Monday, November 27, 2006


"And the angel of the LORD said unto him, Why askest thou thus after my name, seeing it is secret?" Judges 13:18

“I know you. Your name is Con but you call yourself Dean,” boomed the immensely corpulent, bullish man, as he loomed over me, sending flecks of spittle careering off his bulbous lips across the table. Pounding the coffee-stained table with his hands, sending aftershocks down the grain he continued: “and yet you expect to have an opinion.” At that time, Thea Halo, eminent author of the book “Not Even My Name,” was about to arrive in Australia and in all the ensuing floating around of impossible ideas, tempers were bound to be frayed.
However, the above-mentioned expostulation launched me upon an interesting train of inquiry. Names of course, were our first technological attainment, employed if you believe Darwin, when primitive man refined his glottal contractions to such an extent as to be able to direct the articulation of his gruntings into euphonious sound-bites that conveyed a meaning or if you believe God, when he provided his injunction to Adam to name the beasts of his creation. However, it would be presumptuous for us humans to claim the invention of the name as a distinguishing label for a thing, person, and even an idea or concept. Apparently, our mammalian cousins the dolphins are also perennial users of symbolic names. Individual dolphins have individual whistles, to which they will respond even when there is no other information to clarify which dolphin is being referred to.
Proper names function in the same way as common nouns do in many natural languages. Philosophers have thus often treated the two as similar in meaning. In the late nineteenth century, Frege argued that certain puzzling features of both names and nouns could be resolved if we recognized two aspects to the meaning of a name a sense, which is equivalent to some sort of description, and a referent, the thing or things that meet that description. So the sense of dog might be "domestic canine mammal", and the referent would be all the dogs in this world. Proper names would then be special cases of nouns with only one referent: the sense of Aristotle might be, "the author of De Sensu et Sensibilibus", while its referent would be the one person, Aristotle himself.
Some beings have so many attributes that they can have an infinite number of names. It is for this reason that there exist in Islamic thought, 99 names for Allah, whereas in Judaism, it is held to be blasphemous to utter the name of God, a reverent euphemism, Elohim, being preffered. Knowledge of a name seems to invoke knowledge of that being’s intrinsic essence. Thus, in many religions it is held that if you know the name of a person, you have special powers over it. In many religions, the true names of deities are not known. The real name of the Egyptian god Ra for example, was known to none, until the goddess Isis forced him to reveal his name to her and gaining mastery over him, brought her husband back to life.
This is a necessary preface to that which I am about to attempt next, which is to divulge the truth about my true name, thus permitting diverse readers of this august publication to attain utter mastery over my paltry existence. As a consequence of a concatenation of events stemming from the fact that I am a Greek born in Australia, I am not exactly possessed of a true name.
Early on in my conception, it was determined that should I turn out to be a male of the species, I would be named after my paternal godfather, Konstantinos, the hellenised form of the Latin Constantine. Applying Frege’s descriptive theory, Constantine is derived from the word constans, meaning ‘firm and resolute,’ and I have often speculated as to whether a more fitting name could not have been applied to Viagra, had it been invented in ancient Rome. However, when it came time to actually record my name upon my birth certificate, my mother found herself in a Fregian quandary. Konstantinos, while a venerable name shared by among others a number of Byzantine Emperors and kings of Greece, Saints and intellectuals, had no known descriptive counterparts here. Furthermore, the only other known approximation with claims to acclimatization, ‘Con’ bore descriptive connotations that were felt to be negative and besides, verbs cannot be used as proper nouns. What would Shakespeare think?
So I was named Dean, representing the last syllable of my grandfather’s name and variously being an old English word for valley, a Latin derivation of decanus signifying a leader of ten men or a Greek onomatopoeic word signifying the sound a village church bell makes when it tolls. To this was added my father’s name, Alexander, meaning helper of men, and given that after all I was baptized Konstantinos, all together, my parents’ aspirations for their newborn baby seemed to be that living in a valley (which I do, albeit a rather small suburban one), I would make myself the leader of ten men and firmly and resolutely assist mankind, while bells pealed in the background.
Interestingly enough, the only person to have ever called me Konstantinos is my receptionist, and she only does so in an ominous tone whenever I return to the office from lunch late, or otherwise forget an appointment. My parents, having exhausted themselves over Frege’s theories and Bertrand Russell’s rebuttals of them finally gave up and took to calling me Kostas and depending on my level of recalcitrance during my teenage years, a few other names that are sadly not printable here, which is a pity, as they are colourful and demonstrate interesting regional and linguistic permutations. Having rejected Dean as not woggy enough during the era of “Acropolis Now” and introducing myself to all and sundry as ‘Kostas’ during my university years in an attempt to head off lectures by patriotic neo-Greeks as to the effect of the assimilation-crime I was committing by retaining an anglicized name, I was incensed to learn from a sniggering Iranian friend that in Persian, my preferred name signifies a pair of hairless buttocks, something which I am told, is a rarity among men of Iran despite the fact that diverse forms of depilation, mostly using honey and rubber bands were invented and are of widespread use in the Middle East. Thankfully, most Greeks have been inept at oriental languages since Alexander’s epigonoi made the orientals learn Greek and so I can continue to be referred to by that name by my compatriots with relative impunity. However, to guard against evil Iranian incursions into my self-esteem, I retained the name Dean for my dealings with the English-speaking world, given that the Dean is infinitely possessed of greater spelling skills and references than the Kostas is.
My father’s relatives, hailing from Samos, took to calling me by the diminutive Koustak’ which, applying Frege, consigned me to a life of being short in stature and being patted on the head. My grandfather must have been a devotee of Frege’s descriptive theory, as he also tended to call me «κατρούλι» as a child, as well as «ατρούχιστο,» signifying a considerable lack of sharpness. My mother’s relatives on the other hand hailing from Epirus took to calling me Kotcho, which is also the Albanian form of the name and is always preceded by the letter omega as in «Ω Κόchο!». Apparently, a lake Kotcho exists in Canada, which presumably means that I am deep, blue and full of fish and even more fascinating is the revelation that the capital city of the Uighur Turks, being the easternmost Turks who live in China, was entitled Kotcho and it is to this city that Syriac missionaries traveled to in order to preach Christianity. So I am a deep, liquid oriental, with Aramaic tendencies.
Worse was to come. Transliterated from the Greek, my surname is Kalymnios. When my grandfather arrived in this country however, this was automatically recorded as Kalimnios by narrow-minded government officials who had no appreciation for the diversity of vowels. At the time my father arrived here as a baby with my grandmother a year later, he was given her female version of that name: Kalimniou by government officials who had no appreciation for the genitalia of proper nouns. The apogee of this cultural synthesis and syncretic orthography was the day when I found my name recently appearing in a Greek-Australian publication as “Ντιν Καλίμνιου” and I finally conceded that having absolutely no identity, I had absolutely no personality either and feeling sorry for myself for being in what I considered to be a unique predicament, decided to set about obtaining one by renaming myself anew.
In the process of considering names like Murgatroid and Barsanouphrius, and even an NKEE reader’s latest suggestion, Dire Tribe, I was gently reminded by my sister, known in English as Callie and variously called Kalliopi, Kalyupak’ and Kalliopitsa, that owing to my unconscious persistence in pronouncing her name with a Samian accent, there was considerable and learned debate among her friends as to whether her true name was “Galyop,” causing her the inconvenience of having to field etymological questions that she was finding downright tedious. Having followed Frege to his logical conclusion and disappeared up the fundamental orifice of his argument, we concluded that, given that the sins of our fathers will most necessarily be visited upon our children, the only Fregian thing to do from now on when wanting to refer to each other would be to extend our fingers and point. Kindly receive then ← and →, όνομα και πράμα. Just don’t tell our parents.


