Saturday, April 30, 2011


Xριστός Ανέστη! Or at least it is thus for most of us, save the directors of the Grecian radio station "Athens 9.84." According to reports by parliamentarian Ioannis Mihelakis, these ultra-sensitive, new age directors, imbued to overflowing with sentiments of tolerance and mutual respect, issued a directive to their employees not to broadcast any of the church services of Holy Week, or even, the Resurrection Service, over their airwaves. This is a most revolutionary act, breaking a tradition of decades.
What is even more revolutionary, iconoclastic and thoroughly ground-breaking, is the reason cited for such a brave statement. According to the perspicacious directors of "Athens 9.84," to broadcast such material would invariably inflame the sentiments of the million or so Muslim inhabitants of Greece and of course there is not enough balm even in Gilead that could be applied to soothe such inflammations.
In this post-modern, deconstructed world, dispossessed of absolute truths, the New Age directors of "Athens 9.84" are to be applauded for divesting themselves of their narrow Hellenocentricity and nationalism, in order to take into account the attitudes and opinions of minorities. Indeed, their act is of historical importance. For as one is to understand from a cursory retrospective glance at Greek history, the last time the manifestation of Orthodox church services was curtailed in such away so as not to offend Muslim sentiment, was during the Ottoman occupation. At that time, the building of new churches was banned and the ringing of church bells was forbidden. Further, Christian testimony did not bear the same weight as Muslim testimony in law courts, Christians had to wear distinctive clothing so as to be distinguished from Muslims, they were forbidden from riding horses, or from possessing homes with windows that looked out onto the street. Funnily enough, though these measures were designed to assuage Muslim feelings against Christians, they seemed to have the opposite effect, if the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia is anything to go by.
Perhaps the directors of "Athens 9.84" can obtain lessons in how not to inflame Islamic sentiment, by seeking advice from the Coptic Christians of Egypt, where some of the Ottoman laws still apply. There, Christians are not permitted to build new churches or renovate new ones without going through an impossible bureaucratic process, must take their shoes off before entering church and cannot, in most places, openly practise their faith, for fear of offending Muslims. That offence, caused by their mere existence, is displayed through their rape, kidnapping and murder, along with the bombing of their churches.
It is trite to point out that Modern Greece owes its existence as a response to religious intolerance from the Muslim world, or that Modern Greece still is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, the rituals and services of which culminate at Easter and are almost universally enjoyed and considered of great significance the Greek people, forming a significant part of their national identity. To seek to curtail or abrogate the rights of people to participate in these appears ridiculous. Nonetheless, Greece is also a part of the European Union, and it is under its aegis that Christmas decorations and celebrations have been discontinued in neighbourhoods inhabited by Muslims in some towns in the Netherlands. As a result, regular listeners of "Athens 9.84" and conspiracy theorists may fear that more than just stupidity and the desire to cause some controversy in the hope that this will translate into publicity, is at play here.
In this light, the directors of "Athens 9.84" motives appear disingenuous and could indeed inspire ethnic and religious strife. Which sectors of the Muslim community have been offended by the liturgy and voiced their concerns to the directors? It is doubtful whether there have been any. If there have not been any such protests made, the directors must apologize to the Muslim community for making them appear intolerant, ungrateful and disrespectful towards the vast majority of the members of the community in which they have been permitted to join. Further, the directors need to produce and name those possibly illusory persons who have voiced the protests that have caused them to take such drastic action. There are people alive today who still remember the Ottoman Occupation and the intolerance that it fostered. To raise the spectre of such intolerance again, is to reawaken dormant fears and inherited traumas within sectors of Greek society. In a country beset with financial and social problems, the last thing that is needed is the isolation and vilification of a sector of the community which is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a threat.
If, on the other hand, protests and representations have truly been made, then the directors of "Athens 9.84" are to be equally condemned for their precipitous and short-sighted action. While everyone deserves to live with dignity and to enjoy freedom of religious and cultural expression, if the free exercise of such religious expression, such as broadcasting a religious service that means so much to the vast majority of the population offends others, then they have no place within society and their bigotry and intolerance should be condemned, not pandered to. They should be reminded that in the country in which they have been permitted to reside, at their request, and sometimes, in violation of Greek laws, they have been enjoying privileges and freedoms that are not afforded to Christians, in their homelands and that it is impolite and disrespectful for a guest in one's home to dictate to one's host, how the household will be run. As a corollary, latent prejudices that may be endemic to their communities should not be exaggerated or created into a scapegoat to cynically fuel the fears of other parties.
It is worthwhile to remember that Greece is a democracy and as such, it allows for such freedoms as that of religion and expression. In this respect, surely people of all walks of life who are offended, annoyed, bored or just don't want to listen to the Pascal liturgy on the radio can merely switch to another station. Social cohesion is arrived at through the convergence of points of mutual understand and respect, not fear of reaction and pandering to prejudice. The anencephalic directors of "Athens 9.84" should think more responsibly, the next time they decide to indulge in religious or ethnic politics. What this sordid little state of affairs should teach us, is that tolerance, along with our most hallowed traditions, is not something to be taken for granted. It is up to all of us, to ensure their survival.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 April 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011


