Saturday, February 23, 2013


Owing to the fact that by accident of parental migration I reside in Melbourne, akin to the vast majority of my fellow Melburnians, I happen to be what is described in the vulgar parlance, as a “foodie.” To wit, I am familiar with the use of a mortar and pestle for the purposes of grinding coriander seeds to dust, am not averse to utilising a grater to the ultimate end of producing shavings of Myristica Fragrans, otherwise referred to as nutmeg and can produce voluminous amounts of orange zest upon the drop of a fork. Furthermore, I can, when so enjoined, gently sear wagyu beef, bake a melange of autumnal vegetables, combine, fold and whip various confections into submission, provide a frisson of seasonal fruits in sorbet form and of course, nonchalantly drizzle my fusion of Thai aubergines and fasolia gigantes with a geometrically arranged pomegranate jus. I understand the ideology of and can quote three different schools of thought regarding the noble pursuit of ‘plating up,’ to the effect that I have attempted a synthesis of all competing philosophies on the subject via the coining of the maxim – “the smaller the portion, the higher it must perch precariously upon the plate.” I have rejected nouvelle cuisine as bourgeois and superseded and in its stead, have fervently espoused the consumption of such cuisines as are alternately “wicked” or “sumptuous” and moreover, I am able to identify ten significant differences between cipolla and borettane onions. If this were not enough, the unstoppable momentum of my foodist convictions have transcended into realms traditional and hitherto untouched, leading me inexorably into the regular imbibing of feta martinis, gormandizing on ‘Cypriot’ ravioles in Byzantine sauce, banqueting on baklava soufflé while waxing lyrical on the multifarious textures of the chickpea and of course, secreting subtle quantities of aniseed into my Helleniko kafe, a heinous crime for which my incensed progenitors will never forgive me. Ever.

Admittedly, the Greeks of Melbourne where foodists long before the advent of such gladiatorial cuisine contests as My Kitchen Rules and Masterchef. In particular, for families such as mine, which arrived in these climes prior to the mass migration of the sixties, ingenuity in the way of food was stretched to the limit as inspired attempts were made to approximate ingredients that the local inhabitants had never even heard of. Such attempts were invariably accompanied by sonorous incantations as to the superiority of Greek cuisine, tracing its provenance from the cookbook of Apicius to the Greek physician Aegimus, who wrote a book on the art of making cheesecakes («το πλακουντοποιικόν σύγγραμμα,») and beyond. Yet despite the plethora of Greek festivals devoted to comestibles in Melbourne (Γιορτή του Κρασιού, Γιορτή της Σαρδέλας, Γιορτή της Φασολάδας – also known as Beanfest 2013), Greek food has not been able to tantalise the culinary tastebuds of the epicures and gastronomes of the city, or enjoy exaltation to the extent that other cuisines such as Thai and Italian have. And this in spite of the fact that eight out of ten Greek restaurants in Melbourne still faithfully maintain the tradition of presenting Greek food in the form of offerings of burnt to charcoal meat, dips and dolmades fresh out of the can, just the way I like’m. Try as we might, we lack the requisite skills to “zhouzh up” our food and make it “sexy.”

While pondering the above and simultaneously perusing a magazine devoted to food just the other day (I read it for the articles), I came across a sealed section that I coveted immediately and thus took great pains to liberate from its staples and secure secretly upon my person. The offending publication? A small, glossy, artfully photographed booklet entitled “Olives from Spain: the Art of Dressing,” produced by the Trade Commission of Spain, it presented page after page of the most unheard of and joyous possibilities vis a vis the preparation of olives, Spanish of course. Now I had known from my own masterchef of a father that olives can be salted, kept in oil, served with chilly, lemon and coriander seeds but here, as terms such as gordal olives with pesto and salt cod, black olives with spicy orange dressing, gordal olives with goat’s cheese and honey and black olives with soft blue cheese and quince paste assailed my senses and imagination, causing me to secrete voluminous amounts of saliva, I became convinced that only the Spanish, with their extensive knowledge of tapas (which if Ambrose Bierce was to write his Devil’s Dictionary in Greek would undoubtedly be defined as a degree of intoxication where enough is definitely enough) and let’s face it, an olive cookbook, knew their olives. The booklet even directed the postulate to a webpage, devoted specifically to Spanish Olive Oil and olives for the Australian market, replete with history, gorgeous recipes and stomach teasingly beautiful photographs, in which the native reader is exhorted to: “Bring a bit of Spain into your Aussie kitchen.”