First published in NKEE on 27 November 2006

Monday, November 20, 2006


In ancient Greek mythology, the Sirens were sea nymphs who lived on the island of Anthemusa, which was surrounded by cliffs and rocks. Approaching sailors were drawn to them by their enchanting singing, causing them to sail on to the cliffs and drown. The term “siren song” consequently refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a bad result. Conversely, the modern usage applied to the word siren, implies exactly the opposite. It is a startling, often annoying sound that if heeded, will lead one away from a bad result. Both senses of the term are intrinsic to an understanding of the popular Greek movie and showpiece of the Melbourne Greek Film Festival this year, “Sirens of the Aegean.”
At a glance, the relevance of the title to the movie seems only marginal. This army satire, a sequel to the famous Junta satire “Loafing and Camouflage,” follows the adventures of a small group of Greek soldiers stationed on the island of Kos, who are assigned to spend a few days guarding a fictitious rock island named Pitta so as to defend it against a rumoured invasion from Turkish troops. After their arrival in Pitta, everything seems normal until a Turkish boat disembarks some castaways on the island; some models engaged in a photoshoot and some political refugees. As one of these models is a niece of a Turkish admiral, their dissapearance threatens to burgeon into a vast diplomatic incident between Greece and Turkey. This is exacerbated by inept and unprofessional handling of communications by the aptly named exchange operator Bakakos back at Kos, who refuses to take the soldiers’ story seriously and does not pass it on to High Command, causing immense confusion and by the journalist Makris, played expertly by Renos Haralambidis, who abounds in the creation of convoluted conspiracy theories in order to draw attention to himself and seduce women. Indeed, Haralambidis’ portrayal of Makris is the most accomplished, not in the least because of the prevalence of journalists like him in Greece. Here is our first clue. This prophet of doom and gloom is definitely a siren that we should not heed, as its song can mislead us.
The movie ends, predictably enough, with a defusing of the potential conflict. The castaways are allowed to return to Turkey, while during their sojourn on the island and despite some initial tension, both Greeks and Turks realise they have more in common than politics and propaganda would have them believe. This is treated in a stereotypical way - through the repetition of words held by both nations in common and wonderment as to how this came to be so. Further, Greek claims to cultural superiority are refuted by Turks who challenge official national myths that portray Turks as a primitive people. Indeed, as the example of the Turkish sea captain who speaks Greek and exploits Graeco-Turkish paranoia in order to maintain a flourishing trade in contraband, as well as that of the Turkish journalist who secretly speaks Greek and understands all that is going on indicates, the Turks are intimately familiar with the Greeks, whereas the navel-gazing Greeks are only just hiking up a precipitous learning curve. Indeed, the scene where the Turkish captain attempts to buy off the Greek soldiers by offering them contraband cigarettes is so reminiscent of scenes of Captain Cook offering various forms of junk to buy off Pacific natives that the implication of who actually is superior, is crystal clear. Here again is a siren we ought to take heed of.
In the meantime there is a great deal of swearing, a lot of sex and an immense amount of vulgarity, all of which seem to be the young Greek soldiers’ major preoccupation. They are also the reason why elder members of our community have written into Neos Kosmos expressing their concern at such a film being shown at the Film Festival, as no doubt the image it portrays of the Greek military and indeed the Greek nation is not a very flattering one. At the outset, their reaction is justified. A generation brought up on a martial tradition beginning with the 300 Spartans and culminating in the superhuman victory of 1940 will clearly struggle with the idea of a lax, self-interested and venal military unles it is made clear to it that this merely acts as a paradigm to show how far we have in truth departed from the myths we have created about ourselves, though the myths endure, as Jean-Bernard Klus maintained, to obscure the art. There is much to modern Greek society that is disturbing and though we may not always like to have these taken from the cupboard and aired, it cannot be doubted that the movie deals with various of these elements with some skill.