“bare-breasted women

brandishing angry flags

march in the blood-sunset light

hirsute and bayonets'

down with tyranny' etc'

make love not war'

etcet cetera”

In a 2008 article, Ali Alizadeh argues that the only non-Anglo-Celtic poet to have received both the National Book Council Award and the Patrick White Award, nonagenarian Dimitris Tsaloumas, in his bilingual 1983 collection, The Observatory, can perhaps be credited with launching multiculturalism in Australian poetry. He posits that although not ostensibly revolutionary in either form or content, The Observatory was in many ways the first refutation of the policy of assimilation in the field of published poetry. His was a book that not only challenged the hegemony of English language by including the Greek texts of all of the poems, but also depicted an Australian author's unashamedly and, for the time, daringly non-Anglo-Celtic cultural and artistic heritage.
Tsaloumas, perhaps one of the greatest of the Greek-Australian poets after Archbishop Stylianos, has led a life that reads like a veritable Odyssey. Born in 1921 on the island of Leros, which was then under Italian rule, his formal education was in Italian. His later schooling was on Rhodes where he also studied the violin. He came of age during the Italian and German occupation of Greece, and took part in the resistance, acting as a courier. In Greece, before migrating to Australia, he published two collections of poetry, one of which was printed with the help of the tremendous English writer and philhellene Lawrence Durrell, who met Tsaloumas on Rhodes and was impressed with his work.
He left for Australia in 1952 due to political persecution, where he earned a living by teaching. Very soon after he commenced writing again in Greek and had several volumes published. This first triumphant manifestation upon the difficult Australian poetic proscenium took place when a selection of his Greek poems was published in the bilingual edition The Observatory in 1983.
Then in 1988 his first English poems were published in Falcon Drinking. Since then he has published several more volumes of English poetry, gaining a considerable reputation both in Greece and Australia, obtaining, among other accolades, an Emeritus Award from Literature Board of the Australia Council for outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature in 2002.
As a poet who has achieved acceptance within the mainstream, he is particularly lauded within the Greek-Australian cultural and literary millieu, such as that which exists and it is in this context that the Greek-Australian Cultural League of Melbourne organised a public reading of his work by the poet himself – a particularly singular event, since Dimitris Tsaloumas spends most of his time in Leros and is approaching the venerable age of ninety. The event was to be held in the English language, in the belief, as one of the Cultural League’s Committee members confided, that this would make the poet and his works accessible to the latter English speaking generations who may feel isolated by cultural and literary events conducted in the Greek language, largely for the first generation.
As such, a large audience was expected and it was the poet himself who made the following prescient and cynical remark to one of the organisers, a day prior: “How will two thousand people fit in this small area?”
Accordingly, the turn-out was slightly disappointing, the poet receiving an audience no where near commesnurate with his stature. It is a sad reality that while accomplished poets such as Tsaloumas receive accolades and recognition by the literatii, the community at large know hardly anything of them. In a community where cultural and literary pursuits invariably mix with social aspirations, launches of lesser works purporting to be literature can haul in capacity crowds whereas a public reading by a truly accomplished and recognised as such poet, fails to capture the enthusiasm of the first generation.
Furthermore, there was an almost total absence of English speakers of the second generation at the reading, tending to suggest that it is more than just a language barrier that keeps the latter generations away from events organised by the first generation. While the roots of the chasm between the generations are complex and cannot bear examination here, perhaps it is high time that the first generation, while well meaning, should desist from attempting to organise events for the latter generations. Should those latter generations, most of whom have been born and educated in this country and able to move seamlessly within the echelons of its social fabric exhibit the desire to organise similar events for themselves, then they are more than capable of doing so. The fact that they overwhelmingly have not, seems to speak volumes as to their attitude to the first generation’s pursuits and concerns, and their Greek, as opposed to ethnic minority heritage in general.
Conversely, it was heartening and deeply touching to witness a first generation most of whom find English challenging, sit patiently through an exposition of Tsaloumas’ works and then the reading in English of his poems. They sat, allowing the sound bytes to wash over them enthralled, perhaps not comprehending as much as they may have had the whole event been conducted in Greek but nonetheless, spellbound by Tsaloumas’ electric presence.
For indeed Tsaloumas, for all his diminutive size, is charismatic. His wide eyes are the true eyes of the poet- all seeing and possessing an incredible piercing gaze. His voice, when reciting is deep and gravelly, like the recording of an ancient phonograph record, and it rises and falls periodically with all the dramatic intensity of an olde worlde thespian. The Greek burr to his cultivated English lends to it a Welsh effect and one could have been forgiven for thinking that they were listening to Dylan Thomas recitation. When, to the relief of the audience, recitations commenced in Greek, Tsaloumas’ listeners were practically euphoric.
It is not difficult to see why. Tsaloumas’ language may appear at times to be deceptively simple, but the images and themes he weaves with them are profound and there is something to be found for everyone in his work. Furthermore, the audience was manifestly proud of our Grand Old Man’s accomplishments and wanted to bask in their peer’s adulation of him.
In a recent article titled 'Only Pinter remains to question authority', English literary theorist and thinker Terry Eagleton bemoans the decline of politically-engaged writing in English. He criticises, among others, the once radical, now conservative migrant writers like V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie who, after an initial period of producing exciting work, have become 'more interested in adopting than challenging the conventions of their place of refuge'., Ali Alizadeh levels this criticism at Tsaloumas, stating that “after this auspicious entry into the milieu of Australian literature, however, Tsaloumas seems to have settled all too comfortably into his position as the sole non-Anglo-Celtic name in the elite anthologies of contemporary Australian verse. Over the decades his poetry has also lost much of its richness and sophistication, to the point that [it] displays the same chauvinism and 'old age conservatism' that one would find in work by many 'established' Australian poets of the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture.”
This is a little unkind and does not take into account the differences of perspective, introspection and self-examination that come with age. While I would argue that Tsaloumas’ later works stand up to literary criticism well, of particular concern is not so much Tsaloumas’ continued appreciation by the mainstream but rather his appreciation by our community. His bilingual poems should be taught in Greek schools and in particular, at VCE level. And we should all take time out to heed his masterfully woven and prophetic words, as best we can: “All my life long, I’ve hankered after simplicity. When night falls, don’t come to light candles and pour the wine. There’s not enough for two; I cannot share my hunger.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 23 April 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011


