Saturday, May 31, 2014


To date, other than the extremely brave Turkish scholars such as Taner Akcam, Selim Deringil and some journalists who lament the demise of a multicultural Turkey, there have been few efforts by Greece to actively engage Turkey in a rational discussion on the Genocide. However, popular opinion in Turkey is gradually shifting, especially with regard to the genocide against the Armenians.  Recently, the grandson of Jemal Pasha, one of the three army officers who instigated the genocide, suggesting that “Turkey, as a state, should apologize to the Armenians.” Such public calls for recognition are becoming larger in number, with prominent businessman Ishak Alaton commenting that:  “Apology is a sign of maturity and it is time for Turkey to grow up... There is little time left until 2015 when Turkey will face a huge campaign by the Armenian lobby, which claims it will be the 100th year of Armenian genocide.” There appears to be at least a tacit acknowledgment by sections of the Turkish media, that, despite their own interpretation of events, the Armenians have managed to convince the world of the righteousness of their cause. Hurriyet journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, for example, observed the following in an article strangely entitled: “Now the Armenians are making us walk the Deportation March”: Armenians are almost approaching the end in their genocide claims. They have made the world accept their claims by working continuously like industrious ants for 100 years. While they were explaining their pain and what they had to live through, we did not even discuss among ourselves what had happened. We buried our heads in the sand and have reached these days. We could not reply in a persuasive manner. We lost the case.”

While some sympathy exists for the Armenians among the Turkish intelligentsia, and while some Turkish journalists stress the need to tactically address the Armenian Genocide in order to enhance the global image of Turkey, this does not seem to extend to a consideration of the genocide against Greeks in Pontus and the rest of Asia Minor. Last year, when the Diatribe wrote about this Genocide, an incendiary letter was received from a Turkish nationalist, making accusations of racism and incitement of racial hatred. This is something echoed by many Turks I have spoken to over the years:  that the victim’s (our) discourse about the genocide, (which usually involves exhibiting statistics of the death toll and reading contemporary newspaper articles that describe crimes of murder and torture in harrowing detail),  is that it is a natural consequence of the actions of a race which is by its very nature, inhumane and barbaric. According to this view, the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks are using the Genocide to vilify the entire Turkish nation and deny its humanity. I profoundly disagree with this point of view, which does not take into account (a) the inherited trauma of the brutality of genocide and (b) frustration at the continued Turkish denial of this crime. I believe that the enormity of the crime, as contained in newspaper accounts of the time is so horrific as to need no further embellishment. However, I concede that the disturbing gleefulness with which some Greek ultra-nationalists and for want of a better word “genocide-peddlers” take it upon themselves to present historical incidents of Turkish brutality against Christians, the gorier the better, sometimes does seem to be more than just reporting of facts and rather, calculated to a) enhance their own self importance and b) incite feelings of disgust and anger at the entire Turkish race, despite their vocal protestations to the contrary.

Both in Greece and in Australia, the Genocide discourse is thus being played out, mostly for domestic consumption, with a schematic and highly narrow presentation of facts to the already converted, that focuses mainly on the mechanics of the slaughter. There is no consideration of the broader social, historical and political framework which enabled the Genocide to take place and certainly no dialogue with, or consideration of the discourse from the Turkish point of view, which is necessary, if we are to reach some type of recognition by them of the Genocide and an apology to the victims. Further, if our only contribution to the discussion is the internalised list of crimes, it is axiomatic that when faced with a perceived onslaught of racial denigration, that the immediate Turkish knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss all accusations put by us and wallow in rage, just as post-war Germans turned their heads away from the screen when forced by the Allies to watch footage of the Nazi extermination camps. At that stage, the time for listening or dialogue is past and any attempts to engage with Turks in order for them to appreciate the enormity of the crime of Genocide committed by their ancestors, are rendered futile.

Another major problem with unseasoned Genocide campaigners’ approaches, it their pseudo- legalism, where, in their quest to forensically ‘prove’ the genocide, they try to selectively fit the events of the genocide into the various legal definitions of genocide that exist, some of which have changed or are no longer as broad as they should be, or are too broad. For example, the UN definition is now extremely broad but does not cover all instances of cultural genocide or violence against women. As a result, the whole debate becomes a nit-picking exercise between would be-lawyers, obfuscating the main point- which is that a State took it upon itself to incite its subjects to commit horrible crimes against subject minorities, with a view to exterminating them, from within its borders and even worse, that the State in question – the Ottoman Empire and its successor, deny that it ever happened, despite a multitude of eyewitness and independent evidence verifying it. In this case, legally ‘proving’ what the world already knows, is a useless exercise, especially since nation states can ‘opt out’ of being bound by international court decisions.