Sex is inextricably linked to the motif of the mythological Sirens. In the Odyssey, Odysseus was only able to withstand their wiles by adopting a ‘look but don’t touch’ approach. He bound himself to his ship’s mast/phallic symbol, and was able to survive their allure. In the movie however, there are various Sirens and all of them, upon closer inspection, are poignant symbols of modern Greek society.
The first group of Sirens are the British tourists. Portrayed as vulgar, overweight and obscene, they are generally derided by the Greek testosterone-driven males of Kos. Nonetheless, they appeal to their most base instincts and thus are used for sex and discarded. The parallel with western-imposed culture, being alien to the Greek people and derided but appealing to their baser instincts and so invariably consumed is inescapable. Though the Greeks know that the cultural elements they are importing or mimicking ill-fit them, they cannot but utilise them. This is personified in the film by Babakos’ anguished cry as he is chased down the quay by a triad of squealing British girls and translated loosely in a genteel idiom as “I copulate with my propensity to mate with rubbish,” ie. «γαμώ τη σαβουρογαμία μου, γαμώ.»
Marialena, Greek girlfriend of the only soldier with pretensions to culture, the law student with the Turkic in origin surname Tzibitzidis, is effectively played by Vicky Kayia as an outwardly attractive and successful woman. However, as the narrative unfolds, it reveals a stilted, dysfunctional personality who does not know what she wants, to the extent where she is easily misled by the siren song of charlatan populist journalist Makris. She is an excellent symbol of the dilemma of modern Greek society. Bearing both western and eastern cultural traits, she is not at home anywhere, disillusioned, dystopian and thoroughly unhappy.
The Sirens that finally make off with the sailors are the Turkish models that are stranded on Pitta with them. Immediately, they establish a rapport with them, to be expected since hormones speak an international language. Over the course of the following days, the soldiers realize that the substratum of the culture that defines their existence is also shared by the Turkish girls, that their own culture is essentially an eastern one and it is this shared understanding that helps them relate to these girls better than to the British or modern Greek ones. The scene where two of the soldiers make love to the Turkish models can therefore be viewed not so much as a bridging of the cultural gap than as a return to the primaeval culture from which both are derived. In this respect it is fascinating that in purely Brechtian fashion, real-life Turkish model Tugce Kazaz, who played Havva in the movie, fell in love with Greek actor George Seitaridis, who played the lieutenant Parlavantzas on the set, and married him. The Siren-song here perhaps is the danger that the symbolism could be mistaken for crass orientalism and it requires steadfast perception to look beyond the bikini….
In ancient Greek mythology, it was held that if a ship successfully passed by the Sirens wihout coming to harm, the Sirens would leap into the water in protest. There was much leaping into the water by the Turkish, bikini-clad Sirens, though in an inversion of the myth, the Sirens come to us in a boat and depart from us in a boat as well. It is as though we are to be kept guessing to the end who the actual Sirens are and what warnings we should in fact heed. Is the movie a warning about how easily misunderstandings can flare up into conflict if they are not responsibly handled? Is it a warning against wilful blindness caused by cultural superiority? Or indeed is it just an amusing film, devoid of deep significance full of gratiutous sex scenes constructed in such a way as to invite analysis of elements that were never really intended to be there anyway? If so that would be the ultimate siren’s call, that of futility.
It is quite possible that the Australian Film Critics’ Association was led astray by the siren-song of ostensible silliness when they wrote that the film: “never achieves the satiric or symbolic heights to which it aspires, instead remaining rooted in traditional Greek farcical humour. [It] turns into a strangely homophobic, lascivious and ultimately silly film (witness the flamboyant characterization of the gay Greek soldier, and the many shots of sexy women as a substitute for any real satire).” For the end of the movie, where watched by his girlfriend Marialena from a hotel balcony, Tzibitzidis receives a siren-song in the form of an sms video clip from his Turkish love interest in Bodrum is evidence enough to suggest that Sirens’ songs are all pervasive in this age of modern technology, and their allure is as potent as ever before.


First published in NKEE on 20 November 2006

Monday, November 13, 2006


“With society and its public, there is no longer any other language than that of bombs, barricades and all that follows.” Antonin Artaud