"So you are of Greek background... You don’t seem like a Greek to me...I see lots of Greeks on television – you don’t seem to be like them. Tell me about yourself....”
Some Sunday’s ago, the Antithesis Festival presented a forum on how Greek identity constructs manifest themselves within mainstream professional culture, in the opulent surrounds of the Hellenic Museum.
Antithesis is of course a Greek compound word, whose constituent parts bear further examination. Anti means opposite and thesis means position, so the Antithesis Festival assumes positions that are opposite, which is kind of intellectually kinky when one thinks about it but which should not be dwelt upon at any length here. At the commencement of the forum, I made the following opening remarks:
It was Jonathan Hall who coined the term Hellenicity, in order to describe the multiplicity of identities inherent within people who derive their cultural heritage from the land of Greece and the term - more indicatory of a state of being – is a particularly apt one, since it is safe to say that few other peoples have been so obsessed with their identity as the Greeks. As far back as Herodotus, Greeks were talking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ setting criteria to exclude others and of course denigrating them in the process – πας μη έλλην βάρβαρος- or all who are not Greeks are barbarians- being the order of the day. Along the way, Greek nations such as the Macedonians, received short shrift, their right to membership of the club being called into question during the Olympic Games and by politically motivated orators such as Demosthenes.
It should be noted in fairness that the above notwithstanding, the Greeks of old were enamoured of the pursuit of establishing genealogies for all the diverse peoples they came in contact with and thus, were, on their own admission, related to most of these. Nonetheless, our ancestors were so obsessed with creating an identity, probably because no such common identity existed. In a land riddled with warring city states, poets and historians seized on common elements such as language, religion and shared experiences such as the Persian wars, to attempt to forge an identity. This would not last long and would invariably break down.
Greeks tend to define themselves only in the face of the other – the Xenos. Thus we only see the emergence of a cohesive Greek-like identity after the Roman conquest, and only because the Romans identified all of us as Greeks. Indeed the word Greek comes from the latinised workd for Graecoi, the first Greek tribe the Latins came in contact with.
The way we define ourselves against the other is almost instinctive. Most Greeks in a non-Greek environment will take great pains to emphasise their Greekness and differentiate themselves from their peers. This process therefore has ancient roots.
Who we are supposed to be is a concept that is still being refined. Our parents think they know who they are. They learned what a Greek is at school, a compination of jingoistic rhetoric and nationalistic mythology. But even as first generation Greeks lament the fact that future generations are not maintaining their identity, they cannot agree among themselves what that identity is. The pages of Neos Kosmos are full of their anguish and confusion. Are we devout Orthodox Christians, toga wearing logical and rational philosophers, heterosexuals and devotees of the sanctity of the family, superintelligent successful educated bourgeoisie, or shifty kombinadoroi who always manage to make do on our native wit? Are we superior or inferior to the other ethnicities among whom we live? Of course we are. To allude otherwise is to sow chaos, doubt and schism generally.
Tonight’s forum: Responses from the distant edge of Greekness is particularly apt – though arse end of Greekness is probably more so, because half a century on from the wave of mass migration of Greeks to this country, there exist two Greek worlds, that of the first generation, which looks back to a rural past and the imagined world of old Greek schoolbooks in order to define itself and the second and third Australian born Generations whose idea of Greekness is received rather than lived, gleaned from sources, rather than experienced first-hand.

