Monday, January 28, 2008


“Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquility” Billy Jean King.
Just how effective the Greek and/or Cypriot community is in promoting its interests within the mainstream community in Australia can be evidenced by the singular fact that while for over thirty years, thousands of its members have made the annual slog down to Parliament House in order to seek “Justice for Cyprus,” they have failed to have the slightest impact upon anyone other than a few politicians currying for a few extra votes at election time.
Conversely, Cypriot tennis superstar Marcos Baghdatis stands up at a private party organized for him by his adoring fans, sings the Greek National Anthem and proclaims: «Έξω οι Τούρκοι από την Κύπρο,» and all of a sudden, Cyprus is on the front page of all the major newspapers. I know who I would employ as my PR manager.
Certaintly not Marcos. For in the lead-up to his tennis match with blonde, blue-eyed Aussie darling Lleyton Hewitt, within whose context the details of Marcos’ surprisingly nerdy private life have emerged, all of a sudden, this most popular tennis player has, at least in the estimation of ‘The Age’ reporter Larissa Dubecki “tarnished his halo,” while other, less tactful Australian members of the media are overtly crying ‘racism’ and fuelling the fans of ethnic tension by fossicking for suitably contentious comments by members of the Turkish Cypriot Community in Australia.
Would it be worthwhile to point out to the brewers of such inflammatory and absurd hyperbole that Marcos Baghdatis is not alone in expressing an aspiration that the illegal occupation of northern Cyprus by troops of the Turkish Republic is ended and that in fact, his pious hope is supported by tens of United Nations Resolutions? Most probably not. For Marcos Baghdatis is not the U.N. He is a tennis player, who, in expressing political convictions, has unwittingly transgressed upon hallowed taboo ground within the Anglo-Saxon deification of ‘Sport.’ That this taboo exists across the board, but especially in tennis, the quintessential gentleman’s game, is evidenced by Andre Agassi who once observed that: “It’s shocking how little there is to do in tennis when you’re just thinking about nothing except winning every point.” This essentially means that in order to be idolized and worshipped by the crowd, the gods of tennis cannot condescend to deal with earthly, profane matters such as politics or world affairs. For these gods are denizens of a much higher, exhalted plane of existence. In their Olympian court, they feast upon the ambrosia of physical excellence and the nectar of determination, regulated by the Titans of fair play. It is their ascetic devotion to their craft and its prize-money, to the exclusion of all other mundane and worldly things, that inspires their devotees and ensures their cult following. Marcos’s condescension into the corporeal world of ethnic conflict has truly tarnished his halo, for he is now naught but a fallen angel of that ethereal world.
Marcos is also to be blamed for another Olympian transgression. The gods of Tennis, eternal and unchanging in their various manifestations, are not only without worldly care but also devoid of nationality. When they do take on corporeal form, they adopt acceptable clean, crisp Anglo-Saxon/Western European modes of behaviour, in the interests of good sportsmanship, product endorsement and sound dental hygiene. At the minute that they assert some type of attachment to a terrestrial ethnicity, they go from being acclaimed as the ‘Scud,’ for example, to being denigrated as the ‘Poo.’
Marco’s entry into the tennis world was a cause of the creation of a significant body of fans who attend the Australian Open to flock to it in droves, not to worship his supernatural sporting abilities but rather, to revel in his terrestrial nationality. This is therefore, a double transgression. From the early part of the twentieth century, when government legislation made it illegal for Greek newspapers to be printed without an Australian translation of their article printed alongside to reassure a paranoid public that Greek migrants were law-abiding citizens, there has always been, as Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, in their groundbreaking study: ‘From Foreigners to Citizens: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897 - 2000,” a presumption that non-British-Australians are culturally and politically subversive. As a corollary, any autonomous public displays they may make of their cultural ethnicity, (government-sanctioned ones that ‘prove’ the success of multiculturalism excepting), are also presumed to be potentially subversive. The difficulties faced by the community from the Shrine of Remembrance Trustees in organising the annual National Day march and those faced by the Church in attempting to hold the annual blessing of the waters Theophaneia at Station Pier, by the relevant authorities are cases in point.
Invariably, such cultural manifestations as are permitted, are generally so permitted, as long as they remain within the ethnic ghetto. The showpiece of the Greek Community in Melbourne, for example, the Antipodes Festival, is attended by a vast majority of Greeks, a few other curious members of other ethnic groups and only a slight sprinkling of culturally enlightened British-Australians. This is a festival condoned as a way of containing our own feelings about our ethnic identity within our community and allowing them to spill over into the mainstream, where they may challenge assumptions about the British-Australian dominance over and mediation of ‘Multi-Cultural Australia.’
