Monday, October 06, 2008


"I'd rather be first in a little village, than second in Rome."
Julius Caesar.

In his flawed but insightful study of crisis in ethnic identity: "The Macedonian Conflict, Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World" Loring Danforth makes mention of a village association formed in Melbourne, the wake of the politicisation of the Macedonian Issue in Australia.
He writes: "The village association John and his fellow villagers have formed in Melbourne uses the Greek name of the village in all official contexts. The calendar they put out every year and the invitations to all their social functions are in Greek as well. The Association is not however, a member of the Pan-Macedonian Association. Instead it is a member of the United Villages Family Association, an organisation comprised of the associations of eight villages in the Florina area, whose members all want to stay out of politics and keep their villages "united." One village, Agia Paraskevi in Greek, Sveta Petka in Macedonian (sic) decided to use the name Saint Pat in official contexts in order to avoid having to choose between the Greek and Macedonian (sic) name. At some of the village dances, the master of ceremonies speaks English, at others he speaks Greek but most of the villagers attending the dances speak Macedonian (sic) among themselves… As far as his own identity is concerned, John says he knows he is Macedonian (sic) and not Greek but he emphasizes he is not "against the Greeks." He would never "come out" and assert his Macedonian (sic) identity publicly the way some people do."
Danforth, through testimonials, leads the reader to believe that here in Melbourne, the espousal of a "Macedonian" (here he means Slavonic) identity can prove perilous, as it has the capacity to polarise families, set members of communities against each other and incite passions that have been smouldering, for various reasons, for decades. The testimonials he presents suggest that while the Pan-Macedonian Federation is aggressively Greek, the Florinian Association "Aristotle" is a more neutral environment, where members may, if they choose, speak the Slavonic idiom amongst themselves, as long as it is not done "loudly" and there is no debate as to ethnic identity and the United Villages Family Association, seems to focus more on geography and familial relationships rather than the politics of ethnic identity, as it is too afraid to broach these potentially explosive and divisive issues.
Some of these issues of identity are tragic. Growing up exposed to two cultures and languages, many Florinian immigrants find it difficult to place themselves solely within one or another culturally exclusive 'mould.' Ann Korizi for example, speaks poignantly about being trapped between two cultures and nationalities: "We can’t be all the way Greek and we can’t be all the way Macedonian (sic). We belong to two different ratses. I don’t want to give up who I am. I went to Greek schools .I don’t want to be told, 'You're Macedonian and not Greek.' Sometimes I think we just don't know who we are." Chris Psalidas, a writer, has worked with a so-called "Macedonian Drama Group" but has also won first prize in the Greek-Australian Cultural League's Literary competition, causing his erstwhile companions to accuse him of 'going the other way.' "My psyche, my soul, is big enough to accommodate more than one culture," he states. "Our people, the people of Florina, embody the spirit of multiculturalism. I get criticised for not supporting one side or the other, but im Chris Psalidas, not the Greek or the Macedonian (sic). There is material in both cultures to be explores. I'd be a fool to deny either one." Writer Tom Petsinis has also expressed similar sentiments. Because national identity is defined as something permanent and immutable from the essentialist perspective that so often characterises nationalist ideologies, it is easy to see how people who vacillate between one or the other cultural or ethnic 'pole' can become objects of derision and scorn by their peers.
One wonders then what Danforth would make of the New United Villages of Florina, an organisation that purports to unite associations representing the villages of Florina but in effect does so much more. Yiannis Papadimitriou, the president of the association, explains that the New United Villages exist as a form of self-protection against the extremes of the proponents of ideologies over the possession of national identities, histories and cultures, who regard these as the mutually exclusive property one nation or the other. Instead, he argues, cultural traits can be shared among nations. He recounts anecdotes of persons shunned by the broader Greek community for not presenting as "Greek enough," through their use of the Slavonic idiom spoken by some Greeks in Macedonia (which, it should be added, is quite distinct form that spoken in FYROM) or their confusion as to pertinent aspects of the regions history. He also mentions incidents within the families of some of his members, where various older family-members attempted to coerce, 'brainwash' or undermine the sense of identity within Australian-born children, often without their parent's knowledge, causing great trauma in an environment where the children of migrants already have enough trouble reconciling one monolithic ethnic identity with the Australian reality, without having to deal with its deconstruction. That family members would be so fanaticised by constructs of ethnic identity as to inflict such harm upon their children, truly is a chilling concept, one that has generally been swept under the carpet. "Basically," Yiannis Papadimitriou explains, "we wanted to create an environment where Slavophone Greeks could feel comfortable speaking the idiom they grew up speaking back home, without anyone feeling threatened by this or using it as a means of compromising our members sense of their ethnic identity."