 In his book “With Intent to Destroy: Reflections on Genocide,” Colin Tatz argues that Turkey denies the genocide so as not to jeopardize "its ninety-five-year-old dream of becoming the beacon of democracy in the Near East". In the light of recent developments in the region, this argument seems unconvincing. On the other hand in their book “Negotiating the Sacred: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in a Multicultural Society, Elizabeth Burns Coleman and Kevin White present a list of reasons explaining Turkey's inability to admit the genocides committed by the Young Turks, being: a) A suppression of guilt and shame that a warrior nation, a ‘beacon of democracy’ as it saw itself in 1908 (and since), slaughtered several ethnic populations. Democracies, it is said, don’t commit genocide; ergo, Turkey couldn’t and didn’t do so. b) A cultural and social ethos of honour, a compelling and compulsive need to remove any blots on the national escutcheon. c) A chronic fear that admission will lead to massive claims for reparation and restitution. d) To overcome fears of social fragmentation in a society that is still very much a state in transition. e) A ‘logical’ belief that because the genocide was committed with impunity, so denial will also meet with neither opposition nor obloquy and f) An inner knowledge that the juggernaut denial industry has a momentum of its own and can’t be stopped even if they wanted it to stop.

 Notwithstanding the above dealing with the genocide on a bilateral basis, the largest problem the Greek people face has to do with the nationalist hysteria referred to earlier and the fact that our history with Turkey is different to that of Armenians or the Assyrians. In striving to explain how we are the innocent victims of genocide, we shy away from exploring how it was that the Turks could be incited to commit genocide in the first place – a topic if vital importance if our intention is to ensure that genocide never takes place again, rather than achieve an ascendancy over the Turks. We also airbrush out our own history in the region. In particular we ignore the role played by Turkish refugees from the Balkans, who, dispossessed and resentful, were easily manipulated into taking out their frustrations against the Greeks of Asia Minor. We also forget that the Greek army, assisted by native Greeks in Anatolia, during the Asia Minor campaign, also took part in massacres, though on an extremely smaller scale and in markedly different circumstances. We are silent on these, though need to examine them and put them in perspective, for the Turkish response to our claims is always that we also committed massacres and or genocide, so that if they did perpetrate the genocide, we are no better than they and thus, all things are equal.  Once we have examined our own role, and understand the motivation behind it, we can then condemn all acts of racial violence and brutality wherever these are committed, including our own, separating these and not linking them to the Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire against the Christian of Asia Minor. Next week, we will examine the massacres the Greek army committed in Asia Minor and consider how these impact upon Turkish views of the Greek Genocide.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 May 2014