Thus, the presence of ‘Greeks’ being ‘Greek’ (as soon as you hold up a Greek flag and assert your cultural identity as that of a Greek, you automatically lose the right to an Australian identity, at least in the eyes of the reporting media,) at the tennis signifies an unprecedented and threatening intrusion of ethnics from the ghetto of their own activities, into a British-Australian domain. All of a sudden, fans are present not to enjoy the tennis, but the fact that they culturally identify with one of the players and to revel in that fact. Inevitably, such cultural manifestations in a domain where society has decreed they do not belong, will invariably be deemed as subversive (after all, they do not pay homage to the dominant culture - a condition precedent in society’s eyes for their continued toleration and existence), even when these are in effect, benign at best and at worst, scatological and rather silly.
If we compare and contrast the behaviour and treatment of the drunken denizens of Bay 13 at the cricket, and the loud and colourful Swedish tennis fans of yore, with those hapless fans who were subjected to a pepper spraying by fidgety, trigger-happy members of the police force at the slightest of ‘provocations’, clearly intimidated by overt displays of the Greek ethnicity and thus, treating these as subversive, the difference is clear. As fellow descendants of Vikings, there is a cultural affinity with the Swedes, as there is with the British conscripts of the Barmy Army. Their antics, though verging on the annoying and often, the downright dangerous, are considered an innocent bit of fun - after all, going bezerk is a hallowed Viking custom. The public expressions of those persons born in Australia with a Greek cultural affinity, whether these include attempts to fly ‘ethnic’ flags at football matches or chanting in Greek at the tennis, are in contrast, not to be considered in similar jocular vein. They are alien, dangerous and must be punished, so that they are relegated back to their properly appointed sphere, the ethnic ghetto, where they will not raise their perniciously foreign head to vex British-Australian custom ever again.
As ‘subversives’ by virtue of our own ethnicity and our own almost unique hysterical need to assert our ethnic identity in the public sphere, as if to reassure ourselves constantly that we exist in our preferred hypostasis, we ought to be wary of the conventional parameters in which such assertions are made. Sympathy and understanding for cultural diversity is not gained by the immature bleating of expletives in public fora, nor are sporting matches the appropriate places to agitate political issues, in any culture or circumstance. A good deal of circumspection is required if we are to address the ontopathology of a society that, according to Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, seeks to legitimise its dispossession of this land from its original inhabitants, by culturally and politically dominating the peoples it has ‘allowed’ to enter it.
This notwithstanding, the media hysteria over our own Olympian’s predilection for politicizing what is truly a righteous cause in a private setting, can only be viewed as a concerted, racist attempt to discredit the stock of this popular athlete, in the lead up to his vanquishing in his match with Lleyton Hewitt. His links to an adoring, Hellenocentric and thus subversive fan club, suitably and cynically ‘played up,’ have merely served to enhance his ‘foreignness,’ in an attempt to alienate him further from the goodwill of the mainstream. Interestingly enough, according to one spectator, at the Baghdatis-Hewitt game, Baghdatis fans were directed to sit in the ‘nose-bleed section of the arena. When asked why, an apologetic security guy who happened to look ‘Mediterranean’ advised that security had been directed to make sure no Hellas Fan Club or blue of any kind was to be shown in the game.
If any lesson is thus to be drawn from this year’s Australian Open, it is that ethnic identity is not something that can be taken for granted. Since the radical, brilliant community activism of the seventies and eighties that saw the official institution of multiculturalism and Greek language programs at tertiary institutions, our community has rested on its laurels, allowing itself to slip blissfully into the margins of Australian society. Just how far it will continue to do so, will depend on our own willingness to assert ourselves not within the context of the subservient and/or law-abiding foreigner, but rather as truly equal partners in the forging of the subtly composite identity of this nation. After all, are we not, in the words of the great British bard Shakespeare, all children of: “A man whom both the waters and the wind/ In that vast tennis court, have made the ball/ For them to play upon.”

