Saturday, July 25, 2015


This photograph of a sorrowful young refugee holding his missing parents’ wedding photograph has haunted me ever since I first saw it, at the age of five. When in my youthful imagination I could barely just conceive of the idea of being abandoned or losing one’s parents, I would become overwhelmed with fear and cry. Furthermore, this photograph has been responsible for procuring recurring childhood nightmares, nightmares which have even persisted intermittently into adulthood,  wherein I am always a five year old boy, wandering aimlessly in a  black and white landscape peopled with faceless placard holders, searching in vain for my parents who have inexplicably vanished. I do not know if the young boy was lucky enough to find his parents in the aftermath of the terrible humanitarian tragedy that was the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. If he is hale and hearty, he is probably approaching middle age and has a family of his own. I shudder to think what manner of mental traumas have been inflicted upon him as a result of having to face a calamity that no child should ever be exposed to. 

When one considers that forty one years have elapsed since the terrible crime of the Cyprus invasion took place and that since then the international community has not managed to resolve this issue, shifting from a blanket but puny condemnation of the invasion of a ‘sovereign’ state (which it wasn’t since it had guarantor powers looking over its shoulder), to a post-modern no-fault approach whereby there is no longer a sovereign state with 47% of its territory under foreign occupation, but rather two ‘communities,’ that need to engage with each other, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the world has failed the little boy and so many innocent victims of human brutality. Such children, growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War and taught to believe in the United Nations and mankind’s evolution towards a noble and peaceable utopia would have been completely shocked to discover that not only is mankind and its international institutions are largely unable to prevent violent conflicts, they are also generally unable to resolve them.

Exiled from their homes and unable to return to them, bearing the trauma of seeing their parents or loved ones killed, raped or tortured before their very eyes, these children would have shook their heads in disbelief had they been told that by 2015, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees would estimate the number of refugees and internally displaced people at approximately 60 million. Mercifully, they would and could not be told that in the western world at least, there would be a gradual hardening of governmental policy and citizen’s hearts with regard to the plight of refugees for if they had become privy to such knowledge, it is arguable that they would not have been able to find the strength to carry on.

It is for that lost little boy whose identity I have assumed in my nightmares and for the sake of every single other refugee, forcibly torn from everything that they have known and loved that I attend the Justice for Cyprus Rally at the steps of the Parliament of Victoria every year in July. As the number of attendees decreases year after year, I reflect on what a fitting and symbolic spot the Co-ordinating Committee for the Cyprus Campaign (SEKA) has chosen for its demonstration. On the appointed Sunday in freezing July, the streets before Parliament are silent and empty with not even a suspicion of a pedestrian, to be moved by the slogans or the placards. Parliament too is silent, its looming grey edifice with its closed doors bearing down upon the small crowd disconsolately as if to say: “You may cry as you will but there is no one to hear you here, and even if there was, there is no one here who could make the slightest difference to your plight.” Perhaps that is why most of the politicians have stopped coming, because they are ashamed of their own impotence. Or perhaps it is because they know that since 1974, a multitude of other conflicts and priorities have interposed themselves between trauma and memory and the time for lip service is past.

The dignitaries from Cyprus mouth the same platitudes as the crowd looks on mutely and then comes the turn of the representatives from local organisations, making a cameo show of support for the worthwhile endeavours of SEKA, which less and less people, especially those of Cypriot extraction, appreciate. The national anthems of Greece and Australia are sung and everyone scuttles off to seek refuge from the cold, muttering that they are tired of commemorating the invasion in the same way for so many decades and that something ‘new’ must be done to ‘attract’ a crowd. Yet few people have heard, amidst the words, the slogans and the anthems, the heart-rendering sobs of the black-clad ladies perennially at the front, bearing fading photographs of loved ones they have lost and olive branches, lamenting the loss of love, youth and a future. Every time I mount the steps to deliver a message of support from the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, I face them, my childhood nightmares and feel as a fraud and a hypocrite, for I have never suffered so much, or plumbed the depths of the abysmal numbness that comes afterwards, as to offer meaningful consolation or a message of hope. At times like this, dignity properly demands silence. For in such silence alone, does suffering speak.

