Monday, May 25, 2009


His Honour, the Mayor of Cheimarra Vasilis Bolanos, is currently languishing in prison. Some people have called him a criminal. I on the other hand, believe that he is the most stalwart Hellene I have ever had the privilege to meet. A cursory glance of any given year's batch of Diatribes will reveal as least one or two references to him. Vasilis Bolanos is the mayor of a historically Greek region that successive Albanian governments have deemed fit to keep out of the recognized "Greek minority zone." As a result, the Greek character of the majority of the inhabitants of the region is denied to them and they cannot enjoy the basic privilege of education in their mother tongue, or even the basic human right of being able to determine their own ethnic identity. Despite this non-recognition, successive Albanian governments have had to deal with the election of an ethnic Greek mayor over successive elections. This is somewhat embarrassing as it is difficult to explain why an ethnic Greek would be continuously re-elected in a region that is supposed to be non-Greek. Over the years, various Albanian groups have: beaten up and stabbed voters, stolen ballot boxes, engaged in blackmail and resorted to the Courts in order to have elections that Vasilis Bolanos had won, invalid. Despite all this, Vasilis Bolanos gets re-elected every time.
I will never forget driving with him through the village of Shen Vasilj, (Άγιος Βασίλειος), formerly inhabited exclusively by ethnic Greeks. As we struggled to negotiate the tortuous, pot-holed road, we came upon a desolate square, bordered all around by drab yellowing stone walls. On the far wall, in red ink, this slogan slashed its way across the brick-work: «ΘΑΝΑΤΟΣ ΣΤΟΥΣ ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ.» I looked at the ruddy complexioned Bolanos out of the corner of his eye. His jaw had tightened, his lips had pursed so that I could see small rivulets of veins appearing at the corners of his mouth. Then with a twinkle of this eyes, he quipped: "Yeah, well now I think you know what these people's attitude is to Greek package tours."
If generalizations are ever permissible, one would venture to say that Cheimarriots are generally known to be stoic, inflexible and more unflinchingly patriotic than their compatriots. It is this unquestioned commitment to the Hellenic cause that has made the region of Cheimarra suffer perhaps more than any other under successive Albanian regimes. It was the Cheimarriots refusal to support the Communist Hoxha regime (after all, as early as 1914 their captain Spyros Spyromilios had declared the union of Cheimarra with Greece) that saw him ensure that they were not included in the government-sanctioned minority zone. Amazingly, they retained their language and traditions despite the official prohibitions and dire punishments in store for those who would assert the Greek character of the region. Vasilis Bolanos, who is also the president of Omonoia, the organisation that champions the awarding of human rights to the Greeks of Albania, is thus merely continuing in the tradition of his kinfolk. He does so in Cheimarriot fashion, commemorating Greek national days, raising the Greek flag and doing his upmost to convince Albanian public opinion, imbued for the large part as it is with nationalist exclusivist myths, that a Greek ethno-cultural affiliation can harmoniously co-exist with an Albanian nationality. Sadly, they don't buy it, proof of the pudding being a surreal experience I had in Tirana, at the Hotel Dajti some years ago, where I chanced upon some influential Albanian politicians sipping coffee. When I asked them why they do not recognize the existence of a Greek population in Cheimarra, they laughed slightingly, as if the answer were immediately obvious: "Are you kidding? That's electoral dynamite. The idea is to win the election, not to lose it."
So Vasilis Bolanos has soldiered on in the face of public and private harassment, under a regime that only adheres to democratic procedures when it suits its purposes. This notwithstanding, during his time as mayor of Cheimarra, Vasilis Bolanos has presided over an economic miracle in this most stunning of places, where the razor sharp peaks of the Acroceraunian mountains, the traditional mythological gateway to Hades, give way their absolutist fury to the soft lapping of the Adriatic Sea. He has been a stalwart defender of those of his constituents who have had their land (all prime real estate by the sea), confiscated by government cronies in order to be sold to European consortiums for the construction of resorts and an indefatigable and outspoken mouthpiece for all the inhabitants of the region regardless of their ethnic affiliations.
