Monday, October 25, 2004


Recently, a Greek Orthodox priest in America was locked out of his church by his enraged parishioners. The reason? Because he had the temerity to conduct services in the Greek language. “No one here speaks Greek,” said one parishioner in explanation of his conduct. “We are all Americans here.”
The Greek ‘community’ in America is a useful comparative tool when reviewing issues that pertain to Greek-Australians simply because it serves as a ‘here’s one we prepared earlier model,’ by virtue of the fact that Greek migrants found similar conditions in America as they did here, both culturally and politically. It follows logically that give or take a few κομπολόι χάντρες, what occurs in America, will be paralleled here.
The Greeks of America seems to be enmeshed in the throes of a belated language debate. Unlike the debate here however, which is centered upon how we should preserve the Greek language, it being taken without argument that that is a desirable outcome, the debate in America has a different focus: Whether the Greek language, a language which supposedly no one understands anymore, should be re-imposed.
In contrast to the lip-service paid in this country to multiculturalism until recently, America has from the outset promulgated a national myth whereby all its citizens, regardless of creed or colour are considered equal as Americans. While attachment to traditional cultures is overlooked, the expectation is that all citizens will adhere to the values of Americanism. While this sounds sickening, it is evident from the heated way Greek-Americans will defend everything from the invasion of Iraq, to rampant exploitative capitalism and American neo-imperialism, that in the one hundred or so years of Greek mass migration to America, the official values of the United States have found fertile ground. Above all, they are Americans and everything that conflicts with that, is to be extirpated.
Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos was stunned and then horrified, during his recent visit to America to discover that the vast majority of his church’s adherents no longer spoke Greek, so much so that he publicly upbraided Archbishop Demetrios of America for not doing anything to preserve and promote the Greek language amidst his flock. The question of whether the Church should assume the responsibility of promoting a language, one which also taxes the minds of our Greek neo-American brothers, is beyond the scope of this diatribe, and its writer’s expertise. Nevertheless, it is undoubted that the Church traditionally has sought to inextricably link itself to aspects of the Greek identity and the Patriarch’s reaction can be understood in this context. Archbishop Demetrios’ guilty school-boy response was as wet as a saturated antiminsion: “No one understands Greek here.”
This reaction caused outrage among Greek-American circles which pointed out that the Church should not involve itself in such ‘retrogressive’ activity. These vocal circles maintain that the Greek language is not only to all ends and purposes ‘dead’ within the community, save for a few ‘recent migrants’ as they contemptuously call them, but that its resurrection is too late and undesirable. After all, they are Americans, first and foremost and the Greek language is a mere relic of a past they are not so proud of, the years BA, ie, before Americanisation.
While we leave our Janissaries in America to the fanaticism of the newly-converted to disrespect more and more of their religious leaders and turn their backs on their traditions, we are comforted by the fact that there does exist a core of Greek-Americans, youth among them, who despite the rhetoric of their would be-leaders and determiners of social policy, are thoroughly convinced of the importance of the Greek language and take steps to preserve it. They are to be applauded as their community leaders are to be denigrated for failing them.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, a new annual ritual has been established, that of announcing every year that the number of students undertaking Greek at VCE level is falling dramatically. The traditional antiphon to this ritual is a hushed silence and then a shrug of the shoulders among all those who read the paper along Lonsdale Street and then an aphorism spoken with the decided inevitability of a Jeremiah prophesying the fall of Jerusalem: «Η γλώσσα μας θα χαθεί.»
Possibly, though this would be disastrous in our case. For while our American cousins have their American values to substitute for their discarded old world, Greek identity, no such ready-made, true blue identity exists for us here to assume, save for the solace and sanctuary provided by the catechumen’s membership to a football team. The day we lose our language is the day we lose our identity and our links with the past. While this may entail a certain amount of freedom, it will also dissolve the ties that bind us to each other and ours will be a mundane existence to the extreme. No more flooding Lonsdale Street with Greek flags and celebrating the win of an irrelevant country in the European finals for instance.
George Orwell wrote in his masterpiece “1984” that “if there is any hope, it lies in the proles.” (ie. the common man.) While the scholarly study of Modern Greek is necessary and desirable in order that one speaks and writes the language correctly, a drop in numbers of students formally studying that language does not signal the beginning of the end. Most of the first generation still cannot write properly. As an oral language, Greek is still strong, spoken in its various forms in the homes of Greek suburbia throughout Melbourne by all generations. Unlike the American Janissaries, we are also to a large extent immensely proud of our language and this is something we need to capitalize on if we are to retain it.
A language is only lost when it is considered no longer of any use. While the structure of today’s Australia renders formal knowledge of any language irrelevant, we must persevere in our attempts to ensure our children obtain a Greek education, whether that be in the public, government controlled sphere or through our own privately-controlled methods. Furthermore, we should delight and revel in the fact that Greek is still the lingua franca, or rather lingua Graeca of our community and promote its use. The common man still has use for Greek and it is up to us to ensure that its utility is a lasting one. In this respect, it is comforting that a recent group of VCE students recently wrote into the Greek section of this publication, and in perfect Greek, set out their views on why a decline in language use is taking place.
Finally, a word for our Janissary cousins. The State of Israel, formed some two thousand years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, was able to resuscitate a dead language and have it spoken by over two million people in the space of fifty years. Why? Because they wanted that language with all their hearts and because it was intrinsic to their existence. It is time to work out what is intrinsic to yours.


