I had certainly seen her friends. My friends had not stopped talking about them, comparing them favourably to Greek-Australian girls and waxing lyrical about them personifying the inherent femininity of Middle Eastern females. This was invariably followed by a learned treatise into the natural propensity of the Middle Eastern female to dance the tsifteteli in a graceful manner and not in the crass, vulgar way that Greek women do. To have my friends discover then, that the girls in question were in fact compatriots, was not without irony. For we were in ‘Ya Leil ya Ayn,’ a Lebanese nightclub, feeling slightly self-conscious, knowing that in our paranoid, hellenocentric universe, the slightest exposure to an ‘inferior’ culture could result in contamination and contagion. Surely before returning home, we would have to cleanse ourselves and our cars of the sickly sweet smell of narghile smoke, one of my friends, of a more religious bent, swearing by the utility of church incense, in this regard.
We danced the ‘dabke,’ the Lebanese equivalent of the kalamatiano, very much akin to Pontian dancing, feeling every drum beat deep within us, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the Lebanese revelers, save for the relative palour of our skin and the fact that Greeks, especially mainland ones, are unable to co-ordinate the movement of their feet with the rhythmic shaking of their shoulders. Heated discussions of the authenticity of Nancy Ajram’s latest music film clip ‘Ah wa Nos,’ a homage to Egyptian cinema and analysis of the Freudian implications of Faris Karam’s ‘Al Tanourah,’ a pleasingly addictive ditty about a girl and the effect of her short skirt upon the singer, soon degenerated into the gleeful yells of ‘Aiwa, aiwa!’ the Arabic equivalent of ‘opa’ as we saluted the remaining dancers. As opposed to the poisonous, mouldering «πηγαδάκια» of Greek dances, the paranoid looks, the gaudy floral numbers barely covering the long forgotten modesty of matriarchs gorging themselves upon bread rolls and tarama, looking convincingly like dioramas of Amazonian rainforest orchids, a spirit of pure delight and enjoyment pervaded the room, everyone had a youthful appearance and what is more, everyone here was a habibi.
We were drawn again and again to ‘Ya Leil ya Ayn,’ that most friendly of places, until we learned that someone had been stabbed there, after which time our merry party dispersed variously to seek oriental pleasures at Sahara Nights or Che Zina and the most authentic gyrations of the ubiquitous Skopjan belly-dancer, Princess Yasmina, often to be found also in Greek tavern around Melbourne and thus providing a valuable cultural link between our two worlds. For it appeared at that time, that the music we enjoyed there, reviled by our orientalising compatriots but forming the basis of much of the corpus of Modern Greek music, seemed to preserve a tradition that post-Phoivos, we were well on the way to discarding. Looking further at the region, we were astounded to discover the strange attachment the Lebanese Orthodox had to Greek culture. “We are ‘Greek’ Orthodox,” they would say proudly, emphasizing the word Greek. They pointed out that the university of Beirut was, during Byzantine times, the greatest law school and centre of Greek jurisprudence in the entire Hellenic world, that St John Chrysostom was a native of Antioch and thus, at least geographically speaking Lebanese. The greatest hymnographers and musicians of Byzantium, Romanos Melodos and St John of Damascus also came from this region. Even the strange glottal cries of Arabic women at weddings have their antecedents in the ancient Greeks’ «αλλαλαγμούς.» Everything from customs to conceptions of family, social activities and behaviour seemed refreshingly more compatible to the Greek character than the strange and ill-fitting hybrid Greco-European ways our cousins seem to have adopted in the homeland and our own Greek-Australian ways, which are sadly, often marked by a total lack of delicacy, tact and manners. And this, politeness, this ‘philoxenia’ (a word that also exists in Arabic and Aramaic) from a people that Greeks dismissingly shrug off as uncivilized and uncouth «Αραπάδες.» This notwithstanding, it appeared to me that beyond the surface, acculturation and assimilation were already wreaking the same havoc within this so-called ‘pristine’ culture. Our habibis are just as fractious, arrogantly proud of their identity and prone to discarding their tradition where this suits them as we are. Its just that we have been here longer and have had a head-start. However, one thing remains certain. They know how to party a lot harder and better than we think we do. As we say in Lebanese: «Άλλος έχει το όνομα και άλλος έχει την χάρη.»