Last July, I attended a conference in Ioannina in which Vasilis Bolanos, in no uncertain terms, made it known that the Greeks of Albania could and would not be exploited for votes or domestic gain by Greek politicians and instead, emphasised the need for solidarity, unity and respect. On the way back to Cheimarra, as he related to me the many immediate infrastructural, educational and social needs of his constituents and his fear that the important work of placing Cheimarra on a solid foundation as a vibrant 21st century town would be drowned in the maelstrom of Albanian and Greek domestic politics, I asked him: "Why do you bother?" The normally placid and jovial mayor's gaze froze. "I never expected that you of all people would ask such a question." Then, his face softening, he put his hand on my knee and asked: "So tell me about this Facebook? Do you see a potential for it here?" Fast forward almost a year later, and the vast majority of Cheimarriot youth have acquired Facebook accounts. As news on Facebook travels quite quickly, they too are most interested to learn why a SAE Youth Victorian President would call their hero and kinsman a foreigner and a criminal. This is especially due to the fact that Cheimarriots, being an idealistic bunch, are possessed of the unfortunate misapprehension that other Greeks, especially those living abroad are intimately concerned about their welfare and I must confess that I, among other, am one of those responsible for the creation of this misconception. The Victorian SAE Youth President on the other hand, seems intent upon disabusing them of it, quite rapidly.
We ended up in Agioi Saranda, an absolutely charming sea-side town. Sitting on a balcony, drinking espresso and viewing the purple mass of Corfu looming just outside the bay, we awaited the arrival of the Greek deputy-foreign minister. When he arrived, resplendent in tracky-daks, a striped t-shirt and a big pipe-puffing smile, Vasilis Bolanos respectfully, steadfastly and persistently met his points, enquiries and injunctions with the dexterity of an expert fencer, his main concern being to safeguard his people from being used as pawns and patsies. In the midst of discussion as to the best way to operate Greek schools in Cheimarra, I slurped my espresso somewhat too loudly, causing the deputy foreign minister to exclaim good-naturedly: "Hang on, I know you. What are you doing here anyway?" Placing his hand on my shoulder, Vasilis Bolanos replied: "He is one of us." That moment was one of the proudest of my life.
Driving back across the Greek border, we were halted by an overzealous rookie border-guard who refused to let us in because Bolanos, an Albanian national had exceeded his permissible trips into Greece for that month. In the face of the placid Vasilis Bolanos calmly but vainly explaining his situation to the increasingly obtuse and arrogant guard possessed of pistol-envy, I exploded. "Do you know who this is, παλιόπαιδο;" I screamed. "This is the mayor of Cheimarra. Now go and bring your superior here." "I don't care if he is Christ Almighty," he yelled back but quickly withdrew into himself as his superior pushed him back abruptly and his facing beaming, strode forward to shake Vasilis Bolanos' hand, breathing: «Κύριε Δήμαρχε...» As we wound our way through the enchanting mountainous forest road, towards Ioannina, Bolanos remarked: "Well you could have at least kept your temper and been a little nicer. But you see, in Albania I'm a filthy Greek. In Greece, you saw it for yourself, I'm a filthy Albanian. It's as if nothing we do counts for anything. The idea though is to make it count among those who count."
Vasilis Bolanos is in prison, sentenced to six months imprisonment, which itself means that he is automatically disqualified from holding public office for three years. He was sentenced because he replaced the monolingual road-signs in Cheimarra with bilingual Albanian/Greek ones, in keeping with the Council of Europe's Treaty on Minority Rights, of which Albania is a signatory. Clause 11 of that Treaty allows for the erection of bilingual road signs in regions that have a sizeable ethnic minority. One would think that since the region of Cheimarra is home to a large Greek population, that this would have been totally acceptable. Not so. For the powers that be refuse to admit the presence of Greeks in Cheimarra and have now imprisoned its mayor for creating a public nuisance. In the eyes of some, this makes him a foreigner and a criminal. According to this logic, so is Nelson Mandela, Yiannis Ritsos, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and countless others. In my eyes, my friend is a hero, albeit an amiable and quixotic one and his reputation should never be belittled, for any reason.
At a time when the resources of the Greek diaspora should be garnered and harnessed for the relief of this resolute prisoner of conscience, who is quite prepared to undergo incarceration in order that his people's right to a free ethnic and cultural affiliation is recognised, it is unfortunate that Greek PM Kostas Karamanlis did not raise the issue of Mr Bolanos' incarceration during his recent visit to Albania. We wish him a speedy release as we send our thoughts and prayers to him.

First published in NKEE on 25 May 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009


Article by George Mouratidis on Apteros Niki" by Dean Kalimniou

“Rubbings of halted breath on the chains of the temple of Wingless Victory. We stabilize Ionic orders and the acidic sweat of shy fetters, with the irrepressible screws of the Dorians.” (At the temple of Apteros Niki, 2008).
The above poem, the key-note and lynch pin of Dean Kalimniou’s latest poetry collection, “Apteros Niki,” is perhaps the reason why Anna Dimitriou, in her review of his work to date writes:
“Translating Dean Kalimnios’s poetry is like unravelling a complex and very challenging puzzle. His work is often in the form of a riddle, like an oracle which represented the source of truth, knowledge and revelation in antiquity. He is simultaneously the θεωρός, the person who sees and who consults the oracle as well as the one presents his vision through poetry. He represents both the spectator and the scribe, using material from his experiences of people and places as well as ideas of the past mixed with the present, and presented as a rich cross-fertilization of cultures which have an Eastern orally based influence interwoven with his observations of Australia’s indigenous culture.”