published in NKEE on 25 October 2004

Monday, October 18, 2004


Fallmerayer, if he were alive, would undoubtedly be turning in his grave, his theory, published over one hundred years ago, that the modern Greeks were not descended of the ancient Greeks, having been conclusively confounded.
For all Greeks, myth, in its various forms and manifestations has been of intrinsic significance. From the outset, myth was used to forge a common identity between disparate tribes, forming the concept of Hellene that we know today. One particularly enduring myth, that has either been bolted down wholesale, or masticated and regurgitated in an altered but essentially consubstantial form is that of Athenian Democracy. The myth, in short, unfolds itself thus: ‘The Athenians cultivated all-inclusive participation in the city’s affairs, believing that the people were the best arbiter of what was necessary for good government. This is supposedly the reason why Athens was able to defeat the invading Persians. Freemen fought to defend a free system from tyranny.’ The dichotomy between freedom and tyranny has dominated Greek thought from Herodotus onwards, ever since.
The truth however, is far from the myth. In reality, a few influential families, such as the Alkmaeonidai vied with each other to control Athenian public life. Average plebeians knew or were made to understand that save from supporting these few influential families, they were to take no other part in the running of the city’s affairs. Interestingly enough, the main architects, of both Athens’ victory and greatness, Aristeides, Miltiades and Themistocles also fell victim to another feature of Athenian democracy: ostracism, the exiling of ‘unpopular’ or ‘undesirable’ citizens, in the first institutionalized form of the tall-poppy syndrome, their only crime being, that they were too successful.
Here in the Antipodes, though millennia of years and kilometers separate us from hallowed Athenian antiquity, it appears that the myth-making paradox is extant within us, permitting us to draw upon it unconsciously, especially when dealing with affairs of our ‘polis,’ that is the Greek community that resides within our city walls. We are both myth-makers and ostracisers and practise these arts with singular dexterity.
One of our most recently hatched myths, is that of succession planning. The first is as follows: ‘The first generation is old and tired and its community organizations reflect this. They desperately need the second generation to immerse itself in community affairs so as to ensure the perpetuation of the Original Vision. What a pity it is, that the second generation is not interested in community affairs. We desperately need them and will welcome them with open arms.’
Reams and reams of community newsprint have denuded the rainforests of the world in setting out this myth. Yet it is just a myth. Just like their forebears, today’s Alkmaeonidai have no intentions of letting their underlings share their ‘power,’ as the following example will illustrate. I take you gentle reader, to one of the few Greek organisations where genuine efforts have been made to adhere to the letter of the myth and not to mask its founders’ own shortcomings and vested interests. The said organisation, in the space of a few years, not only managed to offer its key administrative positions to the second and third generation but in the meantime to develop from the usual parochial dance and barbeque club, to a significant cultural entity.
Over the years, and despite the best efforts of the youthful committee, it became apparent that the first generation was slowly drifting away from the said organisation’s activities. No one knew the reason why and everyone was too wrapt up in courting youth participation, re-establishing a sense of community and promoting aspects of their unique regional culture to the Australian mainstream. The Alkmaeonidai sat in obscurity, and fumed in silence.
That is, until the day of the Annual General Meeting, that most direct descendant of the Athenian ‘democratic’ boule. It appears that the youthful committee committed hubris to a vast degree. For they attempted to do that which Bias of Priene suggested to the Ionian assembly when Darius the Persian demanded their obeisance thousands of years ago; the relocation of the Ionians from Asia Minor to Sardinia out of harm’s way, or in this particular situation, the relocation of the organisation to more centrally located, more economically viable premises. The result was a mixture of the screaming of the souls of the damned in the worst recesses of Tartarus, coupled with the crooning of a demented Athenian eunuch. The meeting hall was deluged with a torrent of elderly Alkmaeonidai, some of whom had not set foot in the organisation for years. Their venerable faces twisted with rage at their descendants’ presumption and their eyes gleaming in anticipation, it did not take long for the sacks of Aeolus to burst open, and a storm of bile to break loose.
