I have a copy of the psalms of David written in Karamanlidika, dating back to the previous century, when the Karamanlides, Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians of Cappadocia and Karamania, decided to print religious and other books in their language. In doing so, they made the conscious decision to reject the Arabic alphabet and employ the Greek one instead, with various interesting modifications. Thus, the title of my Karamanli psalms, is not «Ψαλμοί του Δαυίδ,» but rather «Ζεππούρι Δαβίδ,» and is a vital record of the pronunciation of Karamanli Turkish at that time. The Karamanlides were, by virtue of the fact that they were almost solely Turkish speaking, originally exempt from the population exchange of 1923, though they were later included and thus had to leave their homes, en masse for Greece.
Had the most famous living Karamanli, Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis adopted Karamanlidika or to use the proper Karamanlidian term, «Καραμανλιτσιά» as his language of official discourse while on his recent visit to Australia, his appeal and receipt of adulation from the adoring Greek crowds would have not been any less. Two events particular appeal as characteristic of the first generation of Greek-Australians: One is the besotted with excitement, built like a brick outhouse, middle-aged woman from Sydney, who strode up to the Prime Minister and patted him on the cheek, exclaiming, in her own take of Karamanlidika: «Γκουντ Μπόϊ.» The other celebrates the particular ingenuity of one of the more diminutive stalwarts of the Melbourne Greek Community, who managed to wheedle his way into every single photograph opportunity that arose during his sojourn here and thus has become a mainstream media personality. Του γκουντ ρε μάϊκ.
There were many more such characteristic scenes. An electrically charged by the current of Hellenism Oakleigh crowd plowed into the Prime Minister’s retinue, causing him to seek refuge in a cake shop. At the Thursday private reception at the Park Hyatt, attended by the luminaries of the Melbourne Greek Community (here read very few women and absolutely no one under the age of thirty), it took the august Prime Minister and his wife some forty minutes to traverse the twenty or so metres to the podium. It was there that I discovered that the Prime Minister is possessed of remarkable linguistic expertise. While posing for a photograph with me and seeing me frown, he poked me in the ribs and exclaimed, in fluent Australokaramanlidian: «Σμάϊλ, βρε!»
Natasha Karamanli on the other hand, the darling of the Greek community a la: «Κοίτα τι γυναίκες βγάζει η Ελλαδάρα μας, και δεν φαίνεται για Ελληνίδα,» the wonder of the Australian media, especially radio announcers who practically drooled over her and then commented: “She doesn’t look Greek” (because Greeks are proverbially dark, ugly and have bad teeth), paragon of the exceedingly small waist, and saviour of small children who faint during long speeches, merely looked benign, oh so European Union and conceptually adopted her husband’s injunction, communicating in the international language of the dazzling smile.
When Dora Bakoyiannis, foreign minister and Queen of the Amazons smiles, you breathe a sigh of relief that you have not angered her majesty. Her dimensions defy the definitions of Hellenism and cause stereotypes to crumble in dismay. A remarkably dynamic presence, she exudes confidence, power and no-nonsense amiability. To my question: Will you take a photo with me so that I can prove to latter generations that I cannot even reach your armpit, she smiled and acceded willingly, proving the old adage: «Ο ψηλός είναι υπηρέτης του κοντού» right after all.
His reputation as a cunning linguist earning him an eternal place in my pantheon, I could not wait to hear the Prime Minister’s public speech at the Rod Laver Arena on the Friday, despite my aged aunt’s pidgin Karamanlidian insistence that: «Θα μας φάει το πένσιο.» Making my way through a sea of Greek flags, and noting the odd Byzantine, Macedonian and Florinian flag, I was gravely disquieted. For among the bleachers of the plebs, far removed from the privileged ground-floor positions of the praetorians, there were no cries of: «Έρχεται, έρχεται, ο Καραμανλής,» or «Καραμανλή, ζεις, εσύ μας οδηγείς.» Nor did Kostas Nikolopoulos, the ubiquitous Master of Ceremonies direct the crowd to chant songs of praise in his honour, to match the kitschness and sycophancy of the slogans positioned around the arena. Instead, the watchword for the day was: «Ελλάς, Ελλάς,» and the countersign: «Μακεδονία,» despite his best efforts to coerce the largely elderly crowd to sign soccer chants derived from the 2004 European Championship. Notably, it was the patriotic members of the Hellas Fan Club who chanted the words «Μακεδονία» the loudest, everyone else contenting themselves with the two-syllable: «Ελλάς,» which in Karamanlidian, means ‘beloved poor country across big water.’
When Karamanlis emerged, surprised, touched and humbled by the galvanizing jubilation of the crowd, he could not have failed to notice that he was not its recipient. Instead, the crowd was saluting its homeland, the land whose memory and legacy they have kept locked in their hearts for so many years, the land, which has provided the second generation with an ego boost and a sense of differentiation from their Australian peers. We chanted, clapped and waved our flags because we wanted to convince the Prime Minister, Premier Bracks, the Greek television cameras, Australia but more importantly ourselves, that we still exist. We cheered because it has been a very long time since our fragmented, insular and fratricidal community has felt so united, so proud. It was if you like, the swan-song of a feeble, terminal community that fears the end and wants to summon its strength for the last hurrah.