This no less applies to ‘Apteros Niki,’ a work that though penned in the Greek language, is liberally interspersed with Albanian, Arabic, Coptic and Persian references and words, a signature of a poet who delights in language. Despite his admission that he writes poetry in Greek because his “most intimate and undisguised thoughts are in Greek,” he shows that for those able to think and feel in more than one language, it is impossible, as Sneja Gunew states, ‘to consider language as a natural and unproblematic expression of experience.’.
Dimitriou perceptively states, by: “analysing and interpreting his poems we have the situation which S. Mishra refers to in his paper on ‘Diasporic Criticism’, ‘that each individual diaspora contains a cacophony of complexities that must be taken into account.’ Kalimnios work demands to be ‘taken into account’ as his poetry collections offer new multicultural perspectives in combination with a negotiation over identity, based on personal revelations of a borderless Hellenism viewed from the outside which invite reader participation…. The use of Greek in Kalimnios’ poetry could be seen as the cacophony that Mishra refers to in the sense that these words might not be understood by the ‘uninitiated,’ except through translation. In the strict sense of the word, however, his poems are not ‘cacophony’ because his tone is not harsh but rather subscribes to a paramythic style. This style and genre does not aim at a wide audience but acts on the local small scale as a personal ομολογία (confession) of resistance against the dominant discourse and literary institution. He seeks to use the dialectic between myth and reality in order to explain the world through poetry, borrowing from a borderless Hellenistic tradition and incorporating varied personalities and places. In this he shows that as a diasporic, and fluent bilingual writer he does have the contrapuntal vision that Said refers to when he self evaluates his poetic inspiration as being founded on an intercultural exchange strongly affected by Hellenism and Orthodoxy not in a ‘chauvinistic or patriotic’ way but through a vision that is looking from the ‘outside’ into Hellenism.”
Having followed Kalimniou’s intellectual progression and the evolution of his writing since his university days, when his law books would be heavily annotated, not in notes but in Greek poems written in elegant byzantine-style handwriting, I am unsurprised at the teleological tone of Apteros Niki, or the choice of the motif. I am convinced that somewhere out there, there are legal files, contracts and complaints with the whole draft of Apteros Niki scrawled on the back of them. In her introduction to the collection, which focuses mainly on the psychedelic and surrealistic imagery employed by the poet, Dr Erma Vasileiou of Australian National University extensively analyses the historical premise of the work: Apteros Niki refers to the Ancient Greek goddess of Victory. She was portrayed as wingless, so that she could be stationary and not fly away. So what exactly is this Victory that Dean Kalimniou is drawing our attention to. Perhaps the scene is set for a labyrinthine exploration by the first poem of the collection: ‘In the Temple of Wingless Victory:’ “Tracing the rupture of obverse forms, you hatch detrimental tongues, and half-marbled shadows. Wingless Victory, whatever you do, do it quickly. I shall not endure, the lace of your gravity.”
In this oblique manifesto of the manner in which he writes poetry, Kalimniou departs from the painstaking circumspection of his two previous published collections in that the poems of this collection are heady, ecstatic and often erotic. There is a heightened sense of arousal and anticipation permeating the words, even when Kalimniou is falling back on one of his more usual mini-motifs, that of gardening. Thus, in “Unwitherable,” (Αμάραντος), he dexterously and ingeniously refers not only to the imperishable nature of things, but also the elusive and mythological flower of Greek folk-songs: “Purple, as the reversed altars in the windows, may they flow, petal, rose-headed secateurs, withered by the vapour of the rocks. I cut and cut, unwitherable.” The sense of urgency, of excitement and a strange, disturbing feeling of gloating is palpable. In “Love Letter,” Kalimniou turns what should be an emotional victory into a counter-productive defeat: “You continue to dominate, even my infertility. In the hour that I think of you, I write a gospel, in the mansions of Tartarus.’ In ‘Night-Flower,’ the pain of seeking authenticity of expression is explored: “Schematic nooses sway pendulously in the bright rays of traceable cessations. Smooth surfaces seek, a single virgin word, in the immeasurable spaces of enclosed sepals.” Kalimniou will seduce us further into this strange, dysfunctional erotic dystopia, juxtaposing Albanian grandmothers chanting requiem masses for dead poems (Pëshpëritës ie. Whispering) with this gem, entitled ‘Periplus’, which is a cursory overview of the whole history of the Greek musical tradition, an intertextual reference to Seferis’ ‘Argonauts’ and more besides: “Naked, you spasm in allegories and equations of velvet. Such matins, in high-pitched maqams, are paid for in arches. So relative then, is the gulf of Calypso, with the bronze-gutted oars that reject her, every Friday, upon breaking their fast.