The hapless youthful committee, whose only crime was to believe that civilised debate was possible among Greeks was subjected to torrents of abuse by their elders, those who they had been brought up to respect: “You young people don’t know what you are doing,” “Resign!,” “You stupid little cow, go and find yourself a husband.” The grey and ailing of the Alkmaeonidai, were rejuvenated by their peers’ display of rage. Casting aside walking stick and compensation claims for industrial injury, they ranted, raved, stamped their feet and jumped up and down, even engaging in fisticuffs with the parents and grandparents of the abused youth. A particularly bright moment in the history of the Greeks and democracy was achieved when one older gentleman grabbed the microphone and yelled at one of the youthful committee members, while pointing to his questionably still-extant member: “Just come down here you little tart and I’ll give it to you.”
As a result of this and subsequent variations on the same discordant theme, the youth have slowly drifted away from the organisation. Gone is the fervour and desire to improve and expand, given that it is ignored, even discounted by the Alkmaeonidai. And why? Because the Alkmaeonidai have made it abundantly clear that they will not tolerate being ‘ruled’ by their descendants. As one such ‘powerbroker’ remarked to me: “We don’t mind the youth in the committee as long as they do all the work and know who is the boss.” It appears that the helot slaves of Sparta are the desired Alkmaeonidan model. More apocalyptic are the words of another Alkmaeonid, vociferous in his opposition to the youthful committee: “I’ve got no problem with the issue at hand. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly. But why should they get all the glory. We built this place and we control it, not a bunch of kids.” There are many other examples of idealistic ephebes being censured, abused, intrigued against and finally ostracised from the organisations they wished to serve, for being too bright, too idealistic and stepping on some Alkmaeonid’s toes. They are a sad proof that myth-making is one thing, and the hypocrisy of reality, as perfected by today’s Alkmaeonidai, is another.
Just as the candle burns brightest before it snuffs itself out, are we witnessing the waxen reaction of a dissaffected flame, lamenting its imminent demise and seeking to burn everything it purported to illuminate? Or like Chronos before them, are the Alkmaeonidai so obsessed with keeping their own ‘power’ (the only reason for their sense of self-esteem) from their own Zeus-children, that they are prepared to eat them whole, lest they ‘dethrone’ them?
Most probably, though historical precedent leans towards the genetic explanation advanced previously. We are Greeks. This is what Greeks do. The behaviour of the first generation at the above general meeting and others is more akin not to the Athenian boule but the communist ‘people’s assemblies’ during the Civil War where people implicated their neighbours in ‘crimes against the people’ and had them killed to settle old scores. It appears that for some, this war has not ended and the enemy has taken on a new form. Inevitably, the Themistocleis, Miltiadai and Aristeidai among the second generation should take on their task and do it without hope of reward, for sooner or later, the Alkmaeonidai will have them ostracised.
Thankfully or not, the vast chasm which separated the Alkmaeonidai whose main aim was to establish themselves and perpetuate their identity from the second generation who was largely brought up solely to obtain an education and have an enhanced earning capacity is so abysmal that the latter have no idea of the great poisoning of the already brittle root-system of our community arbour. One day though, when the legacy of the Alkmaeonidai will be a bunch of cold, marble tombstones inscribed in an alphabet that is no longer intelligible, Fallmerayer will not be the only one, who shall turn in his grave.

