Saturday, August 14, 2010


It was at the Justice for Cyprus annual rally that the ruddy-faced president of a certain Greek community organisation sidled up to me. "Vre to paliopaido," he exclaimed. "What has (Mr x) done again? Can you believe what he said?" The 'again' here refers to the fact that the person in question has an inconvenient habit of speaking, to coin the Greek idiomatic expression "out of the teeth," and given that he purports to be a player in the field of Greek community politics, this propensity is somewhat undiplomatic. "He said something offensive against the (insert name of Greek-Australian organisation) the president continued. "He has embarrassed us all. He must be removed"
"What did he say?" I asked.
"I don't know," he responded, "It was in English but it has upset many people. Why is he attacking them? Who is behind this? These people are our allies. We must take a stand?" From the outset, the unconscious choice of words employed in the accusation fascinated me. 'Attacking' and 'ally' connote that the organised Greek community is a vast field of battle where allies combine to 'attack' enemies. It is also a paranoid place where allies can be suborned, activities subverted and friends 'betrayed.'
Apparently those supposedly engaged upon the plane of struggle and strife need to observe a silence commensurate with the seriousness of the nature of the battle raging all around them. Censorship and discretion is the order of the day. Thus, speaking one's mind, is tantamount to treason, even if it is in order to offer constructive criticism.
Weaving my way through the crowd at the protest, I came upon the imposing figure of one of the members of the aggrieved and betrayed organisation. "So you have heard of this rezili?" he boomed, flecks of spittle disgorging themselves from between his teeth and lodging within the bristles of his yellowing mustache.
"What aspect of what was said do you find particularly problematic?" I asked.
"I don't know," he responded, his shoulders arched and his face flushed. "I'm not sure exactly what was said. But someone who is, told me it was offensive and that the person in question was attacking us." He paused and then continued: "Anyway, we think that this guy is in league with some of the journalists out there to discredit and attack us. We think that he is making these statements on purpose because you know that there are these guys are out there in the media who exist solely to get us."
This statement shocked me to the core. That fact that an opinion exists, out on the community playing field, that Greek institutions are hell bent on destroying each other, speaks volumes about the way these organisations, which are supposed to showcase and provide a social and cultural outlet for their members, see themselves and the community as a whole. The statement also goes far in explaining why goodwill and trust within the organised Greek community is at the level at which it is. Effectively, much like our ancestors, we have barricaded ourselves inside the equivalent of small, insular city states, jealously guarding our individuality and our privileges and ever suspicious that another such state will compromise or in some way act inimically towards these. In that world, there is no room for self-reflection, review or questioning. Any attempt at auto-analysis, is an attack that must be firstly deflected, while the motivation of the enemy is discerned. God forbid that there should be a grain of truth or lessons to be learned from any criticism. Instead, it appeals we have adopted the Stalinist critique wholesale, whereby all and any criticism is malicious and counter-revolutionary to boot.
I attempted to explain my concerns to the member, highlighting that by isolating oneself within the cocoon of Greek community organisations' internecine strife, alienation of English speaking generations and all those who do not share a delight in micropolitics is inevitable. In fact, it is these squabbles, the personal attacks in newspapers, the propagation of rumours, the resort to name-calling, fisticuffs and conflict that has created the crisis of confidence that has seen most Greek community organisations decline into irrelevance. In particular, I deplored the manner in which members of Greek community organisations see it fit to impugn the character and honesty of persons based on little or no evidence and asked him how he would have felt if a similar accusation as that levelled against the person in question was directed towards his children. I also asked whether his children were involved in his organisation and if not, why this was the case. Should we not be acting responsibly and addressing the concerns of those who offer criticism before spreading rumours and calling allies to arms?
"Do you know what the problem is with your generation?" he responded. "You are too soft. You can't handle the heat. Do you think it is easy to belong an organisation like mine? We've had to endure criticism from consul-generals, politicians, and even some of my own people who are traitors to the cause. You don't get anywhere unless you are ready to cop a few blows. We are ready to give you the 'karekla' but what are you going to do with it when you want to run away every time someone pulls you up." He then launched into a lengthy tirade about the αγώνα, he and his friends have been fighting over decades as members of the community and how many people have attacked them, yet they persists in his position.
As I walked away to join my voice with the rest of those calling for justice for Cyprus, having given up all hope of finding out what exactly was said that enraged people so much, I considered how bent upon retaining their 'seat' some community leaders are, that they still believe that such seats are the envy and desire of all. What they do not realise is that the English-speaking generation that has been alienated and would not ever want to be involved with such groups, let alone assume their presidency, comprises not only the 'youth' but those who arrived and grew up here in the fifties and sixties, simply because those in charge of such organisations have forgotten one basic thing: Our community is not supposed to be a battle-field. It is not supposed to be about elections, presidents or seats. It definitely is not supposed to be a sphere where people can play politics. All our brotherhoods were created for the sake of, well, brotherhood. We were supposed to be one great family, a vast network of support and resource for each other. As it stands, we are none of these things and unless we restore a modicum of decency, politeness, openness and friendliness in the way we treat and deal with each other, all our boasts about our community institutions will remain hot air. And the time will not be long in coming, when we will reap the wind.
First published in NKEE on 14 August 2010