In many respects, the highly charged world of Wingless Victory is frighteningly Kafkaesque. In “the City,” we come across sunscreen-wearing skeletons drinking tea on footpaths, while the cows of the blue moon sharpen the teats of their udders. In ‘Paraspondia,’ which could possibly be translated as ‘Mis-libation,’ he teases: “Only in your mask can I pillage the dampness of the forest. How can you reciprocate the endless demands of the Sirens? We empty our realization of ideals into the empty echo of watered down wine-pots. Vessels will chase you on their knees, with your tongue hanging out, until your demise.” In others, he is uncharacteristically frank about his perception of his cultural references. In “Paramythia” (fairytales), he says: “We have allowed many fairy-tales to wake up without a beginning, rivers, to sleep without end. They were not ours. They belonged to those who came before us, to the death-rattle of the soul-battling rushes of the grass matting.” In this poem we have the description of the creative process which is founded on the rupture from the paramythi, evoking imagery that appears to derive from the lake at Ioannina – an important geographical reference point for Kalimniou. The piecing together of rushes, into a mat that one can step on but also forget, are gathered from diverse and disparate sources to form a συλλογή (a collection of the mind). In this process the worth of the paramythi is not diminished but rather it is assigned an archetypal positioning as its abrupt cessation and its symbolic dismantling becomes the source of inspiration, allowing for new stories to be retold and written down.
As Anna Dimitriou explains: “This he does using an expressive version of the Greek language, not limited to the past hundred years as he himself says, but rather one which ‘spans the gamut of the Greek language from Homer to Ritsos.’ His mind contains not only many words but also disparate images which together with words form stories from the material and the immaterial world… One cannot accurately translate all his words, nor can one describe the sounds of these rhythms together with the meanings and associations embedded in these tones, but one can convey the effect that these tones make on the bicultural and bilingual interpreter and translator so that these can be shared. His τέχνη (technique as style) is related to the way he identifies with his cultural heritage for as he himself admits ‘it is impossible to understand Greece, Greeks or Greek-Australians and their αυτοαντίληψη (self conception) without reference to the paramythic.”
This is absolutely true. More than his previous works, Apteros Niki is concerned with the influence and confluence of illusion and delusion upon the reader’s psychology. The poems, heavily laden with cryptic influences to the 3000 year range of Greek literature and other literary traditions, such as Babylonian, Persian and French, almost defy translation without extensive footnotes to explain the significance and multiple meanings of the words. For in Kalimniou’s poems, every single word is important, to be glossed over at the reader’s peril. Further, as Anna Dimitriou righly points out, each word is also culturally significant: “Kalimnios shows that language is not a relic, nor does it have an autonomous life of its own. He shows through the wide range of words he employs that language is part of a dynamic system of adaptation and change occurring within culture and therefore the focus becomes a cultural one not a linguistic one. Such cultural pride allows him to write poetry solely in Greek in order to show that ‘a language like Greek, in a multicultural country such as Australia, can be a valid Australian literary language.’ … It appears as an act of defiance against universalisation of English, with his play on words and meaning showing that the superficial universality of English can be encroached upon by great works of thought in national tongues and especially in the demotic language of the people. As his level of dexterity between languages, English and Greek, is so fluid he defies assimilation and reduction and makes a forward movement in literature which invites an ignorant, even hostile audience to make an effort in interpretation as the effort is worthwhile…. The paradox with Kalimnios is that, although his poems are literary and exclusive because of the wide knowledge that that the writer displays in regard to history and culture, the tone of his poetry invites understanding which transcends logic, and can be considered to belong to the sphere of the subconscious. The best analogy to describe this is a connection with words which though not readily understood, require mediation through translation. They captivate the imaginary, the senses and the soul even though linguistically they are not so accessible.”