published in NKEE on 18 October 2004

Monday, October 11, 2004


When traveling in 'foreign lands' familiar objects or sights often bring comfort. I remember the sense of camaraderie I felt when traversing the empty and sagging streets of the Fanari district of Constantinople, I saw two familiar things: a Greek inscription on a doorway and further down the street, kicked into the gutter, a crushed Foster's Lager can. I also remember being greeted at passport control at Istanbul Havalimani by a grinning Turkish female officer asking me in broad Australian: "How about those Doggies? Go Footscray!" Similarly, if you are ever lonely in Athens, walk down to Omonoia Square. It is by now tested fact, that on a given day, a Greek-Australian walking in Omonoia will invariably bump into another Greek-Australian that he knows and especially one that he hasn't seen for a long time.
This is all well and good but nothing could prepare me for the familial shock visited upon me on a recent trip to Albania. Albania is the land that time forgot. As you cross the border and you taste the bitter, astringent squeeze of the mountain air on your tongue, as you see the old Greek stone houses perched precariously upon the slumbering mountain-sides, you forget that you have ever lived in the twentieth century. I was visiting the University of Argyrokastro, the largest Greek city in Northern Epirus and I was checking out the library of its Hellenic Studies Department, one hand tracing the spines of the books on the shelf, the other greedily clutching a handful of most excellent κουραμπιέδες. Suddenly, coming to a particularly tall, blue spine, I halted and almost choked on the bolus of κουραμπιέ that I had been forming while in my literary reverie. For there on the shelf was indeed a familiar sight and a most unexpected one: Alfred Kouris' book "Migrant" based on his Australian experiences. A quick glance at the back of the book revealed that this publication seemed to have been heavily borrowed. "We all like that one," one of the students smilingly volunteered. "What do you know about how we can apply to come to Australia?"
On second thoughts, it should not strike one as remarkable that Kouris' book, one that has achieved legendary status in Australia, is to be found and appreciated in such far-flung corners of the globe. For Kouris' book is truly remarkable, simply because he has made his sojourn in this country remarkable. In a Greek Community whose ageing first generation is increasingly inward-looking and threatened by the monocultural hybridisation of Australia, Alfred Kouris stands as an example of a successful integration with the wider Australian sphere. A man with a passion, he has been a prominent member of the Greek community for many years. My father remembers as a boy being taken to Alfredos', his clothing business in the city, to buy a suit for church. Few of us in the second-generation, and especially the shopaholics among us would know that it was only through the pioneering personal endeavour of Alfred Kouris in the 1970's, lobbying for changes in the hospitality and retail trades that such taken-for-granted concepts as Friday night shopping, footpath dining and relaxed licensing laws were instituted here. In fact it could be argued that Melbourne's reputation for cosmopolitanism and fine dining is directly attributable to Kouris' successful campaign.
Alfred Kouris' also established new business practices in this country and was in particular a great benefactor of newly arrived migrants who he was able to train into a trade (he ran a trade school) and employ. He is also, paradoxically enough, responsible for the introduction of the shower screen door to Greece among other things.
For me the attraction of Alfred Kouris while reading "Migrant" available in both the English and Greek languages, is the Odysseus like character that is formed from the pages and pages of newspaper clippings, certificates and other primary evidence that are interspersed in the book. Like Odysseus, Alfred Kouris can and has, done almost anything. He ran for Parliament and had his campaign building burnt out. He was a prominent member of the Liberal Party and continues to campaign for such causes as the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles and most importantly, for the recognition of the anniversary of the Battle of Crete as a national Greek Holiday. His long dalliance with Greek-Australian journalism has given him an encyclopaedic behind the scenes knowledge of our settlement and development here and much juicy information is provided for those who have forgotten or had no idea. Old age has not mellowed him and he appears larger than life-like, a veritable Greek Gough Whitlam, a senior statesman of the Greek community, always willing to offer sage advice and to launch into fresh activity that he believes will further the welfare of the Greek-Australian community.
Kouris' story is an amazing one. It is a testament to the indefatigability of the Greek pioneering spirit, one which permits people in reduced circumstances to arrive at the shores of the blank canvas called Australia and not only enrich themselves but to enrich that canvas a thousand fold.
What I love about the book most of all is the wealth of primary sources, pictures and newspaper clippings all of which are raw data that make up the history of our community. I found myself looking interminably for familiar faces, finding out who the dead ones were and laughing at some of the now aged community leader's sideburns and bell-bottomed trousers. This is a throwback to a youthful time, where everyone had boundless energy and efforts to spare in building Australia and the Greek community. Whether their hopes and aspirations have been realized remains as elusive a question today as to whether these can change and adapt over time anyway.
One person who is guaranteed never to sell out (his ideals not his books which are selling fast) is Alfred Kouris. Seek out the book on this site You will not regret it. It is your history and mine and it is a thoroughly engrossing read.