You probably know the story. Inspired by the 1968 Paris Riots, a group of law students barricaded themselves in Athens University on 21 February 1973, in protest at the Junta’s promulgation of a law that allowed for the compulsory drafting into the army, of “subversive” youths. Police broke into the University and violently dispersed the protesters, inflaming anti-Junta sentiment further among Greek university students.
Some ten months later, on 14 November 1973, students of the Athens Polytechnic decided to strike in protest against the regime. There was no response, so they barricaded themselves in and built a radio station that repeatedly broadcast across Athens the following message: “Polytechneion here! People of Greece, the Polytechneion is the flag bearer of our struggle and your struggle, our common struggle against the dictatorship and for democracy.” This struck a chord with a population weary of the drab and repressive military regime and captured their imagination. For the first time in six years, people were emboldened and empowered to speak out fearlessly against the bankrupt dictatorship. Thousands of students and workers soon joined the protesters, including my uncle, a fourteen year old boy at the time, who was eventually arrested and beaten severely and savagely for bringing food and cigarettes to the barricaded students. One of my aunts, holidaying in Greece on her honeymoon at the time and not realising the gravity of events, happened to be passing by the Polytechnic and seeing tanks parked outside it, pulled out her Kodak camera and proceeded to take what she thought would be interesting and artistic holiday snaps, until a burly police officer asked her to desist, under threat of arrest.
The Junta was not at all pleased at this turn of events. A minor protest had turned into a citywide protest and a national symbol of rebellion against their stranglehold on Greece. In the early hours of 17 Novembr 1973, dictator George Papadopoulos ordered troops to crush the demonstration. An tank crashed through the main gate of the Polytechnic (atop of which students were still perched) after 03:00 am and under almost complete darkness caused by the forced shutdown of the city lights. According to a spurious official investigation undertaken after Junta’s demise, no students were killed during the incident. However a few of them were left severely injured by the tank for the rest of their lives and it is recorded that twenty four civilians were killed outside the Polytechnic campus.
The uprising was used as an excuse for the regime to impose further repressive measures upon the populace. However, it is widely regarded as a turning point in the Junta period, where its moral bankruptcy and rejection by the people was exposed once and for all and sounded the warning bells of its demise. The violent suppression of protest personified by the Polytechnic uprising also became a potent symbol in the dialectic of the post-Junta period, with political parties vowing that protest would never be violently suppressed ever again, variously using or abusing it in order to bring opposition parties into disrepute, or in the case of not a few politicians, such as Maria Damanaki, who was a major student protagonist of the uprising, to carve a political career for themselves.
However, there is a darker side to the Polytechnic Uprising’s Manichaean legacy. For quite apart from existing as an enduring symbol of the importance of respecting freedom of speech, it has variously been exploited as a pretext for resorting to violence and vandalism whenever one’s interests are considered to be thwarted. In its most extreme form, the Polytechnic’s unwitting legacy may also include terrorism, the most notable example of this being the inexplicable reign of terror waged upon the Greek population by the 17N terrorist group, which supposedly drew its inspiration and name from the 1973 uprising.
Not a month goes by in Athens when one group or another decides to rampage through its streets, hurling Molotov cocktails and smashing shop windows in response to some perceived injury. Students “celebrate” their right to free speech every year on the anniversary of the Polytechnic Uprising by barricading themselves within it and burning it and its surrounds. This is not what the students of 1973 fought for and constitutes a blight upon their memories. However, so entrenched is the right to protest in the psyche of the post-Junta Greek, regardless of the magnitude of violence employed to give it its form, that the Greek state cannot bring itself to clamp down on what in Australia would be deemed to be criminal activity: the wanton destruction of property and physical assault.
Staging mini-Polytechnic occupations in schools throughout Greece is another sorry legacy of the 1973 uprising. On the most flimsy of pretexts and often with the tacit support of their teachers or political agitators, students decide to occupy their schools and resort to acts of vandalism. This is known as “katalipsis” or “occupation” which is ironic given its original platonic connotations of a “cognitive impression.” That by tolerating the arbitrary occupation of schools by students’ fiat year after year, Greece is producing a society of cognitively deficient citizens can be evidenced by the following vignette: In 2001 I was holidaying in Samos. It came up in conversation with the nomarch’s daughter, a potent symbol of government law and order as ever could be found, that her school was under “katalipsis,” and had been so for three weeks. When asked the reason for this occupation she replied: “Our heater broke down.” When I suggested that they could wear jumpers and write letters in protest in the meantime, she gaped: “Oh no, that wouldn’t be democratic. We have a right to occupy the school. Besides, we felt we all needed a holiday.”
The recent spate of school occupations has resulted in the vandalism of public property and even more heinous crimes. In the supposed name of democracy and free speech, a group of schoolchildren engaged in a “katalipsis” has gang-raped a Bulgarian classmate while her female classmates recorded this atrocity on their mobile phones. The Greek state’s unwillingness to intervene to prevent such crimes from occurring in the name of political expediency, knowing that they will necessarily be compared to the Junta-troops that forcibly put down the Polytechnic Uprising by their political enemies sadly seems to demonstrate either that the Greek people’s conception of democracy and civilized protest is an infantile one, or that they are cynically willing to trample upon the tenets of a doctrine of government that they so laud themselves over inventing, whenever this suits them.
As the members of the village where the hapless Bulgarian girl was brutally raped close ranks and cast her and her mother out, maintaining that “she asked for it,” in contrast to the Werribee parents who recently turned their children into the police for committing a similar assault upon a classmate, we can only shake our heads in disbelief at a society which seems to display a total lack of social and public conscience. A system that encourages the politicization of society to such a extent that it permits children to hold classroom elections along party lines, requires their being beholden to their elder ‘ideologues,’ and incites them to acts of wanton violence against themselves and public property is fundamentally a flawed one. Such a society can never be cohesive and shall always be fragmented and schizophrenic in its approach to its citizens and as such, is of little value to them, or to the rest of the world.
The idealistic and patriotic students of 1973 did not put their lives at risk so that their slothful, comfortable petty-bourgeois descendants could have a holiday and indulge in their animal passions at the behest of self-interested politicians. They gave voice to an entire generation of downtrodden people, proving by example that righteous and peaceful protest is the most compelling weapon against brutal repression. Their modern day descendants share none of these values. They are neither repressed nor downtrodden. Instead, they have been encouraged, by virtue of their youth and by reference to their noble predecessors to disregard core values and social norms in order to get their own way. In short, they are, to use the vernacular, chucking a tantrum and there is no one there to discipline them, lest they be deemed to be reactionary.
Perhaps if Greek society as a whole concentrated upon inculcating in its children critical faculties, a sense of civic responsibility and respect for each other, they could go along way in instilling in them, those values of 1973, which they have deluded themselves into believing that they espouse and guide them into appropriate forms of protest. In refusing to do so and relegating their youth to illegal, albeit tolerated forms of protest, the archons of Greek society are reserving the mechanisms of power unto themselves and effectively disenfranchising the youth from making a difference. If only they had the perspicacity to realize this and if only their short-sighted political leaders could understand that which Archie Lee Moore so eloquently stated: “If we resort to lawlessness, the only thing we can hope for is civil war, untold bloodshed, and the end of our dreams.”