For all its triumphalism, mysticism and hyperbole, dashed to pieces by the subtle interpolation of instability, fear and insecurity, it is for the reader to go through the physical and emotional trauma necessary to face the Minotaur at the centre of Apteros Niki’s labyrinth and to gauge its victory or otherwise for itself. When, as Dimitriou expounds, there is an exchange between ideas and ways of interpreting poetry such as Kalimnious’ highly allusive and enigmatic poetry then there is an opening up of Australian literature. He opens up for a revision of the way that our present can poetically be negotiated through memory, history and the experiences of the past. A person’s experience can be simultaneously individual and collective and Kalimnios shows that although the hegemony would like to categorise and dominate those who are on the margins, projecting a certain image within a specific frame, and enforce a specific tongue and language as well as written text, it is the individual who is equipped with a sound knowledge of his cultural past who can re-assert his true identity and speak in his own language without the need to cringe. The oral tradition enriches his intercultural vision and expands the poetic collections’ meaning by giving it an added depth and rhythm. Maybe, then the ultimate victory of Apteros Niki, is its conception and publication.

George Mouratidis
University of Melbourne English Department
The launch of Apteros Niki will take place at 3pm 31 May 2009 at 3rd floor, GOCMV building, 168 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne.
First published in NKEE 0n 18 May 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009


On 30 April 2009, the South Australian lower house did a remarkable thing; it recognised the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia during the Ottoman Empire. The full text of the motion that was passed is as follows:
“That, whereas the genocide by the Ottoman state between 1915-1923 of Armenians, Hellenes, Syrian and other minorities in Asia Minor is one of the greatest crimes against humanity, the people of South Australia and this House –
(a) join the members of the Armenian-Australian, Pontian Greek-Australian and Syrian-Australian communities in honouring the memory of the innocent men, women and children who fell victim to the first modern genocide;
(b) condemns the genocide of the Armenians, Pontian Greeks, Syrian Orthodox and other Christian minorities, and all other acts of genocide as the ultimate act of racial, religious and cultural intolerance;
(c) recognises the importance of remembering and learning from such dark chapters in human history to ensure that such crimes against humanity are not allowed to be repeated;
(d) condemns and prevents all attempts to use the passage of time to deny or distort the historical truth of the genocide of the Armenians and other acts of genocide committed during this century;
(e) acknowledges the significant humanitarian contribution made by the people of South Australia to the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide and the Pontian Genocide; and
(f) calls on the commonwealth parliament officially to condemn the genocide."
Noting in passing that the Assyrian community has been misdescribed as ‘Syrian,’ a grave error that will hopefully be rectified, this recognition of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia forms a historic landmark in the history of the Armenian-Australian, Assyria-Australian and Greek-Australian people. This is not a political or ethnic victory, for we are thankfully not enmeshed within the warp and the weft of the greater geo-strategic and political games played by the representatives of our mother countries. This is not a victory of diplomats, who for the most part shy away from agitating publicly on what we term to be “national issues.” Most importantly, this act of recognition is balsam applied to the unhealed wound in the souls of genocide victims and their descendants. The Australian historical narrative often tends to ignore the socio-political events that its migrant populations have experienced. Yet these events, often traumatic, inform these Australian’s world-view. The opinions and emotions forged during such times have been transplanted to this country and often, passed down the generations. Horrific international experiences such as the Holocaust or the Genocide are thus pertinent to this country because they have affected, directly or indirectly, a portion of the Australian community.

South Australian Attorney General Michael Atkinson was thus entirely correct when he stated in his speech: “We should support the motion to recognise the Armenian, Pontian Greek, Syrian Orthodox, (sic) Nestorian and Assyrian communities who flourish in Australia today. The Republic of Turkey, having dispersed these people to the point of the globe farthest from Anatolia, can hardly complain that, in the freedom of the Antipodes, they perpetuate the memory of their ancestors and their culture. These Australians—and I remind Senator Ferguson that they are Australians with the full right of citizenship to talk about topics that Senator Ferguson considers too ancient and too controversial—came to Australia from countries, including Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where they had settled after the genocide.”
The Leader of the South Australian Opposition, Martin Hamilton Smith also spoke upon the relevance of the empirical and personal connection: “As a man married to a Greek, with a son who is half Greek, who is Orthodox, this has very much touched me and my family. Let there be no doubt in the mind of any South Australian about my view and the view of the state Liberals of these terrible and tragic events.”
Further, through the international treaties it has signed, Australia has cast itself as a democratic, humanitarian country, that abjures all forms of totalitarian terror, it is a humanitarian victory for all Australians who still believe in the democratic process and principled politicians. As John Rau, Member for Enfield stated: “The fact that this motion is before the parliament, the fact that we are debating this matter and we are talking about this matter is at least some modest way that we as legislators in what is, after all, only a provincial parliament—I should not really say that here, should I, but that is what we are—can make some contribution to raising public awareness, both of the terrible circumstances of this particular conflict, but also of the fact that these conflicts can and do and will occur again unless people are aware of these issues and take intelligent, statesmanlike solutions to these problems to hand.” The Member for Fisher, R B Such, went further, courageously acknowledging his own battles as a child, in coming to terms with tolerance, before stating: “We cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. We need to ensure that we are ever vigilant and that we promote tolerance and empathy, particularly amongst our children, so that we rid the world and ourselves of the evil that can be reflected in the sort of genocide and intolerance that is highlighted in this motion today.”
