Monday, May 26, 2008


As private parts to the gods are we, they play with us for their sport.” Lord Melchett.

“Through a complicated process of superimposed exposures taken in different parts of the house, he was sure that sooner or later he would get a daguerrotype of God, if he existed, or put an and once and for all to the supposition of his existence.” Gabriel García Márquez.

Have you ever heard the one about the dyslexic agnostic? He sat up all night in bed wondering whether there truly is a dog. What about the one about the Greek agnostic who had to resign because he had an opinion? Over the years, one of the most striking parallels to be found between letter writers in the Greek section of Neos Kosmos (who invariably belong to the first generation) and letter writers in NKEE who are comprised mainly of second generation Greek Australians with an admixture of a few articulate first generationers seeking to preach to the latter generations thrown in for good measure, is their concern for religion and in particular, its place within Greek society.
Regular, veteran perusers of this august publication would recall that this was no more so evident than when Dr Kostas Vitkos graced its pages with his philosophical discourses. All of a sudden, the letters page was filled with enraged or inspired readers, hurling fire and brimstone at each other, as they attempted to convert each other to their points of view with a zeal that a Jesuit would envy. Even Russian priests felt compelled to weigh into the debate and week after week the same themes would be returned to, rehashed and regurgitated: Does God exist? Is not Christianity detrimental to the progress of Hellenism? Should we view our Christian tradition as simply tradition? What should we believe? Most importantly of all: Is not everyone who does not agree with us a heretic or an imbecile? As recently as a few weeks ago, Jeanna Vithoulkas provided us with her own fascinating insight into this age old celestial angst, through the telling story of her son and his foray of discovery into the world of Greek religion, which is quite distinct from her own experience.
My own experience has been slightly more extreme. Fascinated as a five year old by the pomp and pageantry of the church, as well as karate and folktales, I remember donning a blue Chinese dressing gown with a dragon embroidered on the back (this was my karate robe, though I was infinitely jealous of my cousin, who had the same robe in black, for as he explained, black belt is better than blue belt), passing a gold cross around my neck and sitting very quietly at the kitchen table with a book of Persian folktales. When my surprised father walked into the room and asked me what I was doing, I replied that I was a Persian priest. I think he must have related the incident to my grandmother, for upon my next visit to her, she took me aside and advised me that if I wanted to become a priest, I would have to have my genitals removed. Come to think of it, for all her devotion to the Church, my grandmother must have been a heretical Manichaean. Though she devoutly followed all the forms, rubrics and traditions, she was possessed of strange ideas. For example, when I happened to mention the final resurrection of the dead one day, she remarked: “That’s rubbish. These are the things that Jehovah’s witnesses say to lead people astray. Once you’re gone, that’s it.”
Then there was the time that I mentioned to my fearsome Orthodox fundamentalist great-aunt that Christ was Jewish. “Whhaaaat?” she screamed, opening her mouth to emit a brilliant flash of the most expensive golden prosthetics ever to have illuminated the cosmos. When I then proceeded to furnish her with the requisite proofs from the bible in her living room, she snatched it from me, spitting: “That bible must have been written by Communists. Christ was not Jewish. He was Greek.” Thus, while I can truly admit in the manner of the Old Testament that I believe in the God of my forefathers, I definitely do not believe in that of my grandmothers, for this would lead to a labyrinth of infinite Gnostic frustrations.
It would appear strange from the outset, for a nation whose literature, sayings, popular culture, traditions and lifestyle seems to revolve, in their vast majority around the Greek Orthodox Church, to be so obsessed with questioning the validity of that which forms a very large and important part of its identity. Yet such a questioning about things celestial is not only replete with historical precedent, it forms the foundation of who we are.
First of all, it is not without coincidence that the very word atheist, is a Greek one, meaning “without god.” The word began to indicate more-intentional, active godlessness in the 5th century BC, acquiring definitions of “severing relations with the gods” or “denying the gods” instead of the earlier meaning of ασεβής, or “impious". As an abstract noun, there was also the word «αθεότης» “atheism”. Around the same time that Euripides was writing the Bacchae as a cautionary tale against disbelieving in the gods and Hesiod was establishing in his Theogony, some sort of Greek religious and mythological canon, whereby: “"upon the earth are thrice ten thousand immortals of the host of Zeus, guardians of mortal man. They watch both justice and injustice, robed in mist, roaming abroad upon the earth,” other thinkers were moving in a completely opposite direction.
