Monday, April 26, 2010


I love sword and sandal epics, especially cheesy Italian ones, like the 1959 extravaganza, theGiant of Marathon. In these films, muscular proportionality is directly proportional to moral rectitude and ancient Greece is a Technicolor Arcadia of the righteous, assaulted by the minions of the Axis of Evil. In that world, scantily clad damsels can still appear demure, regardless of the amount and extent of the tapering of the variously phallic shaped tridents, swords, spears, or serpent-monsters that entwine or entangle themselves between their legs. Men speak in deep, decisive tones and experience no emotional conflict save a steely resolve to defeat the horrors that the Earth and the Gods throw at them and have perfectly styled hair. All this takes place before a stylized backdrop of bleached pristine columns, lush green countryside, and happy, loin-cloth clad, bronzed and oiled peasants. These are the type of people that one could easily locate in textbooks of ancient Greek history and identify as ‘authentic’ denizens of that time.
‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,’ starring a wild-haired Kevin Sorbo, who looked eerily like ancient Greek descriptions of the Celts that sacked the Oracle at Delphi in 279 BC marks, in my considered opinion, the end of the sword and sandal epic. For it was this nefarious program that first ushered in the contagion that has plagued Hollywood depictions of ancient Greece ever since: the tendency to make ancient Greeks appear medieval and/or anything but ancient Greek-like, as long as anachronisms abound. Scenes are dark and gloomy, as if filmed in the Teutoburger forest home of the ancient Germanic tribes rather than fair, sun-drenched Hellas. Buildings are primitive, as if they belong to the troglodytes of Stonehenge rather than to the instituters of beauty as architectural doctrine. This bizarre reversal of the portrayal of ancient Greece and all its pomps reinforces the view that Ancient Greece is in fact a construct purveyed by the West in order to serve its various purposes. The white, pure bleached marbled, noble, logical, and dispassionate philosophers and selfless, eminently rational, democratic patriots that have hitherto supposedly formed the basis of Western Civilization have now given way to conflicted, tortured, irrational and violent testosterone fuelled fighters who seem barely to be capable of resolving their own personal issues than to be able to relate and contribute to the polis and citizenry at large in any meaningful way.
The latest Hollywood offering in the way of sword and sandal is as inane, uninspiring and anachronistic as its predecessors, Troy, which featured hierophants dressed in the manner of Orthodox priests is not a patch on the remake of Clash of the Titans. As if to rub in the western appropriation of Greek heritage further, so that it is cleansed of any ‘inferior’ modern Greek connotations and thus rendered palatable to the English-speaking world, none of the actors speak in anything approaching a Greek accent. The sight of a semi-psychopathic Perseus brooding (actually not quite, he has it all worked out and there don’t appear to be any emotional or moral conflicts within the film) over such weighty conundrums as whether the Gods should be defied by mankind, with him, the demi-god at their head, and doing so in an Australian accent, makes our chests swell with patriotic pride and our sense of aesthetics shatter. Similarly, the Gods, with their shiny armour and bedraggled Viking beards look more like Norse deities than the denizens of Olympus. Zeus looks like Odin and his brother, the smoky and not so creepy Hades who manifests himself in blackness and terror, hisses his way around statue–defiling soldiers and the implausible plot in a manner strangely reminiscent of Lord Voldermort. Indeed, one is astounded and somewhat disappointed about the fact that Io, a sexier version of Hermione Grainger, and serial stalker of Perseus, does not assist him to extend his sword and shout “Expelliarmus.”