The debate in the SA parliament on the Genocide thus underlies just how principled its politicians are. Some of the debate centred on a few comments published in the Diatribe a few weeks ago, about Senator Ferguson’s denial of the historical authenticity of the Pontian Genocide. In particular, the Diatribe had opined: “Playing ethnic politics is a dirty game that threatens to shatter social harmony quite a good deal more easily than referring to or interpreting historical events. The fact of the matter is that Australia's communities of diverse backgrounds have proven that they can co-exist peacefully in fruitful collaboration and ties of friendship because of our joint commitment to multicultural Australia. No cynical, irresponsible or misguided attempt to score points or votes off the back of any arbitrarily chosen ethnic group should ever be permitted to bear the bitter fruit of discord.”
It appears that this was the guiding principle of all the politicians who spoke on the motions, from both major parties, though I regret the misguided attempt in Parliament to use this quote to accuse others of ‘using’ ethnics as pawns in a broader political game. This notwithstanding, it was gratifying in the extreme to witness these politicians quote extensively from the research of Dr Panayiotis Diamandis, Thea Halo’s famous book “Not without My Name,” William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain,” and even from primary sources such as the archives of the Greek government: “The government of Ankara decided that the Greeks of the regions of Atabazar and Kaltras, first, and later the Greeks of the Pontos , would be slaughtered and eliminated. He assigned Yavur Ali to burn down a Greek village which is near Geive and to kill all of its inhabitants. The tragedy lasted two days. The village, with its 12 factories and its nice buildings became a dump site. Ninety per cent of the population were slaughtered and burnt. The few who were able to escape in order to save their lives went to the mountains. In order to preserve his Chets , Mustafa Kemal had to find an area which he could attack.”
The extensive references to the actual historical events and their effects prove that these politicians are not motivated by political expediency in the recognition of the Genocide. Indeed, they have nothing to gain politically from doing so. Instead, through their own research and critical faculties, they have become convinced that the Genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia is a historical fact that needs to be recognised at a formal level. All of them ought to be commended for this, especially in the face of vociferous protest by the Turkish consular authorities. I am informed, though I have not seen a copy of the relevant letter, that the Australian Foreign Minister has written to the Attorney General of South Australia, stating that it is not the Federal Government’s policy to recognise the Genocide. Perhaps the Australian government should take a leaf out of the enlightened South Australian parliament’s book and pass resolutions based on fact and not Realpolitik.
The president of the Federation of Pontian Organisations of Australia, Harry Tavlarides, the alternate president, Panagiotis Jasonides and many others have worked tirelessly over the years, not to politicise the issue, but to firstly raise awareness of the Genocide among the Pontian and broader Greek community, then to liaise and co-ordinate commemoration events with the Armenian and Assyrian communities (and indeed, it was this diametric move away from isolationist activities and the placing of the Pontian Genocide into the broader context of the fate of other Christian nations in the same region, that arguably allowed the issue of recognition raise itself from the quagmire of obscurity,) and finally, to present the facts to members of Parliament and have them make up their own mind.
In many ways, the whole campaign for Genocide Recognition has its inception in Federation member, Central Pontian Association “Pontiaki Estia’s” Pontian Genocide Workshops. The brainchild of Litsa Athanasiadis and George Papadopoulos, these have run for almost a decade now, having transmogrified into the cultural and theatrical annual “Seed” event at the Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds. Neos Kosmos has also played a prominent role in raising awareness of the Genocide and calling for its recognition through its frequent articles on the topic over the years and of this, and the fact that South Australian parliamentarians: “draw the attention of the house to an article in Neos Kosmos , described by some as Australia's leading Greek newspaper and the largest ABC audited ethnic publication,” we should all be very proud. As one member of the Pontian Federation remarked to me: “I was told a few years back by some first generation leaders of the Pontian community that there was absolutely no way that the Pontian Genocide would ever be recognised in Australia. Now look how far we have come.” We have come thus far, because of the grass roots support of a broad swathe of the Australian community, carefully informed, and despite the politicking of most of our parochial community organizations.
