Saturday, August 28, 2010


Last week, a monument was unveiled in Sydney to the victims of the Assyrian genocide, a genocide that took place at the same time as the genocide of other Christian peoples in Anatolia, such as the Armenians and the Greeks, despite the objections of Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and the Turkish government. To add greater poignancy, to the occasion, it was unveiled during the commemoration of the Simele Massacre of 1933, where an unarmed Assyrian population was massacred by the Iraqi army. The unveiling of the monument in a public space is a vindication of the Christian peoples of Anatolia’s struggle for recognition of the Christian genocide, as well as marking the first step on the road to reconciliation. If anything, what is to be learned from such terrible experiences is the necessity of survival and preservation of one’s culture. Our own history is replete with examples that could be drawn upon in this regard. What follows is a speech I gave at the Assyrian commemoration function, which touches upon our own experience.
“We were a great people once... But that was yesterday, the day before yesterday. Now we are a topic in ancient history. We had a great civilization. We’re washed up as a race, we’re through, it’s all over, why should I learn to read the language? We have no writers, we have no news- well, there is a little news: once in a while the English encourage the Arabs to massacre us, that is all. It’s an old story, we know all about it.”
William Saroyan’s words, from his story Seventy Thousand Assyrians, were written in 1934. They were written as a response to the Simele massacre, a crime so heinous, that it caused the scholar Raphael Lemkin to coin the term genocide – in relation to that unspeakable occasion. These words could just have easily been written today, they are so topical and relevant. Indeed, some of the laments in that story, are echoed among members of the Assyrian community here in Australia, when they question why it is that such a great race is on the brink of extinction.
The lasting effect of the Simele massacre and indeed all the massacres that preceded it and which came after it, is that it has created a feeling of despondency – that Assyria has been lost – that it will never rise again and that there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do about it.
William Saroyan addresses this point as well in his story. In it, there is no hope or optimism:
"Dream? Well, that is something. Assyrians cannot even dream anymore. Why, do you know how many of us are left on earth?"
"Two or three million," I suggested.
"Seventy thousand, That is all. Seventy thousand Assyrians in the world, and the Arabs are still killing us. They killed seventy of us in a little uprising lastmonth. There was a small paragraph in the paper. Seventy more of us destroyed. We'll be wiped out before long. My brother is married to an American girl and he has a son. There is no more hope. We are trying to forget Assyria.”
We need to combat this feeling of despair. When there is no hope and there is no remembrance there is only death.
That is why in my opinion, commemorative events such as this one, and the erection of the genocide monument are so important. Because it is important to remember. Remembrance is the vine which nourishes the grapes of our day to day existence. It is the past that provides us with our identity and determines the nature of the path that we will take into the future, as a nation and as individuals.
Furthermore, it is imperative to dream. My ancestors had a dream. They dreamt of liberty, not only for themselves, but also for all the Christian peoples labouring under the repression of intolerant Islamic regimes. In that dream, as one of our poets, Giannis Ritsos wrote, there was no word that could measure up to the stature of freedom. No one believed that we would ever achieve freedom, We were a nation on the brink of extinction. Most of our people had become Islamized. Those that had not lived a wretched existence, in ignorance and poverty, losing more and more of their culture every day in constant fear of their lives. Does that remind you of anyone?
I say this for a specific reason. The Greek revolution took place at a time when it was considered absolutely impossible for such a small nation to achieve freedom. These people had neither the money, nor the weapons nor the diplomatic support, nor the numbers to have any hope of success. Indeed the Simele massacre reminds me of the massacre of Chios. The Turkish army landed on this island and proceeded to slaughter 30,000 people and to enslave another 50,000.