First published in NKEE on 13 November 2006

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


“For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.” The Book of Job

Some lives are like the mystery religions of old. What is revealed to you is only that which is considered to be of benefit to you at a particular time, with new information only provided once you are deemed ready to advance one more link along the chain of initiation. Once you reach the end of that chain however, you are replete with all the knowledge that if properly used, will ensure your salvation or, according to other accounts, grant you eternal life. This, in my estimation, is the most approximate manner that I can employ to describe the process of attempting in a few lines, to encompass the whole 100 year story of my maternal great-grandmother Πανάγιω’s sojourn upon the earth. I cannot profess the complete knowledge of the subject that is so necessary to claims of an authoritative account of her life; I was told its events in a piecemeal fashion, based upon what she and other family members thought would be appropriate and beneficial both for my character and age and thus lacunae in the story were generally passed over in silence only to be filled in years later, largely by accident. There also needs to be a distinction made between the canon, consisting of the revelations of γιαγιά Πανάγιω herself, al Hadith, or traditions of γιαγιά Πανάγιω consisting of spurious accounts of older family members which are usually self-justificatory and the apocrypha, which may or may not be true and which, when questioned about them, γιαγιά Πανάγιω either smiles or consigns to oblivion. But quite apart from obtaining a telegram from the Queen, the main privilege of attaining the age of one hundred years within a tradition that is largely oral and based on hearsay, is that your life constitutes whatever you say it does, especially when you have outlived all other witnesses.
It is not even agreed that γιαγιά Πανάγιω was born Παναγιώτα Βασιλείου in October 1906, for village tradition postulates an earlier birth, in 1903. What is canonically certain however, is γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s Gorky-like first memory: that of her home being filled with strange black-clad women screeching, her father on his knees pounding the floor and sobbing and her arms being held by an invisible force as she struggled to free herself yelling: “What are you doing? Where are you taking my mother?” For indeed, the margins of γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s entire life will be always embroidered with death. Soon after her mother’s funeral, her father was thrown out of the village and forbidden to return on pain of death by her maternal uncles, all eager to preserve the family inheritance and bar ‘strangers’ from accessing it. She was sent to her widower uncle’s house at the age of four, where she was expected to look after him and his children until such time as she was married.
At the time of her birth until the age of seven, γιαγιά Πανάγιω was an Ottoman subject, resident in the vilayet of Janina. She vaguely remembers a time where everyone wore fezzes and vividly remembers the dull pounding of the Ottoman and Greek guns at the fortress of Bizani in 1913. Then, as the news slowly filtered through the villages that Ioannina had fallen to the Greeks, a wave of jubilation swept her village. Villagers snatched the fezzes from their heads, dashed them to the ground and trampled on them with joy. However, she also recalls a darker side to the liberation of Epirus: the few Turkish families resident in the village crying openly in street, knowing that they would have to leave their homes, never to return. Within years, the traditional Ottoman konaks that characterized the architecture of the village would be torn down and replaced with artless, faceless, “Hellenic” structures, symbols of the areas’ newfound identity.
Intermingled within a narrative about the coarse, and often brutal mores of the village life my great-grandmother experienced, are fascinating tangents about lakes that freeze over, Ottoman pashas that ride across them unawares and build churches to Panagia in gratitude for preserving their lives, miraculous icons that refusing to remain in the new churches built for them, miraculously transport themselves every night to their old churches. There are stories of curses, of St Kosmas cursing the village, this accounting for the unnatural number of deaths by accident that take place there and of corrupt priests attempting to steal thousand-year old icons and sell them to foreigners, having their children and grandchildren suffer health, marital and other problems as a result. Then, there are stories that are verifiably true, like that of the terrified inhabitants of the village, who in their desperation to find shelter in the face of German air raids during the Second World War, quixotically dug into the hill at the village center only to discover an Aladdin’s cave of stalatites, stalagmites and fossils extending for kilometers underground and which today, though it is the mainstay of the village’s economy, much like γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s life, has still not been completely explored. These I was able to glean on the bus from Athens to Ioannina, when at the age of 93, she traveled with me to Greece for her grand-daughter’s wedding. Throughout the duration of the six-hour journey, she entertained and enthralled the entire complement of travelers with canonically acceptable stories from the village.