Chances are, given the parlous state of the world, that the refugees, and all of those who seek justice for Cyprus will never bear witness to a just ‘solution’ to ‘problem’ that was once called a crime. There can be no adequate redress for anguish, fear and loss of life and love. Nor can we or anyone expect that a groundswell of public outrage, four decades on will spur the key power-brokers into just action. What there can be however, is understanding, compassion and a resolve to point out the incongruities and inconsistencies of our self-assured civilization. For after all, a crime ceases to become a crime only if it is forgotten. It is for this reason, that all of us should make the effort to attend the annual Justice for Cyprus demonstration on 26 July 2015 – to stand as mute witnesses to the injustice of a world that allows little boys to lose their parents and then nonchalantly washes its hands of their fate – pointing the finger directly, at those responsible.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 July 2015

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Growing up, members of my extended family would laugh when sports commentators would wax lyrical about recent migrant's sporting achievements as "Australian." "They are 'Australian,' until they do something wrong, or start losing," they would scoff, citing as an example that while Jelena Dokic was Australian, Damir Dokic definitely was not. Mark Philipoussis while he showed promise, was deemed an Australian and yet his off-court antics permitted the media and the mainstream to create scatological versions of his 'ethnic' name, something that would have been inconceivable had he an Anglo-Saxon surname. Furthermore, in snatches of conversation I chanced to overhear, I gained the impression that though members of my extended family have been settled here since the thirties, they believed that they were here only under sufferance and expected that at some stage in the thankfully distant future, there 'right' to be an 'Australian' could be called into question and that they could even be asked to leave. In response to my attempts to convince them otherwise, they would cite not only a multitude of examples of day to day racism they had endured in Australia, but also, an older memory, that of being forced to leave a homeland in Asia Minor they had inhabited for generations.

I am fond of quoting George Vassilacopoulos and Toula Nicolacopoulou's ground-breaking study: Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000."  In it, they 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. Thus, despite the veneer of formal equality characterizing race relations in this country, there lurks within the substratum, a fundamental concept of the 'perpetual foreigner.' These foreigners are not automatically subsumed into the liberal democratic individualist paradigm. They remain a distinct 'group,' which is expected to provide appropriate declarations and exhibitions of loyalty to the ruling culture, or face the fear of being labelled suspect. As a result of this 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.

The latest racial attack visited by revered swimming legend Dawn Fraser upon Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic seems to prove Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou's contention. In claiming that the young tennis superbrats should:  "go back to where their fathers or their parents came from. We don't need them here in this country if they act like that," Dawn Fraser, a known supporter of Pauline Hanson, appears merely to be extending the paradigm of the 'perpetual foreigner,' further from that of the migrant, to the migrant's Australian-born progeny. Thus, a child born in Australia of migrant parents will, in Dawn Fraser's world, still be deemed to be a foreigner regardless of their level of assimilation into the mainstream (Mark Philipoussis' Greek was extremely poor and yet he was still considered to be a 'wog' and anyway, why should affiliation to another culture or language make you less Australian?), by virtue of its parent's birth. Applying the paradigm, given that such Australian-born foreigners are eternally subversive, they should be subject to deportation at the mainstream's discretion, any time that they display behaviour that to the arbiters of Australianism, appears to be unsuitable.