Yet they had one thing that made them more powerful than they themselves knew. They had a dream and that dream was a dream of survival, a dream of freedom that no amount of persecution or massacre could ever diminish. It was a dream that was nourished by their belief in Christ and a deep knowledge of an ancient, unbroken past.
This impossible regeneration of my people did not have its roots in Greece. It had its roots outside of Greece, in the immigrant communities that were formed by refugees who had to flee their homeland in the face of Islamic persecution. These people embraced the dream. They protected it. They never forgot who they were and they never lost hope. And when the time came, one, two, three hundred years later, it was they who raised the money, they who inspired the masses, they who fermented the great revolt that resulted in the emergence of Greece. They were a group not that different from the people in this room. They hung on. They remained steadfast. They passed their language and their religion down to their children because they knew that God would not abandon them.
When I leave this room tonight, I want to be certain that we will be dreaming the same dream together. I want to be certain that people like my wife’s cousin, who was blown up by a bomb in Baghdad three years ago, did not die for nothing. I want to know that despite what Saroyan wrote, there is reason to hold on to ones language, culture and a long and proud history no matter how painful that history is. Because yours is the path of the dreamers and the future of your nation depends on the dreams that you will dream here today.
Let the Simile martyrs be the blood and bone from which your dreams will grow. Let those dreams blossom into the buds of continuity – so that those who would destroy you will know that nothing can destroy you. God rest their souls and God give you strength because their battle is not over and we are all called, to stand in their place.”
Dreams after all can come true. Who would have thought, so many decades after the genocide that Pontians would be now flocking to their homeland, to Panagia Soumela, to partake in the liturgy, as their ancestors did before them. But that is a topic for another time...

NB. On 30 August 2010, the Assyrian Genocide Monument in Fairfield, Sydney was desecrated. An Islamic star and crescent was painted on its peak and on the pedestal below, slogans such as "Fuck Assyrian dogs" and "Fuck Assyria." This is a grave offence that indicates that even so many years later, there exists a minority that condones crimes of genocide, or attempts to deny them.

First published in NKEE on 28 August 2010

Saturday, August 21, 2010


Over the years, I have encountered not a few members of the Greek community, who, for their own reasons, usually political, seem to experience trouble in acknowledging that there exists in Albania, a native Greek minority that does not enjoy all the rights that are taken for granted in western democracies. Over the years, organisations such as the Panepirotic Federation of Australia that have striven to highlight abuses of such basic human rights as the right to speak or be educated in one’s native language, freedom of worship and self-determination, have been met with derision in the worst case, and generally, with benign disinterest.
The fate of some 300,000 Albanian-born Greeks is a topic that has often sparked the ire of Greek consular officials. When advised of the arbitrary and chaotic way in which licenses were granted (or rather withheld) by the Albanian government for the operation of Greek schools in Albania, the immediately former Consul-General of Greece smugly told me: “So what do you want me to do? Kill all the Albanians in Albania and let you people take over? That’s what you want isn’t it? If you don’t stop talking about this issue within the community, there will be consequences.”
Perhaps the death of a 37-year-old ethnic Greek man in the coastal town of Cheimarra, a few weeks ago, who was reportedly run over by Albanians for speaking Greek in his own shop, will convince inexplicably hostile parties such as the abovementioned, that serious human rights abuses are being visited upon the Greeks of Albania and that hiding ineptitude and impotence under the guise of lashing out at so-called “nationalists” and “extremists” who draw attention to their plight, results in a further deterioration in the quality of life of a people that have basically been abandoned by their compatriots around the world. According to eyewitness reports from Cheimarra, in the days leading up to the murder, the Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha was officially opening roads in the region, accompanied by a claque of bussed-in supporters chanting slogans and waving Albanian flags. Several of these supporters became incensed at hearing the Greek language spoken in Cheimarra, as Cheimarra, is held by the government to be an Albanian region, it being left out of the designated Greek minority zone by the previous communist regime as a reprisal for the predominantly Greek inhabitants of the region refusing to collaborate with the communists. Ever since the institution of “democracy” in Albania, Cheimarra has become a hot-spot, especially during election time, where incidents of violence by Albanian nationalists, intimidation of Greek voters and even the theft of ballot boxes so as to minimize the chance of Greek candidates being elected has become common. In a recent trip to Cheimarra, I met with a resident who was stabbed by an unidentified masked man as he was waiting in line to vote. Cheimarra, which now has a mixed population owing to the resettlement of Albanians in Greek areas during the communist era, is a problem, simply because the presence of Greek speakers and the election of a Greek mayor belie fifty years of propaganda.
Consequently, the reason why some elderly Greek inhabitants of Cheimarra were threatened by knife-wielding supporters of Berisha to stop speaking Greek can easily be discerned. A few hours later, Aristotelis Goumas was subjected to a tirade of abuse by three Albanian men from Avlona, for speaking Greek in his shop. When he asked the men to settle the issue outside, they rammed his motorcycle with their car and then ran over him twice. The culprits suspects were charged in the incident, , while local media referred to a traffic accident instead of a possible homicide and no police press release was issued.
The Albanian Prime Minister, Sali Berisha, appeared to condemn the attack, stating: “This is an act of extreme and blind fanaticism. I cannot believe that Albanians do not know that this town is bilingual and has been for 100 to 200 years.” In actual fact, his statement is more insidious than meets the eye. People have been speaking Greek in Cheimarra, an ancient Greek colony, continuously for over 2,000 years. The Albanian PM is, in condemning the specific act of violence, attempting to perpetuate the well-worn lie propagated by many Albanian historians that Greeks are merely recent migrants to the region, with no historical ties to it. This cynical statement insults the inhabitants of Cheimarra and gives them cause to worry about the future.In Athens, foreign ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras said the incident and information that the alleged perpetrators acted out of ethnic prejudice have unnerved the Greeks of the region: "Such unacceptable and criminal acts aim to generate ethnic tension, with unforeseen consequences, and to undermine Greek-Albanian bilateral relations . The Albanian government must guarantee the proper and swift dispensation of justice, something that will comprise the only answer, in practice, to the reasonable concerns of the Greek national minority in Albania."
Words do not go far enough this time. How many people need to be killed and intimidated, how many confiscated pieces of land need not to be returned, how many schools need to be permitted operation, how many churches vandalized before it is realised that the Albanian government cannot or does not want to protect its Greek citizens? How much more suffering do the hapless Greeks of the region need to endure before smug, short-sighted, dismissive and contemptuous Greek bureaucrats express hideous sentiments about their compatriots, who are putting their lives at risk in order to preserve their identity and who have done so for a century, unassisted by the Greek government?