Compare this with the Greek advertisement for “Extra Olive Oil” hopefully supplied herein. This advertisement, rather than exhort the prospective consumer to get some Greek into ya, proudly and somewhat wordily proclaims that: “Branded olive oil guarantees to offer consumers all the goodness of olive oil, while providing a shield of protection.” Somewhere between evoking images of cattle branding and consequently worrying about my own posterior’s protection, this incoherent advertisement, featuring two containers of unbranded Altis olive oil is lost on me. Apparently, this advertisement, rather than promoting Greek olive oil, is merely encouraging one to acquire brand name oil. As far as I know, all readily available olive oil sold in Australia has a brand name appended to it, including Italian, Spanish and local varieties. Furthermore, this moronic advertisement is published (mercifully) not in the mainstream media where its pernicious effects are thus minimised but rather, in the local Greek press, where it is merely preaching to the converted mass who utilise olive oil on a daily basis anyway. It is a bold marketing strategy, based on inscrutability, unfathomability and incomprehensibility and in a Monty Pythonesque universe, it just may work.

Whereas the sophisticated Spanish olive campaign soothed and seduced me with a silken barrage upon my senses, the clumsy Greek attempt made me feel as awkward and unsure as a fifteen year old schoolboy who has tried and failed dismally to make good an opportunity to cop a feel. One wonders the manner of market research that is undertaken by the good people in the Greek trade commission, before they solicit European Union funds before they unleash such mediocrities from their metaphorical loins. In their short-sighted attempt to protect such appellations as feta, retsina and now olive oil, the Greeks fail to realise that people do not purchase foreign foodstuffs because of their brand name but rather, because of the flavours, connotations and images they evoke. What this particular advertisement evokes is, far from a land of tastes and flavours, an immense amount of insecurity.

In the meantime, inspired local chefs such as George Calombaris and John Rerakis continue their quest to exhibit the versatility, quality and excitement of Greek produce and cuisine to an increasingly appreciative broader community, regardless of the ineptitude of the Helladitic trade commissioners, to whom they could teach a thing or two. Perhaps if these lofty doyens of commerce condescended to engage local restaurateurs and producers, they could form an effective strategy that would see Greek produce make further inroads into the domestic market, at a time when greater exports are sorely needed. Perhaps, for the story that the marketing strategy of a Greek trade delegation in China a few years ago was summed up by a delegate as follows: "Εάν ο κάθε Κινέζος φάει έστω και μία ελιά..." is less than aprocryphal.

We leave you this week, dear reader, with the following culinary gem, an ode to a certain brand of feta, featured on a certain community radio station and dedicated to the Greek Trade Commission with affection:

«Φέτα Δωδώνη,
τη δαγκάς και στο στόμα σου λιώνει.
Απ’ το μαντρί και ως τη στάνη,
κι απ’ του Βλάχου το χαρμάνι...»

Νow THAT is advertising.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 23 February 2013

Monday, February 18, 2013


File:Ioannina liberation 1913.JPG

“Your excellency, the Greeks of Epirus are in desperate straits. There is no security, no equality. They are persecuted, tortured, robbed, beaten and conspired against. Greeks are murdered daily in the street…”

When Giorgos Hatzis wrote this letter of protest to the head of the Ottoman Reform Commission in Epirus, in 1912, the whole of Epirus was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
However, it was a part of the Empire that had been in constant revolutionary turmoil since the beginning of the century. The north of Epirus was steeped in chaos as Albanian bands roamed the countryside, plundering Greek villages and murdering their inhabitants, taking advantage of the lax Ottoman presence in the region. In the southern, more developed regions, security and persecution became tighter and tighter, as enlightened Greek educators and patriots became more vociferous in their demands for the liberation of Epirus and its integration with the kingdom of Greece.

Revolt in Epirus seemed to be a matter of time. The harsh, barren and mountainous terrain of Epirus bred a hardy and independent people, determined to retain their identity. Having the largest percentage of migration in the whole of the Greek world, Greek migrants such as Tositsas, Averof, Zappas and Zosimas, who created great fortunes in Romania, had over the past century, begun to build schools in Epirus, churning out teachers and intellectuals who, influenced by the enlightenment and the rise of nationalism, began openly to conceive Epirus as an integral part of the new Greek state.

