Monday, December 20, 2004


"Christ is born, glorify Him!" This phrase reverberates around the Orthodox Churches during the Feast of the Nativity. Unlike other Christmas greetings, such as "Merry Christmas or "happy holidays", by this greeting, believers affirm that Jesus, who took on flesh and was born into this world, is indeed the Christ and that it is incumbent upon us to glorify Him. The power of the joyful dignity in the chanting of "Χριστός γεννάται δοξάσατε" could quite possibly only be surpassed in beauty and joy, by the Resurrection Hymn.
It is also indicative of the difference between the western and eastern views of Christmas. Whereas the west's greetings tend to be centered upon the person and their enjoyment of the holiday, (ie. you have a Merry Christmas, be happy,) the eastern view focuses on the incomprehensible, joyous mystery of the Incarnation and the responsibilities of believers flowing from it. Again, as opposed to the apophatic and yet personal oriental philosophies that focus upon a negative self-realisation that does not offer anything to its practitioner except escape and denial of that self from its universal context, the Orthodox view offers consolation, hope and ultimately, liberation. The concept that God can become man, walk among us and consort with us and then through His ultimate sacrifice lead humanity towards eternal life is for believers not only empowering but a source of immense rapture. No other belief system offers such a paradoxical humble and yet exalted position to its deity, no others enjoy such a passionately close and human relationship to their Deity as those believers who worship the Deity who became incarnate in a lowly cave, in Bethlehem for our sakes.
We have all heard the expression "time stood still" and yet how many of us realize that this expression and the image it conveys has entered most languages through the events described in the Protoevangelion of James, a deuterocanonical text describing Christ's birth: "Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion." Such importance is given to the Incarnation that according to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the whole of nature stood still in wonder at the enormity of the event taking place, a state coveted by all philosophers throughout the ages: that we may return to the original state of perfection that was intended for us. As St John of Damascus said, “Christ is the only thing new under the sun,” meaning that since the Creation, the only new thing to have happened in this world is that of the Godman Christ.
These days nothing stands still. By the time these words are being read, we will all be scurrying to complete our last minute Christmas shopping, making note of which items we will hopefully be able to bag cheaper at the after-Christmas sales (hence the attraction for Old Calendarists who celebrate Christmas two weeks later?) or stressing about preparing for the Christmas feasting, which invariably involves bolting down vast quantities of meat with the voracity of a starving python and then sprawling on the nearest couch in a state of benign torpidity, slumbering until roused for the next bout of feasting, either on one's own leftovers or those of a relative's. Yet whether one believes or not, in the central message of the Nativity Feast, it is worthwhile to marvel at the significance of a celebration whose message is so universal, as to unite the entire world in a spirit of commonality, destroying man-made differences and barriers. In this sense, the Nativity is the ultimate post-modern event, de-constructing all definitions, identities and obstacles, instead replacing them by an utter, unsurpassable and unadulterated truth, that of Love.
It is also worthwhile to spare a thought for those who will not have a Merry Christmas this year. The poor, the destitute, the outcasts. the lonely and the sick deserve our especial remembrance, for in our world, festivals are enjoyed by those who can afford their 'necessary' accessories. To avoid the well-worn cliché as much as possible though, why not focus on one's immediate environment? This year, don’t let your grandmother, grandfather or aged others sit in a corner silently, their eyes clouded over in reverie as they remember times of old, chewing the same bit of goat over and over again. Talk to them, let them join in the happiness of the day and find out about the Christmases in the motherland and their significance to them. Chances are that you will find the experience much more fulfilling than you would first expect.
