Saturday, January 08, 2011


"Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia." E Doctorow

The nativity of Diatribe, which is relevant only in that this year finds this column attaining the venerable age of ten years, had its origin in its predecessor, the NUGAS column, that once graced the pages of this august publication. In those days, Greek-Australian youth were enjoying the tail end of what appears to have been the swang-song of intensely 'Hellenic' organised activity - the Baraki scene. Lonsdale and Russel Streets undulated to the hybrid Greco-Arabic rhythms of Giorgos Alkaios et al and NUGAS publications were festooned with pictures of revellers seeking a mate, and entreaties for the unconverted to attend the next Greek night.
My criticism of NUGAS and the Baraki scene in general was that the blind, unquestioning adoration exhibited towards 'Hellenism,' by youthful and fervent born again Hellenes seemed to be based only on the fact that their permissive, laissez faire leisure activities more closely resembled those of their host culture and that their understanding of their cultural background was at best superficial. When I became somewhat more vocal in communicating my observations, I found myself writing the NUGAS column, for, as one leading NUGAS aficionado put it, if I were part of NUGAS, I would not be able to criticise it.
The main thrust of the NUGAS column therefore was twofold. Primarily, it was to convince the community that NUGAS was not just an outlet for recreation and procreation, but could have something to say about the formulation of a distinctive Greek-Australian identity. Further, I felt that it could provide born again Hellenes with interesting and unknown snippets of information about Greek culture and history, proving that Hellenism was not just about baraki, souvlaki and Sfakianaki, but was incredibly deep, fascinating, with a remarkable global reach.
Diatribe, the NUGAS column's successor, was intended to continue in the same vein. However, a chance encounter with the then newly appointed editor, Argyris Argyropoulos caused a slight deviation in focus. Over coffee, he related the story of an old man who lived in Footscray and became something of a local 'character' in the area. "Why don't you look out for characters like these?" he suggested. "A whole way of life is changing, vanishing without us even realising it." Various character descriptions have peopled the Diatribe since that time, especially those of good friends, such as Theodoros Tsonis and Spiros Stamoulis, to whom, I have through the Diatribe, have had to say goodbye.
Ten years on, a great deal has changed in our community. A decade ago, Modern Greek was being offered for study at most of the tertiary institutions of Melbourne and we were proud of the founding of EKEME as a Greek research centre. If anything we were merely lamenting the imminent demise of Hellenic studies at Melbourne University. Nowadays, considering that less than three hundred students in Victoria undertake the study of Modern Greek at VCE level, mourning the collapse of Modern Greek at the tertiary level appears to be pointless. What is instructive however, is the fact that the so-called Greek community found itself unable to rouse itself and mobilise in order to forestall or prevent such a collapse. It was, and in many respects still is, content to labour under the delusion that ours is a large, powerful, organic and important community. Diatribe was prescient enough to perceive this struthocamilic approach to the future back then and ask pertinent questions as to where we are headed.
Truly, the Greek community has changed greatly in a decade. Firstly, the sidelining of NUGAS, the sorry fate of most second generation Greek-Australians who sought to assume the reins of power in our brotherhoods or clubs and the blatant manipulation of the youth by master puppeteers in other clubs, who rely upon the illusion that they run those clubs for the benefit of the youth - but in the process alienate both youth and elderly members is indicative of the vast chasm separating the 'organised' first generation from the disinterested and non-participating latter generations. Again, as in the case of Modern Greek studies, despite the disintegration of most of our clubs, the fact that our youth take no active part in them and that SAE, the imaginary co-ordinating body that gave them sort of relevance as pawns on a larger chessboard of manouveuring and manipulation has also collapsed, we still tend to see ourselves as a strong, organisation rich community. Nonetheless, one of the most fascinating consequences of this demise is the remarkable coalescing of such forces around a new, revitalised GOCMV. Are we witnessing a process whereby the fractious pluralism that has hitherto characterised our organised community will merge into a monolithic bloc with the GOCMV as its pole? Only time will tell. Certainly we are witnessing the beginnings of the resolution of the ecclesiastical difficulties that have plagued our community for generations. It will also be interesting to see how this resolution will impact upon the community in general. Diatribe has always been most interested in the way the Orthodox Church has influenced and continues to influence Greek culture.
As Diatribe is written on the margins of the Hellenic world, it is particularly interested in areas that have been marginally affected by Greek culture or which preserve a remnant of a Greek presence. Articles that seek to shed some light on the most obscure and unlikely crevices of such history are a delight to research. More delightful are the responses from diverse readers throughout the world, as these assuage the Diatribist's anguish over a perceived narrowness of focus and parochialism in the Diatribe. Over the Christmas break for example, I received three notable letters from readers around the world. The first, from a reader in India, touching upon a Diatribe about the Greco-Indian kingdom, asks whether the great Indian King Chandragupta had Greek roots and posits that the Gupta Empire gave its name to the gyftoi, in Greece. The second, from the Zappeion Girl's School in Constantinople, referring to Diatribes about the forgotten Greeks of that city, advises of its existence and requests assistance. We will return to the School this year and explore the irony of history that permits a school, founded by the Epirote benefactor Zappas, at a time when Constantinople was at the epicentre of the Greek world, to now be relegated to its margins, and from there, appeal to an equally marginal group. The third letter, from a Turkish journalist, touched upon a past Diatribe on Karamanlidika, the form of Turkish spoken by Christian in Cappadocia and sought linguistic assistance with a novel he is writing about these people. It is wonderful that Diatribes of this nature can put others in a train of inquiry that can cause them to celebrate the commonality of our cultures.
Over the years, Diatribe has not shied away from asking questions not only about our national issues, but the way in which we seek to promote them or understand them. Diatribe has attempted to pierce the veil of nationalism and understand why such issues are important, as well as to draw attention to the plight of such beleaguered groups as the Greeks of Northern Epirus. On the whole, responses from readers of ethnic groups that find themselves on the 'opposing side' in these issues, are a great deal more polite than those by Greeks disputing various political points.
Diatribe has also enjoyed interviewing and describing various interesting personages pertaining to matters Greek, including the Patriarch of Jerusalem, two missionary bishops of Madagascar, the former king of Greece, Constantine and even members of the Vinozhito Party, who espouse a 'Macedonian' ethnicity. Copies of relevant Diatribes can therefore be found in places as diverse as the former King's official website and the Serbian Ministry of Kosovo. Further, whereas in years previous, Diatribe was the preserve of the second generation, I find more and more first generation readers relating to the themes the Diatribe examines, despite the labyrinthine density of the English in purports to employ.
Throughout the course of the decade, the Diatribe has shifted, changed, morphed and mutated. Neither it, or the Diatribist are the same entities as they were when they embarked upon this enterprise, for it is within the very vibrant and complex nature of the community and the culture it addresses, that one must backtrack, assess, re-assess and scratch one's head at its abysmal depth and inexhaustible inspiration. Despite changes in opinion, expression and approach that are corollary after all to coming of age, one common thread lies through all the Diatribes, from their inception to the present: an immense love for the people that they engage.
Given that there is still much more to be said, examined, dissected and ridiculed, the Diatribe, in wishing you a happy new year, thanks you, gentle reader and especially you, oh august editor, for your patience and forbearance. Καλή Χρονιά.


First published in NKEE on 8 January 2011