If we are going to view the role of Greekness among the latter generations think it is helpful therefore if we kick off tonight’s discussion by considering what it is that we understand by the term Greekness or that other excruciating word Hellenism. Is it still relevant to talk about a multiplicity of Hellenisms? What is our experience of it? Is there a need for a collective ethnic identity in a post modern world? How important is the construct of a Greek identity to Australian constructs like multiculturalism?
George Vasilacopoulos in his groundbreaking study: From Migrant to Citizen Greek migrants in white Australia postulates that the creation of ethnic definitions such as Greek community by the ruling class, with laws, grants and regulations supplied by that ruling class perpetuate and validate the violent seizure of aboriginal land by compelling subsequent minorities to legitimize the ruling classes sovereignty by abiding by their laws and defining themselves according to their definition. Is our definition of Greek-Australians therefore an Australian construct? Food for thought.”
Each of the panellists had engrossing observations to make, based on their own diverse experience. Luka “Lesson” Haralampou, rapper and slam champion explained how he employs Greek words and phrases in his lyrics, not in order to make any type of ethnic statement but purely as these words form part of his identity. As he hastened to point out, he employs Spanish and other words in the same way, because these too form part of his identity, given that they have meaning for him. In his discourse, the way was pointed towards a purely subjective identity, divorced from the requirements of stereotypes.
Katerina Kotsonis, an actress with years of experience spoke about prevailing stereotypes that exist within media about Greek people. Interestingly, she posited that when confronted with these stereotypes and having understood why such stereotypes were implausible, her employers were more likely than not to revise and reprise ‘ethnic’ characters. In the discussion afterwards, the audience wondered whether there will come a time when characters of ethnic background can simply play themselves within film or drama and not merely an “ethnic.”
Esther Anatolitis, CEO of the Melbourne Fringe Festival gave an erudite and thoroughly thought-provoking analysis of the social and family pressures that presuppose a Greek identity. Often, these elements are not nationalistic but are merely forms of social or familial repression masquerading as an element of a Greek identity. One’s lifestyle, choice of partner or choice of interests should not preclude them from having their Greek identity impugned and yet this is something that the first generation often does, as a way of enforcing desired forms of conduct upon the latter generations.
Dr Michael Christoforidis, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Melbourne explained how one’s family background (his mother lived in a Greek city, rather than a village) can exclude one from fully belonging to an identity constructed by the majority of others claiming inclusion. Intriguingly, he noted how elements of his Greek identity assisted him in negotiating Spanish social customs, upon his long sojourn in Spain, while studying there.
Alkinos Tsilimidos, international award-winning film director, writer and producer spoke of the close relationship his has with the Greek land, returning there frequently and how elements of Greece manifest themselves in his work.
All panellists had much to tell as to how Greek identity manifests itself within the ordinary course of one’s daily life in Australia. What was not touched on, given time constraints, is how that identity will be formed when the first generation is no longer extant as a point of reference. This is the reason why forums of this nature are so valuable. At this point of our historical existence as a community, we are more diverse, involved in a gamut of
multifarious interests and pursuits as ever before. If we are to retain any sense of cohesion as a community, interested parties will have to plan ahead in order to take this diversity into account.
James Oliver postulates that the term Panhellenes was first employed in times ancient to describe the commonality of central Greek tribes. Three thousand years on, we are still as diverse and different from each other as ever before. Forums such as that organized by the Antithesis Festival celebrate that diversity, while challenging the stereotypes that we create of ourselves. It is to us to determine, how best to employ that diversity to our advantage, rather than to our aposythesis.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 April 2011.

Saturday, April 09, 2011


"Sticks and stones may break my bones but words I can't pronounce hurt others"