 Dawn Fraser's ravings could be dismissed as those of a bigot or a racist if it was not for the fact that a very large portion of the populace tacitly or subconsciously shares these views. Symptomatic of this is the fact that a large number of mainstream Australians rose to defend Kyrgios' character rather than condemn his disenfranchisement at the hands of his attacker, as an Australian. One could merely relegate Dawn Fraser's bile to the dustbin of intolerance was it not for the fact that even now, her vision of two classes of Australian citizens is being envisaged by parliament via laws to strip dual-citizenship holders of their Australian citizenship if they are found guilty of 'terrorism.' Admittedly these laws are designed to protect Australia from an extremely serious threat that has plagued the entire world and caused untold suffering, yet their effect is to encourage the sentiment that there truly are two types of Australians: the dinky-di, true blue, and the ersatz, subversive ones with a dual citizenship that most of them have taken no steps to gain and is merely afforded to them as a birthright. What we are learning is that the citizenship of the country of their birth is negotiable, not a birthright and subject to revocation, albeit for more cogent and grave reasons than those that have so incensed Dawn Fraser.

 Multi-culturalism, the way most of us were brought up to understand the term was supposed to be about embracing diversity. All cultures and languages were considered equal and valued as Australian cultures that enhanced and contributed to Australian society and its progress. We were led especially to believe so about Greek culture, whose values and institutions form the foundation of western civilization and thus of Australian Anglo-Celtic culture as well. Now Dawn Fraser, among others, confirms our sneaking suspicion that by extending the arguments of Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, the doctrine, heavily regulated and prescribed by the state, was created, maintained or at least developed, in order to keep sub-cultures away from the mainstream. She makes this confirmation based solely on the looks and parentage of an Australian sporting identity.

 It would be trite to tell Dawn Fraser, who is pictured herein bearing the Olympic torch, a symbol of the ingenuity of the country to which she would like Nick Kyrgios to 'return,' that save for the Aborigines, we are all migrants in this country. It would be futile to attempt to describe the feelings of hurt and alienation her comments have caused hundreds of thousands of migrants who have embraced this country, worked hard to improve it, fallen in love in it and can envisage no other live away from it. Had she the capacity to understand the depth of the love migrants and their descendants have for their country, she would not have launched upon such a lamentably heinous tirade. Yet it is incumbent upon all of us who love the ideal of multi-cultural Australia to protest vociferously at each and every snide exposition of intolerance, racism and bigotry until it is understood within the psyche of even the most unrepentant xenophobe, that we are not xenoi, but are here to stay. And if Nick Kyrgios is going to be shunted off to a country of which he has scant knowledge, we can exhort Dawn Fraser who will remain behind, να κάτσει να δει το χωριό της.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 July 2015.