Spare also a thought for those who have had their homes destroyed this year and have lost loved ones through the 'intervention' of other 'Christians.' In particular, let us spare a thought for the homeless and destitute Assyrian Christians, forced to leave their homes in Iraq and who now face a grueling winter in the mountains of northern Iraq or across the border in Syria. We should also consider the plight of those wretched Christians left behind in Iraq, Assyrians and Armenians who are currently witnessing the maniac destruction of the churches that they would celebrate Christmas in, owing to the inflamed prejudice and hatred of muslim extremists who have vowed to let no Christian church standing in Iraq, nor any Christian alive. As we stuff ourselves full of Christmas food, let us remember those neomartyrs in Iraq who are stabbed by unknown muslim assassins simply because they are Christians and are left to bleed to death without medical care, as those same assassins have forbidden doctors on pain of death, to treat Christians. Consider also the Palestinian Christians who live in Christ's temporal homeland, dealing with fear, hatred and restrictions every day.
At the same time, it is worthwhile to consider those for whom Christmas will have an especially joyous meaning. For the fourteenth year in a row, church bells throughout Albania will be ringing joyously as the Orthodox in that country celebrate Christmas once more after a thirty year reign of terror which saw all forms of worship banned by the most heinous of totalitarian regimes. On Christmas Day, all vestiges of bitterness will be wiped away as these Christians, without the intervention of any power on their behalf, have through their faith, had their vital privileges restored to them, at the same time that over the border in Kosovo, the few remaining Serbian Orthodox will be cowering in fear. That these times are paradoxical to say the least, is signified by the fact that even as the Christians in Albania celebrate, the Albanian government has moved to close down the schools belonging to the Greek minority.
For the downtrodden and the mighty, the comfortable and the insecure, Christmas brings hope and solace. Why? Simply because it is Christmas. Every year at this time, at a table literally groaning under the weight of provender painstakingly extracted from every single decent delicatessen in Melbourne, a friend remembers her favourite Christmas back in her village. There was no table then, groaning under the weight of anything, save for a meagre bean soup, the family not being able to afford anything more lavish. Yet what made this particular Christmas special was the fact that with the help of an aunt, my friend was able to secure some white butcher's paper and attach it to the rafters, thereby providing a ceiling for the first time that year, making her spartan abode look clean and pretty. And she was happy. Compare this with the complexity of the domestic use of cornices by Greeks these days and one can easily ascertain that cornices or the lack thereof do not impinge upon one's enjoyment of Christmas whatsoever. Indeed, it is postulated by latter day theologians, that one's enjoyment of Christmas is inversely proportional to the size of the cornices in one's home, which is as good enough an argument to spend Christmas in a church, where there are no cornices, as any. For a particularly Greek Christmas, why not attend one of the many traditional Greek carol services taking place or try singing a few yourselves? And if you can, experience the beauty and profundity of the Christmas liturgy for yourselves and delve into its symbolic meanings. You will leave it feeling enriched and well…downright nice.
And should a diatribist appear at your door, triangle in hand, sprouting Christmas cheer amidst invective and thoroughly nonsensical discourse, do the traditional thing and stop up his oral effusions by stuffing his mouth with walnuts and sweets. Until next year then, χρόνια πολλά και του χρόνου.

First published in NKEE on 20 December 2004

Monday, December 13, 2004


Traditional Greek folklore considers leap years to be most inauspicious, along with Tuesdays, the day that Constantinople fell. So much so in fact that the concept even occurs in popular songs such as those sung by Giorgos Dalaras and many refer to the entire period of the German occupation as «δίσεκτα χρόνια.» This year, also a leap year, has been tumultuous to say the least. The first half of the year did its best to maliciously lull us into a false sense of security while still retaining us on the knife-edge of suspense. Greece seemed poised to solve most of its so-called "national issues." We eagerly awaited the accession of Cyprus to the EU and lauded it as a 'final' solution to this age-old problem. We were certainly not prepared for the western-imposed referendum and upon the Cypriot people’s rejection of it for whatever reason, the West's championing of the Turkish Cypriot cause. Now we await Greece's stance on Turkey's European Accession talks with equal trepidation, while trying to swat the Turkish warplanes that swarm around our islands like flies, from our view.