In a Diatribe οf 2008, entitled «Κωλοδουλειές,» the diatribist railed against a barrister who representing the alleged rapist of a victim of Greek descent, sought to disqualify all members of the jury also of Greek descent on the grounds that he had heard that "Greeks like anal sex." This was instructive, because it revealled how thousands of years of prejudice can manifest themselves within a multicultural society, as well as highly offensive. Despite official rhetoric, if multiculturalism is to be defined as a melting pot of cultures existing harmoniously alongside each other on an equal basis, then we definitely have a long way to go. In their groundbreaking study: From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," George Vassilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou analyse how the key forms in which migrant communities manifest our existence here are paradoxical. Though lip service is paid to communities forming their own organizations and sub-structures, the way in which this is done is heavily regulated and prescribed by the state, originally in order to keep sub-cultures away from the mainstream. As a result of such government-sanctioned behaviour, the sub-cultures remain isolated, suspect and constantly having to prove their loyalty credentials to their host country, that is perpetually unable to accept them as they are. Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou also note that such racially exclusion is symptomatic of the ontopathology of the predominant ruling group in this country, in seeking to legitimise its conquest and rule over Australia at the expense of its original inhabitants, by acting as arbiter over other nationalities it has chosen to include but not assimilate within its constructed society. In that sociopathic world, generalisations and denigrations can still be made about ethnic groups, just as they were made in the early twentieth century, when ethnic minorities, the Greek one among them, were considered suspect and were subject to internment or at best, surveillance and censorship. Further, in that world, rights can still be abrogated on the basis of perceived racial characteristics. Fifty-year-old Spiros Chryssanthakopoulos has at first hand experienced such ontopathology, complaining that he has been humiliated and racially vilified after discovering from a court transcript that magistrate Jack Vandersteen, clerk and police prosecutor laughed while discussing his name.Mr Chryssanthakopoulos has written to Chief Magistrate Ian Gray complaining that at one point a man can be heard on the recording making the comment "I can't pronounce that sh--". Allegedly the clerk can be heard laughing while struggling to pronounce Mr Chryssanthakopoulos's name, before magistrate Jack Vandersteen says: "No wonder we can't find him ... he would have been a hard name to recite 25 times. There's 19 letters in it."In a letter dated March 18, Chief Magistrate Gray said he did not believe the comment was offensive. "The comment was made following repeated and failed attempts of the clerk to pronounce your name when the case was being called," he wrote. "In my opinion, the recording does not demonstrate the magistrate was intending to cause you any offence...I am sure I speak for magistrate Vandersteen in saying that if any offence was caused, then it is sincerely regretted." So Chief Magistrate Grey does not believe that ridiculing the length or sound of one's name is not racist. He, as chief judicial officer of the Magistrates' Court has made his ruling and the matter is at an end. If anything, his response could be considered to be even more insulting than the ridicule the hapless victim of racism received behind in his absence (one wonders whether Mr Vandersteen would have had the courage to ridicule his victim to his face), as it calls into question the victim's judgment and his right to logically assess slights to his person. All this may do is to reinforce the stereotype that Greeks are overly emotional people and that their protestations are not a matter for concern. Extrapolating Vassilcaopoulos and Nicolacopoulou's arguments further, it becomes evident by such hurtful conduct that the ruling Anglo-Saxon hegemony seeks to legitimise its cultural and temporal rule over the globe by becoming the arbiter of how smaller, tributary cultures define themselves. Consequently, when we choose to present ourselves to the ruling discourse, we need to do so in a manner that panders to their sense of superiority. That is, if our ethnicity is to have any relevance to that hegemony, we need to demean ourselves. If we don't, they will do that themselves. If we protest, they reserve the right to dismiss such a protest. Thus, Chief Magistrate Grey cannot be looked upon without sympathy. He too, without realising it, is a victim of a culture where the denigration of foreign names has become second nature, regardless of whether any premeditation or malice has preceded this. This culture, is a frightening one.