First published in NKEE on 28 January 2008

Monday, January 21, 2008


You can always tell when gemista are about to be served or prepared at my place, for the fortuitous culinary circumstance is invariably preceded by me walking around the house, intoning my own particular adaptation of the popular Hellenocynic song: «Γκρέμισ’ τα, γκρέμισ’ τα, όλα πια,» to wit: «Γέμισ’ τα, γέμισ’ τα, όλα πια, γέμισ’ την, γέμισ’ την πιπεριά.» While not as poetic as Burn’s Ode to the Haggis, it is just as compact and what is more, one can gyrate oneself to its rhythm, in honour and emulation of the vine leaf that turns upon itself in order to enclose and stuff within its wet embrace, succulent morsels of pure paradise. Sometimes the longing is so exquisitely painful, the wanting so wistful, especially with regard to κρεμμύδια γεμιστά, that satiation is tantamount to an anabaptism in its name.
One denizen of the forgotten realms of Greek history who was similarly full of himself was a certain Georgios Gemistos, neo-platonist philosopher, pagan pundit and polymath extraordinaire. He was one of the chief pioneers of the revival of learning in Western Europe and an utterly absorbing personality in his own right.
As if to drive the culinary motif further, he re-named himself Πλήθων/Plethon, this also being an archaic translation of the modern Greek γεμιστός/gemistos (“full, stuffed”). However, unlike the coeleodoulic diatribist, Plethon’s anabaptism is due to his enamourment and close spiritual connection with the philosopher Plato. From the moment he put pen to paper, he sparked off a Manichaean barrage of criticism as well as support, that can only be likened to the contemporary reaction in the Hellenic pages of this august broadsheet, to the similar musings of our own contemporary, much maligned, but ultimately benign Philosopher. Thus, while his enemies retorted that: “he called himself Plethon as if insinuating a link with the soul of Plato,” his supporters adulantly described as “a second Plato.”
Plethon was definitely a man of controversial views and wide ranging intellectual pursuits. He authored De Differentiis, a description of the differences between Plato and Aristotle’s conceptions of God. George Scholarios, who later became Gennadius II , first patriarch of the fallen Constantinople, came to defend Aristotelian views and convinced the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos that Plethon's support for Plato amounted to heresy. Manuel had Plethon confined in Mistra, near Sparta, where he became something of a celebrity. More than any of his contemporaries, he embodied the notion that Greek scholars embodied ancient Greek wisdom, which could serve practical purposes. Thus, while in Mistra, where he was appointed as a judge by the local despots, he suggested radical administrative reforms that looked back to ancient Sparta and forward to Karl Marx: “all the land should be the common property of all its inhabitants.. the produce of the labour of all… should be divided in three parts.” The military would be exempt from taxes and were to be maintained by the State and by a a tax-paying labourer, which he called a “helot.”
The indefatigable Plethon also wrote pamphlets to Manuel II describing how the Empire could be reorganized according to the principles of Plato’s Republic. At a time when Byzantium was about to be swallowed whole by the final Turkish onslaught, Plethon felt that only a revival of ancient Greek social values and religion could arrest the terminal decline of Hellenism, a conviction that is keenly felt by our own parochial Philosopher and many more besides in the present day. Thus, in his Book of Laws, devoted to his thoughts on theology, ethics, politics, ceremonies and science, Plethon composed a whole liturgy for the worship of Zeus, which contained also, this fascinating prayer to the gods of learning:
“Come to us o gods of learning, whoever and however may ye be; ye who are guardians of scientific knowledge and true belief; ye who distribute them to whomsoever you wish, in accordance with the dictates of the great father of all things, Zeus the King…”
In Plethon’s conception, Zeus was the absolute good; ungenerated, everlasting, the father of himself and pre-eminent creator of all things. The Olympian gods were few, existing outside space. Despite his eclectic polytheistic beliefs and his invocation of the powers of the gods and the doctrines taught by Pythagoras, Plato, Kouretes and Zoroaster, as superior to any other, he was somewhat of a psychopathic prude. Interspersed among his writings are suggestions that adulterous women should have their heads shaved and be forced to live as prostitutes. In contrast, rapists, homosexuals and those indulging in bestial acts would be punished by immolation. He also dismissed the Christian doctrine of happiness through future immortality as misleading, his doctrine of continued and repeated reincarnation of the soul offering the soul an absolute eternity – past and future.
It truly is one of the wonderful paradoxes of the Byzantine psyche that saw the essentially pagan Plethon enlisted in the delegation of 1438, when Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus attended the Council of Ferrara-Florence, to discuss a union of the Orthodox Church with the West, along with his former student Basilios Bessarion, a great humanist and later Roman Cardinal.
