Saturday, April 11, 2015
Every year while attending the Greek Community's annual 1821 Revolution Commemoration at the Shrine of Remembrance, I am reminded of the verses of Epirote poet Panagiotis Noutsos' brilliant poem 'National Magma,' (Έθνους Μάγμα). Noutsos writes:
«Δεν είναι εδώ το Σούλι, εδώ ναι το μαγιασούλι!
Σούλι, καψούλι, μαξούλι, μαγιασούλι,
In his own unique way, by employing wordplay in an uncharacteristic, almost Anglosaxonic manner in order to subvert traditional poetic forms and motifs, Noutsos is making a point about the effusive yet ultimately empty rhetoric surrounding nationalistic events such as the traditional military parades and accompanying hyperbolic speeches that present the liberation of Greece as an inevitability stemming from unique and superior qualities residing with the DNA of each person who calls himself a Hellene, μαγιασούλι, being a synonym for an overabundance of speech. The implication is that ultimately, when all is said and done, a hell of a lot more is said, than actually done and we are all somehow implicated in this ceremony of mass self-delusion, by being willing and or passive participants of it.
This year driving to the Shrine, dressed in the full regalia of hoplarchs, I began to recite Noutsos' verses under my breath as a friend turned and asked: "Why do suppose the English or the Aussies value cricket more highly that parades like this? Think about it. The British have numerous battles to commemorate: The Battle of Hastings, the Battle of Bosworth Field, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Glorious Revolution, the Battle of Waterloo, the Charge of the Light Brigade, various World War I battles and of course VE day. But they don't seem to capture the imagination of their people the way our 1821 'parelasi' does. Why?"
The answer of course is a complex one and probably has much to do with how comfortable a society is with their identity. Save for VE day, which took place within living memory, most British military turning points have taken place a long time ago. Nonetheless, as any visitor to Britain would know, the Britons feel great pride in their history. Having been lucky enough to have known few invasions, they have been able to preserve and conserve a vast amount of artefacts, building and lore and this has permitted their composite identity to emerge naturally in, around and from that history. As such, their identity is a historic inevitability of their surroundings and rather than being prescriptive, is expansive, embracing and for the most part, participatory.
Greece has experienced neither the security nor the stability of Britain. As a result, its history exists in shards and disparate fragments that historians and ideologues have attempted to weld together into a coherent narrative of continuity. Whereas it could be said that Britons live history, the Greeks on the other hand have lived the ruins of history. Layer upon layer of destruction has been covered by the earth, awaiting reconstruction and reunification with long sundered memories and expectations as to which particular 'ancestors' we should emulate. 1821 therefore, marks the symbolic starting point for a process of reconstitution and recreation - point zero, where anything is possible and yet the archaeologists's trowel and the classical scholar's erudition prescribe for us, just who the shattered fragments of our past should be put back together and by implication, just who we should be. Thanks to their expert welding skills, 1821 is a mere culmination of the indomitable ethnic spirit that gave us Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae (its Neohellenic counterparts being Dervenakia, Mycale and Souli). Celebrating 1821 thus helps us to interpret the resistance of OXI, providing us with a depth of resources real and imagined in times of crisis, simultaneously trapping us in a perpetual time warp where past and present coalesce continuously.
This would probably explain why as a boy, attending the parelasi in a foustanella, accosted by a group of older pant-wearing Pontians, I was exhorted to jump into the water fountain at the Queen Victoria gardens, in pure Greek-Australian: "If you are a real τσολιά, πήδα." I refused to do so for fear of soiling my costume, whereupon I was castigated for lacking the courage, indomitability and recklessness to act the way a true wearer of the kilt would display. I have felt a fraud ever since.
Australia, as an aside, does share a parallel to the Greek pride in the parelasi. As a young nation needing to construct an identity, it has chosen to emphasize the legends of Gallipoli, tantalizingly beyond living memory as an ideal starting point for the weaving of strands that constitute an ideal. That it has done so at the expense of the (within living memory) experiences of World War II veterans, in which War Australia's territorial integrity was actually threatened, tells us much about the power of identity construction.
Undoubtedly there is a good helping of such constructed pride within Greek-Australian participants of our own parelasi. After all, this is part of our imported heritage and forms the backdrop of our identity in Australia. Yet it would be wrong to consider the Melbourne march as merely a form of nationalistic elation or threadbare jingoistic rhetoric. Marching up to the Shrine this year felt more like a family picnic than the pompous regimented affairs of yesteryear. Gone was the measured step, the stiff turning of the head to honour puffed-up 'dignitaries.' Instead, masses of children and community members sauntered past their elated peers towards a friendly and smiling group of VIP's, the relaxed and familiar tone being set by His Excellency the Ambassador of Greece, resplendent in a broad brimmed slouch hat, who enthusiastically cheered on the younger participants. This was no militaristic or nationalistic parade. Instead, it had the feel of a street party.
The Melbourne parelasi is unique, in that it takes place on a practically self-contained stretch of road, largely out of the broader public's gaze. As such, the self-conscious pandering to other's conceptions of what Greeks should act or look like that form much of the parades of Greeks through the cities of America, for example, (caryatids, Olympic rings, Doric temple floats and the like) is mercifully absent. In relaxed and comfortable Melbourne, we present ourselves, not as the Greeks of Greece wish us to be, nor as mainstream Australians perceive us to be, but rather, as ourselves, marching out of step, some of us combining shorts with a fermeli, and almost all of us leaving prior to the politician's speeches. As we march, we talk about the cricket, the Alexandros versus Hellas match (yes, it will always be Hellas) or we will laughingly wonder why the Stalinist old guard of three separate organisations from the same region of North-West Greece are unable to let go of incomprehensible internecine squabbles and conspiracies and march together, rather than separately, in a Greek-Australian Monty-Pythonesque parody of the infinite combinations and permutations of the appellations of the rival Popular People's Front of Judaea and the Judaean Popular People's Front, before breaking ranks to shake a friend's hand who we haven't seen for a while.
As I marched this year, I did so with pride, not so much for the sake of my ancestors, but because marching to my left, as she has done ever since she was two, was my sister and between us, for the first time ever, my own two year old daughter, enthusiastically waving flags and exclaiming: «εν δυό, εν δυό» and «Ζήτω.» Unquestionably, she has no conception of the fact that Andreas Miaoulis preferred to scuttle his fleet rather than hand it over to the government of Free Greece, or that Odysseas Androutsos was a sell-sword and when she grows up, I doubt that she will care. For really, it is this sense of the coming together of all generations in the unspoken knowledge that we all belong to the same vast, complex, dysfunctional, frustrating but intricately absorbing and ultimately endearing family that lends each Melburnian1821 parade, its sense of wonder. Long may it continue to do so.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 April 2015