If there is a central premise to the film, it is one of iconoclasm and Götterdämmerung. That the Celestial beings can be dethroned is evidenced by the fact that the Olympians bested the Titans and in turn can be defeated by men. The ‘benign’ Gods apparently feed upon the adulation of their creations, while the ‘evil’ Gods feed on their fear. Thus both are parasites and must be destroyed, as should be their prophets and adherents, symbolised by the hysterical priest/prophet Prokopion (the name of a place, not a name) who looks more like an Indian Guru than anything else. The entire sub-plot involving the zealots of the Gods and their leader Prokopion is reduced to a practical pointlessness as the building confrontation between their desire to sacrifice Andromeda to save Argos, and Andromeda’s survival, is finally negated by her none too conflicted decision to just accept her fate and become mythological lunch. Is the conflict between Perseus’ dual nature as deity and human the stuff of Christological disputes, with Perseus inclining towards Aryanism through the rejection of his divinity? Probably not. Aussie Perseus lcks the sophistication to even be tempted towards a dilemma in this regard. Instead, he is quite happy to proclaim his belief in mankind, rejecting the Gods and all their doings, while at the same time not being averse to enlisting the assistance of unlikely and totally anachronistic supernatural beings: the Arabian Jinn, who appear in the form of gnarled tree-trunks and who also apparently have a nodding acquaintance with the Olympians, or even using Olympian weapons. Consequently, the film’s central message, that mankind can make it on its own without being in the thrall of other beings is conveyed with the crudity of early Soviet Bezbozhnik propaganda and ultimately, is rendered unintelligible through the paradox of Perseus selfless acts performed through self-obsession. Perseus destruction of the ‘Titan’ Kraken is only effected through the use of the powers of another Titan, Medusa, a tragic figure in Greek mythology and a true victim of the Gods, for whom however, the film evokes no pity.
Perseus’ tale truly could be portrayed as one highlighting the frailty of the human condition. His mother was effectively raped by Zeus, and he was brought up as a bastard child, albeit in a King’s court. Even his heroic exploits are subject to the guidance of the Gds, and he is their unwitting hand in the persecution and destruction of others, in order to carry out their designs. In the latest remake of the film, however, there is none of this. Even the previous 1981 film conveyed some passion, though admittedly taking licence with the myth. Remember how Perseus did everything out of love for the beautiful Andromeda? How he saw her only while sleeping but was condemned to fall for her even if it meant his own demise? Remember how Thetis was the patron Goddess of Joppa and she got her toga all in a wad because Cassiopeia had the nerve to compare her own daughter's beauty to the Goddess herself? Remember how Burgess Meredith found the confused Perseus and aided him in his quest? Forget about it all. Also forget Calibos, the tortured love-struck son of Thetis, (remarkably like the Shakespearean Caliban from The Tempest) whose arrogance caused him to be transformed into a creature hideous to behold and shunned by humanity. His tragedy is to have his love taken from him and be murdered by her lover. Though he is a vile villain, his plight stirs sympathy in the viewer. The Calibos in the remake, is actually Acrisius, Perseus step-father, who is nothing more than an unintelligible and deformed beast. His extreme violence renders his final words of humanity to Perseus as he dies at his hand: “Don’t become like them (the Gods),” as implausible and ludicrous as Perseus’ adopted father and protector “Spyro”.
Is it a sign of the times that Hollywood blockbusters are big on special effects and short on themes and messages? Notably, the pace and amount of words in dialogue these days seems to be restricted to a bare minimum, as if audiences cannot bear the intensity of emotion and human communication of yesteryear. This is a pity when this approach is applied to the portrayal of Greek myths. Greek myths formed corpus of inspiration through which the Greeks explored myths of mortality, hubris, the frailty of the human condition, fate, love and the extremities of passion. The latest Hollywood rendition of Perseus, far from even being possessed of the capacity to in any way explore these issues, achieves exactly what the Gorgon intended: it turns us into unmoved stone.


First published in NKEE on 26 April 2010

Monday, April 19, 2010


The origin of this diatribe, comes to you via a circutous route- namely two facts: that one of my favourite poets, Li Po, known to the Chinese as the Poet-God, was actually Turkish in origin. His ethnicity proved no impediment to his production of the most extravagant and brilliant contributions to Chinese literature, and for him to be identified, forever with China. The second form of inspiration is an 1865 painting by Jean Léon Gérôme entitled “Young Greeks at the Mosque,” depicting foustanella clad Greeks performing Islamic prayers.
One of the facets of the interminable debate as to the nature of the Greek identity is whether it and the Muslim religion are mutually exclusive. While the jury will most likely be out on this point for aeons, given the unique historical circumstances that have shaped and continue to shape the construct that is Greek identity, what is fascinating is the number of persons of Greek descent who made lasting contributions to the Islamic world. For example, of the Ottoman Sultans, Bayezid I,(1354–1403), had a Greek mother (Gülçiçek Hatun) and Bayezid II (1447–1512), was also half-Greek, his mother being the famous Gulbahar, a noblewoman from the village of Douvera, in Trapezounta. So were Ahmed I, Ahmed II, whose mother was the daughter of a Cretan priest, Ibrahim I, (1615–1648), whose mother Kosem Sultan, was one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history, and was the daughter of a priest from Tinos, Murad I, whose mother, Nilufer Hatun, was a Byzantine princess, Mustafa I, whose mother was called Eleni, Mustafa II, whose Cretan mother Mah-Para Ummatullah Rabia Gül-Nush, was originally named Euphemia, Osman II, while Selim I was actually three quarters Greek, given that his father was half-Greek.