Epirus as well had a tradition of resistance and revolution against the Ottomans. Throughout the years of Ottoman rule, the region was perpetually revolting against the conquerors. From the revolts of Kastriotis in the fifteenth century, those of Kladas in the sixteenth, the great revolt of the bishop Dionysios in the seventeenth century which culminated in the expulsion of Greeks from the citadel at Ioannina as well as the resistance of Souli and the revolt of Ali Pasha against the Sultan, Epirus was constantly enmeshed in the throes of revolution.

Secret societies began to be formed, such as the “Epirotic Society” founded by the northern Epirot guerilla leader Spiros Spyromilios in 1908, who lobbied the Greek government to co-ordinate the various Greek rebel movements into a coherent force and train them for revolution. Approximately 15,000 weapons were smuggled into Epirus and distributed by the Society, until an embargo on arms was imposed by the Greek government in 1909, in an effort to improve Graeco-Turkish relations. Almost immediately, the Ottoman government recognized Epirus as primarily an Albanian region and encouraged Albanian and Vlachophone bands to attack Greek villages. Attacks on the villages of Zagoria near Ioannina were especially brutal. During the whole of this time, the Society, cut off from aid by a pliant and weak Greek government, managed to keep the peace, destroying many marauding bands and effectively guarding villages against attack. The contribution of the clergy, especially the bishop of Konitsa, Spyridon who later became a minister o the independent state of Northern Epirus and archbishop of Athens, helped to keep the flame of Hellenism alive during this difficult period, while continuing efforts to reconcile all sides.
Despite this, the Ottoman government, realizing its European empire was crumbling, decided to play one side off the other. Secret plans were discovered, revealing that the Ottomans were preparing to grant autonomy to the Albanians, giving them territory stretching from Kosovo in the north and encompassing the whole of Epirus. Protests ensued all over Epirus and the Greeks and Albanians who had fought together against the Ottomans for centuries finally decided they could not make common cause together, totally divided by their competing national claims.
In the meantime, the first Balkan War broke out on 4 October 1912. The Balkan states of Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria decided to share the European Ottoman Empire between them, driving the Ottomans out of the Balkans. It was secretly decided that Greece should proceed north into Epirus and push on to Monastiri in Macedonia to link up with Serbian forces.
Epirus once again found itself in turmoil. Bands of volunteers spontaneously formed guerrilla groups in northern Epirus, while in the south, the inhabitants of the historic bastion of Greek independence, Souli, began to place large areas of the countryside under their control. Still more volunteers crept south into Greece, to join the Greek army.
Spy units were formed within Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, which effectively reported the movement of Ottoman troops. Esat Pasha, the governor of Epirus realized that the population was fervently espousing independence. Nevertheless, he treated the populace kindly and with respect, never seeking to promote outbursts of persecution or violence, which usually accompanied revolutionary struggles. “My father was a friend of Esat Pasha,” the late Dorothea Tsombou recalled. “He always said Esat was more Greek than Turkish. Educated in Ioannina, a fluent Greek speaker, he genuinely loved the city.”
Esat was also secure in the knowledge that Ioannina, gateway to the north was guarded by 30,000 troops, stationed on the mountain of Bizani, Heavily fortified, it blocked all passage to the north and was deemed an insurmountable obstacle to the Greek army. By contrast, the Greek Epirus division, numbering 8,000 troops and supported by one infantry company was decidedly weak in provisions and weaponry. It was considered that the Greeks could be held up and allowed to waste away at Bizani, slowing the Greek advance into Macedonia.
The Greek army did celebrate early successes. It liberated Arta on 11 October 1912, advancing to Preveza on 21 October. In the meantime, Spyromilios landed at Cheimarra in Northern Epirus and proceeded to liberate the region. Despite fierce Albanian reprisals, Spyromilios managed to retain control of the region and proceed to liberate other areas of northern Epirus.
However, the advance of the Greek army began to slow. On 31 October, Metsovo was taken, with the help of Italian volunteers. Successive Ottoman counterattacks kept the Greeks holed up at Metsovo. In one of these attacks, the famous Greek poet, Lorentzos Mavilis was killed. Similarly, the Greek advance through Paramythia was also halted by a combined Ottoman and Albanian force.