From what I have been able to gather, the reason why my great-grandmother was able to marry at eighteen without a dowry, was because she was beautiful, hardworking and of good reputation and because she caught the eye of my great-grandfather, Παύλος Παύλου, scion of the wealthiest family in the village, which actually doesn’t mean much in real terms. This period of her life is definitely apocryphal. My great-grandmother glosses over it with oblique references to her husband as «ο προκομμένος μου». There are hidden stories here that will never been spoken and those that know them, like my mother, will never give up their secrets. Suffice to say that it is from this period of her life that both my great-grandmother and each and every female of her line, right down to my sister, her great-granddaughter, have inherited their indomitability of spirit and fierce independence. In the γιαγιά Πανάγιω cosmos, one prays for menfolk who are committed to the household, honest, upright and without bad habits. Anything more is a bonus and it is up to the women to persevere and advance the fortunes of the family, which they generally do, in spite of their menfolk’s failings. Her father, who returned to the village when she was twenty to seek her forgiveness for abandoning her, however, is exempt. In the meantime, γιαγιά Πανάγιω also learned from her father that she had siblings from his second marriage. Her yearning for “her own people” during her love-starved early tears has seen her establish relationships and cherish those siblings, though she has felt the anguish of seeing all but one die during her lifetime.
Just before the close of the Second World War, after living through famine and a brutal German occupation, my great-grandfather was “killed by a stray bullet.” This death, was the harbinger of other tragedies. When she was told of her husband’s death, my great-grandmother was breastfeeding her sixth child. She describes, some sixty years on, tears streaming down her face, how her daughter Paraskevi developed a slight blue discolouration on her stomach almost immediately. By nightfall, it had spread all over and the poor child, my great-aunt, expired in her arms. A baby boy, Paul, also was to perish in the coming months. “I lay awake at night and remember little Chovoula and Pavlaki and I cry and cry,” she confides. She has never been able to overcome her loss and it is this that possibly explains her remarkable tenderness towards children.
Soon after, as the Civil War raged, the local ELAS guerillas requisitioned my great-grandmother’s house, being the only double-storeyed house in the village at the time, as their local headquarters. They repaid her forced hospitality, which included confiscating what meager stores she had laid up to feed her four surviving and by now starving children, by kidnapping my grandmother and attempting to spirit her away to Albania. It was only my grandmother’s presence of mind to simulate fainting, causing the guerillas to contemptuously toss her onto the side of the road, that spared her the heinous fate of experiencing socialist paradise, Enver Hoxha style. There are tens of apocryphal stories that have attached themselves to this event.
The trials of this modern day Job were not over. It appears that at some stage my great-grandfather, unbeknownst to the family, had put up the family home as security for a friend’s loan. That friend was unable to pay his loan and my great-grandmother lost her home. Through sheer determination, which took the form of gathering firewood, edible greens and anything else she could think of to sell at the Ioannina market, she was able to pay the amount secured and return to her home, only to discover that her late-husband’s brothers had laid claim to it and wanted to turf her out. She dealt with this situation with her usual self-confidence and implacable will, this manifestation of boorish heartlessness now being long-forgotten.
Known for her sense of humour, proud bearing and friendly countenance, γιαγιά Πανάγιω was popular among the womenfolk of the village. Though pitied in the condescending and hypocritical fashion that village forms of sentimentality usually take, she, along with her children and grandchildren remember simple acts of kindness and concern, the gesture of the granting of a single egg, a bunch of garlic or a fish, that made the trials of such a deprived life bearable. Moreover, as a people’s person, an attribute she has never lost, her home was always full of people, coming to ask θειά-Πανάγιω’s advice, or merely pass the time of day. My mother recalls a γιαγιά Πανάγιω different to the laid-back, quiet woman of her latter days. Ever vigilant, nerves strained to breaking point while engaged in a million necessary tasks to keep the family together and making ends impossibly meet, she could be strict, harsh in her discipline and seemingly distant. However, the love she bore for her family was and could never be doubted.
The book of Job concludes with the following verse: “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning,”and this is true also of my great-grandmother. She decided to migrate to Australia at what in those days was considered her twilight years, the age of 58, simply because she could not conceive of a future for my mother back in the village. In doing so, she made the heart-breaking decision of leaving two of her four children back in Greece. In Flemington, where she settled, she soon assumed the role that all know her for: that of the archetypal grandmother. There are hundreds of children, of diverse ethnicities, who were looked after by my grandmother as their parents worked in factories in the sixties and seventies all of who still view her as “grandmother,” and who she smilingly refers to as her “children.”
