greek, as well as the broader Australian community would not be possible. For it is one thing to be a repository of memories and quite another to be able to share them in a ware that they will be appreciated and touch another. On the strength of the support and enthusiasm of the community, the Mobile Museum is now planning a branching off into diverse areas of tradition, including an exploration of Greek typography during Ottoman times, Epirote printers in Venice being responsible for the printing of much of the literature that existed in Greek between 1600-1860. In the meantime, should you be walking down Lonsdale Street during the next festival in search of a souvlaki and come across a bespectacled individual incongruously clad in a sheep, step up and say hello. For if our vast collection of artefacts doesn't interest you, the home-made Epirotic tsipouro that we will shout you, surely will.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE on Saturday 15 February 2014
Saturday, February 08, 2014
AMBASSADOR DAFARANOS AND THE GREEK FINANCIAL CRISIS
"For what is Europe basically? It is an idea before it is a market. More precisely, it is only a market because it is , first of all, an idea. And it is this idea, a knot of the three threads of the mind of Rome, of Jerusalem and of Athens. If one of these threads is cut, it is the soul of Europe that will be lost. If we should come to lack one of these three elements, Europe as a civilization and a culture will collapse." It was with this thought-provoking quote from Bernard Henri Levi that Ambassador for Greece in Australia, Mr Haris Dafaranos concluded his recent talk for the Monash European and EU Studies Centre, on the Greek Economic Crisis.
Seldom has a Greek career diplomat been called upon by the Australian mainstream to provide a critical analysis of an event of such historical importance. That Ambassador Dafaranos was requested to do so says much for his standing as a diplomat, and even more as an analyst and critic of repute.
His lecture, delivered aptly enough at the Immigration Museum, to an academic audience in a packed auditorium, comprised of a multifaceted and sophisticated review of the causes of the Greek Economic Crisis, the response and the remedies, the impact on Greek society and the current situation, all through the prism of both a national and European/ International dimension.
Unlike many of his counterparts, who have shied away from analysing events in the country they represent, Ambassador Dafaranos sees it as beneficial to engage with the broader community, offer pertinent facts about Greece and allow the community to draw its own conclusion. It was for this reason, that his digression on the etymology of the word "crisis," coming from the word «κρίσις,» meaning evaluation in order to pass judgment, was so appreciated by his audience.
Ambassador Dafaranos, in assisting his engrossed audience in forming their own judgment of this weighty matter, identified a number of key causes of the Crisis, causes that were domestic, European and International in origin. Firstly, he spoke of Greece's entry into the Eurozone in 2001 despite the fact that according to many analysts, the country did not meet the convergence criteria, either on government deficit of national debt. Secondly, the laxity of the Europeans in not implementing the stipulations of the fiscal discipline imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact. He then went on to mention that the Global Financial Crisis exposed many Greek vulnerabilities, such as a non-competitive economy, a weak administration, a tax evading mentality, over-borrowing and of course, over-spending. Coupled with this, according to Ambassador Dafaranos, was the fact that Greece had for years, inherited economic weaknesses which had been exacerbated through incentives in the form of low interest rates and the tolerance by the Eurozone institutions, such weaknesses being a lack of competitiveness and the significant account deficits in trade that were accumulated, Greece being a country where growth depended on consumption based on borrowed money.
Boldly, and without attempts at obfuscation, Ambassador Dafaranos mentioned that some analysts believe that Greece embellished her public debt and budget deficit, hinting that the European Union if not complicit in this, at least turned a blind eye, allowing Greece all the benefits of a single currency as well the opportunity to accumulate enormous debt, due to the low interest rates afforded by Eurozone membership. This practice, he was careful to point out, is not specific to Greece but rather seems to have been the norm internationally at that time. Indeed, the Ambassador took pains to point out that the Greek crisis should be seen as a systemic European crisis and that the bailout that ensued, albeit with stringent austerity measures, should be seen as a desire by the IMF and European banks to limit contagion, in the event of a Greek default, to other countries possessed of similar circumstances.
The draconian fiscal reforms Greece accepted in exchange for the bailout, according to the Ambassador Dafaranos, have brought about an unprecedented recession and extremely high unemployment. He pointed out that unemployment has risen to 27%, youth unemployment to 59% while those on the poverty line are at 31%. Pensions and superannuation have been cut by up to 40%. Meanwhile, reduced public spending has had severe repercussion on health and education services. Nonetheless, the budget deficit has been drastically reduced by 13% of GDP, lost competitiveness has been regained through internal devaluation of wages and for the first time, a primary budget of 860 million euros has been achieved and net growth of 1% is expected in 2015.
Regardless of what Ambassador Dafaranos sees as Greece's slow, painful but inevitable crawl into fiscal responsibility and structural reform, he did not shy away from pointing at some of the social and political issues arising from the imposition of fiscal measures that have brought the country to its knees. Touching on issues pertaining to national dignity and sovereignty, he also spoke of deteriorating living conditions, as a problem of refinancing the real economy through national and European mechanisms, stating that these conditions are unsustainable in the long run.
The novelty of Ambassador's Dafaranos' analysis of the Crisis, lies in his humane and all-encompassing approach to it. There was no attempt to gloss over governmental deficiencies and he readily admitted that the country bears a certain responsibility for the failings in governance that sparked the Eurozone crisis but which, as he points out, were not its cause, this being rather the incomplete and haphazard nature of the union of Eurozone countries, each with different structures, competitiveness and levels of development. The speaker also took great pains to dispel certain stereotypes about Greeks such as laziness, tax evasion and profligacy. In doing so he paid tribute to the stoicism of the Geek people who have made tremendous sacrifices and endured privation during the past six years in order to set their country back on track, paying in fiscal measures to the value of 70 billion euros. To the Eurosceptics, Ambassador Dafaranos stated that it is significant to note that despite the social and financial upheaval, in June 2012, the majority of the Greek people voted in favour of remaining in the Eurozone, an expression of their enduring attachment to the European dream and its ancillary values.
It is refreshing to listen to the views of an ambassador, who unlike the stilted delivery of some of his predecessors and their tendency to lapse into tangents on topics that do not interest an Australian audience, is a skilled communicator. Ambassador Dafaranos certainly knows how to talk the talk and make expert use of the jargon that is required in order to get one's point across. When spoke of the Greek people "taking ownership of the crisis," his audience nodded appreciatively and the growing appreciating and sympathy for the Greek people among them was palpable. In an audience in whose country sections of the media have adopted a critical and often derisory stance against Greece in general, the absence of negativity and complete lack of prejudice was remarkable. The Ambassador's contention, that Greece's crisis will prove the catalyst for the commencement of a discussion as to the handling of the Global Financial Crisis within the context of European financial and political structures, along with his belief that the Greek people should be admired for their sacrifice and endurance were warmly received by the audience.
The proof, if anything of the success of Ambassador Dafaranos' disarmingly engaging style comes from the written comments of the audience, ranging from: "Extremely insightful to hear a first-hand account' of the Greek dimension of the Eurozone crisis from H.E. Ambassador Dafaranos" to "'The ambassador's being honest about [his] feelings for [his] country, willingness to share' and candid responses were greatly appreciated." It can only be hoped that further expert forays of this nature into the mainstream of Australian academia and beyond will do much to augment Greece's image within the broader framework of society and add to enhanced and nuanced understanding of the herculean tasks that Greece faces ahead.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 February 2014