When Anglo-Saxons have unpronounceable names, we are expected to pronounce them. I doubt whether most Greeks who do not speak English well could pronounce the name Vandersteen with ease. Yet there does not within Greek culture, exist a concept of not ridiculing people's names, or constructing a Shakespearean drama around their unpronounceability, simply because in our culture a name is sacred. It encapsulates a person's identity. However, in this country, we who have had unpronounceable names are punished for this via ridicule and dismissal, or by a denial of the legitimacy of that name and coercion to adopt another. As a newly admitted lawyer, unsure of procedure before the bench and fumbling, I have been granted my name an ironic pronunciation by a particular presiding judge, though the same judge did not play with the names of my similarly inept Anglo-Saxon brethren. Prior to that, my school teachers indulged in the same hurtful name calling. This, in my mind, despite Chief Justice Grey's assertions, is passive aggressive racism, designed to demean and I hasten to point out that I would doubt that the Chief Justice has ever had his name employed in the same way.

The Greek community of Melbourne is outraged at the slur directed towards the absent victim, not only because it has had to deal with such ridicule for over half a century, but also because when such behaviour is exhibited by a magistrate, who is, at least in the popular conscience, supposed to uphold the maxim that all are treated equally before the law, this conveys the opposite message, that some people, by virtue of the pronounceability of their names and their ethnic provenance, are more entitled to basic human respect than others. The outpouring of persons who on the Herald Sun website, whether the slur against the victim was reported, made comments such as: "Eat some concrete ponce......obviously the hearing regarding the speeding fine didn't go too I'll whine, whinge and get my 15 seconds of fame....obviously a slow news," "Get over yourself lovey - OR change your name," "How about you harden the Chryssanthakopoulos up!" or "This is easily fixed, change your name. A name that works well in Greece obviously doesn't work well in an English speaking predominantly anglo-saxon country. Why is that the majority have to change to suit the minority in multiculturalism?" should give our community pause for reflection. All of a sudden, a victim has become vilified and suddenly, turned into a perpetrator.