Saturday, July 11, 2015


From Melbourne to Greece, for justice, for peace," came the faint, puerile, unenthusiastic cry of the small gathering. "Let Greece breathe," "Ellas, Ellas, Eleutheria," and even, bizarrely enough, "Ellas, Ellas, Makedonia," were some of the chants with which the barely audible organisers of the "Melbourne Stands with Greece" Rally, on the steps of State Parliament last Saturday, tried vainly for the most part, to inspire the miniscule crowd, whose paucity of numbers made the annual Justice for Cyprus march appear like a veritable "λαοθάλασσα."
            Despite having been assured on social media that the demonstration had an apolitical character and was designed merely to express Melbournians' support for the Greek people during this most difficult of times, many in the crowd were surprised and disturbed to perceive placards, one of them in particular inscribed in ungrammatical Greek, bearing the word OXI, (one proclaimed self-indulgently "Death Not Austerity), looming behind the organisers, making it clear that this was indeed a partisan demonstration. There were no placards bearing the word NAI and the only apolitical placard seemed to be one that was borne by a bored young lady, reading: "Greek beauty, not in crisis." This inspired me no end and I wanted to ask her how she defined beauty and in particular in which way she identified with the placard she bore with so much dedication. In my opinion this was an elegant statement about the eternal nature of the Greek aesthetic. After all there is much bittersweet beauty to be found within tragedy.
            There were a number of things that I found fascinating while perambulating the demonstration. The first was how unlike any other demonstration of a Greek nature I have ever attended in Australia, this was. For the attendees truly formed a microcosmic cross-section of a newly emerging Greek-Australian society. Mingling among the few first generation Greek-Australians who braved the cold in order, as they said, to perform their patriotic duty in support of Greece, there were, in the large part second generation, English-speaking Greek -Australians of all political persuasions, some of whom were there also, like their fore-fathers, merely to support the motherland while the radicalised majority wished to make a political point and of course a goodly proportion of new arrivals from Greece, the female of their species in particular bearing instead of placards, cigarettes, thus giving the rally the feel of an Athenian student protest, but without the violence. Interspersed among them were non-Greek members of the Socialist Left, handing out pamphlets, purveying badges and attempting to engage the Greeks in political debate.
            As the organisers interminable speeches were barely audible, the attendees had ample time to discuss the situation in Greece amongst themselves. They did so in an emphatic, though peaceful fashion, probably because most held similar convictions and it struck me as odd that a good many of them did not exactly comprehend the nature of the imminent referendum and its consequences for the Greek people.  Specifically, not a few vociferous supporters of an OXI vote, firmly believed that a NO vote to the referendum on accepting the conditions for Greece's bailout, would result in Greece's automatic exclusion from the Eurozone and indeed from the European Union altogether. They naively seemed to believe that the Greek people were being called upon to decide whether to remain "in Europe" or not and to their view, a Greece extricated from the clutches of the Europeans was the first step on the road to greatness.  
            Glancing past the mournful lady holding a small icon of Jesus, who as she explained, was the only true means of bailout from all the trials and tribulations of the world, and the gentleman with the intense round eyes who confided in me that Greece's financial catastrophe had all been prophesied by the Athonite monks and this is the reason why Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens was murdered by the European-financed freemasons, I chanced upon an incensed, cigarette wielding lady arguing vociferously with a bearded gentleman with a Dutch accent. He was attempting to advance the opinion that despite his rhetoric, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was far from being a radical and was definitely not a socialist. In his view, Tsipras', engagement