As a secular scholar, Plethon was often not needed at the Council, though he could be called upon to settle disputes with devastating effect, thus scoring goals for the Orthodox. He proved for example that a Latin document, supposedly issued by the Seventh Oecumenical Council, was a forgery. Instead, he set up a temporary school to teach interested Florentines about previously unknown (to them) works of Plato. In doing so, he essentially reintroduced Plato to the Western world, and shook the exclusive domination which Aristotle had exercised over Western European thought for eight centuries. Cosimo de’ Medici attended these lectures and later founded the Accademia Platonica in Florence, where Italian students of Plethon continued to teach the works of Plato after the conclusion of the Council. Because of this, Plethon is considered one of the most important influences on the Italian Renaissance. Marsilio Ficino, the Florentine humanist and the first director of the Accademia Platonica, who translated Plato’s Symposium under Plethon’s guidance, was the first to pay him the ultimate honour of calling him ‘the second Plato.’ Plethon’s mystical interest in the Corpus Hermeticum also came to be reflected in such ideas as the Muses, the Liberal Arts, the Cardinal Virtues, and the Heavenly Spheres, depicted from the Renaissance to the present day, on Tarot Cards. Some of these ideas are enshrined in the symbolism of the works of such great Renaissance masters as Botticelli.
Plethon’s interest in problems of geography and his discussion of Strabo’s Geographika also inspired debate among Renaissance scholars and would-be explorers. One of his students, Paolo Toscanelli, would, based upon Plethon’s commentary on Strabo, write in 1474, a decade and a half before Columbus, that the quickest way to reach the Far East from Europe, was to sail west.
Plethon’s impassioned defence of Platonism and that of his beloved students Michael Apostoles, Ioannis Argyropoulos and Bessarion, who continued his research against the criticism of the Aristotelianism of George Trapezountios and the future Patriarch Gennadios continued until his death in 1452, a year before his native city finally fell to the hordes of Mehmet II the Conqueror. Prior to his death, Plethon championed the building of the Hexamilion, a wall across the Isthmus of Corinth in order to secure the country from invasion. Such was his stature among the Byzantines, that his wall was built, though it failed to prove the impregnable defensive fortification that he envisaged and was subsequently pulled down by the Turks.
Patriarch Gennadios Scholarios only read Plethon’s Book of Laws after it was sent to him by Turks, after the fall of Constantinople. In the capacity of Patriarch, he condemned Plethon’s fervent enthusiasm for Hellenic religion and ordered all copies of the book to be burned. In this way, the remarkeable writings of an erudite and brilliant scholar were largely lost, his name plunged into obscurity.
In contrast, our own parochial Philosopher has ensured his immortality by his widely acclaimed and popular editions of his collected works, printed on imperishable, acid-free paper. All that remains is to pray that some righteous future editor of the Novus Orbis, fuelled with the zeal and fervour of correct belief, does not consign that section of the archives to the conflagration of oblivion.
A few years after the destruction of Plethon’s works, one of his Italian disciples, Sigismondo Malatesta led a campaign against the Turks, who had forced the Despot Demetrios of Mistras to flee to Constantinople after their capture of the city in 1460. In 1464, Malatesta regained the lower town, where he found Plethon’s grave. Years before, he had tried to persuade Plethon to head his school at Rimini, to no avail. Now, however, he could ensure a more appropriate burial for his hero, He removed Plethon’s bones from Mistras, “so that the great Teacher may be among free men,” and interred them with reverence in the wall of his Tempio Malatestiano, where the dedication inscription may still be read: “The remains of Gemistos the Byzantine, Prince of Philosophers in his time.”
Along with our Marbles, we ought to claim back the bones of our last, internationally acclaimed philosopher. His love for the ancient world, his espousal of its accomplishments and his hunger to grant them a contemporary application, just as the jaws of destruction yawned upon his civilisation were as futile as they were endearingly Hellenic. Yet all was not lost. Half a millenium on, Plethon is reincarnated as the Philosopher, raising the ancient ideals from the quagmire of self-interest, ignorance and modern values. Today, as our identity is threatened by assimilation and capitulation to the ways of anhellenism, Plethon’s inspiration shines as a beacon from the pages of Novus Orbis Graecus. And in the solitude of its Saxon margins, the hesychast, lovingly completes his meal of dolmades and thus fully stuffed, rubs his hands together and waits….