In a sense, I sympathise with members of the Turkish community who will feel enraged at the South Australian Parliament’s recognition. After all, they, just like us, share nationalistic myths about the destiny and character of their race. They, just like us, have been brought up to think that there race is noble, just, courteous and of great benefit to mankind. An official recognition of the genocide shatters such myths just as it calls them into question. As a corollary, why does official Greek historiography skim over the massacre of innocent Turks during the taking of Tripolitsa, or the atrocities committed by the Greek army in Asia Minor? Simply because the Greek people are also, to some extent, informed by the same nation-building myths. What the recognition teaches the Turkish community, as well as us, is that crimes against humanity are not committed by races. They are committed by human beings, and it is those human beings, not their race, creed or colour that are to be condemned. It is degrading to defend the indefensible and we should all be possessed of the conviction to uphold what is right and denounce the wrong, regardless of our kinship with its perpetrator
The recognition of the Genocide should thus not be viewed as the ascendancy of one ‘ethnic’ lobby over another. It is justice achieved, a little victory for a people downtrodden and crushed into the dust. All that remains therefore, as we pay respect to their memory, is to echo the laudable sentiments of the Honourable Michael Ferguson: “Rest eternal, grant unto them, Oh Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon them. May they rest in peace and rise in glory.” Αμήν.


First published in NKEE on 11 May 2009

Monday, May 04, 2009


About a year and a half ago, I visited former NKEE editor and Renaissance man Argyris Argyropoulos in his home. Ensconced among piles of papers in his kitchen, he was making copious notes. “What, I did not know you could write?” I ventured. “Άσε μεγάλε, μπλέχτηκα,» he replied. “We have this idea about writing a musical about Rebetika. I really haven’t worked it out yet. Something about a tekke and how the lives of everyone in it intertwine around each other. And a jail scene. Definitely a jail scene. Actually, I think the opening scene should take place in a jail. There is the hero, incarcerated, playing his baglama. Too cliché? What do you think?”
The end result of that brief moment of spiritual copulation, is Café Rebetika, the musical, now playing at the Arts Centre, produced and directed by Stephen Helper and starring the likes of Tony Nikolakopoulos, Thomas Papathanassiou and Laura Lattuada, among a talented cast and punctuated with the musical brilliance of Rebetiki avec le jeune Paddy Montgomery, whose virtuosity on the Cretan lyra is a thing breathtaking to behold, as are the white and black gangster shoes sported by the ever stylish guitar playing Tony Iliou, as he looks the part.
As I sat in the foyer of the Fairfax Theatre, waiting for the show to commence, a friend who is a distinguished artist in her own right, remarked upon how significant it is for our cultural history, that a show of this nature and subject matter can be presented at such as prestigious ‘mainstream’ venue as the Arts Centre. In her mind, given that the presentation of such a ‘Greek’ piece could not have taken place a generation ago, the staging of Café Rebetika at the Arts Centre exemplifies just how successfully, we have “arrived” as a culture at the mainstream scene.
I experienced great difficulty in being convinced that topos is an exemplifier of success. Instead, I looked to the audience. Granted, the majority of them were comprised of Greeks who obviously knew something of rebetika, or were fans of the music. Some indeed had attended because they were enthralled at the prospect of seeing anything to do with Greek culture being performed at the Arts Centre. Finally, on the night I attended, there was also a significant proportion of non-Greeks, who invariably attempted to mimic the defiant, manly overtones of the leading character Stavrakas’ diction during the intermission and seemed genuinely enthused by their immersion in this unknown facet of our own cultural history.
As I walked in upon a stage set as a dingy café in the slums of Piraeus just before the advent of Metaxas’ rebetika-hating fascist regime, I remembered something that artist and thinker Dora Kitinas recently wrote to me about rebetika: “I think we have “εξευτελίσει’d” the rebetes. If they could see now how seriously we, their devotees take them, how much we study them and try to re-create their world, they would laugh and shun us.” In this context Café Rebetika can be seen to operate on two levels. As “Rebetika for beginners,” it is a plausible introduction and re-creation of the passion and despair-filled world of an entire nation of refugees, dislocated from their homeland and having as their only means of coping and self definition, their focus on their pain. In this respect, a particularly poignant moment in the production takes place when Areti the Rebetissa announces to the drug-addict Petrakis that she is Smyrnan and that he too should be proud of his own Smyrnan derivation. Here we see an identity being born that probably did not exist when their archetypes actually lived in Smyrna before the catastrophe. Another identity, that of the diaspora migrant who is unable to come to terms with life in Greece and must totally be removed from its bounds is also skilfully juxtaposed against that of the outcast refugee, both when Areti attempts to leave for America (the subject of a rebetiko song at any rate) and Katerina actually successfully leaves for Australia (though her assertion that free passage to Australia existed for Greek migrants in the thirties is manifestly incorrect.)