A number of other famous personages in the Ottoman empire were also of Greek descent. Hayreddin Barbarossa, the feared privateer and Ottoman admiral, had a Greek mother, Katerina from Mytilene. The distinguished Ottoman grand vizier as well as an army and navy commander during the reigns of sultans Mehmed the Conqueror and Beyazid II, Gedik Ahmet Pasha was also Greek, as was the founder of the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, Ottoman statesman and art expert and also prominent and pioneering painter, Osman Hamdi Bey the son of Edhem Pash, a Greek abducted as a boy during the massacre of Chios. Hussein Hilmi Pasha, an Ottoman statesman born on Lesbos, to a family of Greek ancestry, became twice Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire and was also Co-founder and Head of the Turkish Red Crescent. Ahmet Vefik Pasha, was a statesman, diplomat, playwright and translator of the late Ottoman period, who was also of Greek descent. He was commissioned with top-rank governmental duties, including presiding over the first Turkish parliament and became a grand vizier for two brief periods. Vefik also established the first Ottoman theatre and initiated the first Western style theatre plays in Bursa, and translated Moliere's major works.
Greek Islamic activity was not limited to the Ottoman sphere alone. Shah Ismail, the founder of Turkic-Persian Safavid Dynasty of Iran was also of Greek descent, His mother was a Turkmen noble, Martha, the daughter of Turkmen Uzun Hasan by his Pontian wife Theodora Megale Comnena, better known as Despina Hatun. Theodora was the daughter of Emperor John of Trapezounta, whom Uzun Hassan married in a deal to protect Pontus from the Ottomans Kaykaus II, the Seljuq Sultan’s mother was the daughter of a Greek priest; and it was the Byzantines of Nicaea from whom he consistently sought aid throughout his life. Even the infamous Ibrahim Pasha, the adopted son of Muhammad Ali of Egypt who plotted the genocide of Greeks in Peloponnesus, was a Greek from Drama.
Greek Muslims also made lasting contributions to Islam. Sheikh Bedreddin, was a revolutionary theologian who in 1416, led a revolt against the Ottomans. His mother was a Greek convert to Islam and is said to have influenced his revolt, which had as its aim, the equitable redistribution of land. The Greek Sheikh was buried in Serres until 1961 and the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet was jailed for recommeding to military cadets that they read his work.
Muhammad Al Mahdi, final Imam of the Shi’ite Muslims, who will, according to Shi’ite belief, reappear to establish Islam throughout the world, and those after Muhammad, the most important personage in all of Islam, is also reputed to have had a Greek mother. Narjis is held to have been a Byzantine princess who pretended to be a slave so that she might travel from her kingdom to Arabia.
Greek converts to Islam have also played roles of intrinsic importance in the Muslim world. Gahar al-Siqilli, a Greek from Sicily, eventually became commander of the Fatimid armies. He had led the conquest of North Africa and then of Egypt and founded the city of Cairo and its most important mosque, al-Azhar, in the tenth century. Another of his compatriots, Leo of Tripoli, espoused Islam and conquered large swathes of North Africa.
John Tzeleps Komnenos, nephew of the emperor of Trapezounta, became a Muslim at the siege of Neocaesaria in 1140 and married the Seljuk Sultan’s daughter. The Ottoman Sultans claimed descent from him.
Al Khazini, whose most productive years were between 1115–1130 was a Greek convert to Islam and student of Omar Khayyam, who was a famous scientist, astronomer, physicist, biologist, alchemist, mathematician and philosopher, based in Turkmenistan. His Book of the Balance of Wisdom, remains an important part of Islamic physics, containing studies of hydrostatic blanace. He was also the first to apply experimental scientific methods to the fields of statics and dynamics.
Sinan, the most famous Ottoman architect, whose studies of Saint Sophia caused him to design the characteristic Ottoman mosques that dot the Balkans and Asia Minor is also said to have been of Greek or Armenian origin. In Ottoman records, Sinan's father is named "Hristo", which is the clincher for the case for Greek ancestry.