First published in NKEE on 21 January 2008

Monday, January 14, 2008


As a child, I was entranced by the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights. Their plots were so intricate, the settings inordinately more exotic than anything that could be found in traditional Greek tales, save those gleaned, polished and refurbished into suitable for child consumption portions, from Greek mythology, which were suitably reconstructed from fragments of archeological finds and were decidedly the quality and finish of Parian marble, quite devoid of the incense, cinnamon or myrrh from the intoxicating East. I would climb on top of the kitchen table, large kitchen spoon in hand, tea-towel wrapped turban-like around my head and pretend that I was Sinbad, or at least Douglas Fairbanks Junior pretending to be Sinbad, rowing my sturdy craft through the Indian Ocean. At some stage, I ventured across the Symplygades, the clashing rocks, too late to discover that I had inadvertedly floated drifted into the wrong myth, whereupon the incensed agents of Appollonius Rhodius, manifest in the guise of my parents, unceremoniously extricated me from the table and relegated me to the Colchis of the backyard, there to seek the Golden Fleece between the garden hose and the rhododendron.
Sinbad the Sailor is a story-cycle of ancient origin about a sailor from Basra in moder-day Iraq during the Abbasid Caliphate, who has numerous fantastic adventures during his voyages in the Indian Ocean. The collection is tale 133 in Volume 6 of Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the Book of One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights, which remains the classic translation in English.
The Arabian Nights is comprised of tales told by the beautiful maiden Scheherezade over a period of a thousand and one nights. Each tale must so capture the interest of the King Sharyar that he will wish to hear it continued the next evening, for he has sworn to wed a virgin each night and have her executed the next morning, so convinced is he that a woman of good virtue cannot be found. At the close of the 536th night Scheherazade gives the setting for the tales of Sinbad: a poor porter pauses to rest on a bench outside the gate of a rich merchant's house, where he complains to God about the injustice of a world which allows the rich to live in ease while he must toil and yet remain poor. The owner of the house hears, and sends for the porter, and it is found they are both named Sinbad. The rich Sinbad tells the poor Sinbad that he became wealthy, “by Fortune and Fate,” in the course of seven fantastic voyages, which he then proceeds to relate.
These fantastic stories are based partly on real experiences of sailors around the Indian Ocean. As such, the Arabic tales of draw heavily upon ancient literature including Homer’s Odyssey, Appollonius Rhodius’ Voyage of Argo and Vishnu Sarma’s Panchatantra, and even 6th century Byzantine monk Cosmas Indicopleustes’ account of his voyage to India entitled ‘Christian topography,’ as well as other Indian and Persion epics.
The significant influence and borrowing from the Ancient Greek tradition that becomes apparent these stories seems to suggest that Greek mythology and culture, introduced to the Middle East by the conquests of Alexander and the occupation of the Seleucids and cultivated as a matter of prestige during the Byzantine era, managed to penetrate the local cultures to such an extent that they were informed them and were gradually assimilalted by them.
For instance, in the third voyage of Sinbad, he and his companions are cast up on an island where they are captured by “a huge creature in the likeness of a man, black of colour, ... with eyes like coals of fire and eye-teeth like boar's tusks and a vast big gape like the mouth of a well. Moreover, he had long loose lips like camel's, hanging down upon his breast and ears like two Jarms falling over his shoulder-blades and the nails of his hands were like the claws of a lion.” This monster begins eating the crew, beginning with the Master, who is the fattest. Sinbad hatches a plan to blind the giant with the red-hot iron spits with which the monster has been kebabing the ship’s company, and so he and the remaining men escape. The parallels with Homer’s Polyphemus are inescapable.
In the fourth voyage of Sinbad, he is shipwrecked. The naked savages amongst whom he finds himself feed his companions a herb which robs them of their reason. Again the parallel here with the Lotus-eaters in the Odyssey is glaring. Sinbad refuses to eat the plant, and escapes. A party of itinerant pepper-gatherers transports him to their own island, where their king befriends him and gives him a beautiful and wealthy wife. Here we see a parallel to the isle of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey. Too late Sinbad learns of a peculiar custom of the land: on the death of one marriage partner, the other is entombed alive with his or her spouse. Sinbad’s wife dies, leaving Sinbad trapped in an underground cavern, unable to escape until one day a wild animal shows him a passage to the outside, high above the sea. From here a passing ship rescues him and carries him back to Baghdad. This tale is evidently taken from the escape of Aristomenes the Messenian from the pit into which he had been thrown, a fox being his guide. Its insertion into the narrative speaks volumes as to the esteem the Arabic peoples held Greek literature and their scholarship of it.