Indeed, it could be said that western atheism has its roots in pre-Socratic Greek philosophy. The fifth century BC philosopher Diagoras, who strongly criticized religion and mysticism, is often considered as the first atheist. Critias tended to view religion as a human invention used to frighten people into following moral order. In a revolution of thought, atomists such as Democritus attempted to explain the world in a purely materialistic way, without reference to the spiritual or mystical. Other pre-Socratic philosophers who probably had atheistic views included Prodicus and Protagoras. In the third century BC, the Greek philosophers Theodoros and Stratos of Lampsacus also did not believe gods exist.
As a corollary, it is in ancient Greece that we first have atheism being seen as am issue with political and social, rather than intelletual implications. The great Socrates was accused of being an atheist on the basis that his teaching inspired questioning of the state gods. Although he disputed the accusation that he was a complete athiest, he was ultimately sentenced to death. Interesting too, from an archaeological and anthropological view are the views of Ephemerus, around 240 BC. He believed that the gods were only the deified rulers, conquerors and founders of the past, and that their cults and religions were in essence the continuation of vanished kingdoms and earlier political structures. As such, he was later criticized by some of the more pious of his contemporaries, for having “spread atheism over the whole inhabited earth by obliterating the gods.”
The list of Greek thinkers who doubted the gods is thus a lengthy one. Atomic materialist Epicurus disputed many religious doctrines, including the existence of an afterlife or a personal deity and instread considered the soul to be purely material and mortal. While Epicureanism did not rule out the existence of gods, Epicurus believed that if they did exist, they were unconcerned with humanity.
These thinkers can be contrasted with others such as Pythagoras whose religious ideas ranged from the mathematical (“number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons,”) to the fantastic, given that he believed in the reincarnation of the soul again and again into the bodies of humans, animals, or vegetables until it became moral. As such, he claimed to have lived four lives that he could remember in detail, and heard the cry of his dead friend in the bark of a dog. If you believe other philosophers, he was a bit of a god himself. Aristotle described Pythagoras as wonder-worker and somewhat of a supernatural figure, attributing to him such aspects as a golden thigh, which was a sign of divinity. According to Aristotle, it was commonly believed that he had the ability, much like Doctor Who, to travel through space and time, and to communicate with animals and plants. That, coupled with the ancient Greeks covering their landscape with tenples to the gods, and indulging in their devotion to an immense number of cults and you get a generally intensely religious people, desperately wanting to believe in something, coupled with an opposing healthy dose of scepticism.
Is it then coincidence that Christianity spread so rapidly around the Greek world? Is it coincidence that the same people who were willing to condemn Socrates for impiety were also fired with a similar zeal to destroy the temples of their forefathers? Probably not. While it is true that the Greeks transformed the Eastern Roman Empire into an entity that was supposed to mirror the Heavenly Court and the Kingdom of God, (Leo III considered himself to be both emperor and priest,) it is as equally true that the major schisms and religious controversies that wracked that Empire and eventually contributed to its downfall, were introduced by Greek scholars and clerics who would not take no for an answer and were eager to defend and debate their point of view to the last. History, but not the diptychs, are littered with their names: Nestorius, Severus of Antioch and Varlaam of Calabria to name but a few. A whole political movement, that of Iconoclasm was created out of a religious controversy over icons and their use and arguably, its adoption by the military classes, saved the Empire from being overrun by the Arabs.
Since that time, and especially after the Western-imposed neo-classical movement compelled us to think of our ancient ancestors as wholly wise, rational, balanced and logical, (something that the ancients themselves, believing in the balance of all things would have balked at) and to feel bad about the irrational, supernatural and endearingly human side of our tradition, we have struggled to reconstitute our identity and to indentify desirable and undesirable elements whose addition and/or removal will assist us to recommence treading the path of historical greatness. This malady is but another manifestation of the enquiring mind that has formed part of our psyche for millenia. It is but a small element in our eternal philosophical quest: What should we believe?
At the end of the day, none of us can abrogate to ourselves the role of the sole arbiter of things Hellenic. That being said, it is worthwhile attempting to fully understand that which we purport to accept and/or reject. The way we dissect, question and deconstruct ourselves and the world around us, is perhaps our most endearing quality. For my part, these lines from Cavafy sum up my attitude towards a significant part of my own tradition, and I revel, as I am sure that great Alexandrine did, in the intactness of my nether regions:
“I love the church, its hexapteriga,/ the silver of its sacred vessels, its candlesticks,/ the lights,/ its icons, its pulpit./ When I enter a church of the Greeks,/ with its fresh incense,/ with its voices and liturgical choirs,/ the stately presence of the priests/ and the solemn rhythm of each of their movements-/ most resplendent in the adornment of their vestments/ my mind goes to the high honors of our race,/ to the glory of our Byzantine tradition.”