Some of the more modern Greek converts to Islam have fascinating, and often bizarre stories. Carlos Mavroleon, the son of a Greek ship-owner, Etonian heir to a £100m fortune, friend of the Kennedys, former Wall Street broker and war correspondent, ended up as the leader of an Afghan Mujahideen unit during the Afghan war against the Soviets and died under mysterious circumstances in Pakistan.
Hamza Yusuf, is a a half-Greek American-Islamic lecturer who once opined "I would rather live as a Muslim in the west than in most of the Muslim countries, because I think the way Muslims are allowed to live in the west is closer to the Muslim way."
Cypriot musicians in particular display a propensity for adopting Islam. Most notable of these is Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, while Diam’s, formerly known as Mélanie Georgiades, is a French rapper of Greek origin, who donned the headscarf in 2000 because “medicine was not able to heal my soul.”
There are today, about 7,000 Greeks living in Tripoli, Lebanon and about 8,000 in Al Hamidiye, Syria. The majority of them are Muslims of Cretan origin. Records suggest that the community left Crete between 1866 and 1897, on the outbreak of the last Cretan uprising against the Ottoman empire, in 1897.Sultan Abdul Hamid II provided Cretan Muslim refugees with refuge on the Levantine coast. It was named Hamidiye after the sultan.
Many of these Greek Muslims of Lebanon managed to preserve their identity and language until the Lebanese Civil War, being entirely endogamous. The Greek Muslims of Al Hamidiye constitute 60% of its population and the community is very much concerned with maintaining its culture. The knowledge of the spoken Greek language is remarkably good and their contact with their historical homeland has been possible by means of satellite television and relatives. Omer Asan points to 75,000 Muslims speaking Pontian Greek in Turkey while alluding to the existence of many more.
Regardless of their ethnic origins and in the curious case of the Syrian Greek Muslims, their retention of the Greek language, it appears that to all intents and purposes, the Muslim Greeks’ adherence to Islam places them beyond the pale of “legitimately” being able to claim a Greek identity. Nonetheless, it is their ingenuity that transformed much of the Middle East into coherent, sophisticated political entities and the aftershocks of their influence permeates throughout the world to this day. To read their story is to blur political ethnic and cultural distinctions between perceived “enemies,” and to reconsider what elements do constitute the construct that is national identity.


First published in NKEE on 19 April 2010

Monday, April 12, 2010


Every time I enter my church, Tchaikovsky's piece 'In Church,' begins to play as a soundtrack in my head. This piece, one of the first I ever learned to play on the violin, with its slow and sonorous tones, seeks to evoke the mysticism of Russian chant. I remember being entranced by its proximity to the chanting I knew from church and enthusiastically explaining to my violin teacher that Tchaikovsky was Orthodox. Violin teachers tend to dwell in exhalted realms far divorced from such lowly concerns as the religious affiliations of composers who are supposed to have devoted themselves to nothing else than the production of music and thus, she greeted my assertion with the indifference that allusions to non-Western culture deserves.
'In Church' also happens to be the underlying soundtrack of both the scariest and most brilliant childhood dreams I have ever had. Both took place in my church. I dreamed that I entered the church at midnight. The light was dim and the chanters were chanting Tchaikovsky's piece. I looked up and noticed that all the candles were black and that even their flame was black. The priest was an immensely tall, black robed figure and his kalymaukhi was impossibly lofty, like a stovepipe. The chanting grew louder and increased in intensity. As he turned around to face the congregation, all of whom were wearing black, I became the priest and I could see that all the people's faces were blurred beyond recognition. The doors of the church swung shut with a loud bang and next thing I knew, I was standing before the icons next to woman so corpulent that she could put the most mammalian pachyderms to shame. Somehow I understood I was to be married to this woman and the whole scene descended into high farce as I, a child, ran around the church, obese bride to be and menacing priest in tow, clamouring for an exit. My best dream, on the other hand, took place on a Sunday when I was eleven. I was lining up for communion. Columns of sunlight were pouring in from the long, stained glass windows, carving a translucent path in the air. When I stood before the communion cup I looked up and instead of the priest, I saw my grandfather, who had recently died. As he held out the spoon for me, I asked: "Aren't you dead?" He laughed, a half-snort, half-guffaw, replying: "Are you kidding? I'm always with you." This is my favourite dream not only due to the fact that I got to see my grandfather again, but also because he kept his promise. I have been seeing the same dream, at least one every three months, ever since.