At this crucial stage in the war, threatened with virtual disintegration, the Greek high command, decided on a three pronged all out attack against the formidable defences at Bizani. Throwing all their strength against the mountain, the Greeks were able to dislodge the Ottomans from a few strategic points, with heavy casualties. However, this maneuvre all but destroyed the Greek divisions, as the Turks were able to counterattack with great effectiveness, causing great loss of life. The undisciplined Greek army was forced to retreat in panic. In desperation, the Greek government appealed to the Ottomans for a cease-fire at he council of London. This was denied as the Ottomans by now believed they were winning the war in Epirus and it was only a matter of time before the Greek army in Epirus would disintegrate from exhaustion.

The Greek high command decided to detach two divisions from the Macedonian front, a total of 10,000 men. While this force did much to relieve the beleaguered Greek forces and finally did tip the scale in favour of the Greeks at Bizani, it had far reaching consequences. The delay at Epirus and the weakening of the Macedonian army meant that the Greek advance into Macedonia was delayed and only achieved at great cost. The Serbs bore the brunt of most of the fighting in northern Macedonia alone and were ultimately were forced to advance and take Monastiri before the Greeks arrived there. As a result, this city of 200,000 Greek inhabitants has remained outside of Greece ever since.
In the meantime, Crown Prince Constantine assumed control of operations in Epirus. To the north, the Greek guerillas were occupied in the fight against the Albanians and could not be of any assistance at Bizani. Hostility soon broke out among the High Command. General Sapountzakis, the commander of the Epirus army resented the fact that Prince Constantine had assumed command. He also could not tolerate criticism of his wasteful strategy of throwing men at the best defended strategic points of Bizani. Prince Constantine decided to direct the Greek forces to the west of the mountain, hoping to smash through the weaker Ottoman lines there.
The attack took place on 7 January 1913 and while losses were significant, the Greek forces managed to struggle through the Ottoman lines, in much heavy hand to hand fighting. Having dislodged the Ottomans from part of the mountain, General Sapountzakis ordered yet another attack on Bizani. Again this met with total failure. Prince Constantine then sent a personal letter to Esat Pasha, exhorting him to surrender Ioannina. Believing he was negotiating from a position of strength, Esat Pasha rejected this exhortation outright. In desperation, Prince Constantine urgently requested reinforcements to be drawn from the Macedonian army. Prime Minister Venizelos, striving to push on and take Thessaloniki before the Bulgarians refused.
Instead, Prince Constantine planned a two pronged attack on formidable Bizani, to be preceded by a decoy attack, while troops stationed at Kerkyra would land at Agioi Saranta in Northern Epirus and swoop down behind the Ottoman army, encircling Ioannina and liberating the whole of Epirus. On 19 February, the Greek army began once more3 to bombard the Ottoman positions. This was a feint, designed to draw out and exhaust the Ottomans and was effective. The next day, Greek divisions stormed various Ottoman positions. Ignoring their orders, which were to hold the captured positions and establish camp, two divisions fought their way to the village of Rapsista, on the outskirts of Ioannina and opposite the Ottoman command post. They remained there at night, not realizing that Esat Pasha had already raised a white flag over his post.

On the next day, 21 February 1913, Esat Pasha called upon Metropolitan Gervasios of Ioannina and informed him that he intended to surrender the city. After several negotiations with Prince Constantine, it was agreed that the entire defending force would be surrendered to the Greeks. At 5:30 am, Greek guns were ordered to stop firing. The next day, the triumphant Greek army entered Ioannina with Prince Constantine, amid frenzied celebrations by the Greek inhabitants.