It is unknown whether the organised Greek community will take a public stand on this issue and demand the institution of protocols to deal with and avoid behaviour that is racist or hurtful in public institutions. As a "subservient" community, to adopt the terminology of Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, we are loathe (and possibly incapable, owing to the fragmented nature of our community,) to display our displeasure at the offhand application of racial slurs and bigoted, outmoded references to such ethnic characteristics, in any effective fashion, lest we be deemed to be "subversive." As a result of this lack of advocacy on our behalf, we lie passively, awaiting the next distasteful intrusion. Mr Chryssanthakopoulos, the victim in this sorry tale should be commended for his courage in speaking out against entrenched and latent racial or ethnic slurs. While incensed Anglo-Saxons may poke fun at him saying: "I feel humiliated, I feel like the court and police are ganging up on me...the racial vilification, the bungles, the vindictiveness, it's all been a nightmare." To the person who responded thus: "Dear Mr Alphabet - face it you have a very long, unusual and difficult to pronounce surname and someone made a joke about it. No one took away your liberty, you didn't lose any of your possessions and no one was hurt... so get over it," we respond by saying that it is a nightmare to grow up in a country where your compatriots were interned in World War I as a security risk, even though your country of origin was allied to Australia, where your people are ordered off trams and buses for speaking in their own language, where they are constantly talked down to and demeaned. It is a nightmare to dream, years later, that there is exists in this country, a concept called multiculturalism, where all cultures are equal, to believe in that dream, and to wake up to the stark reality that decades on, this basic respect for one's ethnicity has not been able to permeate the social strata to the extent that it should have. Magistrate Vandersteen does not need to apologize to the victim or to the Greek community. If anything, we thank him, for letting us know by his actions exactly how he feels about us and for the fact that he has reinforced to us, how important our language, culture and names are to us. We will never let these go.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 April 2011