One gains a hint as to what that ethnic identity is as soon as soon as one walks through the door of the reception during the New United Villages of Florina's recent multicultural festival. The first thing that can be discerned is the labarum of the Association, bearing the icon of Panayia Theotokos. She is, as we find out when everyone stands up to chant her hymn, the Υπέρμαχος Στρατηγός, the protector of all. Slowly, solemnly, a column of young children, dressed in traditional regional costumes march into the hall, bearing before them, another icon of the Panayia and holding aloft, Greek and Australian flags. The attendees, all half a thousand of them, are of surprisingly (in an age when mass attendance at dances and other such events, is not only passé for the first generation, let alone the second, but becoming nothing more than just a dim memory) diverse ages, underlying the 'family' or 'village' feel of cohesion and harmony.
The children march proudly past the distinguished guests: the Honourable Harry Jenkins, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Honourable Maria Vamvakinou, Federal Member for Calwell, Jenny Mikakos, State Member for Northern Metropolitan and Lily D' Ambrosio, State Member for Mill Park, Former Mayor of Whittlesea, Cnr Chris Pavlidis and Whittlesea Councillor Maria Malios. They reach the dance floor and stand to attention as the Australian national anthem is played. As soon as its final strains die down, a murmur of anticipation permeates the room. Then, an immense crescendo and suddenly, 500 voices are united in song as they intone the immortal words of Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos: «Σε γνωρίζω...» The tremulous emotion that tugs at the heartstrings of all those present is palpable.
For these Florinians, singing the Greek national anthem truly is an act of gnosis. It is a firm declaration of who they perceive themselves to be. At the end of the dance floor, a video projector beams images exhibiting the Greek presence in Macedonia. It is a diachronic display, commencing with the ancient past, following through to Byzantium, the Ottoman occupation and contemporary times. Its viewers nod their heads appreciatively, as if discerning in the images of Alexander the Great, Basil the Bulgar Slayer, Saints Cyril and Methodius and of course, the Slavonic-speaking Captain Kottas, not just a historical figure dredged up from the depths of the past, but instead, their immediate kinfolk.
Around me, I can hear snatches of the same Slavonic idiom as that uttered by Captain Kottas when he was led away by the Bulgarians for execution, proclaiming: "Long live Greece!" Suddenly, the conversation is broken by a loud cheer and whoops of delight. The young children are dancing traditional Florinian dances and their elated grandparents and parents are unable to conceal their rapture at witnessing their progeny take exactly the same steps that they have taken, and their ancestors too, in a long chain of dance, as twisted and tortuous as the path taken by the archetypal musician himself, Orpheus, to the underworld to rescue his Euridice, but still unbroken.
One of the beaming grandparents, not being able to contain himself any longer, rushes on to the dance-floor, holding a vast Greek flag upon a lofty flag-pole twice his size. Immediately, the floor is covered in dancers, weaving their way through the age-old steps, all vying for the position of leader of the dance so that they in turn, may also bear the Greek flag. The revellers are so excited that they find it hard to settle down to listen to the speeches.
When Father Stavros, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, explains that the apostle Paul was compelled to visit Macedonia and wrote an epistle to the Christians of Philippi, the applause is deafening. When I in turn, as secretary of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, outline the ties of kinship binding Epirus with Macedonia (we are in effect συμπέθεροι, since Alexander the Great's mother, Olympias was an Epirote princess and Cheimarriote captain Spiros Spiromilios fought in Florina for the liberation of that region and its incorporation into the Greek state, there are cheers and the sounds of many hands clapping. Yiannis Papadimitriou, as president of an organisation that has over the years, repeatedly emphasised its Hellenic identity, arrived at, not only through cultural exchange but through a deep knowledge of history as well, succinctly and perceptively encapsulates the zeitgeist in his address:
"We are here today to celebrate the achievements and continuous presence of Macedonians here in Australia. We, the Macedonians of the New United Villages of Florina are immensely proud of our Greek heritage. We are also immensely proud of the fact that we have been able to transplant them here, in Victoria, home to so many nations. Truly, the Greek and Australian people share many values. Some of these values, love of freedom, democracy, tolerance, a love of the arts and sport are direct gifts from ancient Greek civilization. Let us not forget that it was our great King, Alexander the Great who spread Greek civilization throughout the East. We, his descendants, having left our native Macedonia, are continuing in his footsteps, maintaining the Greek culture of Macedonia here today. Wherever you see us and the Greek flag flying, you know that there lies a small pocket of Macedonia, the northernmost Greek province, home to many nations but historically and culturally, an inextricable part of the Greek world. We welcome you with open arms and hope you celebrate the core values of tolerance, cultural diversity and mutliculturalism with us." As the song «Μακεδονία Ξακουστή» penetrates our eardrums and the ecstatic revellers rush to the dance-floor once more, and Father Stavros, an Epirote, and I, muse over the relative merits of Macedonian as compared to Epirotic pita, the Greek flag once again passes from hand to hand, circling the room. Complexity in the process of identity formation may characterise many people who are members of ethnic and diaspora communities in today's transnational world. For the members of the New United Villages of Florina however, it is resolved simply, in the form of a blue flag with a large white cross emblazoned upon it, upon a tall and proud flagpole.

First published in NKEE on 6 October 2008