Similarly, in Sinbad’s fifth voyage, is enslaved by the Old Man of the Sea, who rides on his shoulders with his legs twisted round Sinbad's neck and will not let go, riding him both day and night until Sinbad would welcome death, in clear parallel to the Triton of Greek mythology.
While Burton and other Western translators have grouped the Sinbad stories within the tales of Scheherazade, the Arabian Nights, its origin appears to have been quite independent from that story cycle and modern translations by Arab scholars often do not include the stories of Sinbad or several other of the Arabian Nights that have become familiar to Western audiences.
They are justified in so doing, since, quite apart from the heavy borrowing from the Greek tradition, the whole tale seems to have been adapted from a much earlier tale, circulating in Greek, purporting to have been written by Syntipas (the Greek form of Sinbad) supposedly an Indian philosopher of 100 BC, in his collection of tales known generally in Europe as The Story of the Seven Wise Masters.
They enjoyed immense popularity, and appeared in many Oriental and Western languages. The Greek tale, probably translated from a lost, early Syriac version, appears to be the earliest specimen of Romaic prose we have and is entitled: The most pleasing Story of Syntipas the Philosopher. It is preceded by an introduction in iambic verse by a certain Michael Andreopoulos, who states that it was executed by order of Michael, probably the duke of Melitine in Armenia. In this tale, the same misogynistic attitudes towards women are employed as in the Arabian Nights, while there are heavy parallels to the story of Joesph and Potiphar’s wife in the Old Testament.
The main outline is the same in the different versions of this tale, although they vary in detail and include different stories. A Roman emperor causes his son to be educated away from the court, in the seven liberal arts by seven wise masters. On his return to court his stepmother the empress seeks to seduce him. Her advances having been rejected, she accuses him to his father, who decides to put him to death. The hapless young stud is unable to defend himself, because to avert some danger presaged by the stars he is bound by one of his tutors to a week's silence. The device of the Arabian Nights is introduced by the wise men of the court, who in turn relate stories to dissuade the king from over-hasty punishment, each story being answered by the queen, who desires instant action to be taken. When the period of silence is over the prince speaks and establishes his innocence.
Such was the power of this tale to capture the imagination that it spread both back to the East, were it was reworked into the Sinbad Tale, and to the West. It was translated from Greek into Latin in the 12th century by Jean de Hauteseille, a monk of the abbey of Haute-Seille near Toul, with the title of Dolopathos. This in turn, was translated into French about 1210 by a troubadour named Herbers as Li romans de Dolopathos; another French version, Li Romans des sept sages, was also made. Various German, English, and Spanish booklets of the cycle were also made, generally based on a different Latin original. Three metrical romances probably based on the French, and dating from the 14th century, exist in English. The most important of these is The Sevyn Sages by Rolland of Dalkeith, published 1837. There is even a traditional Serbian epic folksong devoted to the story.
The Greek Syntipas cycle of tales had an enduring effect upon the formation of Renaissance and indeed world literature. Giovanni BOccaccio used many of them for his Decameron, the Latin romance was frequently printed in the 15th century, and Wynkyn de Worde printed an English version about 1515, one of the earliest printed English books to enjoy a wide circulation. In his Ulysses, James Joyce uses ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ as an alias for the character of W.B. Murphy and as an analogue to Odysseus.
Casting aside such attempts to Americanise our thoroughly Greek, albeit Semitised hero, as are evident in diverse Holywood masterpieces to wit: Popeye the Sailor meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) (though the Pundits are out as to whether Popeye was actually based upon a notorious real-life Greek-American sailor known as Gourlomatis) and Sinbad Jr (1965), if anything is to be truly drawn from this amazing confluence of tales, motifs and inspiration, it is this: that the roving spirit that motivates humanity to adventure and escape is truly universal. Our literary tradition is venerable enough to permit us to attest that our people have been possesed of it from the outset and we have shared it liberally with our neighbours. What never ceases to amaze, is the manner in which the literary tradition flows down the Greek rivers and rivulets into the great global sea, only to have it wash back up years alter upon home shores, vitally changed, though intrinsically the same.
We leave you this week with a message from the man himself: "Know, O Hammal, that my story is a wonderful one, and thou shalt hear all that befel me and all I underwent ere I rose to this state of prosperity and became the lord of this place wherein thou seest me; for I came not to this high estate save after travail sore and perils galore, and how much toil and trouble have I not suffered in days of yore!” No pain no gain, sailor.