with the capitalists was tantamount to acceptance of and adherence to the capitalist system and he was merely deluding all true socialists with his antics. This the angry lady could not abide. "Tsipras is goooooooood!" she shrilled, taking deep puffs of her cigarette. "He is making a difference. He is standing up to the Europeans." When the Dutch socialist ventured to suggest that Tsipras, who has never held a job outside of politics and has led a life of privilege, seems to have not made much headway with the Europeans but instead is using the Greek people as a shield against his own failures, the enraged lady resorted to the tried and true argument-clinching tactics of the neo-hellene: "What would you know? Are you Greek? Have you lived there? I have. If you haven't lived there, you have no right to an opinion."
            One non-Greek lady who attended in order to express solidarity with those affected in Greece by the humanitarian crisis that has been brought about by Greece's financial woes asked me why it took an Englishman to organize the crowd-funding endeavour in order to raise money for the beleaguered Greeks and why the diasporan Greeks were not following suit. According to her, if the five hundred or so attendees, at the rally, instead of making speeches and waving flags, each donated one hundred dollars, the resulting $50,000 could feed several indigent families for a considerable period of time.  Multiply that by the number of Greek-Australians in Melbourne and a considerable amount could be raised by way of charity relief. Before I had a chance to respond diplomatically, a member of the first generation interjected: "This is because every time we send money to Greece it goes missing. You can't trust them."  Responding to her quizzical gaze, I advised her that the culture of impersonal funding is largely alien to Greek-Australians, who prefer to assist on a person-to person basis, yet I cannot help feeling that I was being less than forthright and that our community efforts should centre upon humanitarian relief (which requires effort), rather than politics, the prerequisite for which is hot air. Her observation, that the gathering appeared to be more of an outlet for the release of national pride than an effective protest tool, cut close to the bone.
            "Do we really belong to Europe? They hate us and denigrate us every opportunity they get!" a new arrival from Greece exclaimed to me. My reflection upon this is that assuredly the Greeks are not entirely European as western Europeans understand the term.  And the fact Greeks call Europeans as such, to emphasise a point of difference between them speaks volumes. Proof of this is that time and time throughout the Greek people's history as an independent people (before 1453) they refused to slavishly follow the West but rather engaged in a dialogue with it, borrowed, compared and gave to its civilization in return. The Greek people are also not Eastern, as is evidenced by its historical fascination with the East but also the feeling since the time of the Persians, that the Greeks are somehow distinct from those forms of civilization. To my mind, the Greeks are something else, a third way, neither western or eastern, the point from which east and west depart and at which east and west meet. At the end of the day, the Greek referendum was not about identity, an issue which is yet to be resolved since the time of Herodotus, it was not about whether Greece should turn its back on the European Union but rather, simply, whether a particular measure should be employed to drag Greece back from the brink of social and economic catastrophe. This is what the term crisis means - a crossroads at which a sound judgment must be made.
            Given that our presence here in Australia is owed largely to our ancestors or ourselves performing a physical bailout from any one of Greece's prior crises, I would argue that any abrogation to ourselves of the role of arbiter of Greece's historical or political direction is misconceived. Our role, must and should be restricted to assuring the Greek people that whatever the consequences of their momentous decision at the recent referendum, we stand by them, afford them dignity  and respect while demanding that the world does the same and affirming that we are willing to dig deep, in order to allay their suffering.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 July 2015