Saturday, April 02, 2011


When my great grandmother, at the venerable age of 105 sips Greek coffee, she does so with the grace and μεράκι of a true connoisseur. First she grips the cup lovingly, drawing a short, sharp intake of breath through the nostrils so as to savour the aroma and then, slowly she leans forward and takes the first sip. As the coffee parts company with the cup and touches her lips, her eyelids close in ecstasy and she emits a long, drawn out sigh: «Άααααχ.» It was her daughter, my grandmother who first pointed this out to me during a trip to Athens, in the context of my taking coffee in her kitchen. Apparently, my method of imbibing the delectable beverage is exactly the same. This is surprising, for my earliest memories of drinking herbal stimulants revolve around tea. My paternal grandmother, who arrived in Australia in the early fifties, espoused afternoon tea-drinking with the fervour that is only displayed by the newly converted. She quickly formed the conviction that as opposed to the consumption of tea, which was a benign and beneficial pursuit, coffee drinking was undertaken by denizens of the underworld, possessed of deep, dark, nefarious purposes. Right up until the time of her demise, I would not drink coffee in her presence, for to do so, was both an affront and a sacrilege. Try as I might, I could not ever convince my grandmother that coffee drinking was a most Hellenic pursuit. After all, coffee was reputedly known to the Byzantines as νυφοκοκόζυμος, and they were well aware, having been informed by their missionaries, that it had been banned in its place of origin, Ethiopia, as it was used in pagan ceremonies. Further, it was a Greek who first introduced coffee drinking to Balliol College, Oxford University. The Cretan Nathanael Konopios, later Metropolitan of Smyrna was sent to England by Patriarch Cyril Loukaris in the early 1600’s as part of his rapprochement with the Protestant nations. While he failed to achieve any lasting success on the ecclesiastical front, he did introduce to the land of his hosts the beverage that would change the political map of England, given that English political parties have their origins in the coffee houses in which like minded individuals met to imbibe and discuss the affairs of the day. As I was to find out from an Armenian friend who was studying modern Greek while I was at University, and who upon her return from a trip to Greece bought me a Greek translation of the great Turkish writer Aziz Neşin’s side-splitting satire, “Coffee and Democracy,” both these ideas are eponymous with Hellenism. Neşin makes the equation in the following way: “Two things do not thrive in our country: One is the coffee tree and the other is democracy. Both are foreign.” He then goes on to propound what has been my political manifesto ever since: “When there is no coffee, people’s heads spin. When there is no democracy, people’s heads do not spin. Coffee has an aroma. You can’t smell democracy. Coffee is poured into a cup and drunk, while Democracy can neither be eaten nor drunk. So why do we need Democracy? Vast quantities of Democracy are imported into our country but there is a scarcity of coffee. Coffee is sold but Democracy is provided for free… Had we spent the past hundred years in cultivating coffee rather than Democracy, our country would now be a forest of coffee trees.” My great-grandmother was convinced at least. For her, coffee drinking is truly a century old tradition, transplanted from her village to Australia. There she would drink her coffee as her young grand-daughter, my mother would enthusiastically recount her lessons at school. My great-grandmother, in the tradition of Cyril Loukaris, took especial interest in Martin Luther, who she called «Λούφα,» a particularly apt transenunciation within the context of the escapism of coffee-drinking. Her visits to our house would be interrupted with injunctions to make a fresh cup of coffee every hour or so and in the meantime, our whole family history would be expounded, analysed and interpreted. Sitting among matriarch and mother, I was thus inducted into a hidden but not forgotten world of pain, pathos and nostalgia, recorded and kept safe by the thick grounds in our cups. Upon the conclusion of each coffee drinking session, my mother would swirl our cups, making sure that the coffee dregs were evenly distributed throughout and turn them upside down. Having waited a while for them to dry, she would then turn them upside down and attempt to read our future in the tortuous and twisted paths formed by the fall of the coffee dregs. Nothing she ever said came true but I became adept and making up plausible stories for my aunts, based on snippets of gossip gleaned here or there and was convinced of my shammic supernatural powers until such time as my cup was read in Turkey by an old woman in whose house I stayed. Every single thing she had predicted came true and in my more unsuspecting moments, I fear the things that have not yet transpired. It is from this pursuit that the word «κατακάθι» is employed. Used today in the same pejorative sense as the word “dreg” it merely refers to grounds that have “sat down” at the bottom of a cup. In this sense, the meaning is not too far from the Pontian «παρακάθι,» a party where people stay on for far too long – and not even the cup of coffee that traditionally acts as a subtle hint that one’s visit should draw to a close, can dislodge them. Visiting my parents without drinking coffee is strange and unnatural. The first words spoken in greeting as I enter the family home are: «Φτιάξε καφέ,» despite the fact they may have already had their coffee, and, most importantly that the way I rejoice in my coffee is βαρύγλυκυς, invariably concerning vast quantities of sugar and coffee, causing my father to splutter: «Φτου, φτου, πετμέζ’ τον έκανες!» Their version of coffee, with the consistency of consome, is just too beastly to be contemplated and I insist upon mine, for no other type of coffee will ever touch my lips – save the Greek coffee espresso, which I had the fascination of ordering in Thessaloniki, comprising of Greek coffee to which boiling water has been applied. The results are negligible but the novelty praiseworthy. The coffee is a necessary stimulant to the discussing of family affairs and when parental advice or criticism is offered in stark fashion, one can always seek refuge in swirling the grounds around the cup and becoming engrossed in their re-alignment, to the exclusion of everything else. Proving that symmetry and balance exists amid the chaos of the universe, my wife prefers tea to coffee, which she considers to be detrimental to one’s health and because coffee is by its nature, a pleasure not to be enjoyed in seclusion, I generally do not drink coffee at home. My mother in law however, manages to restore the harmony of the spheres by serving tea at the commencement of our visit, to conclude with aniseed flavoured coffee at its conclusion. The results, in terms of the elevation of the spirits are phenomenal. Greek coffee confers the ultimate consolation upon all, which is why it is traditionally offered to grieving friends when paying them a condolence visit. Further, it is not without coincidence that our word for brown, is the same as the word for coffee and I for one, can not live without it. It was Henry Ward Beecher who opined:”A cup of coffee – real coffee- home-browned, home ground, home made, that come to you dark as a hazel-eye, perfectly sweet – such a cup of coffee is a match for twenty devils and will exorcise them all,” and I cannot but adoringly agree. Until next week then, στην υγειά σας. DEAN KALIMNIOU

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 April 2011