First published in NKEE on 14 January 2008

Monday, January 07, 2008


“Marriage is a wonderful institution… but who wants to live in an institution?” Groucho Marx.

Χρόνια Πολλά και καλή χρονιά. For my part, I would have to confess that I do not really know how I come find myself married at the turn of this New Year and for this, Greek demotic songs are to blame, in particular, Epirotic ones. For reasons that warrant further elucidation, Epirot demotic songs are diametrically opposed to marriage per se. When one considers that, for example, the men of Cheimarra were considered immature and ineligible for marriage until they attained the venerable age of fifty, at which time they were married off to underage girls, Ambrose Bierce’s assertion that “the world had suffered more from the ravages of ill-advised marriages than from virginity,” is lent added weight.
Take for example the Epirotic folk song of Kostantis, my name-sake, who is considering marriage. Does the demotic bard offer sweet words of sage advice, akin to those of Andre Maurois, to the effect that “A successful marriage is an edifice that must be built every day?” Does he closely counsel, as did the great Lao Tzu, that “Marriage is three parts love and seven parts forgiveness of sins?” Does he caution, Benjamin Franklin-like, to “keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half-shut afterwards?” No. In the case of Kostantis, no advice can be given, no Melway reference to help him avoid pitfalls along the way, save that his chosen path is one of mortal peril, and thus, should not be traversed. Thus: «Την Κυριακή, σαν παντρευτείς/ άϊντε την Τρίτη θα πεθάνεις.» (If you get married on Sunday, on Tuesday you will die.)
Similarly Panagio’s song casts aspersions upon Honore de Balzac’s conviction that “One should believe in marriage as in the immortality of the soul.” In that song, Panagio, a particularly nubile Epirot girl, who is prime marriage material is discouraged from taking the plunge as it were, through the employment of the argument that «Τι κι αν παντρευτείς; Θα φιλήσεις, θα αγκαλιάσεις και θα βαρεθείς.» (So what if you get married? You will kiss, you will embrace, and then you will get bored.)
Even more ominous is the Constantinopolitan song «Αρχοντογιός παντρεύεται,» where the evil bourgeois mother in law engages in class conflict and perpetuates the persecution of the proletariat by poisoning her economically disadvantaged daughter in law’s fish, proving James Thurber right when he postulated that “The most dangerous food is wedding cake.”
It was from this anti-wedding position that I returned from the reception centre in early 2007, having discussed and resolved such weighty topics as the precise arrangement of candelabras and most importantly for the sustenance-obsessed culinary freaks that comprise the Kalimniou horde, the presentation of food offerings, the wind blowing mercilessly through my hollow pockets, whispering the ominous demotic verse in my ears: «Κωστάκη μην παντρεύεσαι και μην πολλά ξοδιάζεις...» Having explained to my then fiancée that my misgivings were not cold feet, but were deeply founded in literary analysis, she proceeded to unilaterally resolve my poetic dilemma by arranging a Saturday wedding, thus avoiding the curse of Kostantis, which seems only to be activated by nuptials conducted on the Lord’s day.
The rest of the year could well have been reflected in Zig Ziglar’s observation that: “Many people spend more time in planning the wedding than they do in planning the marriage,” had it not been for the fact that, both of us not having been married before and being possessed of relatively few clues as to how to go about doing so, any planning that took place, did so within the midst of total confusion and disorganization, my fiancée valiantly attempting to explain why place cards are important and my parents rolling their eyes in despair as I disputed the need for a wedding cake given that none are ever mentioned in Epirotic folk-songs.
My original conviction was that in traditional thinking, wedding celebrations have little to do with the married couple. Instead, they are a display window or shop front of their families, a chance to strut their stuff, (who can resist a mother in law of sturdy peasant stock making her grand entrance at the reception, replete with royal wave and large hat?) or at best, discharge reciprocal obligations to third parties who have invited them to their own offsprings’ weddings in the past. A poor wedding thus reflects poorly upon the parents of the newlyweds, as does one of questionable taste though too often here it is the case of the one eyed man in the kingdom of the blind that is the arbiter of taste in bourgeois weddings lifted out of context from Italian customs, the silver screen and a multitude of women’s magazines. For many modern day newlyweds, their wedding day is perceived to be one of the few, if not the only time when all attention will be placed upon them and their otherwise insignificant lives and every moment of it is stage managed and contrived to full, if somewhat dubious effect. As Eliott Erwitt states: “Now very often, events are set up for photographers… The weddings are orchestrated about the photographers taking the picture, because if it hasn’t been photographed, it doesn’t really exist.”