First published in NKEE on 26 May 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008


“Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons' wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you.”
The ways of the Council of Greeks Abroad, have in the past, proved as mysterious as they are inscrutable. Some years ago, when I had the dubious privilege of being one of its Oceania Youth Co-ordinators, we returned from a New Zealand conference flushed with excitement at the pending implementation of resolutions aimed at sending Greek media to isolated pockets of Hellenism, providing monetary incentives for the study of Modern Greek and greater communication between youth in various regions. We were soon disabused of our enthusiasm by the senior committee, which advised that Greece would not allow the youth a budget and that though monies were allocated to the senior body for the purposes of the youth, the senior body had sought fit to allocate that money, without any consultation with the youth, to the holding of the Pan-Hellenic Games - an event whose lasting effect on the welfare of Hellenism in Australia is questionable to say the least. The Youth of SAE Oceania, most of them full time students, took it upon themselves to bear the cost of sending educational material and newspapers to New Zealand.
Somehow, by 2005, enough money was found by the seniors to compel the Youth to hold an expenses-paid conference in Adelaide. At that conference, the same tried and true issues were discussed, the same resolutions were passed and the same level of enthusiasm reigned, only to fall once more into the heady morass of indifference and oblivion. In 2006, when informed that Greece had decided to disband the SAE Youth network altogether and allocate only 2 seats out of hundreds to Australian youth delegates, the youth committed perhaps the most noble and unprecedented act ever to prise a place in the annals of petty Greek community politics. They refused a junket that would see them clamour and squabble over a free ticket and announced their boycott of SAE, to the horror of all seniors present, who accused them of being ungrateful, troublemakers and general miscreants. The upshot was that many enlightened organizations, ashamed at the exclusion of the youth (“for after all, are not the youth OUR future?”) actually offered their own seats on SAE to them, again an unprecedented and historical act.
When I arrived at the 2006 SAE Conference in Thessaloniki, no agenda had been set for the discussion of Youth issues, as the Youth network had been dissolved. In order to save face, for nothing has been done since then, newly elect SAE World Planetarch Stephanos Tamvakis summoned whatever youth he could find and promised them that they would work together in order to re-constitute the dissolved Youth network. I was appointed as youth spokesperson and in addressing the olomelia (all 20 of them, given that it was the last day, voting for the next Co-ordinator had been concluded and people were toddling off to their villages for a holiday), I advised them that though the Youth network had been disbanded, Tamvakis had promised to reform it and we were all to work closely with him in order to achieve success.
Five minutes later, the diminutive Deputy Foreign Minister Kassimis swooped down upon me, his face twisted in rage, his mouth spitting saliva everywhere: “Paliopaido,” he screamed. “Who put you up to this. PASOK? How dare you say that the Youth are boycotting SAE? I’ll make sure you never come here again. Confess who put you up to this.” Despite my explaining to him that I had said nothing of the sort, the suave, debonair, simian-like Deputy Foreign Minister continued his rant: “We have you on tape. It’s all there. Don’t try to deny it.” When his aide gingerly stepped up to him and advised him that he had transcribed my speech from the tape and that indeed, I had not said anything untoward, he turned to me glaring: “Get back up there and deny what which you have not said.” Bemused, I mounted the podium once more and announced: “Mr Kassimis would like me to confirm that when I spoke previously, I only said that which I had said and not that which I had not said. He has asked me to confirm this with you, in order to save you from any confusion or misapprehension.”
That was the last we heard of the SAE Youth Network, until a few weeks ago, when at a recent meeting in Melbourne, it was announced that the Youth Network would be reconstituted. This would, as was announced, ensure that we have a ‘future.’ Being pressed for time, and knowing that the aged audience was not really interested, the agenda moved on to consider what seems to be the Greek Ministry’s only conception of youth activity: the obsession with holding athletic games. Those present did so, without being able to go into details as to what this Youth Network would do, how it would be more representative and indeed why it was dissolved only to be reconstituted in the first place.
Having dispensed with this topic, the members turned to consider a matter that has taxed the minds of several community leaders and intellectuals of late: the proposal to pool community resources (here read existing club and brotherhood buildings) into one super-edifice that shall be called a cultural centre. A new entity would be created to grant existing clubs a share of the proprietorship and control of this edifice. Two by two, existing organizations would enter this modern day Ark and take shelter within it, in the hope that in this way, they will be saved from the Deluge of Oblivion.