Nonetheless, it is fascinating to consider that when a common thread of culture flows throw the bedrock of several nations, that various of those nations can authentically preserve elements of that culture that their sister nations discard. Though the nationalists and Europeanisers amongst us may be reluctant to admit this, Middle Eastern Christians, their cultural basis being the Ancient Greek philosophy that they lovingly preserved and passed on to the muslim Arabs, and two thousand years of Byzantine theology, are culturally indistinguishable from us. It is invariably amusing for me to expose reluctant Ellinares to them, and to hear him complain that their music is over-adorned, their food over spiced and their manners over-affected for this is precisely the complaint that the Crusaders made of the Byzantines, and over exactly the same things. Our cultural siblings are a useful yardstick in measuring just how far we (and they) have departed from our traditions and a useful auxiliary and reinforcement, when we seek to dip within that culture again. It is no wonder then that contact with them may reinforce our own sense of identity, serve to augment it, or result in an addiction to apple-cinnamon flavoured tobacco.
A few weeks before the Eurovision Song Contest, I was driving down Bell Street, Coburg with my mother. Passing by the Lefcadian Brotherhood building that is situated in close proximity to Sydney Road, I turned to my mother and pointing at a sign above that building, I asked: “Do you want a glimpse of the future of the Greek community? Read that.” For underneath the intricate Arabic thuluth script that adorned its upper perimeter was the following arabesque inscription: “Zaman Narghile Night.” My mother, who is tone deaf, and whose knowledge of Arabic music is so erudite as to not permit her to distinguish between Faris Karam’s ‘Dakheeloh’ and Serbo-Skopjan siren Esma Redžepova’s Romani smash hit ‘Čaje Šukarije,’ physically recoiled in horror. Assuming my best Darth Vader voice, garnered over years of throat-scraping practice, I breathed: “It is futile to resist. Turn to the Dark Side of the Force,” after which time, my vexed mother pointed out that if I didn’t return my attention to the road, I would certainly come to witness the dark side of her force, and believe me, to be exposed to the light-sabre like force of an enraged Epirot mother who can scold you in the scalding intervals of the ancient pentatonic scale is a fearsome prospect indeed, matched only by the horror of watching Greek folk singer Effie Thodi attempt to dance tsifteteli while singing the English hit: “You’re just too good to be true.”
Given the above, it came as no surprise then to learn that Sarbel, (properly pronounced Sharbel, as he is named after the eponymous Lebanese Maronite Saint Charbel) was chosen to display to our European habibis, the very best of tackiness the Hellenic stave has to offer. He did so with particular aplomb and the sinuous dexterity of a well-tempered adagio dancer, his dark and exotic oriental looks and slight, halting semitic lisp while sensuously pouting the ultra-hellenic words: “Yeia sou Maria,” set many hearts a flutter and teenage girls into swoons of ecstasy. Sarbel’s gyrations upon the stage, especially his peacock-like fluttering of the shoulders, rejected by my ancient great-aunts as ‘unmanly’ but eliciting murmurs of appreciation from my great-uncle, are directly derived from traditional Lebanese dance moves. Here is then, in this hybrid marriage of tributaries from the same cultural stream that is personified in the personage of Sarbel, the apogee of Greek music.
It is only because of the Slavonic bloc vote and the former communist countries’ equation of diamond hard rock with progress and capitalism that caused the light, graceful and optimistic Greek entry to come seventh. It is a pity, as it transcended cultural barriers beautifully and paves the way for global understanding. From its post-feminist admission that “this is a lady’s world,” he attempts to safeguard criticism of his beloved Maria by evil sexually repressed easterners, who would take issue with her “dancin’ like a cheeky girl” by reassuring us that: “First off, she’s a lady.” However, this does not stop him from urging her to undergo various bodily undulations, for his own pleasure, as if she were a paid odalisque. Thus the chorus: “Shake it up, shake it up, there you go/ Oh oh… yeia sou Maria/ Turn around, bring it down, go slow…” At this point, when Hellenists are uneasy at this barbaric confluence of oriental and occidental decadence, the history lesson is interposed: “Moves like Aphrodite, so high above the rest/ Smooth like Cleopatra, an angel in a devil’s dress.” Further, as if to press the point that we have not just ripped off a series of Lebanese song lyrics, the song’s Hellenic credentials are re-established: “Her hips, lust in motion, her lips, red like wine./ She is the heart of attention/ probably should mention – she’s mine.” Taking that particular knowledge into account and juxtaposing it against the previous: “All eyes on Maria, no lie, she’s the bomb/ Oh my they all wanna see her/ All wanna be the lucky one,” we can see that whereas a decadent Arab would lock his wife away from prying eyes, thus defending her honour, the liberated Greek, is more than happy to show her off to his mates and boast about what an achievement she is. So to summarize in Greek: «Κοίτα πώς χορεύει η δική μου γκομενάρα, όλοι την θέλουν, αλλά εγώ είμαι ο μεγαλύτερος μάγκας, σε όλη την Ελλάδα.» Aiwa, habibi, aiwa.