My grandfather seldom stepped foot in church, but my grandmother often did, being of a religious bent. It was because of her that I believed up until the age of seven that God lived behind the altar and that His angels supported the priest's elbows as he kneeled in prayer. Also, pointing to the icon of Christ in the templon, she would remind me that Christ sees everything, and would tell her if I was naughty.
Our templon is unique. Over the Royal doors leading to the altar, there is not a veil, as is customary, but rather, a sliding icon of Christ as High Priest, which usually adorns the back of the Bishop's throne. Further our icons do more than look at you, wherever you are in the church. On the occasions where your transgressions are particularly heinous, they actually look away in disgust, usually toward the Heavens.
When I was young, I was convinced that Heaven was in the roof of our church. This was due to the fact that the ceiling was painted sky blue and adorned with a myriad of gold stars. During long services, we would attempt to mark time by counting them. Sooner or later, the chant would merge with the incense rising up towards the firmament, blurring one's vision, so that the count would be invariably lost. Years later, the ceiling was cleaned and sanded to reveal polished wooden beams beneath, resulting not so much in a loss of a glimpse of Heaven but in the gaining on an insight into the hull of Noah's Ark. One Epiphany, the dove that is usually released in church could not find its way out of the Ark, let alone obtain a suggestion of olive branch and safe ground. Instead, it perched upon the lofty icon of St Mark the Evangelist and proceeded to provide it with votive offerings of guano. Our ceiling is quite high and the icon hard to reach. Years later, traces of the votive offering are still there. Also discernible are the outlines of dust on the north and south wall that denote the previous position of two signs, delineating gender-based seating arrangements: «Θέσις Γυναικών,» on the left and «Θέσις Ανδρών» on the right. They are the cause of my first youthful campaign for emancipation: a refusal to stand with my mother on the grounds that I was a male, and by rights, was entitled to stand where I have always stood in church, at the back, behind the pews, on the right-hand side. The signs had been there for so long, redundant given that elderly ladies stand on both sides of the church indiscriminately, though men never venture to the left, lest they find themselves bereft of their God-given masculinity, that I have no idea when they were removed.
It is traditional, when entering an Orthodox church, to light a candle and then venerate an icon. For some reason, in our church, the order is reversed, with the icon placed closest to the door and the candles after them, causing traffic chaos as the faithful double back upon each other in order to perform their prayers in reverse. As an infant, candles were a source of great delight for my sister. She would wait, like a racehorse straining at the gate for the mnimosyno to be sung. Candles would be handed out to the congregation and upon its conclusion, my sister would race another little girl to collect as many as she could. This practice has now been discontinued, vestiges of it surviving only in the few holier than thou, officious elderly members of the congregation who will punctuate the liturgy with processions to the candle holders, in order to unnecessarily snuff out candles that still have long to burn.
I have nicknames for our church wardens. One of the more youthful ones, I term church boy, another, traffic cop, because of his propensity to appear in front of the teeming crowd waiting for antidoron and divert them in so many ineffectual and circular ways as to cause total confusion. My favourite, Father Christmas, named thus because of his snow white beard, and who presided ever since I could remember over the sale of candles, has recently died.
When I sit at the back of the church, my glance is irrepressibly drawn to the left, towards the third pew from the front. That was my grandmother's seat and whenever we entered church, we would greet her first and then find a place. To the right, fifth «στασίδι» on the wall from the front was the seat of an elderly gentleman from my father's village who would look me up and down bemusedly and ask: "Are you Kostas Kalymnios?" Two στασίδια down from him was another uncle, and in the chanter's box, was my aunt's father, the most kindly and saintly man you could ever meet. Today these seats are taken by others and month by month, I notice more re-shuffles in the seating arrangements as familiar faces that I have seen ever week, all my life, vanish. No matter who fills their seats now, they still appear hollow and empty, like the scratched out eyes in the icons of the churches in occupied Cyprus. Further, I have bid adieu to more friends and family from this church, than I care to remember.
We have two priests, the old priest, who is silent, stern, confident in command and quick in the delivery of the liturgy. Father is my idea-priest and has been around since the time of Melchizedek. He is the closest replication I have seen to the Old Testament God, kindly but stern, world-weary and frustrated by the pettiness of his flock. The young priest is large, ebullient and jovial, quick to crack a joke but uncannily perceptive and intuitive behind his sparkling blue eyes. Whereas prior to his arrival the congregation was ageing, grey and sullen, he has managed to conjure up youth and now the church is filled with children, looking at icons in wonderment and taking priority over elbowing old ladies, in line for communion.