Vangelis Doules, Member of the Albanian Parliament and president of the Union for Human Rights Party has demanded the institution of the Greek language as an official language of local government in the region, the inclusion of Greeks in the local police force, official recognition that Greeks exist in large numbers over a large region of Southern Albania and should enjoy the right to Greek education wherever they exist, not in an artificially designated minority zone. The institution of these measures would go a long way in ensuring peace and harmony in the region. Further, these measures are nothing new. They appear in the Protocol of Corfu that Albania signed in 1914, undertaking to grant regional autonomy to the Greeks of Northern Epirus. Nonetheless, the Albanian government refuses to grant any of these measures, and nor, despite the rhetoric, is the Greek government willing to make their granting a serious issue in their bilateral relations.

It is trite to remind readers that the Greeks of Northern Epirus were the major benefactors of the modern Greek state, or to highlight their suffering over almost a century of concerted efforts to deny them their identity. Yet if the death of ethnomartyr Aristotelis Goumas is not enough to galvanize the Greek government and Greeks around the world into some sort of concerted action in order that their compatriots are granted some basic protection under the law, then we should all question our commitment and affiliation to those ideals and those historical peculiarities that boost our self-esteem and grant us self-worth as people.
People, in the twenty-first century, are dying for the Greek language, alone. At the same time, our system of Greek-language education in Australia is fast unravelling. A photo of Aristotelis Goumas should be placed in every classroom in every Greek school in Australia, as an example for and an indictment of us all.