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Here is a question for the gentle reader:  How many countries around the world do not recognize FYROM as Macedonia? The answer is a mere seventeen. On the other hand, some one hundred and thirty three countries do recognize FYROM as Macedonia with a good deal many deciding to take no part in the naming dispute.  The reason for this statistic will become clear hopefully, as this diatribe progresses.
The former senator Bob Carr, when premier of New South Wales, personally recognized the Armenian genocide. He wrote several letters in which he referred to the genocide as a genocide and a crime against humanity and argued that Turkey must apologize. Last year, in the wake of the Parliament of New South Wales recognizing the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontian genocide, in the guise foreign minister of Australia, Bob Carr, when asked, commented that Australia had no stance on the issue. And this from someone who was previously very vocal in his recognition. Similarly, Armenian-Australian activists in particular are dismayed at the Liberal government’s retreat from the unequivocal position held by many of its prominent members while in opposition.
These two ostensibly disparate fact-bytes are in fact connected when it is considered that, up until now, campaigners of the recognition of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia are convinced that genocide recognition is linked to the domino effect – that is, that if enough Australian states recognize the genocide, then the Commonwealth of Australia will recognize the genocide and if the Commonwealth of Australia recognizes the genocide then other countries inevitable shall follow suit. If the vast majority of countries around the world recognize the genocide, then the pressure on Turkey to do the same will be so inexorably great that it will have absolutely no other choice than to recognize the genocide, crushed as it will be, under the weight of global public opinion.
However, the Macedonian example above appears to indicate that in reality, the dynamic of lobbies and pressure groups are complex and calculations of domino effects are far from simple. To wit: Even if Greece is the last country left alone in the world, in refusing to allow FYROM to appropriate the term Macedonia, it will conceivably, not bow to world opinion and afford FYROM the recognition it seeks, both for domestic reasons and also as a matter of principle. As a corollary, it is reasonable to assume that even if the entire world recognizes the genocide, Turkey will not, solely for fear of being isolated in the issue and in absence of other intervening considerations.
Given the above, though well meaning, committed and energetic, it is not unreasonable to suggest that if genocide campaigners are determined that Turkey should recognise the Genocide, (rather than just creating global public awareness, which is also intrinsically important ), then they are going about things in the wrong way, focusing their efforts at the broader base rather than at the top. After all, it is not as if the Western Powers were blissfully unaware of the Genocide while it was being carried out. Thousands of newspaper articles published in the Western world attest to its concern for the victims and outrage against the perpetrators of this heinous crime. Indeed, so moved were the Allies by the weight of western public opinion that they issued the Ottomans the following warning in 1915: “In view of these new crimes of Turkey against humanity and civilization, the Allied Governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible for these crimes all members of the Ottoman Government, as well as those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.” The fact that these same western powers, with the exception of France now choose to resile from that recognition, should remind Genocide campaigners that other, more profane considerations that justice and historical proof are at play here. Consequently, it is logical to suppose that if Turkey of its own accord recognizes the genocide then all the other countries would lose nothing in doing the same and finally, justice will be afforded to the innocent victims of intolerance.
One often overlooked consideration that should be noted, is that to some extent, Turkey has already recognized the genocide. It did so in 1919, after the war, when Constantinople was occupied by the Allies and the Sultan’s administration was coerced to conduct War Crimes Trials, an eerie and ineffective precursor of the Nuremberg Trials. These trials focused extensively on the chain of command and the often harrowing testimonies of Ottoman military officers, suggesting that there truly was an organized plan to rid Anatolia of its Christian population. Furthermore, ample evidence exists of Ottoman Muslims, even army officers actively hiding their Christian neighbours, or refusing to carry out deportation and slaughter orders. If no massacres took place, what were these protected and privileged Muslims protecting their Christian friends from?  
Nonetheless, the Trials were problematic. Being held under occupation, the judges were under the scrutiny of the occupying forces. Due process did not exist, and there were gross absences of legal rights. The Ottoman penal code did not acknowledge the right of cross-examination. The decision was taken by evidence submitted during the preparatory phase, the trial, and how the defendant present his defence. Of great concern was the fact that none of the presented evidence was verified and validity of the evidence presented, such as letters and orders have been in study, with some of them proving to be forgeries  In some cases hearsay was an issue, though many officials did testify to receiving orders to carry out the Genocide. Nonetheless, during the trials, testimonies were not subjected to cross-examination, and some of the materials were presented as "anonymous court material."   So tainted by the absence of proper process were the Trials that John de Robeck, the Commander-in-Chief, of the Mediterranean forces stated that “its findings cannot be held of any account at all.”
It comes as no surprise that after the Ataturk regime assumed power, the Military Trials were hushed up, denied and referred to as victor’s justice. Events such as the ethnic cleansing of 15,000 native Greeks from the Gallipoli peninsula were also covered up and it is only in the context of the rediscovery of Australian contemporary accounts of massacres that such information is now re-entering the popular consciousness – a process that is being strenuously resisted by the Turkish state, which has even sought to punish local Australian politicians who are at the forefront of such endeavours.  
The process of erasure seems to suggest that one cannot force an unwilling nation to admit something it doesn’t want to admit to, unless that force is sustained and tied to punishment, as was the case with Nazi Germany, where the Allies, learning from their mistakes in the Ottoman Trials, made a concerted effort in the Nuremberg Trials to punish the perpetrators of the Holocaust. Failing the imposition of external sanctions, the perpetrator nation needs to mature and become ready to listen, before recognition of its deeds is at possible, domestically or otherwise. As of today, that maturity has been late in coming, though the Turkish PM recently hazarded the oblique opinion that the events that took place at the expense of the Armenians were “our shared pain,” and that this “should not prevent Turks and Armenians from establishing compassion and mutually humane attitudes towards one another.” Coming from the same person who stated:  “We should all be ready and well-equipped so that the 1915 events can be dealt in an objective, scientific and realistic way. The Armenian diaspora is making its preparations to turn the events of 1915 into a political campaign by [distorting] the historical reality. In contrast to this political campaign, we will firmly stand against them by highlighting historical and scientific data,” we can question the motivation for the expression of such ostensibly moving sentiments. Next week we will examine some of the obstacles impeding Genocide recognition in modern Turkey.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 May 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014