There is a Greek Orthodox Church two streets away from where I live and yet week after week, I am drawn to the church of my childhood. When I hear the hymns I and my ancestors before me have always known, when I see the family of saints and apostles that have stared down at me from their perch ever since my birth, I know I am home and that this home has no temporal beginning or end, regardless of the fact that I have a photo of my mother as a young woman, witnessing the laying of the foundation stone of this church. Time and my conception of myself lie within its cavernous narthex and these can never be erased, even by the blowing out of a candle at the end of the liturgy, unless it is my own.
A few nights ago, I dreamt that the roof of our church had disappeared and was replaced instead, by the night sky. As the priest censed the icon of the Panagia, I could see my grandfather's lemon tree leaning over the walls. Our angels manifest themselves in the form of citrus fruits but require the reading of the Gospel in order to render them intelligible. We pass through the portals of their abode, in search of those who have come before us, and to prove that we, ourselves, continue to exist.


First published in NKEE on 12 April 2010

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


Χριστός Ανέστη! My absolutely favourite part of the Antipodes Festival was when the venerable 79-year old, foustanella-clad Giorgos Konstantinidis, sporting a mustache so immaculately pointed that it could open up oysters, reached up to clasp the hand of the lofty stilt-walking Zeus bestriding the street like a Colossus and engaged him in a tsamiko, to the amusement and delight of passersby.
My second favourite part of the Fest was listening to one of the selfless and extremely indefatigable volunteers who had just assisted in co-ordinating the Zorba until you drop competition, claim ecstatically that one of the contestants, a particularly distinguished, ruddy gentleman sporting a beard and a clipped English accent, was actually Richard Branson. This was because he bore a remarkable resemblance to the said gentleman and everyone was calling him by the name of his doppelganger. Said volunteer now denies emphatically being duped but the number of people who are now offering testimony as to her enthusiasm at meeting the august tycoon casts the denial into doubt.
My third favourite part of the Fest was getting to, for the umpteenth year and on behalf of the Cultural League of Epirus, help to set up what we believe to be a passable reconstruction of a traditional Epirotan home, complete with traditional textiles, cooking implements, and the piece de resistance, a fully working and functional, αργαλειό, or loom. Most importantly, in the company of the aforementioned theio Giorgo, who performed some righteous dance moves with his klitsa, we donned traditional Epirotan costume, and assuming correct pose and character, graciously condescended to be accosted by passersby for photographs. We are after all, Supervlachs.
If anything, the Antipodes Festival was notable for this year for the demographic shift in the number and nature of attendees and participants Long gone are the days of the milling, crushing throng that would ensure that it would take at least an hour to push, squeeze and disapparate one's way past one's compatriots in order to walk up and down Lonsdale Street. Instead, the basin of Hellenic fervour feeding the tributaries of participation seems to be drying up, possibly through extensive irrigation and diversion elsewhere, or through exhaustion. Attendance by city-dwelling southern Asians, Indians and Middle Easterners, primarily students, was noteworthy, especially during daylight, when they appeared at some stages to be almost half the people present. To have such members of the community approach us, finger our costumes, lift our αγγειά, peruse our στρωσίδια, poke at the array of antique weaponry and prod the carding combs and wool spinning implements, all the while asking questions, telling us what they knew of Greek history and even haltingly trying out what few Greek expressions they knew on us. Questions ranged from the Macedonian, about which paradoxically most of our Asian guests were well informed, to the Greek financial crisis and even the Greek Civil War. A very polite man approached the stall a few times, looked me up and down resplendent in my full Vlach regalia and stated: "I am Albanian." He reached into his shirt and pulled out a gold pendant depicting the Albanian double-headed Eagle, as if to prove the veracity of his claim. "Your costumes are exactly the same as ours," he continued. "Did you know that Albanians fought in the Greek war of Independence? It is not something that Greeks like to admit." I responded that I was well aware of the contribution made by Albanian speaking people to the Independence effort and that it was something widely acknowledged by Greek historians. His eyes opened wide in shock. "Really?" he asked, clasping my hand. "Thank you, thank you for knowing." Another man, sporting sidelocks and a prayer-shawl, approached our stall and explained in perfect Greek that he was brought up as Greek Orthodox and converted to Judaism upon learning that his ancestors were Sephardic Jews in Limnos. He was treated to a diatribe from me about the Jews of Yiannina. A Maltese lady, viewing one of our posters, was particularly interested to know the story behind the bridge at Arta. She was treated to an impromptu performance of the demotic folksong, along with translation by the ladies manning the stall.