First published in Nenanews and NKEE on Saturday, 21 August 2010

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

Saturday, August 07, 2010


If blame is to be ascribed to anyone, it is to Aesop. Not only was he, if the Aesop Romance is to be believed: "of loathsome aspect...potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity." But furthermore, being a Phrygian slave, he was not even Greek. Aesop is traditionally held responsible for his collection of fables. His arguably most famous fable, “The Fox and the Grapes,” whereby a fox, upon realising that the grapes it hungers after are unattainable, calls them sour, illustrates the concept of cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person tries to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously. Dissonance is reduced by altering one of the belief or desire states (as in the fox's disparagement of the grapes it desires), even if it leads to irrational behaviour. Interestingly enough, the term used for the unattainable fruit in the fable is όμφαξ, having both the literal meaning of an unripe grape and the metaphorical usage of a girl not yet ripe for marriage but that need not but disconcert us a little for the purposes of this diatribe.
So the un-Greek Aesop is the inventor of the concept of sour grapes and it is perhaps poetic justice that he reputedly met his death when an eagle, mistaking his bald pate for a rock, dropped a turtle on it. This notwithstanding, cognitive dissonance has been with us as a people for a considerable period of time, especially when it comes to matters of national pride and in particular, our propensity to claim ownership over concepts or terms we have invented.
Hot off the block of successfully securing for the Greek people, the appellation “feta” in order to describe simply the most mouth watering cheese ever to have been created, Greek patriots are mystified as to why the rest of the world seems not to be able to appreciate the fact that “Macedonia is Greek,” despite their numerous protests over the years. Inhabitants of the islands of Lesbos, have even gone a step further, issuing court proceedings, against the Lesbian and Gay Community of Greece, stating that they are unhappy that gay women have "usurped" a term that locals claim should have only geographical connotations. "We are very upset that, worldwide, women who like women have appropriated the name of our island," one of the litigants commented. Needless to say, the lesbians, (from Lesbos) lost the case. Now this is indeed a dramatic case of sour grapes. Instead of being grateful for the droves of lesbian tourists that make annual pilgrimages to Eressos, the birthplace of the poet Sappho, and the ensuing tourist dollars, they bring in their wake, the native lesbian ingrates seek to deny persons of that sexual persuasion their right to an identity on the basis of geography.
Cognitive dissonance abounds in our latest bout of sour grapes. Apparently, UNESCO (whose logo looks eerily like the Parthenon) have declared that Karagöz, known to us as Karagiozis, forms a part of Turkish cultural heritage and not Greek. This has not only caused indignation among some sectors of the Greek population, who profess the Hellenism of our black eyed cultural hero, but has also inspired some bizarre commentary.
Some Greek journalists in particular have had the temerity to rejoice at Karagiozis “appropriation” by Turkey. They state that this loveable, anarchical and complex figure who has entertained the Greek people for generations is better off with the Turks because he is supposedly lazy, dishonest, devious, cruel and misogynistic. Implied in this racist critique is that our people do not have these characteristics and that these characteristics are somehow “foreign.” It would be fascinating to see how this would be the case, given the chord Karagiozis has struck with the Greek people and Turkish professor Ocal Oğuz assertion that “the culture of Karagöz is given more value in Greece than in Turkey. For this reason, the entire world thinks that Karagöz is Greek. In order to make Karagöz live on we need to take ownership of him, and transfer this [tradition] along to future generations.”
Let Aesopian disparagers of Karagiozi on the basis that he is a foreign import and super-patriots alike abate from wringing the grapes of their wrath. The only reason why the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry took action was as a response to news reports last year alleging that the Greeks had applied to the European Union to patent the traditional shadow puppets. The ministry created a file on the characters and established a committee of professors, representatives of civil society organizations and puppet masters to provide evidence and documentation regarding Karagöz. Turkey applied to UNESCO with the file, which was conferred over by a subcommittee including delegates from Turkey, Estonia, Mexico, North Korea, the UAE and Kenya. Debating over the issue, the committee decided that the characters were indeed Turkish. Following this initial stage, UNESCO's upper committee opened an application time window, during which time Turkey prepared the necessary application materials to patent the characters. Greece made no claim or application during this period, clearing any roadblocks to the official declaration of Karagöz as Turkish.
So is Karagiozi made Turkish as a result of our own Karagiozi-like duplicity, followed by sloth and inactivity? While there are significant differences both in content and format between Karagöz and Karagiozi plays that could give rise to an argument that Karagiozi is Greek, whereas his inspirer is Turkish, there can be no doubt that the origin of our beloved folk-hero is Turkish. Why should this bother us? Similarly, why should we get into a dither whenever the “ethnic origins” of commodities such as shadow-puppets or coffee are held to be ‘Turkish? What does our inability to accept the significant influence that Turkish culture has had upon our own over the years, and our attempts to gloss over such influences and claim them as Greek say about the way we see Turkish people, as well as ourselves?
Aesop and his modern day descendants would be well served to be mindful of the prophet Ezekiel, who repeated the proverb: “Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and their children's teeth are set on edge.”For my part, in light of the above, the securing of the great diva Paola for Hellenism is more urgent than ever. Her name after all, is decidedly unhellenic and if we do not claim her now against the insidious, competing masses of latin people everywhere, she may be lost to us for ever.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 7 August 2010