Casting aside for the moment the observation that it is interesting how the Greek-Australian parochial mind can only conceive of a Greek community as being comprised of small, self-interested ‘ethnotopic’ regional organizations (for presumably there shall be no room in the Ark for any other entity unrighteously constituted), what would this cultural super-Ark actually do to protect those that seek its sanctuary?
It would, it was stated as fact at the meeting by many enthusiastic attendees, through communal effort, unite the Greek community and help it to survive, for the ‘sake of our children.’ The irony of an organization created by Greece in order to unite Greeks, advocating the creation of another entity to unite Greeks was lost on most aged attendees of the meeting, who agreed wholeheartedly that the building of the Ark was the way of the future.
There is indeed some merit to the divine injunction to build an Ark, and had this been done in the seventies or eighties when we had a chance, it is quite possible that our community would be totally different today. However, communal effort and co-operation seems to have gone out of season at the same time as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and those nodding their heads at the President’s ecstatic vision of the future way of salvation were either dispossessed or would be community leaders with nothing to lose, or powerbrokers agreeing out of politeness, vowing under their breaths that their administration would not be the one that would denude its club of its assets and abolish its identity. Suich an attitude is perfectly Hellenic. The last time it was decided that the Greeks should pool their resources together and create a united front was in the days of the Delian League. The Athenians moved the treasury designed to provide a fighting fund to keep the Persians at bay to Athens, and used it in order to create an Athenian Empire and to build the Acropolis. This is all well and good if you are Athenian, but quite poor if you are from Naxos and find yourself paying tribute to the unscrupulous western Ionians.
As I watched the attendees lose themselves in their pipe-dreams for the good of the future generations, I marveled at just how patriarchal our community in its relationship to Greek culture actually is. The first generation not only assumes the right to be the sole arbiters of what is Greek culture in Australia, passing it down piecemeal to their offspring as a penguin regurgitates its innards for the sustenance of its newborns, it also abrogates for itself the right to define and determine the future of the Greek community and its relevance to later generations, WITHOUT EVEN CONSULTING THEM.
According to the first generation pipe-dream then, the Ark will save us, not because they have conducted a detailed survey of the latter generations and have concluded that this is the most effective and suitable structure to ensure community cohesion and survival, having regard to the complexities of having a composite Greek-Australian identity, diminished language skills and decreasing exposure to and interest in the mother culture but because they say so. As Australian-born Greeks, our task is to accept that dream as revealed truth, if and when it comes, for our progenitors are bearers of all good things and to this, as to everything else, we must look to them for guidance and obey.
What is fascinating for the purposes of Arcology, is that the second generation at least, accepts this passive, pathetic role for itself. With a few notable, short-lived or ineffectual exceptions, at no stage have the Australian-born generations banded together in order to create structures that would best serve their purposes as Greek-Australians. There may be several reasons for this: apathy, the conviction that in a post-modern world, organising oneself in accordance with one’s ethnicity is an irrelevancy, alienation from the Greek community and of course this: The increasing reliance on the first generation for all things that give us our identity and existence. Because the first generation knows or thinks it knows that the second generation is unwilling or incapable of looking after its ethnic identity, it purports to assume this role for them. The fact that an aging, pioneering generation feels compelled to rear its already mature young at the moment when its young should be looking after it and its legacy is a savage, paradoxical indictment on all generations.
For when and if the Deluge comes, how will an Ark or a SAE that has not been measured to our size, is of no practical use to us and which has been imposed upon us, be in a position to protect us? How indeed will we know that a Deluge is taking place when the Ark that purports to offer sanctuary to us is designed to protect an imaginary, illusory prototype of what might have been, a dream-Greek-Australian ideal that the first generation, with its delusions of immortality, refuses to relinquish?
It will not. For though the first generation concerned itself not only with establishing itself and rearing its children, but with re-creating a lost world, the latter generations have been reared to look after their own narrow individual needs and look to their parents for all else. This must be taken into account when our community leaders decide the form that our glossy new packaging for marketing and lip-service purposes will take. Let them take heed though and conceal that which is harboured therein. And let us take a more active and co-operative role in determining the course of our own future - for in this, the first generation is correct: Our cultural and ethnic identity, as well as the unique structure of our community is of vital relevance and must be preserved, with the requisite modifications. That is our responsibility and if we do not assume it, it will be to our own discredit. For when the dove is set forth from the Ark and circles our generations seeking respite, who knows what it carry in its beak upon its return? If current President Angelopoulos has his way, it may even provide good things, given that he recently secured funding for Greek-Australian Peter Stefanidis to travel to Cannes after his film ‘Pontus’ was accepted at the International Film Festival. Until next week, say yeah to SAE.