A few decades ago, a distant relative here in Melbourne committed suicide. At the time, he was afflicted by a debilitating mental illness that altered his perception of reality. His death was confronting and infinitely traumatising for all of those who knew him and loved him. At his funeral, the priest did his utmost to console his heartbroken family. He ventured to suggest that Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do,” seemed to assure to the deceased, eternal life.
Recent discussion of the Orthodox Church’s position on suicide tends to skirt an often overlooked aspect of its theology – that of oikonomia, or literally "housekeeping". This is a nuanced approach to aspects of human existence that takes into account the complexity and variables of situations, like the mental state of a person in conjunction with other circumstances, when seeking to apply broad principles into practice. Certainly broad doctrinal positions have been set out on a multitude of issues over the course of the Church’s history, but unlike Western churches, whose approach to moral issues has been prescriptive or proscriptive. The Orthodox Church however, has historically been more cautious in dealing with moral concerns by applying the discretion of oikonomia which has as its primary consideration and guiding principle, the care and love of the person concerned, and what is the best spiritual or pastoral outcome for all involved. 
The advantage of applying oikonomia, is that when assessing the conduct or circumstance of a believer, a priest can tailor-make, adapt or alter the application of core beliefs and practices to the specific needs or benefit of that person. Of course, this process requires a priest who is perspicacious and sensitive, and ideally has some type of relationship with the person in question, something that is achieved with difficulty in our local churches where much of the congregation’s attendance is limited to a few major feasts.
The disadvantage of clergy being possessed of this discretionary responsibility, is the capacity either to abuse it, or not exercise it as intended.  Historically, owing to politics, social upheaval, isolation, poverty, ignorance and/or bigotry, many priests have not exercised that discretion in the manner required of them.
In the case of suicide, the broad doctrine the Orthodox Church has regard to, is that life is a gift from God, Who is the creator of all life. Accordingly, humanity’s mission is to preserve and enhance that life. As a result, no one is permitted to abrogate to themselves, the right to take away someone else’s life or even their own.  Murder or self-murder are thus condemned. Suicide is considered to be particularly heinous, because when a person destroys their life by their own hand, they deny to themselves the opportunity for repentance, that is available to murderers of others. According to Christian belief, a person is called upon to repent of their transgressions and work constantly to improve themselves throughout the course of their lives, and one of the key objects of the Church is to assist people in working through their problems, turning them into learning experiences that lead to growth. In this view, suicide deprives a person of that difficult opportunity to strive towards resolution and fulfilment. Refusing such a process of self-examination, growth, insight and repentance is considered particularly prideful and terrible. Consequently, the canons and practice of the Orthodox Church, prohibit a Church burial to a person who has committed suicide. Suicide generally is thus considered a rejection of God's gift of physical life, a failure of stewardship, an unrepentant act of despair, and a transgression of the sixth commandment, "You shall not kill."
In Greece and especially in the villages, it was customary for poorly trained priests to apply the broad principles literally, without exemption, in a narrow interpretation that was totally alien to the humane spirit of the Church, causing trauma to the families of suicide victims, ostracism and a large amount of unnecessary shame. Such insensitive approaches, some of which were transplanted to Australia by Greek migrants and priests echoing their agrarian past are however, not in keeping with Church teaching.
For in fact, owing to the discretionary application of oikonomia, the Church does take the trouble to understand the individual circumstances behind each suicide. As a result, while the Church condemns the taking of a life, it also takes into account of the fact that spiritual factors, such as acedia, defined as spiritual torpor, and physical/mental factors such as depression, can severely compromise a person's ability to reason clearly and act freely. In these situations, notwithstanding the blanket condemnation of suicide, the Church will allow a funeral service to suicide victims whose capacities for judgment and action were found to be significantly diminished, and who thus were not responsible for their actions. Given that most suicides are these days as a result of physical and mental anguish that impact upon a person’s ability to reason, it follows axiomatically that most suicides in the Orthodox Church will be afforded a proper burial.
The corollary of this is that in cases where the deceased held a philosophical view affirming the right to suicide and acted accordingly, then that deceased will be denied an Orthodox funeral service, assuming of course that such a view was not formed owing to depression or other circumstances, in which case, the application of oikonomia may again override the general principle of adopting a strict stance.
Given that the Orthodox Church’s position on this issue, which has been confirmed much more succinctly by our local Bishop Ezekiel, is more nuanced and humane than is widely thought, the recent consternation over the Orthodox view of suicide and burial is cause for concern. Calls for the Church “to move with the times,” suggest that (a) the popular appreciation of the Church is of a hidebound, bigoted, medieval institution that bears no relevance to modern life, that (b) the sophisticated, though often inscrutable manner in which the Orthodox Church addresses moral issues is not widely appreciated if it is at all known, and that (c) the public posturings and pronouncements of certain priests are responsible for this state of affairs. The primary focus of the Church and its pastoral ministry in cases of suicide is on the living, the family and friends of the deceased. Those left behind carry a great burden of hurt, guilt, and shame and those that look to the Church and especially to the parish family, for strength and hope regarding the deceased, and for the support and love they themselves urgently need, should find this and not the condemnation and rejection that some have been meted, as a result of ignorance or a lack of effort by a minority of priests who should know better. In the vast majority of cases however, they do find the consolation they seek, though it is tragic that the isolated conduct of the few could do so much to create public misapprehension.
While it cannot be doubted that a few within the older generation of priests, many of whom assumed their position in a “state of emergency,” in order to satisfy the urgent need of Greek migrants for religious services, have lacked both the theological and social sensitivity and knowledge to properly administer pastoral care to their parishioners. The same cannot be said of the new generation of priests, mostly graduates of St Andrews Theological College in Sydney, who, conversant with both Greek and Australian social norms, divorced from the village folklore that often clouds Greek migrants’ perceptions of the workings of the Orthodox Church, are engaged in a good deal more social work than is often appreciated. Behind the scenes, these reverend fathers are tackling such a host of social problems, such as drug addiction, family breakdown and violence, gender confusion, depression and anorexia that their predecessors would have ever dreamed of. In all cases, the fathers are finding not only that more and more second and third generation Greek-Australians are turning to the Church in times of trouble, but also, that the teachings of the Orthodox Church, carefully considered over millennia, rather than being absolutist, antiquated and irrelevant, are an often unlooked for and constant source of guidance, support and comfort in this post-modern world. Our perceptions of the Church, on the other hand, appear to be clouded by our inherited village heritage as well as the overriding modern disapprobation of the Western Churches, whose development has been quite distinct from our own. It is hoped that in time, the quiet toiling fathers’ exposition of Orthodoxy will be appreciated, and that incidents such as those which have caused members of our community so much anguish and which fly in the face of Orthodox teaching, are never repeated.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 May 2014