published in NKEE on 11 October 2004

Monday, October 04, 2004


Recently, two Assyrian brothers Khalid and Hani Boulos were murdered as they were going about their daily business in Mosul, North Iraq. Their crime? They, like a multitude of other murdered Assyrians, among them children, were Orthodox Christians. Since 1 August 2004, five churches have been deliberately bombed in the region and a terrorized Christian population is fleeing amid repeated exhortations pronounced by imams over loudspeakers in the mosques of North Iraq that if they do not leave, they will be destroyed.
This of course, to anyone who is aware of the geo-politics of the Middle East, comes as no surprise. For a thousand years, the native Christian population of the Middle East has been used as both as a pawn and a scapegoat by its Muslim overlords, in their dealings with the West. A Muslim reaction towards the Assyrian Christians in Iraq for example, where Christians are deliberately targeted for murder and words such as 'traitors' and 'American scum' are scrawled over the ruins of churches is precisely what was predicted by those who actually knew something of Iraq, that one of the outcomes of any western attack on the region, would be that the native Assyrians, as Christians, would be associated with the aggressors, simply because of their ostensible commonality of faith, and as a result would be extirpated.
Sadly, this phenomenon is not confined within the eternally seething cauldron of the Middle East. Indeed the invasion of Iraq really has not made the world safe against terrorism. What it has done though, is not only violate international law and make the United Nations as ineffectual as its predecessor, but also to fan the flames of religious hatred throughout the globe. As a direct result of the invasion, communities that have enjoyed remarkable conditions of religious harmony are now finding themselves plunged into the ugly throes of religious strife, while in Beslan, age-old hostilities blaze with a flame more burning than before.
A case in point is Albania. An old Albanian proverb runs thus: "Ku eshte spatha este feja," meaning that the faith is wherever the sword lies, ie. you believe whatever you are compelled or it suits you to believe. Albania, despite its turbulent history, has at least for the last ninety years, displayed a remarkable degree of religious harmony for a Blakn State. The famous slogan: "Don't see to the churches or the mosques, the religion of the Albanian is Albanianism!" is indicative of the fact that for Albanians, religion has been of marginal importance in constructing their identity, the overriding factor being their perceived ethnicity. In a country where religion was banned for 50 years and is now 60% Muslim, 10% Catholic and 30% Orthodox, this would seem the sensible option and for the most part, all religions have co-existed in peace and have displayed a remarkable sense of co-operation, as is evidenced by the Orthodox Church's assistance of Muslim Kosovar refugees and provision of medical care to all Albanians, regardless of faith.