First published in NKEE on 19 May 2008

Monday, May 12, 2008


What, you may be wondering, is the latest controversy to hit the august Greek community? Is it the proposition of a bold, radical plan to arrest the terminal decline in Greek language education? Not a chance. What about the institution of an integrative model that would ensure the full participation and enfranchisement of the younger generations within the life and workings of our community? Fat chance! How about the re-establishment of a Greek presence on Lonsdale Street. Close but no cigar.
No, distinguished ploughers of the furrows of this weedy Diatribe, the question on the tips of everyone’s lips is predictably not how to retard the increasing fragmentation into post-modern irrelevancy of the institutions that purport to give us our identity, nor how to come up with any constructive new idea that would provide impetus to the furtherance of the so-called multi-cultural fabric of our society but rather, whether or not Neos Kosmos stalwart Babis Stavropoulos accepted money from the outgoing committee of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria in order to ensure a favourable write up of their activities during the recent, agonizingly protracted power wrangle that has, after court cases and coups, brought about a coveted regime change in that hallowed institution.
The case against Babis is ridiculously poor. If anyone knows Babis, they would know that of all people in this world, he is one who displays a complete disregard for the cheque book. Not for him is the daily trip down to the Caulfield branch that a little old Greek lady who lives near my workplace makes, in order to check how much interest has accrued in her account since the day before. Nay, Babis is one of those devil may care types, willing to cross the Antarctic in nothing more than a red scarf tied around his neck and a leather loin cloth, perched upon a bio-fuel guzzling scooter, chasing the next pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. When he finds it, as he invariably always does, he donates it to the emperor penguins, to the chagrin of the Adelie penguins, for there is no accounting for taste. I remember running into him one day at Stalactites restaurant. Recently returned from fighting the double headed Patagonian Pizzle-fish, he had returned to Australia only to find his refrigerator devoid of burnt offerings and having not had any sustenance for two days, he followed the smell of his hunger down to the temple of the Greek-Australian culinary god, Gyros. In short, Babis, intrepid explorer and uncompromising ideologue is the kind of guy I would have liked to have been, had I been able to grow chest hair and a beard ever so slightly more substantial than that of the Dowager Chinese Empress Ci Xi. But that’s another story.
Rumours of Babi’s alleged money for favours scandal must have been rampant within the community for Neos Kosmos to weigh into the issue a few weeks ago and produce conclusive proof, that this Diatribist, who would sell his soul for a plate of mouth-watering katsiki, accompanied by a side of oven roasted onions excepted, Neos Kosmos writers are possessed of journalistic ethics and cannot be bought. And it is the wide broadcast of this pernicious and utterly false rumour that begs the question: Why are we, as a community, so willing to believe the utter worst about people? As a corollary, why is it that upon being presented with gossip bytes that have the potential to defame and besmirch someone’s character, we recklessly assist in the dissemination of these, while exhibiting total disregard as to the hurtful consequences that this may have on the victim of slander.
Sometimes these rumours can be quite farcical and all of them contain elements of conspiracy. For instance, during a brief stint of mine on 3XY Radio a few years ago, presenting a literary program, not a week would go by when some elderly gentleman or another would ring the station and not recognising my voice, confide in me their suspicion that I was alternatively a communist, fascist, freemason, or in the pay of the Jewish lobby and should be removed. And they were just my uncles.
Why so much paranoia? Why must there always be deep, dark, nefarious purposes lurking behind every one of our communal acts? Is it because those who would readily believe such rumours and spread them do so because they themselves would act in the suspected manner, given the opportunity? Or does the reason lie deeper within our psyche?
I would venture that it does. In the paranoid nature of our psyche, precedents abound. Ever since Prometheus stole fire from Heaven, Greeks have not trusted one another. In the popular consciousness, there has always been or seem to have been an Ephialtes willing to show the Persians the back-path to Thermopylae, to the extent where the spectre of this semi-historic event was raised thousands of years later to explain the inexplicable surrender of Fort Rupel to the Bulgarians by the Greek government at the beginning of the First World War. Ancient Greeks ended up considering such patriotic luminary figures as Thucydides and Pausanias as traitors, much as their antecedent Kolokotronis was charged with treason and sentenced to death in 1834. These men were too pure, too godlike, for the fatal flaw-seeking Greeks. Their perfection was hubris and they had to be cut down to size, no matter the cost.