Saturday, May 10, 2014


There is a finance minister, a school teacher, a married couple, a young man and an air steward. They are flying on a Boeing 747 from Athens to New York when suddenly their aeroplane crashes and they land in the jungle. This certainly sounds like the beginning of an anecdote. It also is the basic premise of the play «Οι Απελπισμένοι,» (The Desperate), performed here in Australia by a troupe of visiting Greek actors, among them, the pneumatic heartthrob Kostas Sommer, the infinitely talented Vasia Trifylli and one of the last of the great Greek comic genius of the golden age of cinema, Kostas Voutsas.

In keeping with its title, this was a play I desperately wanted to enjoy, my unrequited love affair with Vasia Trifylli having being kindled quite by chance when my auditory faculties were unexpectedly assailed by the grating nasal tones of her voice, in Ραντεβού στα Τυφλά, a Greek dating show, on my first ever trip to Greece. As for Kostas Voutsas, a childhood idol, I owe to him an hour of uncontrollable laughter, when, in the movie «Εγώ Ρεζίλεψα τον Χίτλερ,» as a failed actor, he posed as a German soldier, calling his friend Fotis for help in pseudo-German thus: «Φώτεν Βοήθειεν.» I fell from my chair, convulsing in mirth. In his glory days, his sense of timing, and vis comica - the ability to make people laugh was impeccable and it was largely owing to an irrepressible yearning to witness this demi-deity tread the boards one last time that I resolved to present myself at the preordained time.