On another level, to the initiated, Café Rebetika functions as a one dimensional schematic evocation but not reconstruction, of the world of the Rebetes. In this regard, the character/archetypes strut their stuff upon the stage, playing time-honoured roles, dictated by tradition. The Rebetiko canon must have a weak and soul-tortured drug addict – Petrakis, a strong silent, self reliant manga who follows his own manly code – Stavrakas, a love interest – Areti, a golden hearted whore – Katerina, a moral philosopher – Grigoris and of course, a ‘bad’ man – Nikos. It is perhaps not without coincidence that some of the character’s entries and exits from the stage are heralded by the traditional Karagiozi entrance music. It is as if we are being told, that in keeping with the rebetes’ philosophy that «ψεύτικος είναι ο ντουνιάς,» or Shakespeare’s belief that “all the world is a stage,” that this is just a schematic representation of a contrived world. The characters cannot be anything else other than one-dimensional if one is to evoke key events or themes of the era. Nikos, the koutsamvaki is an archetypal ‘bad man,’ without the audience being provided into an insight as to why. We learn from the guide to the show that the “Koutsavaki” is a “hardened bully and extremely tough… a manga without the philosophia..” So there is no need to plumb the hidden depths of character here. Similarly, with Stavrakas (the name of a Karagiozi character with similar attributes), the character that comes closest to being ambiguous since he is a morally ambivalent manga who will not give up his code of free thinking, tramples all over the feelings of his beloved Areti, inadvertedly causes her demise, avenges her death because his honour code requires this of him and turns himself into the police, since he says, lamely and anachronistically aping Kazantzakis: “I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free,” his sacrifice seems puzzling to us and we are unable to comprehend him as anything else other than, a manly man. Again, the closest we come to comprehending the hyperactive and frenetic frollickings of Fofo who paradoxically wears pants, is when she alludes to them conferring some type of ‘protection,’ upon her. However, none of this is ever examined in depth. On this level, it is assumed, as in the case of a Karagiozi audience, that the audience already has knowledge of the premises and cultural references that underpin the work.
From a feminist point of view, though the three female characters of the production pay lip service to ideals of self-determination and equality, as they represent archetypes rather than rounded characters in their own right, there is at least some attempt at resolution of their place within society, though we are not given to understand the reasons why they appear to be more liberated than their ‘native’ Greek counterparts. Katerina the prostitute seeks a new life in Australia, Areti, unlucky in love and willing to flout social norms as to the sanctity of marriage becomes a spectral source of inspiration and comfort to all at the café, while Fofo seeks liberation through literacy. It is interesting that while the male characters all seem as failures by the close of the work, the female characters manage to escape a socio-cultural cul-de-sac.
The attempts to show the rise of communism in Greece and its effects upon the newly formed working class against a fascistic climate are particularly well explored through the juxtaposition of two denizens of the café, one who becomes imbued with the new ideology, while the other embraces the ascendancy and false superiority that serving the fascist regime brings him. All the while, the laconic Grigoris, much in the same fashion as Benjamin the donkey in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm,’ maintains his distance from the world and his indifference to all forms of political ideologies and indeed, definitions and words of any kind. The scene where he is roused to defy the fascist authorities raiding the café is thus as surprising as it is profoundly moving. Nonetheless, when the cast gets together and pronounces that they are Rebetes, save for a few rather obvious and forced monologues by Stavrakas into his free-thinking, macho world-view, it is taken for granted, that we understand what they mean.
Much like the classic film ‘Rebetiko,’ which seems to have served as an inspiration for ‘Café Rebetika,’ musicians are closely interwoven within the main protagonists’ lives. The musicians of Rebetiki are cohesively integrated within the production and in my opinion steal the show, since their music, excellently executed as always, acts as a running commentary that contextualised the unfolding drama, in a manner reminiscent of a choir in Ancient Greek theatre. The actors too, some of whom do not speak Greek, perform decent renditions of a few of the better known rebetika songs.
The drama is engrossing, the story soundly constructed, the tension palpable and the acting thoroughly engaging and entertaining. My only criticism would be something that cannot be helped – the fact that in switching from Greek to English with a faux Greek accent in order to provide authenticity and permit a multicultural audience to relate to the work on the two levels previously discussed herein, a certain element of confusion and contrivance is introduced, albeit at a minimal level.
For reasons that ought to be studied at length, the Rebetiko musical genre has succeeded in capturing the imagination of a significant group of Greek-Australians, creating an Antipodean rebetiko sub-culture in its own right. Café Rebetika will appeal to all lovers of Greek music, culture and drama. As a historic production, it certainly deserves our full support. Diatribe leaves you all this week frantically booking tickets, with a few choice words from the masters themselves: «Όλοι οι ρεμπέτες του ντουνιά, εμένα αγαπούνε.»


First published in NKEE on 4 May 2009