Nevertheless, there have been teething problems. The Orthodox Church in Albania has traditionally been associated with Greece and the Greek identity. Indeed, when arguing at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that Northern Epirus should be returned to Greece, Venizelos and his team based his statistics on the religious affiliations of the region. The equation, generally agreed upon by both Albanians and Greeks and not without some historical accuracy is: Orthodox = Greek. The attempts of the renegade Greek priest Theofanis Mavromatis who assumed an Albanian identity and as Fan Noli, founded the 'Albanian' Orthodox Church in order to create an Albanian identity to encompass all Albanian speakers regardless of faith, did serve to create a climate of tolerance and nip religious strife in the bud (as long as Orthodox Albanian speakers did not try to assert a Greek identity.)
The relative fragility of this status quo is evidenced by the continuous hindrances put in place by the Albanian government to the accession of His Beatitude, Archbishop Anastasios as head of the Autocephalous Albanian Orthodox Church. His choice of bishops was vetoed on the grounds that some were Greek and a consistent legislative campaign designed to harry the Church and restrict it from obtaining lands wrongly appropriated from it by the Communist regime. All this is usual. However, lately, things have taken a decidedly nasty turn.
A few weeks ago, a small Orthodox, Albanian-speaking community in a village of Tzara near the city of Agioi Saranda was eyeing the almost completed bell-tower of its church, St Dimitrios. It was a particularly ingenious bell-tower, 15 metres tall, built in the shape of a cross, a prominent landmark in a small village. In the middle of the night a terrific explosion was heard and the villages rushed to the church only to see a vast gaping whole in the middle of the belltower/cross. Someone had trying, but failed, to blow it up.
No one has been arrested in connection with the crime, the rumourfile has it that its perpetrator is the overseer of a nearby ancient Greek archaeological site, Bouthrotum. This particular gentleman, a Muslim Albanian by the name of Uron Tare has a brother in the Albanian national soccer team and decided to mark, not only the victory of the Albanian national team over the Greek one, but also the racist riots in Greece by 'teaching the Christian Greek traitors a lesson." The priest of the church ever since has been receiving anonymous letters to the effect that if he should dare to repair the dame to the bell-tower, his family will be forfeit.
As in Iraq, so too in Albania, a small and defenseless indigenous minority, a minority which the Albanian government has tried for the past ninety years to incorporate into its national myth, is becoming a scapegoat, answerable for the actions of its co-religionists. The entire structure on which secular Albania seems to be crashing down, especially in the light of the unprecedented numbers of mosques being erected in traditionally Christian areas with funds provided from the Middle East.
With rumours abounding of an Al Qaeda presence in Albania since 1997, let us hope that the government of Albania will take steps to hinder further unjustified religious tension. Let us hope too that the perpetrators of the invasion of Iraq come clean and do that which they claim they set out to do: create a tolerant and permissive society. If they cannot, which seems evermore so to be the case, they should make good the damage they have done, protect the vulnerable minorities, and quit, before we are compelled to relive the Crusades again and again and again.

published in NKEE on 4 October 2004