Giorgos Valaris, the author of the play, in introducing himself, stated that his work was partially in the form of a review, typical of those performed in Greece, that touched upon the difficult state of affairs prevailing in the homeland but, he hoped, also conveyed a sense of optimism that no matter what, the Greek people would pull through. Valaris' need to explain the play prior to its performance disconcerted me. Did it convey a sense of insecurity about the quality of the play, or rather of the playwright's estimation of the capacity of the audience to understand it? It surely was not the latter, for Valaris was warm, generous and enthusiastic on the stage, establishing an immediate rapport with the audience and filled with a sense of foreboding, I began to suspect the former.

What followed was two hours of brilliantly performed toilet humour, punctuated by overly loud sound effects and a few desultory attempts at lip synching. All the actors were highly talented, their scripted ad libs and scatological asides to the audience expertly performed and rapturously received and their sense of timing impeccable. By far the stand out performance was that of local boy Christos Ballas, who, in acting the Salonican lout, assumed the swagger of same with verisimilitude, even adopting a convincing rendition of said lout's patois. He moved about the stage with ease delivering his series of jokes in a masterly fashion and dare one say bravely, for most of these, having to do with the size of his penis, were quite poor.

Sadly, had Kostas Voutsas not been present, the play would have been none the poorer for it. His part seemed to be a mere cameo, a ploy to attract patrons to see the play, for apart from a few wolf whistles and asides, his performance was limited to sitting on a box, reading a piece of paper, upon which one suspects the script of the play was printed. Though we adore him nonetheless, we wish we could have been witnesses to more of his genius than the paltry script allowed.

The major problem with the performance was the absence of a plausible plot. When the aeroplane crashed, Vasia Trifylli as a frustrated schoolteacher explained that she was trying to emigrate to America as she was sick of the lack of knowledge of her students in class.  Voutsas as Greek finance minister was accosted by Vasia Trifylli in platitudes about being uncaring, divorced from reality and having ruined the Greek economy. Giorgos Valaris, as demented air steward and son of the school teacher spent half of the play walking around asking "coffee, tea?" in a way that was totally disjointed from the play and yet elicited some smirks, as it reminded the audience of Olympic airways air hostesses - at least before the joke was repeated for the tenth time, and the other half coming out as a gay Greek in love with a black US lawyer from Mali. We learn that Christos Ballas, the Salonican Romeo who claims to have bedded Vana Barba among others and to be well endowed is actually traveling to the US in order to obtain a penis extension and that  Kostas Sommer and Eleni Karakasi, a married couple in crisis, were traveling to the US in order to rekindle their marriage, while arguing about farting and being overweight. Then, as deus ex machina, a helicopter descends and whisks them all away.

In other words, we gain no insight into the Greek crisis, the cause of the malaise, the banality of corruption or how people are coping. None of the protagonists actually seem to be fleeing a crisis. The audience is left wondering whether in fact the helicopter descending to rescue the trapped survivors is symbolic of the Greek people' s propensity to abjure self-help and instead to blindly await a solution to their woes from the heavens. When all is said and done, all that the audience will distil from the exquisitely performed play, is a bunch of fart and fat jokes, sex jokes, black jokes and gay jokes.