The late Panagiota Pavlou who was at the nearby village of Perama, remembered: “We had been used to the sounds of bombardment coming from Bizani. The guns suddenly stopped. Moments later, we could hear the sounds of church bells from Ioannina, ringing ceaselessly. Everyone understood. We all poured out of our homes and into the village square, dancing with joy. The men tore their fezzes from their heads and trampled them into the dust. The few Turks that lived in our village were boarded up in their houses and were crying. They knew they would have to leave soon.”
The liberation of Ioannina, the first major success of the Balkan War was celebrated with jubilation in Athens, a welcome relief after the tension felt by the Greek people during the siege at Bizani. However, the war in Epirus was not over yet. Part of the Ottoman garrison refused to surrender and retreated north. Two divisions immediately left in pursuit. On 23 February, Leskoviki was liberated and the Greek army proceeded to liberate the whole of Northern Epirus, entering its capital, Argyrokastro on 3 March.
While the Greek army was readying itself to liberate other areas with significant Greek populations in Albania, Prime Minister Venizelos ordered them to remain behind what became known as the Northern Epirus line, which was to mark the northern limit of Greece’s border, given that Italy declared its intention to oppose Greece by force if it should liberate the port of Avlona.
The liberation of Ioannina and all of Epirus on 21 February 1913 is commemorated with great ceremony in Greece every year. However, Northern Epirus would soon be forcibly detached from the Greek state and become an autonomous nation. After the First World War, its 400,000 Greek inhabitants would be left at the mercy of the newly established state of Albania, to suffer persecution at the hands of the totalitarian communist regime. In any event, the liberation of Epirus marks the apex of Greece’s confidence and success as a Balkan nation and a significant step in the realisation of the Great Idea of liberating the whole Greek world, an ideology which would dominate Greek politics and have far reaching consequences for the nation for the next thirty years.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 February 2013

Saturday, February 09, 2013


“Go to Greek school and make Yiayia happy!” proudly proclaims a recent advertisement for an independent Melbourne Greek school. It is an advertisement that surely wins the coveted “Most Candid Advertisement” trophy for the year of our Lord 2013. Not for these marketers the empty platitudes about Greek being the language of Kazantzakis, Seferis and innumerable other Greek scribblers that the parents of prospective pupils would have no idea as to their existence. Not for these wily purveyors of polyglotism, the lengthy quotations of philosophers of ancient provenance, or indeed any vain attempt to link twenty-first century hyperhylistic commercial culture with the toga-clad musings of the impoverished sages of old. Not for these floggers of fluency, any appeal to the so-called universality of Greek culture and its proximity to its western counterpart through various Melbournian public buildings (by the way, the Shrine of Remembrance’s prototype, the Mausoleum, was not built for Greeks. It was constructed for the satrap of the Carians, a non-Greek race that gradually forgot their language and adopted Greek, in an attempt, most likely, to please their grandmothers), and most perniciously of all, via the spurious claim that since the majority of words in the English lexicon are supposedly derived from the Greek, this somehow, in an ingeniously dextrous backwards working, formulates a logical conclusion that compels the particular study of modern Greek, as opposed to other languages that have been instrumental in the formation of modern English, such as French or German. Far beyond indeed, these merchants of morphology to maintain the necessity of learning Greek on the fallacious and yet oft-repeated claim that Melbourne is home to the third largest Greek-speaking population in the world. Finally, far beyond these proctors of proficiency to postulate that acquiring the Greek tongue alongside the English will knot one’s brain cells in combinations so unique as to ensure increased job prospects, clarity of thought, a different life perspective and why not, popularity among members of the [insert desired sex here].

Nay, these honest wholesalers of eloquency have hit the proverbial nail upon its cephalic extremity when they posit a truism: it is in a disquietingly large portion of cases, for the grandparents, belonging to the first generation, that Greek language education for their grandchildren, is an important priority. During my brief two year stint as a Saturday Greek school teacher, this was glaringly apparent. It was the students whose grandparents faithfully delivered and collected them every week who were the regular attendees. Those whose parents were charged with this weighty task were often erratic in their attendance, other priorities mitigating against a constant presence each Saturday and more often than not, their attendance would tail off towards the end of the year as the novelty wore off. Similarly, it was those students whose grandparents took an interest in their schoolwork that would come to school with their homework completed and who, as a result, benefitted most out of Greek language tuition. I turned a blind eye to those students whose homework sported an orthography in fashion during the days of katharevousa, or who would use accents long ago discarded. If anything, these tell tale signs of grandparental intervention and over assistance were welcome, as they evidenced a guided engagement and interaction with the homework. Where there were no grandparents actively involved in supervising homework, the majority of pupils would come to school with their homework incomplete or not completed at all, sporting various excuses among which the most common were: “Mum was too busy to help me,” or “Mum said that I didn’t have to do the homework as it is not important.” As a result, these students learned little.