In my limited infant understanding, γιαγιά Πανάγιω was the great-grandmother who would not talk down to you, employ baby language and exaggerated expressions of love when seeing you and did not attempt to buy your love with presents and money like conventional grandparents did. She always spoke to you as an adult and an equal, expecting that you would understand everything she told you. She was inquisitive without being intimidating and all the while as she spoke to you, her piercing eyes would flicker up and down your face as if to read not only your innermost thoughts, but your future itself. I found myself actively seeking her company, and as we grew closer she would plunge me into her world, relating stories and dismissing my childhood and adolescent anxieties with a swipe of her hand. For her, there were no difficulties that could not be overcome. Hers was a world devoid of expectation where you were thankful for everything you had and accepted vicissitudes as a necessary by-product of existence. What her past had taught her, from what I understood in snippets of stories related while she flattened out sheets of hand-rolled pastry to make her famous spanakopita and often interrupted by my interjecting mother, eager to interpolate her own child and male-suitable version of the narrative, was that at the end of the day, a person has absolutely no existence or identity separate from people that they can claim as their own. The family unit, cohesive or dysfunctional and fellow-sufferers and sympathizers define us. I also learned a value which in these days of “get it off your chest” neo-hellenism is decidedly rare: that silence truly is golden and that often, it speaks to you in a language all of its own and that language is the language of healing. I have learned of events that befell my great-grandmother that are so tragic, so terrible that I cannot write or utter them. None of us ever will, regardless of how much we live in their shadow and I marvel that events and attitudes that took place a century ago, harbour consequences that manifest themselves in the core of our collective being this very day.
Γιαγιά Πανάγιω never learned to read. However, her natural inquisitiveness makes her turn her mind to all manner of subjects. When my mother went to university, she would return home and discuss her lectures with her. She soon realized that γιαγιά Πανάγιω was soaking up that information like a sponge and that she had an almost photographic memory. She particular liked to hear of the religious reformer Martin Luther, who she called «ο Λούφας.» When I attended university, she would often take me aside and ask me: “Do you know anything about this λούφα?” Having a tendency to drink coffee rather than attend lectures, I could profess to be an expert. For the past ten years, she has been a devotee of Greek community radio. She records everything she hears and during my visits questions me on world events or asks me for a run down of the history of Afghanistan. Then she comments: “They said on the radio that there was a king who went there, Alexander. The old men in the village also talked about him. He existed before the Turks, I think.” Αιωνόβιοι by rights can dispense with chronology. The apogee perhaps of our talks was when she asked me: “Who is this Aristotelis everyone talks about? What did he teach?”
It is easy for an outsider to underestimate γιαγιά Πανάγιω as little more than a minute, cute old lady. Her intricate use of allusions, riddles and turn of the century Epirotic patois are as labyrinthine and confusing to the uninitiated as a Borges novel. I remember sitting next to heras she was being ritually greeted by an acquaintance who had recently lost her husband. My great-grandmother seized her hand and in intense tones explained to her that she too understands what it is to lose a husband at a young age and the frustration and loneliness she experienced. She gave her advice of such sophistication, practical good sense and compassion that I was astounded, though I have always known from my own experience that her advice, garnered from a life of suffering is so timeless as to appear surprisingly modern, relevant and easily applicable. When she concluded, the acquaintance stood up, patted her hand and remarked to one of my aunts in English: “What a cute old lady. She tried to tell me something but I didn’t understand what she was on about.” Back on the couch, γιαγιά Πανάγιω grimaced knowingly, sending me into peals of laughter.
One ignores γιαγιά Πανάγιω’s razor sharp wit and biting sarcasm at their own peril. She can reduce the most self-obsessed and inflated ego into a mass of quivering jelly with the delivery of just one cutting or seemingly innocent remark and no one, absolutely no one is immune to her devastating powers, a power that while skipping her largely insecure children, has been bestowed in generous quantities upon her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Yes, in our household, fat jokes are funny.
We sat, my sister and I, holding her hands last week as we celebrated her one hundredth birthday, surrounded by her descendants. She calculated proudly: “I have four children, ten grandchildren and sixteen great-grandchildren. These are my people, all my people, όλοι δικοί μου.” Then a pained expression came to her face and she cupped her face in her hands. For even in her old age, the trials of Job have not completely ended. Γιαγιά Πανάγιω has had the misfortune of having a grandchild, my mother’s brother and a great-grandchild die in her lifetime and she feels their loss keenly as an unnatural unraveling of the family and herself.
“What can one say?” she asks as I remind her that she has rendered the Greek wish «να τα εκατοστίσεις» redundant and ask her what we should replace it with. Then Job-like, she crosses herself, as she has done for the last one hundred years of her life, one hundred years of solitude and superhuman perseverance and running her fingers through my sister’s hair sighs: «Δόξα τω Θεώ χιλιάδες φορές.»