Which leads one to a disconcerting feature both of the play and the audience. Fart jokes but not fat jokes, when taken in moderation, are funny. When repeated over again, even the talented and good looking Kostas Sommer, they become tiresome and yet the conflicted audience was able to laugh and groan in pain at the same time. Seeing Kostas Sommer attach his groin area to Eleni Karakasi's posterior was not as funny as was intended though it did indulge the voyeuristic proclivities of audience. Listening to Christos Ballas allude to the length of his penis and ploys with which to bed Greek media stars was informative linguistically and yet again unfunny and sexist. Yet the audience laughed and laughed some more. Listening to Vasia Trifylli say «να με χέσεις,» is acceptable in the Aristophanian tradition, but loses in effect after it is repeated. When Vasia Trifylli states that she hasn't heard Greek being spoken in the suburb of St Panteleimon, for twenty years, owing to the prevalence of Pakistani migrants, this is decidedly unfunny. Yet most disturbing were the black jokes and the gay jokes. While the premise that Vasia Trifylli's racist schoolteacher can overcome the shock of being told that her son is both gay and in love with a black man, when it is revealed to her that said black man is extremely wealthy and successful raises a wry smile, resorting to scatology in order to raise a laugh by repeating such words as such as «μάυρος,» and «πούστης» over again is indicative of a play in crisis, possibly the source of Valaris' insecurity. The question as to why this type of humour is appropriate in Greece but decidedly inappropriate in Australia is best left for another time.

It says much for the professionalism of the Απελπισμένοι actors, that despite the threadbare and implausible plot and the paucity of decent, original jokes, they managed to create a light-hearted atmosphere in which to entertain the audience, partially trading on the goodwill of an adoring crowd that loves anything Greek, but also on our innate Aristophanian love of smut. Perhaps Greek playwrights could, having mastered Aristophanes and Menander, review the subtleties and intricate balances of modern comedic masters such as Dimitris Psathas, Nikos Tziforos and indeed, some of the more accomplished and finely tuned British works. In this, Greek-Australians with emerging talents such as Christos Ballas in tow, who are possessed of their own established and not inconsiderable thespian tradition can surely lead the way.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 May 2014