In the end, our bourgeois conception could not supersede the conviction that the main focus of any wedding should be the progenitors of the main protagonists, who laboured long and hard to propagate and grow their seedlings, only to have them graft themselves onto total strangers. As I cleaned out my drawers from the room I had slept in for most of my life, I reflected that for a parent, mixed in with the joy, a wedding is also a time of misgiving, fear (as to whether the graft will take) and sadness and it is for this reason that much could be done to mitigate this fact. In the process, I discovered that my mother had bizarrely lined my bottom drawers with copies of the September 1970 edition of the Australian Socialist, containing such edifying articles as one entitled “Apartheid is Shit.”
On the day of my wedding, when the photographers arrived and no one was ready because the Kalimnious were busily engaged in cooking for the hordes that would descend upon the family home to ensure that I did not try to do a runner, my koumbaro and one of the groomsmen discovered that their shirt had not been provided with their hire suits. As I rushed to the car, the rollicking strains of Robert Brownings’ “How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” (“I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris and he; I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three) came to mind, mixed in with the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, stirred, not shaken: “Marriage is like life – it is a field of battle, not a bed of roses.” I returned home bearing extra shirts, only to discover that the original shirts had been present in the suit bag all along.
When I arrived at the church, I was in a daze, totally dissociated from my surroundings. I mused upon cars driving past, engaged upon their own business, oblivious to the fundamental change in my life that was about to take place. When the priest put the cup of wine to my lips, I was so thirsty that I said out loud, “thank you,” causing my father to guffaw loudly. To great comic effect, at the conclusion of the reading of St Paul’s epistle, I stretched out my foot and placed in squarely on that of my wife, to the cheers of both Greeks and Assyrians, who also have this custom. Looking back furtively at the congregation, I noticed that an honour guard of Pontians dressed in their full regalia had been positioned themselves at the aisle, a surprise gift by a devoted Pontian friend and a gesture appreciated especially by my newly arrived Athenian grandmother, who was touched to witness what she called: “ a lovely Assyrian custom.”
The mystery having been completed, the priest who had baptized me thirty years ago clasped our hands, telling my wife sternly: “You are a very lucky woman,” before kissing us both. I squeezed her hand and muttered “moskhine,” meaning ‘poor thing’ in Assyrian. We now belonged to each other, something we could not believe and which, a little less than a month later, is only just beginning to sink in.
Heinrich Heine once mused: “Music played at weddings always reminds me of the music played for soldiers before they go into battle.” Admittedly, the concept of music at the wedding reception filled me with foreboding. In the case of mixed marriages, guests and family alike often suddenly remember their ethnicity and flaunt it in order to gain ascendancy or achieve a feeling of superiority over each other. A chilly atmosphere ensues with half the hall seated on tenderhooks waiting their turn, while the other half is on the dance floor, eyeing them and knowing that they are about to be kicked off at the commencement of the alien revels. We had no such problem, simply because my wife and indeed many Assyrians in Melbourne have either lived in Greece and thus are completely enamoured of Greek music. Similarly, Assyrian music differs only slightly if at all from it, permitting guests of all sides to enjoy themselves, parents to breathe a sigh of relief and my Athenian grandmother to exclaim: “These Pontians have lovely dances don’t they?”
It was while I was observing my guests dance, with band leader and former NKEE editor Argyris Argyropoulos valiantly keeping the beat while struggling with temporary blindness caused by oxygenocolysis, that I finally understood what weddings were about. Before me paraded people I had always known, who had always loved and supported me, my family. My wife, persecuted and displaced from her country was not afforded the same privilege. Her family is scattered across the ends of the earth, with her friends, neighbours and members of her community comprising her surrogate family. Here were people that were reveling in our happiness and our task was to remain constant at their side, to return their love and maintain, throughout our lives, a sense of cohesion, a sense of family. It was at this moment, when I remembered in my speech all those elements in my upbringing, inserted surreptitiously by my parents, that morphed, or if you ask my sister, distorted my psyche, that I almost broke down, like Humphrey Bogart, who attested that “I always cry at weddings, especially my own.” My wife is much too tall to be carried over the threshold. When we arrived at our home, she collapsed into an armchair and I set about extricating her hair from the constraints of the fetishistic fantasies of a demented hairdresser with pretensions to couture. We fell asleep.


First published in NKEE on 7 January 2008