Just how close that end seemed to be was was underlined for me by an old lady who was sitting in front of me. Seeing the sea of flags heave and roll into each other as a Hellenic squall, she turned around and said sadly. “See, we are still alive. For the moment.” It was this feeling of despondency that the Prime Minister mitigated by his presence. His speech was unnecessary to this end and had he instead made it in Karamanlidian, thus: «Καρντασλάρ, τεσεκκουρλέρ εντερίμ γκελντερινίζ ιτσίν,» we still would have applauded him enthusiastically. Neatly summarizing the key-words of Karamanlis’ speech as “proud, Greek, nation, strong, economy, Europe, well done, make us proud, thank you, well done, Greece, pension, Greece, you are great, thank you,” it cannot be doubted that his presence and his magnanimous speech were a fitting tribute to a tired community that fought great battles to establish itself here and for whose manifold achievements one would struggle to find a counterpart. We waited patiently for him to tell us, Psalm like, in answer to our impassioned pleas to Greece: “How long will you forget, me, forever?” that he would make our enemies footstools for our feet, that our souls shall lodge in prosperity (here read pension) and our children inherit the land. Judging from the crowd’s response, Karamanlis did much to expand the straits of our hearts and bring us out of our troubles. And yea, though we dwell in the valley of assimilation, we shall fear no evil, for Greece is with us and Karamanlis is her shepherd. As Kostas Nikolopoulos, rightly stated, our coming together was a true anabaptism for our community.
The elderly crowd sat politely and endured the new wave and ‘modern’ songs of Eleni Dimou and Eleni Peta, applauding them, though they were visibly mystified by these offerings from a higher being that they could not understand but which must undoubtedly be beneficial. Consolation here was provided by the unforgettable performance of local act Rebetiki, along with cheeky and subversive commentary provided by Argyris Argyropoulos as to the unsuitability of performing such songs as «οι κυβερνήσεις πέφτουνε μα η αγάπη μένει,» proving that local, home grown acts are just as good, in this case arguably better, than the home-grown variety, though the commentary, not being expressed in Karamanlidian, was largely lost by the crowd.
The most poignant moment for me would have to have been at the point where Prime Minister Karamanlis spoke about the Greek government developing methods to help our children to retain the Greek language. There was a low hum and mutter throughout the speech; at this particular juncture, I turned around to listen to a mother sitting behind me translate the Prime minister’s speech for the benefit of her unenthusiastic teenage son, who looked as though he had just been forcibly dragged away from an internet game: “He means that he’s gonna teach youse Greek vre,” she stated emphatically.
It comes no surprise that anti-Karamanli newspapers in Greece sought to portray us in a different light. According to Eleftherotypia, we have all been conned into attending a Nea Dimokratia campaign rally, organized by the PM and his lackey, Archbishop Stylianos. Others centered upon the pertinent issues of the day, such as Natasha Karamanlis’ wardrobe being limited in variety, or reported us as being from Florida, misquoted our number, stated that we all support the Prime Minister’s political party and rendered us as useless and silly pawns in a wider political game. In doing so, the Greek press, not known for its perspicacity, journalistic ethics or general knowledge, insulted and denigrated the Greek community of Australia. According to them, we are nothing but leprechauns, when in fact, they are rude, malevolent and ignorant avian excrement upon the eye of Mother Hellas. Look at what the hideous and disgusting Vasilis Hiotis of Ta Nea had to say: “See, this far off land, apart from being the home of lovely cuddly, kangaroos, also is home to many Greeks, the majority of which have New Democracy tendencies and were just the right crowd to stage a rehearsal with Karamanlis and Natasha.” It is this petty mindedness and unwillingness to look at the wider issues affecting Hellenism that have compelled migrant populations to pick up the pieces. Yes Mr Hiotis, we happen to be more Greek than the Greeks of Greece. For we welcome ALL Greeks into our homes, regardless of their politics or shortcomings. And whatever his political legacy, Prime Minister Karamanlis happens to be the leader of our mother country. Φιλοξενία then, must be a quaint cultural legacy that we fringe-dwellers of Hellenism have retained when it has been long forgotten among the stupid and conceited journalists of the motherland. Contrast his bovine idiocy with the ecstatic statements of elder members of our community, who remarked on Karamanlis; humanity and humility, adding that having a Greek Prime Minister visit them, was one of the greatest moments in their lives.
Γκιουλέ, γκιουλέ Γιουνανμπάσι Karamanlis, and come back soon, or at least send us a paraclete to continue your work. For while you were, we were good to each other and redefined ourselves as worthy in your eyes. Stay close to us and I will pull out my Ζεππούρι Δαβίδ and recite for the benefit of the non-Karamanlica speakers:
“I will praise Γιουνάνισταν with all my heart
I will tell about your marvelous works.
I will rejoice, I will exult in you:
I will chant your name, O most high..
Karamanlis ole, ole ole!”