Saturday, May 03, 2014


This week, we are long overdue in honouring an αρραβώνα with gentle readers, arranged in March of last year, through the diatribe: 'Greco-Persian'. We hasten to point out that the diatribist has not taken leave of his senses, nor in fact, has he lapsed into delusions of grandeur, where, doge-like, just as the leader of Venice would glide out gracefully upon the spectacularly gilded Bucintoro, into the Venetian lagoon, therein to drop a ring, symbolising Venice's marriage to the sea, the diatribist, caparisoned only in papier mache strips of Neos Kosmos, ventures into Oakleigh, drops to his knees offering prospective readers a frappe, symbolising nothing in particular and a lifetime of devotion if only they read a diatribe to its punishing end. Instead, we are referring to the αρραβώνα, in its original sense - as a Semitic loanword, meaning a guarantor in Phoenician, and in Ugaritic, Aramaic and Hebrew, a promise or pledge.
For reasons that partly have to do with the manner in which the West appropriated aspects of Greek culture and history and re-lent them to emerging neo-Greeks in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Modern Greeks tend to view their ancient past in a vacuum, whereby the Greek-speaking peoples developed in complete isolation from all the other cultures around them. As a result, Greek is the 'mother of all languages', and we decry any attempt at borrowing or syncretism, lest this dilution of perfection result in a commensurate decline in the fortunes of the Greek race. In purity, therefore, there is strength.
Of course, the claim that the ancient Greek language developed somehow unaffected and unadulterated by other tongues cannot be seriously upheld. After all, pre-Greek roots, generally by way of the now extinct Anatolian languages existing in the region, form a substantial basis of the ancient Greek tongue. Furthermore, we know that the emerging ancient Greeks were a peripatetic people who were considered serial pests by the Middle Eastern rulers whose lands they visited and pillaged. There is a lovely Hittite inscription lambasting the ancient Achaians for piracy, while a good deal of ink in the Bible is spilled over the trouble that the Philistines, who spoke an Indo-Aryan tongue, and were likely to have been early Greeks, gave the nascent Hebrews in the land of Canaan. The Greeks even appear in the book of Ezekiel, as connected with the slave trade in Tyre. As a result of these early contacts, the inspiration and influence of eastern goods and art transformed the culture of the Greek homeland, with geometric styles rapidly giving way to orientalising art.
Of course one of the most significant loans from the Semitic peoples to the Greeks was that of the Phoenician alphabet, a loan readily acknowledged in Crete, Ionian Teos, Aeolian Mytilene and by Herodotus, all of whom referred to it as the "Φοινικήια γράμματα", to the chagrin of modern day cultural supremacists who exhibit inordinate difficulties in accepting that not all major advances of civilisation were engendered by their ancient forebears.
Loan words are an excellent guide to cultural influence. In the case of Semitic borrowings, these appear to be of a kind made when a people or place is in possession of a thing wanted by that nation and not produced by them. Thus, as early as Mycenean times, the word χρυσός is imported from the Phoenician hrs, at a time before the gold mines of Thasos and Pangeum were created and gold had to be imported. Similarly, the word for ivory, ελέφας, or e-re-pa in Mycenean, appears to have been derived from the Hittite lahpa. Numerous loan-words from Semitic also exist in relation to cloth, and even the word for clothes-moth (σής), is the same as the Phoenician, bearing witness to a mass importation of finished cloth into Mycenean Greece from the Levant. Thus the word χιτών, in its Ionic form κιθών, is a derivative of the Semitic ktn, whence the word cotton also is derived. Much as the word for tea or coffee has been borrowed from native forms, so too have the Semitic tongues given their words for various products and plants imported into Mycenean Greece, such as κύμινον, from the Semitic kammon, for cumin, σήσαμον, from the Phoenician ssmn for sesame, γαυλός, from the Ugaritic gullah, meaning bucket, κανέον, from the Aramaic qn, κρόκος from the Akkadian βύβλος, from Byblos, the entrepot for papyrus trading in Phoenicia, kurkanu, οθόνη, from the Aramaic etun, meaning fine linen and now in modern Greek employed to denote a screen and even λέων, from the Aramaic lbu, meaning lion.
As contacts between the two civilisations increased, words pertaining to aspects of commerce, rather than just products, were received into Greek from Semitic, where trade was more developed. The word for promise and the adoption of the mina as a weight and unit of currency are analogous to the English adoption of the words bank, bankrupt and florin from Italian. The words for musical instruments such as σαμβύκη, a Syrian four to seven stringed harp, and νάβλας, a ten stringed harp, began to make their way into the Greek language in the fourth century BC, when a jaded musical appetite was developing a taste for the exotic, to the annoyance of purists, as Plato testifies in The Republic. There was, however, no reception of musical terms describing how to play.
The plethora of loan-words, with some more being σινδών, fine linen, from which the modern σεντόνι, derives, ίασπις for jasper, κάκκαβος or cooking pot from which we obtain the modern fish soup κακκαβιά, κινάμμωμον for cinnamon, κάδος for wine jar and in modern Greek a large rubbish receptacle, σάκκος for goatskin sack, are fascinating in their proximity to words that still survive in Modern Greek today. My absolute favourite would have to be χαλβάνη, for galbanum, an aromatic gum resin whose root word hlb, is the Semitic for milk and is exactly the same root as the modern Greek loanword, also from Semitic, χαλβάς.
The presence of these words suggests that while the Greeks were profoundly influenced by what they bought from Semitic peoples, they did not import from them any abstract, political philosophical notions that made a direct impact on the Greek language. They merely attest to trading contracts. A notable exception must be made for the word deltos, meaning writing tablet in Phoenician. Even Herodotus refers to a δελτίον δίπτυχον, two wooden tablets, coated with wax for writing on, which could be folded. This was a Semitic invention adopted by Greece and used for a millennium. Today, this Semitic word exists in Modern Greek as the term for a bulletin.
The history of the early Greeks in the Middle East is little known but inordinately fascinating. As pirates, they caused inordinate grief to the Assyrians by pillaging the eastern Mediterranean coastline, with the governor of Tyre writing to Assyrian King Tiglath-Pileser in 738 BC: "To my king, my lord, your servant Qurdi-Asshur-Lamur. The Ionians have struck again..." The Greeks also incited a revolt against the Assyrians in Cilicia, causing Sargon II to move against them in 715BC: "I caught, like fishes, the Ionians who live amid the Sea of the Setting Sun."
As a result of their contacts with, at the time, more advanced peoples in the East, the Greeks slowly began to develop a sense of closer kinship among themselves and to distinguish between the themselves and barbarians, a process in which their modern day descendants are still absorbed. These contacts also give rise to fascinating stories, all of which deserve further prominence in the Greek historical narrative. Today, one of the most important islands of the Greek world, the nation state, Cyprus, owes its name to the Semitic word for henna, kpr, also the origin of the English word for copper, demonstrating just how close and how very ancient the Greek connection to the Semitic world has been, and how intrinsic, at least subconsciously, that connection is to the Greek identity.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 May 2014