The Greek Civil War has also left lasting traumas upon the Greek psyche. A generation of Greeks grew up not knowing whether their associates were friends or foes and not being able to trust the people closest to them. They also learned that a person that did not share their opinions was an enemy, to whom the usual social mores no longer applied. That generation is still with us, in the form of our parents and grandparents. For too many of them, the Civil War does not seem to be over yet. Beneath every shadow, behind every good deed lurks a sinister conspiracy and no one is to be trusted. This would account for the poisonous histories of every single Greek organization ever to have been founded in Australia. Go to any Annual General Meeting of a Greek Organisation and chances are that you will not see the committee being quizzed on why they have done nothing to ensure youth participation or their continued relevance further than the organization of barbeques and an annual dinner dance. Invariably, the ensuing interrogation, which lasts for several hours, concerns itself with more prosaic matters, such as getting the treasurer to justify how many stamps they have purchased, why potatoes at a certain dinner dance were recorded as costing so much per kilo when it is common knowledge that had they traveled to Pakenham they could have secured them for next to nothing, as the last treasurer did. Then there is the enquiry into the cost of the replacement glasses for those that have been smashed and grumblings about the incompetence of the organizations accountant, who is surely skimming off the top or at best, assisting the president to do so.
For to the highly individualized Greek, selfless public service is incomprehensible. There has to be another underlying factor that would compel one to expend their free time and endure the abuse of others. Often, this is attributed to a thirst for glory, but at most times, to material self-enrichment. I remember telling my aunt in Greece that I have the privilege to write in Neos Kosmos. «Πληρώνεσαι;» she asked me. When I advise her in the negative, she was at first incredulous, only to then, upon regaining her composure, express the opinion that I was a bigger fool than she first had thought.
The presumption of self-enrichment is a damaging one. No community can find itself in a good state of health if it is presumed that those who drive it or serve it are doing so for their own individual ends. Sadly, though rarely, the presumption may prove a correct one and there have been instances of gross financial mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. More often the agenda driving people to serve in community organizations is a desire for personal fulfillment coupled by a need for respect. It is these people who often prove the most destructive, in that they are unable to separate their own personal egos from the future of the organization they purport to serve, driving it into oblivion. On most occasions though, the people who attempt to assist in the governance of organizations are normal, everyday people with all the virtues and failings of everyone else. Yet is says much for the way we view public life that their achievements are rarely extolled and their mistakes, however small, are invariably maligned and blown out of proportion.
When we are seized with the presumption of self-enrichment about someone, or quite simply when we may not agree with their activities or ideas, politeness and courtesy are thrown out the window. It becomes acceptable to defame their character in ways that would be unthinkable to rational, civilized human beings. I remember attending a general meeting of the GOCMV at the Prahran Church Hall where people just screamed and swore at each other for hours. I remember voting for a resolution that I felt was correct in the circumstances. As soon as my name was read out supporting the resolution, I was set upon by people who I had known and valued all my life, and subjected to a tirade of abuse. At that moment, I was no longer a friend. I was not even a human. Because I had chosen a path not to their liking, I no longer had any integrity, and was a traitor. In this instance, as the self has already been annihilated and as a result, the bond of friendship between people has been sundered. Consequently, there is license to treat others in the most heinous way possible, in impunity. Of course we would never dream of treating an ‘Australian’ in this way. After all there would be consequences.
Such ridiculous behaviour and mistrust is symptomatic of a broader immaturity among the first generation. There are reasons for this as well. This is a generation that very early on in the piece, most often in its youth, separated themselves from their families and had to fend for themselves, without parental supervision. In many respects, including how they treat each other in public, they haven’t really ever grown up. The opposing argument to that of course, would invite one to turn on the television to a Greek current affairs program and see journalists and politicians alike spit venom at each other. Maybe it is just a cultural thing after all.
At the end of the day and as sickening as it may sound, there are people out there who want Neos Kosmos to be involved in corrupt and underhand dealings. They want a newspaper that has associated itself with the most socially progressive and revolutionary changes within the history of the Greek community in Melbourne to be mire in the quagmire of smut and will take smug satisfaction in any tarnish that may take hold. To this aim, Babis’ tireless work, his excellent articles and his integrity are easy sacrifices. In our paranoid parallel universe, Neos Kosmos’ categorical proof (as if any was required) of Babis’ innocence merely serves as further fodder for the rumourmongers. (“Of course Neos Kosmos would protest his innocence. They must all be in it together.”)