We also observed the warmer relations between Greece and the government of FYROM with a sense of optimism, awaiting a final, mutually acceptable settlement between those two countries as to FYROM's name. Just as it seemed that FYROM was ready to talk, we were shocked to learn that the US had unilaterally recognized FYROM's right to the name Macedonia. Then, just as the US attempted to calm the trident-stirred wrath of Poseidon by stating that it will respect any Greek-FYROM name settlement, it is revealed that US Defence Department maps of the area, refer to the northern province of Greece, the western province of Bulgaria and a thin strip of Northern Epirus in south eastern Albania as "occupied Macedonia." Again we await developments in deep disquiet.
It has been a year whose highs and lows are enough to cause schizophrenia in an oscilloscope. We surprised the world and ourselves by becoming the champions of European soccer, only to fritter away that prestige by losing to such world class teams as that of Albania. Again we surprised the world and forced our detractors to grudgingly be astounded by the profundity of Greek civilization at the Olympic Games, only to have this sullied by drug scandals and speculation that the bottom well and truly fell out of Greek tourism this year.
On the ecclesiastical front, this year had us scratching our heads at the antics of the prelate of Greece and his incomprehensible conflict with his All Holiness Oecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos. We felt relief when the prelate decided to desist and then wept at the tragic loss of the Patriarch of Alexandria Petros and our very own Greek-Australian Bishop of Madagascar Nektarios, two men who have been instrumental in spreading Orthodoxy throughout Africa, in a helicopter crash. We felt horror at the continuous bomb attacks against the Patriarchate in Constantinople and the intimidation of orthodox Christians in Albania, the Turkish government’s denial of the Patriarchate’s Ecumenicity and its refusal to allow the Patriarch to worship at St Nicholas’ tomb at Myra. We despaired in hope as the matter of the re-opening of the Chalki Theological College, once more put on the world's agenda by the resolute Patriarch Bartholomeos, was swept under the carpet by the Turks as “injurious to the Turkish state,” at the same time as that government appropriated for itself, the titles to an Orthodox orphanage on the Pringiponisa.
It was also a year of new beginnings with PASOK finally being swept from government and a youthful driven ND government elected in its place. Once more, the year turned its razor sharp edge and most of the optimism that accompanied the new government's assumption of office has been drowned in the waters of confused management of the helicopter crash and its foundering dog paddle across the ocean of international politics.
On the domestic front, this year saw fewer students studying Greek at VCE or tertiary level, an increase in internecine strife and purges between rivaling factions of many Greek community organizations and a strange almost 'anti-Greece' campaign prevailing in the Australian media in the lead up to the Olympic Games, coupled with the Greek Consulates' inability to address this or effectively promote the Olympics here. However, it did also see the Greek community galvanized and united, spilling out onto the ever diminishing Greek street to make its joy at Greece's win in the European Championship known and to transform bleak wintry Melbourne into a summer carnival. It also saw a glimmer of hope for the future of what we will always call in our hearts, South Melbourne Hellas, after a brief sojourn in the depths of despondency. And the end of this year finds us furtively seeking each other's arm in support as we gird our loins to face the next year and whatever it may bring.
If St Kassianos, whose memory is celebrated only once every four years on 29 February feels shortchanged at the lack of perquisites his feast day provides and that the year in which his star is bright, is diminished by traditional ill-luck, perhaps he may be consoled by the few shreds of pure Divine Providence that did shine our way. Arguably, these outshine all this year's vicissitudes. Finally, after 800 years or so of captivity, the Vatican, continuing its gestures of good faith towards the Orthodox Church that saw the John Paul II apologise for the depredations of the Fourth Crusade in 2001, has returned to their native land, the relics of two of the greatest philosophers and theologians of all time: St Gregory Nazianzinos and St John Chrysostomos. If one considers that it is on the teachings of these theologians that both eastern and western Christendom was built, the worldwide significance of the return of these Saints' relics, venerated as far and wide as India and China, is commensurate with that of the much coveted return of the Elgin marbles and spiritually, far more so. For the Greeks, considering that the form of the liturgy they have used for almost 1600 years is thanks to St John Chrysostomos and that Greek poetry, rhetoric, literature and ethics have been profoundly influenced by both Saints, their 'coming home' is an event of unprecedented joy.