We saw few identifiably 'Anglo' Australians pass us by. Some gave us appreciative smiles, though one gentleman thought it clever to come up to us, point to the Greek flag and say: "That's the Turkish flag isn't it?" Upon being appraised of its correct identity, he continued: "You're all a bunch of Turks anyway." Everyone else must have been at the Flower and Garden Show.
By far the most varied responses to our stall were from our compatriots. Some, particularly older members of the community viewed the whole elaborate set up as a journey back in time and would sigh with nostalgia, especially upon seeing the loom, which conjured up memories of long gone mothers and grandmothers. Other middle aged compatriots viewed the stall and the sight of us Supervlachs with derision, making inane comments about villagers and sheep, while their children rushed past, fearful of imbibing anything that may be digested as traditional culture. Yet regardless, it is not everyday that one can walk or dance fearlessly in a dress in a central Melbourne street and the feeling is quite liberating. Getting to do so, while sipping the umpteenth shot of tsipouro with visiting Greek MP's who are rather fond of the bottle, is an added bonus.
When we tired, we dressed the younger and in a few cases non-Greek members of our League in the foustanella, gave them few replica period guns and set them loose among the crowd, in order to re-create some of that 1821 spirit. The Maniot Youth Association also tried to do the same, via a dramatization, on stage, of the declaration of Independence. I had the honour of narrating that show, which was notable for two things: firstly, that it featured a brilliant live performance of Greek demotic songs by the talented Jelica Bjelovic, who is visiting from Serbia, and secondly the number of non-Greek members of the audience who sought further information about the Greek War of Independence afterwards, given that the dramatization was in Greek. If anything, it goes to show that the Antipodes Festival does successfully fulfill two major objectives: the coming together of the Greek Community of Melbourne in a celebration of who we are and also, sharing our diverse culture and history with our fellow citizens. Far from being a "ghetto" function, it is truly an all-embracing event that renders us major stakeholders in the broader multicultural mosaic of Australian society.
On the Sunday afternoon, Supervlach finally made a debut appearance on the stage in the company of George Kapiniaris, when I was asked, out of the blue, to help judge the Zorba till you drop competition referred to earlier, in my traditional costume. Attempting to match the wit of the versatile Kapiniaris would always be a futile endeavour and yet I did manage to slip in a few cheesy questions about whether the Zorba comes from the island of Zorbos and whether Zorbolene cream could be used for the after-effects of Zorba-chafing. Furthermore, I did get to assert that the Vlach costume is the national dress of the inhabitants of Bendigo, ask the competitors to do the Bus Stop, bust some Zorba moves of my own and be escorted through the crowd afterwards by security in order to avoid the invective of a particularly enraged stage-mum, who was unimpressed by her daughter's disqualification from the competition.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, I managed to meet the most placid and righteous George Xylouris, take in some righteous music by Apodimi Compania, the traditional musicians from Rhodes and Kastoria, be enthralled by the gyrations of Anthe Sidiropoulos' belly dancing troupe, admire both the effort and technical proficiency of our local dance groups and work out the exact proportions of the great Stratos Dionysios' voice that comprise those of his sons Angelos and Stelios. Not bad for one weekend's work.
Shared laughter and enthusiasm is more than anything, the glue that binds us together as a community. There was a palpable communal feeling at this year's Festival and a tremendous sense of goodwill and that is owed to the participants, the volunteers, the organizers and in an exceedingly large part to its effervescent and enlightened co-directors, the breath-takingly inspired Tammy Iliou, and the silky smooth Leonidas Vlahakis, a supervlach, if there ever was one.
Next year, I'm hoping to institute an Antipodean Bird-Man Rally, for Greek association presidents, with contestants to launch themselves from the third floor of the GOCMV building. The principle is that they will be so buoyed by the wax wings of ego and the hot air emanating from Greek community micro-politics, that they will glide effortlessly through the skies of Melbourne, as celestial ambassadors of Hellenism. Let us just hope they do not fly to close to the sun...


First published in NKEE on 6 April 2010