Yes we are all in it together, employed in one of the most significant tasks of all - recording the hearts and minds of the people around us. For in days to come, when our tongue is no longer spoken and we no longer tread in any recognizable form upon this earth, it is to Babis’ articles that the historian will turn, to breathe life into a long forgotten world. And who then, will remember irrelevant slander of the money hungry, buried six feet under the ground?


First published in NKEE on 12 May 2008

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


It was not without irony that I spent Lazarus Saturday, the festival of the resurrected man, attending a memorial service at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Ephraim in Reservoir, in memory of the late Father Youssef Adel Aboudi, who was gunned down in early April while he was on his way to his church of St Peter’s in Baghdad. His crime? Simply that of being a Christian, and a non-Arab, in today’s fundamentalist, anarchic and decidedly intolerant Iraq.
As I sat in the church, with my parish priest, and representatives and clergy of all the Eastern churches, listening to the intonation of ancient and doleful chants promising eternal life in unsurpassable Western Aramaic and seeing the pain and fervour on the faces of the congregation, I marvelled at how easily all the stories of persecution garnered from years of Greek school history lessons, could cease being fairy tales of times and places distant and long forgotten, and assume sharp immediacy. I wanted to tell the Syriac people that our Church had come to them in consolation, because we are uniquely placed to understand their plight. For ours too, is a church of martyrs, of the persecuted and of the dispossessed. In all of the four ancient Patriarchates, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the Church and the believers alike have faced and often still face persecution and harassment. In south-eastern Turkey, the remnants of the Syriac people, victims of the same genocide as our own, eke out an existence as precarious as that of our own dwindling minority in Constantinople.
In the week leading up to the most important Christian feast of all, I wanted to tell them that though the mainstream media and governments that caused the humanitarian disaster that is Iraq in the first place and which have overseen the mass fleeing of half a million Christians from that country and their daily murder, simply for being different, may have forgotten or disregarded their plight, we do not, and nor will we ever do so. Our own history is replete with such examples, whether these be the hanging of Patriarch Gregory V in reprisal for the Greek Revolution of 1821, the lynching of ethnomartyr Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna in 1923, the murder of priests and burning of churches during the 1955 Istanbul pogrom and the continued desecration of graves and churches in occupied Cyprus, today. Indeed, it is probably as a result of such harrowing experiences, that the Greek people as a whole, hold progressive views about the need for peace and tolerance in a troubled world, and the co-operation and brotherhood between nations. It is probably also the reason why Greeks, whether they really believe in them or understand them or not, hold on, so steadfastly and zealously to their traditions.
The plight of Christians in Iraq does not just concern Greeks for historical or moral reasons. As recently as January of this year, the Greek Orthodox Church of St George in Saha Al Taharriyat was bombed by Islamic fundamentalists. Across the border, in Jordan, Greek Orthodox clerics such as Father Makarios Mavrogiannakis, are desperately trying to accommodate the thousands of Christian refugees streaming into that country, each of them bearing their own tale of woe, their own story of horror.
Such stories are not unfamiliar to me. In 2006, my wife’s first cousin, a manager of an American-run oil refinery in Iraq, began to be harassed at work, simply for being Christian. Anonymous people began to call him, demanding that he award contracts to various parties and threatening him with death if he did not do so. His subordinates refused to listen to him, citing as a reason, that they would not be told what to do by a Christian. Finally, when the threats turned more towards his wife and children, he decided to flee the country. As a result, his eldest son, a computer engineering student, was deliberately chosen as the target of a bombing, as he was buying a suit for his graduation, in Baghdad. As he lay bleeding on the pavement, his stomach ripped open, unidentified men hurled his body in a car and drove off, only to dump it a few kilometres away. Eventually, he was found by passers by and taken to hospital, where, upon it being established that he was a Christian, he was allowed to bleed to death. He was just twenty-one years old. Despite such blatant persecution, and the valiant attempts of the Federal Member of Caldwell, Maria Vamvakinou to highlight this and other similar tragedies in Parliament on 13 August 2007, the family’s application to migrate to Australia as refugees was refused twice, with no reason being provided by the Department of Immigration. Evidently, the powers that combat the Axis of Evil do not want evidence of their policy failures existing under their very noses.
As various representatives of the Eastern churches expressed anger at the manner in which the powers that have manifestly failed, in their imposition of ‘democracy,’ to protect the indigenous Christian minority of Iraq, I considered how post-modern concepts of pluralism and ill-conceived notions of equality could mitigate against the relief of the oppressed in more comfortable societies. For example, the European Union's Slovenian presidency has only just a few weeks ago, rejected a German proposal to offer preferential treatment to Christian refugees from Iraq, insisting that asylum decisions could not be based on religion.