Try as I might, in most cases, I was unable to convince parents to take an active role in supervising homework – a condition precedent to learning a language for it is futile to expect a child to learn a language to any level of competency with just a few hours of oral teaching a week and no home study or revision. Nor could I get them to understand that supervision did not mean that their often own meagre understanding of the Greek language would be called into question but rather sitting by their children and making sure that they at least attempted the various tasks set for them, thus reinforcing language acquisition as a discipline. Nor still could I convince them to try to speak Greek around their children, for a language that is not heard, is a language not learned. For these , the majority of parents, the actual learning of the language did not seem to be of any importance, with self-defeating sentiments such as “I don’t really care,” or “I don’t expect,” or “it doesn’t matter if s/he doesn’t learn much,” commonly being expressed. Instead, it was made apparent on numerous occasions that the reason for the presence of their progeny in the school was in decreasing order of importance: to give them a breather on Saturdays so that they could do the shopping, to give their kids something to do when the Saturday sport season was off and of course, to get their own parents off their backs – in short, to make yiayia and pappou happy in the knowledge that the parent was going through the motions of sending them to learn a subject that they didn’t really care about.

Furthermore, in many cases, my students would enter my class in the new year, replete with negative stories about their own parents’ supposedly harrowing experience of Greek school. Horror and exaggerated stories of beatings, not understanding the homework or complete boredom would negatively predispose children to Greek school even before they were exposed to it. As a result, instead of being partners and collaborators in the, let us face it, holy task of propagating and maintaining our language, Greek school teachers were treated with apprehension by parents reverting to their teenage roles. Even when, slowly and painfully and through the employment of diverse and desperate means the committed teachers of our school managed to divest their pupils of their inherited inhibitions, this was met with derision by their parents. For them, Greek school had to be a negative, unpleasant experience and nothing that their children would be exposed to should serve to challenge this inexplicable prejudice.

My own cherished yiayia was not happy because I attended Greek school. She was happy because via a combination of committed teachers, exposure to the Greek language through family and social networks as well as the regular attendance of Greek community events and church and most importantly, a home environment where Greek language learning was given equal emphasis as the English curriculum, my cousins and I were able to attain a level of fluency that facilitated her sharing her thoughts, relating our history and ultimately creating a deep personal relationship with each one of us that can only come about through the baring of one’s soul. On the way, and because the Greek school curriculum of that time involved not only the study of Greek literature, but also a heavy emphasis on poetry, and translations of world literature, I was exposed at an early age, to authors and other cultures that I would never have had the chance to explore at the private school I attended. Paradoxically, the Greek school curriculum (before its watering down) was far richer and broader than anything I ever experienced in the Victorian school system and its enduring benefits are manifold.

It is time we formulated an integrated and mature approach to Greek language learning with one unified curriculum. It is also high time we determine what we aim to achieve for our students. If our sole aim is one of defeatism – expecting that our students will never achieve fluency than there is not much point in participating in an agonising mediocratic teaching malaise. If again, our other sole aim is to get yiayia off our backs, then maybe it is worthwhile for parents to consider just why it is that yiayia is on their backs and reassess just how important Greek language learning is for our identity and our future. And most of all, it is high time all of us, but especially parents realise that there is no midway in language learning – you either learn it or you do not, and that the responsibility of creating an encouraging, supportive and structured environment in which their children can not only learn but revere Greek, is almost entirely their own.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 February 2013

Saturday, February 02, 2013


As supreme cultural artefact, the great god Zeus was the embodiment of Greek religious beliefs and the archetypal Greek deity. Aside from local epithets that simply designated Zeus to doing something random at some particular place, the many epithets or titles applied to him (as many as those applied to the Panagia in later times) emphasized different aspects of his wide-ranging authority. Of particular interest was his title of Xenios Zeus, Philoxenos, or Hospites, whereupon Zeus was considered to be the patron of hospitality and guests, ready to avenge any wrong done to a stranger.

Say what you will about the police force of the Hellenic Republic, it cannot be doubted that they are possessed of an abundance of irony. How else could one rationalise the decision to name the august Grecian law enforcers and heirs of the goddess of justice, Themis, anti-immigration operation Xenios Zeus?

Operation Xenios Zeus is Olympian in its sophistication and Diogeneian in its simplicity. In its basic form, it comprises of the Greek police, avenging wrongs done to strangers by checking the papers of people who look foreign and may be illegal immigrants. Tourists have also been picked up in the sweeps, two have been badly beaten and many subjected to racist taunts.

Seasoned Korean backpacker, Hyun Young Jung, the latest recipient of Greek police philoxenia was minding his own business in central Athens when he was approached by a man in uniform who asked for his documents. Being cautious, while he handed over his passport he also asked the man to show him his police identification. Instead, Jung says, he received a punch in the face and almost immediately, the uniformed man and his plainclothes partner - the man who had first approached him – threw him to the ground and were kicking him.