First published in NKEE on 6 November 2006


And Uranus, son of the primeval night goddess Nyx came every single night to cover the earth and mate with Gaia but he hated the children she bore him. He imprisoned them in Tartarus, deep within the Earth, where they caused pain to Gaia. Not being able to bear the pain and presumably because the claustrophobic confines of the maternal breast were not suited to the vitality of her young, virile sons, Gaia provided her youngest son, Cronos, with a great flint-bladed sickle and Loretta Bobbit style, politely requested that he proceed to divest his father of those parts of his body that denoted his masculinity.
Cronos, also known as Χρόνος, meaning time, did exactly what his mother asked. He severed his father’s testicles and threw them into the sea. From the blood that dripped from them, the three avenging Furies were born and Cronos ascended the throne of the gods. However, he did not do so with impunity. For both Gaia and Uranus prophesied that Cronos in turn would be deposed by his children. In order to guard against that possibility, Cronos adopted a policy of swallowing his children as they were born. Eventually though, one of his sons, Zeus (an Indo-Aryan root word signifying a sky and by implication, supreme god) was able to avoid this fate and dethrone his father.
This Greek creation myth as recorded by Hesiod in the Theogony, has been variously interpreted. Some have held that the function of Uranus is as the vanquished god of an elder time, before real time began. After his castration, the Sky came no more to cover the Earth at night, but held to its place, and the original begetting came to an end. Though barbarous sounding and far fetched today, this creation myth says much about ancient Greek attitudes to power, patriarchy and creativity and surprisingly, these still manifest themselves in Greek behaviour today.
They do so most notably in the succession planning of Greek community organisations. For many years, the founders and firmament of our virtual universe steadfastly refused to permit their children to have any involvement in their sphere of influence. This was the time where all other things, including social class and economic status being relatively equal, involvement in community affairs provided one with a certain standing among their peers. This was a not so distant time when women were relegated to the task of making tea and coffee and looking after their children or to women’s auxilliary committees that posed no threat to the dominant male hegemony. During the benign rule of these forefathers, they resorted to the most ingenious and bloody methods to remain in control of “their” organisations” as to lose such control would be tantamount to a social emasculation. In the process, they managed to offend, denigrate and alienate their wives and those offspring who they deemed to be a threat to the extent where most melted away and refused to have anything to do with the organised Greek community. Those who tenaciously remained either adopted the twisted tactics of the patriarchy in order to survive in that tortuous world of Byzantine skulduggery or were so idealistic and naieve as to be deemed no threat and were accordingly treated as objects of derision, to be manipulated or rather ‘guided’ at will. Those that would not consent to this were branded as agitators and discarded.
What these antipodean Uranoi did not release, was that it was not their children in the strictest sense of the term that were a threat to their rule, but rather Χρόνος itself. As time passed, many came to realize that their time was up and that the works of their hands as well as their tired bodies would soon pass away into oblivion. It was for this reason that a new doctrine was formulated: ‘Let the youth approach and run community organizations. This is their privilege and their right, by virtue of their youth.’ Some were sincere in their desire to perpetuate their conception of what a Greek community should be, others less so. Most adopted a Uranian approach, smothering their offspring as a pretext for keeping them close and monitoring or manipulating their activities to their own political advantage. And in some cases, where youth were actually given positions of responsibility, nurtured, guided and supported by remorseful Uranoi, those Cronoi turned their sickles upon them with such wanton violence and disregard for the elder Uranoi’s feelings, that numbers of them dropped to their knees in pain and holding their nether regions, groaned aloud that they would never let their children do that to them again.
The implication of the myth then is clear. Uranoi are by nature conservative and smother all organic development by their lust for power over their creation. Cronoi, regardless of how impotent they may be at the present time, know that they, representing the forces of time, will eventually vanquish their progenitors in the most heinous of ways: by cutting off their avenue for creativity, thus calling in to question their right to be known as progenitors in the first place. One force represents staid, repressive creativity, the other iconoclastic revisionism. Both are equally as harmful to our future development.
The recent situation regarding the youth of SAE Oceania (Council of Greeks Abroad) is a case in point. Over the past years, while paying lip service to the classical Greek concept of the idolization of youth and making broad and effusive statements about it being the future and of intrinsic importance to the whole, both local and metropolitan Uranian elements have conspired so as to ensure that the youth body of that organization has remained impotent and inactive through various means, including the hand-picking of delegates who could bring the battles of the Uranoi from without and utilize their Uranus-given and defined space as an arena for fighting them in miniature, confusing and constantly re-organising their administrative structure and always, controlling and constraining their every move by fiat, diktat or a tight control over the purse strings. All the while, lip service to the cult of youth is so nauseating as to verge upon the borders of paedophilia. It is so mind-numbing that the Cronoi themselves, ensconced in their mother community’s womb of acclamation and inflated self-esteem, lull themselves into a foetus-like existence where they forget their primary purpose and instead are content to remain out of sight of the Uranoi, giving a kick now and again against Gaia’s stomach, to assure people that they are still there. Meanwhile, the Uranoi gather outside and wonder, somewhat incredulously whether these really are Cronoi that they have enclosed within or whether indeed the real Cronoi have somewhat escaped and are lurking in the shadows, sharpening their sickles. This makes them quite paranoid and contemptuous and much psychological crotch grabbing ensues.
At the recent Melbourne SAE conference, youth delegates were informed that their representation on a world level, without prior consultation with them, would be reduced by 87%, representing 30% of the total reduction of delegates permitted to attend the farcical “World Conference” in Thessaloniki. Unfortunately, the Cronos-foetuses have been fed via an umbilical cord that has convinced them how pivotal to the whole organization they are. The amniotic fluid which couches their slumber is laced with a respect for symbolism and the belief that they can make a difference and shall be heard. For this reason, because they have finally broken through the womb wall and viewed things from a Uranian viewpoint wherein they have no status whatsoever other than the symbolic, they have resolved not to take up the two seats offered to them at the World Conference and the free trip that attaches itself to them.
Sadly, these Cronoi are still in their infancy and have left their sickles at home, causing the astounded Uranoi whose Hellenic frontal lobes have difficulty in understanding righteous indignation and stands of principle to wonder what could possibly have motivated someone to give up a free trip. Obviously, these are not the real Cronoi but agitators and cronies of the real shadowy Sith Cronoi who seek to destabilize the Force. Some, in the force of extreme Uranian pressure and threats are regretting ever emerging from the womb and are groveling before Uranus begging to be admitted within his fundamental orifice, while others are having their characters assassinated by their supposed champions. For immediately, the enraged Uranoi have asserted their rights of paternalism: they are the ones who have brought their Cronian offspring into the world, they will determine where, what and how the Cronoi will act and the Cronoi must be grateful, not protest or spurn their gifts, or agitate against them.
Such conflicts are insignificant in the wider sphere. Today’s Cronoi ought to remember as they rail against the sky, especially in the SAE context, that their Uranoi are generally treated as Cronian poster-boys by the fearsome Nyx of Greece. And exposure, nay gyration upon Nyktian component parts is a fearsome thing that they have been spared. And while it is certain that the Cronoi will eventually find their sickles and inflict their frustrations upon their forebears’ creation, releasing the furies upon the world and ushering a golden age, if the myth is to be believed, both Uranoi and Cronoi should be secure in the knowledge that whatever they do, their epigonoi, the Olympians, will banish them and their memories to Tartarus forever, in the Iron age that is to come.
First published in NKEE on 6 November 2006