“I think the right of asylum should be provided without consideration of religion or race,” said Slovenian Interior Minsiter Dragutin Mate upon his arrival at a meeting of his EU counterparts in Luxembourg on 18 April. “It seems to me to be difficult to operate in this sense of preferential treatment.” This comment had come after German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had been given the green light from the country's 16 top state security officials to start an EU initiative for the acceptance of Iraqi Christians as refugees at the meeting in Luxembourg. No details of Schaeuble's plans were made public, nor was it clear how many refugees Germany would accept, although German press reports have said that the conservatives' plan would allow for for 30,000 Iraqi Christians to be sheltered in the country. The Social Democrats, German Chancellor Angela Merke’'s partners in her ruling coalition had also given their backing to the proposal, though they did feel uncomfortable with the decision to focus on Christians.
How facilely the West washes its hands from the fate of strategically insignificant peoples. The Christians of the Mesopotamian region have endured persecution for their faith ever since it was introduced to them by the apostle Thaddeus, shortly after the resurrection of Christ. Having to face first the Zoroastrian mania of the fanatical Sassanid Persians and then the fury of the Islamic hordes from the south, these people have held steadfastly to their faith and their traditions, despite being considered second class citizens and even as sub-humans for millenia. In doing so, they have never lost their unshakeable belief that their western ‘brethren’ are concerned for their welfare and will eventually intercede on their behalf. The flipside of this deeply held conviction is that just as the Persians held the Christians of Iraq accountable for twists and turns of policy of the Byzantine Empire, operating under presumption that as Christians, they would be more loyal to Byzantium than to Persia, to the muslims of Iraq, the indigenous Christians are seen as westerners and therefore answerable to their muslim co-habitants for the West’s misdemeanours. They are in fact, hostages.
And herein lies the greatest tragedy. Hostages are only of any value when they can be ransomed or used as a bargaining chip by their captors against those who would redeem them. What then is the fate of the worthless hostage? His right to an existence is forfeit. Reviled as a traitor and an alien in the land of his forefathers, dismissed as an irrelevancy by those he looks to for protection, he remains a captive in a lawless country, subject to the whims and passing fury of every person who would assert superiority over him and do violence to his person simply because of his adherence to an unwanted religion, or he flees, to the diminishing number of countries that will still accept him, for to them he is no Christian, but simply yet another of those troublesome Middle Easterners. And it is then that he realises that his belief in Christianity, or the viruousness of the West has been nothing more than smoke and shadow and he despairs.
The Christians of Iraq, the vast majority of whom are of Assyiran ethnicity, have no glorious ruins or remains to inspire something akin to the philhellenism that played such a great role in our national emancipation. The British and the Germans have already taken the best archaelogical finds for their museums and all that they left behind has been looted from the Baghdad Museum after the Americans failed to secure it. As an interesting aside, it should be noted that the curator of the Baghdad Museum, Donny George Youkhana, a Christian Assyrian fled the country on 27 August 2006, after pressure to follow a radical Islamic agenda in the preservation of Iraqi antiquities made his position impossible. In other words, he was asked to deny the Assyrian heritage of Iraq. We on the other hand can be proud of Greek-American Colonel, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney and National Humanities Medal recipient Matthew Bogdanos who at his own Indiana Jones-style initiative, led the investigation into the looting of the Baghdad Museum and who by 2007, was responsible for recovering over 6,000 stolen antiquities. This, is Hellenism at its very best. Just don’t call him Junior. And yes, he hates snakes.
On Great and Holy Thursday, as I looked upon my priest processing the crucified Christ around St Dimitrios Church in Moonee Ponds, I was reminded of just how precarious the concept of tolerance can be, even in the most ‘civilised’ of countries. For as the bells tolled dolorously, the congregation was startled by wild thumping and banging noises. The next door neighbour, incensed that a bunch of wogs would be worshipping Christ at the infernal hour of nine o’clock in the evening had decided that he would teach us all a lesson by disrupting the service at its most poignant moment. In the post-Cold War triumph of capitalism, there seems little point to masquerade moral superiority. There are no longer oppressed peoples or values to uphold, only profits and strategic gains to be made. Such a world, which feeds its citizens with bread and circuses as it compells them to give up their basic freedoms and solidarity with the rest of humanity, has no need of minorities or their quaint customs to protect. And it would be no small wonder if in the modern day, Lazarus, summoned by Christ to exit his tomb, would refuse to do so, and stay put.


First published in NKEE on 5 May 2008