If the return of the Saints’ relics highlights a greater spirit of harmony amidst a troubled world, the generous and responsible gesture of the Bulgarian government in offering to return treasures and relics looted from Greece during the Balkan and other wars proves that old animosities can be assuaged. The relics include manuscripts, crosses, icons and vestments taken or stolen from the monasteries of Eikosifinissis and Timiou Stavrou in Drama, Dadias in Soufli, Panaghia Archangeliotissa and Panaghia Kalamous in Xanthi, and the cathedrals of Serres and Drama. At least 406 manuscripts have been scientifically identified and dated from the 11th to the 19th century — most are from the 13th and 14th centuries. They were known in Bulgaria as the “closed collection” because the collection remained closed from 1917, when they came into the possession of Bulgaria, until 1990. Suddenly, things are looking decidedly up.
Consulting as my late grandmother did, the «Καζαμία» in an attempt to divine our fortunes during our next revolution around the celestial orb, what shall we ask of the New Year? Possibly, given that everything is in such a state of flux as would astound even Heraclitus, all we can ask for is υπομονή. And let us hope that in having this granted to us that the old Dalaras song will not come true: «Στα χρόνια της υπομονής/ δεν μας θυμήθηκε κανείς.»

First published in NKEE on 13 December 2004

Monday, December 06, 2004


It is particularly apt that the word "Lobby" is used to describe a group of petitioners, especially Greek ones because a lot of hanging around lobbies takes place when one decides to become a "lobbyist." The word "lobbyist" itself, denoting exactly that, a person who specializes in hanging around lobbies. is a word that carries within it, great connotations of prestige. While the word "lobby" brings up in one's mind, images of crusty old Greek American businessmen, sitting around a table in leopard skin fezzes and full Masonic regalia, lamenting the demise of Franklin Delano Roosevelt while listing which members of Congress have dined with them at a certain Boston hotel, in Australia, the image is entirely different.
Though this diatribist may be excused for not having the requisite degree of separation from the image in order to convey it dispassionately, the enduring image I have of the word "lobby" in this country is of the skullduggery and disputes taking place along the long corridors of our brotherhoods' buildings or outside parliamentarians offices, where equally a crusty but less wealthy Greeks engage in endless disputes as to who will have the privilege of meeting and taking a photograph with, a particular politician. These are the labyrinthine paths that can only be negotiated by a true diadromist.
There is however an enduring unitary image of the Greek diadromist that transcends geographical boundaries and for which we have SAE to thank for. In SAE parlance, if it can be considered that all delegates are "petitioners" ostensibly present to petition the Greek government and each other on issues that concern them, a "lobbyist" is one of the majority delegates who do not attend meetings but hang around in the lobby, drinking themselves into nirvana, marveling at how the ratio of time over blood alcohol percentage can transform the most masculine looking female security guard, into a veritable Aphrodite. These diadromists are not to be passed over lightly, for if one ever obtains the privilege of penetrating the aura of booze-stench and cigarette smoke that emanates from them, one will be astounded by the breadth of knowledge these bar-pundits have as to the behind the scenes lobbying action. They can tell you which politician tried to sleaze on which young girl the night before, who is causing mischief and the full content of the Prime Minister's speech, hours before this is given.
Here in Melbourne, coupled with all of these forms of lobbying, we are known to have perfected the singular art of extraneous lobbying. For us global citizens, the word lobby is extricated from the narrow confines in which it is closeted, is deconstructed and then reconstructed so as to apply to all outside spaces. The entire world is our lobby and we feel free to hang about its corridors, petitioning others in our favour while jumping up and down, ranting and raving in righteous anger and patriotism. This is also known as Kris Kross lobbying, encompassed as it is in those gloriously tacky 1992 song-lyrics: "Kris Kross is gonna make ya jump, jump. Pan Mac is gonna make ya, jump, jump." Indeed. For it was the Pan Macedonian Federation of Australia, affectionately known as Pan Mac, that first canvassed the idea of applying geophysics to lobbying. Harnessing the entire weight and mass of the Greek community by having them jump up and down in front of Parliament House would have, if nothing else, the effect of sending tremors down politician's spines or failing that, causing an earth tremor instead. The formidability of such lobbying cannot be underestimated, causing as it did, the State Government to stand up (in order to avoid the falling debris resulting from us shake shaking da room) and make determinations in the Greek community's favour.