It was only when he was handcuffed and dragged 500m up the road to the nearest police station that he realised he was actually under arrest. Outside the station the uniformed officer, without any kind of warning, turned on him again, hitting him in the face. Inside the police station, Jung says he was attacked a third time in the stairwell where there were no people or cameras. When he was released from police custody without charge just a few hours after being detained, he says one officer shouted after him, "Hey Korean, go home!"

Instead Jung went straight to the Korean Embassy in Athens and returned with the consul to confront the men who he said hit him. Allegedly, it took five further visits to the police station, an official complaint from the embassy to the chief of police and 10 days of waiting before the officers involved in Jung's case were named. The case turned into a full-scale diplomatic incident with the Korean ambassador to Greece requesting a meeting with the minister of Public Order, and the Greek Chief of Police, to insist on a fair investigation and just punishment for the officers involved.

"I travelled through Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Armenia but I never felt in as much danger as in Athens," Jung stated to the media. "Whenever people ask me if they should visit Greece I tell them to go to Turkey instead."

Not only tourists are targeted by the efficient apparatchiks of Xenios Zeus. In May last year a visiting academic from India, Dr Rai was arrested outside Athens University, where he was working as a visiting lecturer. He was on a lunch break and hadn’t taken his passport with him. When passing students saw their lecturer being held by police and lined up against a wall they were horrified and rushed inside to tell his colleagues. Despite protests from university staff who insisted they could vouch for him, the police handcuffed him and marched him down to the police station. He was eventually released but there was an outcry in the Greek media which asked why an esteemed academic invited to the country to share his knowledge should be humiliated in such a way. Why? Simply because he is the wrong colour.

The brutal police bashing of US national Christian Ukworji, arrested despite showing his US passport, simply on the grounds that he is black, prompted the US State Department to issue a warning to its citizens travelling to the country. Its travel advisory website now warns of "confirmed reports of US African-American citizens detained by police conducting sweeps for illegal immigrants in Athens", as well as a wider problem in Greek cities of "unprovoked harassment and violent attacks against persons who, because of their complexion, are perceived to be foreign migrants".

The Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Grigoris Delavekouras responded to the State Department warning by issuing a statement that "isolated incidents of racist violence which have occurred are foreign to Greeks, our civilization and the long tradition of Greek hospitality." However, Lieutenant Colonel Christos Manouras of the police raises eyebrows when he comments that the police tactics employed are: “normal and I would expect Greeks to be subjected to the same treatment abroad.”

It is true that owing to the porous nature of the Greek borders, it has proved exceedingly difficult to exercise proper control over who enters the country and it is undisputed that the Greek nation has a sovereign right to determine who enters its borders. However, regardless of the fact that it is estimated that up to 95% of undocumented migrants entering the European Union arrive via Greece, their illegal status does not in any way diminish them as human beings, who are entitled to be treated with dignity, respect and professionalism.

Instead, sections of the Xenios Zeus team seem to abrogate to themselves the right to degrade others and visit acts of violence upon their personages, employing as their sole criteria for discernment, the colour of their victims’ skin or their ethnic origin. In a report for 2012, the Racist Violence Recording Network, a group consisting of 23 NGOs and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called on the Greek government to "explicitly prevent police officers from racially motivated violent practices" referring to 15 incidents where "illegal acts" had taken place. In another twenty two cases, the victims of racist attacks said that they tried to report the incidents to the police but were faced with unwillingness or deterrence and, in some cases, the actual refusal of the police authorities to respond.

Though these reported incidents are relatively few, they are still unjustifiable. It is deeply disquieting that a hitherto tolerant and welcoming country is at worst, breeding a culture of racism and violence, and at best, displaying a disconcerting lack of professionalism and discretion that is more likely to be found in countries of the third world, rather than members of the European Union. That a small, in the larger context of Greek history financial crisis could expose such an erosion of the stereotypical Greek ‘values,’ that supposedly set our people apart as a nation, including those of hospitality and compassion must provoke a public debate and a good deal of introspection within Greek society as to the manner in which all inhabitants of the country are treated, not simply in order to preserve the tourist dollar, which seems to be the primary concern but most importantly, as the first of many steps required of a sick and disintegrating society, back to cohesion.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 February 2013