However, the inevitable problem with this type of lobbying is that sooner or later people get bored of jumping up and down and want to return to their own narrow lobbies. Politicians breathe a sigh of relief and as soon as one's back is turned, they slink back along the tortuous lobbies of their own careers and forget what they have promised, or go back on it, in the interim, having earthquake proofed their offices.
The end result seems to be that in both our case and that of America, no method of lobbying seems to be working. There are some reasons for this and they deserve full consideration.
Firstly, it appears that we as a community only lobby the government on issues pertaining to foreign affairs that have little if nothing to do with domestic affairs. This reinforces an already negative impression that migrant communities are stuck in the past and not particularly interested in Australian issues. Instead, they are only interested in perpetuating the ethnic strife that caused them to come over here in the first place. Such attitudes make easier the choice of politicians to dismiss what we call our "national issues," as unimportant. We need to become pro-active and involved in our local communities. In that way "Greek" influence not only becomes all-pervasive but accepted as a legitimate factor in Australian society, rather than something belonging to a musty ghetto.
Secondly, all politicians are aware that our community is one of the most fragmented of them all. We all vie for the position of spokesman but in reality, the organizations which are supposed to 'represent' the Greek community are either inept or do not so represent anyone's views. In our extreme commitment to democracy, we have created a vast number of organisations, all of which fail to galvanise Greek-Australian public opinion. Politicians know this and while they don't mind being paid to while away the hours talking to insignificant and powerless people, they will certainly not take those conversations seriously.
Given that our community is so fragmented, there is little we can do to become a factor in domestic politics. Greek-Australians are not concentrated in any particular area so that they can influence any electoral vote, nor do they have the same politics. As such, there is absolutely no way that the vast whale-like underbelly of the Greek community could be ever utilized for any political purpose, let alone the making of soap.
Thirdly, we do not know how to lobby. While the first-generation obsession with taking pictures and speaking with politicians is a thing of the past, it is a fact that with the notable exception of Panagiotis Yiannoudis, Pavlos Toumazos and the late Nick Gantzis, whose successful lobbying of Australian federal and state governments on the Cyprus issue deserves to be studied closely, even the second generation has no idea how the echelons of power work, nor do they, having been bought up to study, get a good job and get married have the capability or the inclination to effectively serve as spokespersons of the Greek community. It is quite possible that in this regard, the Greek community will have to pool its resources and high a PR firm to assist them, that is, if it can ever agree on what its stance on "national issues" is.
Furthermore, and hang on to your hats gentlemen, we are going to have to be nicer to our elected representatives and their parties. For it is one thing to ask a favour from a pollie who doesn't know you from a bar of soap and another thing to ask a favour from a mate, who you have taken out to dinner a few times and whose party and local office has been donated to generously by you. This is the basis behind the saying that most politicians (except the nice ones) are dogs. Feed them a few times and you can teach them to roll over, sit and even play dead, something they do really well during Question Time.
Finally, it is worthwhile asking why it is that we, as an Australian based community should bear the burden of actively "lobbying" our governments on what are in effect issues that concern the Republic of Greece, especially given that we have enough troubles retaining our identity as it is. Should not the Consular representatives be developing such a relationship with our governments here so as to be able to bend their ear a little? What is the role of a Consulate when it leaves the key reason for its existence to be managed by an expatriate community?
The stomach rumble in the Greek community jungle these days is that we are steeling our loins for another bout of lobbying on various pertinent issues. While the jury is out on the actual form this latest bout will take and the success of the outcome, let us console ourselves by saying: Well at least we won the soccer didn’t we?


First published in NKEE on 6 December 2004