Saturday, July 04, 2015

Limba armãneascã.

“No language is rude that can boast polite writers.”
Audrey Beardsley
 To no small degree, I owe my existence to my late grandmother’s knowledge of the Vlach tongue and in particular, its southern, Pindean dialect. Once she acquired this facility, it exposed her to a concatenation of circumstances that led ultimately, I would argue, to my corporeal manifestation upon this earth.
As was the custom in large families prior to the Second World War, my grandmother was apprenticed as a young girl to a Vlach woman, whose name is unknown but who has always been referred to in family lore ominously as “η Βλάχα.” Passing by my grandmother’s village by the lake at Ioannina, the said Vlach woman happened to notice my grandmother, a young child, sweeping the yard and singing as she did so. She took a liking to her and offered to cover her board and expenses, if she could assist her on her transhumant wanderings, high in the Pindus mountains, for six months. My great-grandfather, without consulting his wife of course, was convinced that such an arrangement would be beneficial for all concerned and agreed. The deal was struck and my grandmother was led away to the Samarina valley, still a heartland of Vlach speech and culture today.
At the conclusion of the six-month period agreed upon, my grandmother was still accompanying the Vlach woman on the wanderings of her flock all over Epirus and as far as Grevena. It transpired that the Vlach woman had no intentions of ever returning my grandmother to her family. Considering that she was hers for eternity and coming to care for her greatly, she invested in her education, sending her to the various Vlach language schools that were in operation for the Vlach minority throughout Epirus during the period between the World Wars. Consequently, my grandmother not only became fluent in Vlach, but also proficient in writing and reading the Roman alphabet in which the Vlach language is written. Alone of all her siblings, she retained this facility, astounding me in her seventies by her capacity to read and pronounce English and French shop signs, on the streets of Athens, all the while experiencing great difficulties in reading Greek.
After the transpiration of two years, the Vlach woman was sufficiently self-confident as to hazard a trip down to Ioannina, expecting that my grandmother’s family had, by then, come to terms with her loss. Sadly for her, my grandmother was spotted by chance sitting in the window of a guest-house, by her uncle. Returning to the village with all haste and urgency, he informed my great-grandmother of her daughter’s whereabouts, whereupon she, with the assistance of her brothers in law, hatched a daring and intricate plan for my grandmother’s rescue, including subterfuge, disguises and the blocking off of possible escape routes. The operation to snatch my grandmother from inside the window was successful and she was soon reunited with her family, my formidable great-grandmother ably being able to fend off the protestations of the Vlach woman, who had the temerity to turn up at her doorstep, demanding that HER daughter be returned to her.
Save that my grandmother now displayed the propensity to sing in an unknown language, family life returned to normal. Just as she was enrolled in the village school and began to engage herself in the difficult task of deciphering the Greek alphabet, Greece was invaded and school was suspended. Then, tragically, my great-grandfather was killed, leaving my grandmother and her five other siblings orphaned. Only three of those other siblings would survive the war.
When the guerillas of the Democratic Army came to the village, after the war, the first thing they did was to billet soldiers in my grandmother’s house. Soon after, they rounded up all of the village children. These were to be relocated north, to some countries with unfamiliar names, where apparently, they would be educated, fed and returned to Greece after the ‘final victory.’ My grandmother had advance knowledge of this, as the soldiers billeted in her home were Vlachs from Grevena and she overheard them discuss their orders in their language, thinking that they would not be understood. Though my great-grandmother attempted to hide her, my grandmother was found and made to join the ranks of her peers, embarked upon a perilous road towards an uncertain destination.
It was my grandmother’s sunny disposition, her propensity to endear herself to everyone who met her, along with her facility in the Vlach tongue that occasioned her escape. She would sing Vlach songs to the guerillas, chat to them in their own language, and it was one of those guerillas who approached her one night and said in Vlach: “Child, you are too young to be separated from you loved ones. Tomorrow, we are going to cross a ravine. When I give the signal, pretend to faint. I’ll do the rest.” The very next day, at a particularly step bend in the road, the signal was given. My grandmother collapsed on the side of the road, and the guerilla rolled her gently into the ravine below, stating: “This one is dead. It must have been exhaustion.” Many days later, my grandmother, emaciated and starving, returned to her village and knocked on the door of her house. When my great-grandmother opened it and saw her daughter standing there, both of them fainted simultaneously.
The billeting policy of the army of the Kingdom of Greece seems to have been consistent with that of the Democratic Army, for at the conclusion of the Civil War, soldiers completing their military service were billeted in the homes of my grandmother’s village. As chance would have it, the two soldiers billeted in my grandmother’s home were Vlachs and as my grandmother moved about the house, intent upon completing her household chores, one of them would appraise her with the eye of a connoisseur. Were he of a Shakespearean mould, he would have been inclined to declaim: “There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip, Nay, her foot speaks..” Instead, being of an unsentimental and un-poetic disposition, he resigned himself to making approving remarks about her dimensions to his colleague in their own tongue, believing that they would not be understood and thus not transgress the unspoken laws of hospitality.
My grandmother, who had, unbeknownst to him, taken a shine to her Vlach fan, soon disabused him of his misapprehension. Thus, when one day, he deigned to wax lyrically to his friend about the curve of my grandmother’s nose in her presence, she turned around abruptly and stated in Vlach: “I hope you know that I understand every single word you are saying. How rude. I’m going to tell my mother.” What ensued from my grandfather’s spluttering attempts at excusing himself, was a marriage proposal, the only honourable thing a Greek chap could do after spending months ogling the daughter of the house. It was her knowledge of the Vlach tongue that ensured my grandmother was not only in the village at this time and not somewhere behind the Iron Curtain but also, that she was able to break the ice and obtain the object of her affection.
After moving to Athens in the fifties, my grandmother never spoke Vlach ever again. At a time when village yokels and their obscure accents were openly sneered at in the capital, my grandmother quickly assimilated the airs and patois of the true Athenian and the whole story was forgotten and never related to her children. It was only when my great-grandmother returned with me to Greece for a grand-daughter’s wedding decades later and she apprehended my grandmother seated in a corner, conversing in Vlach to the prospective gambro, that my great-grandmother sighed: “Oh God, not another one. What are we, a hostel for Vlachs?” and the entire story of my grandmother’s relationship with the Vlach tongue was finally related in full. Though the meaning of its strange cadences continue to elude me, an object of great regret, as I, after Bertrand Russell deeply believe that the obstinate addiction to ordinary language in our private thoughts, is one of the main obstacles of progress, I am grateful to the limba armãneascã, for without it, and its labyrinthine manipulations of providence, most likely, I would not exist today.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 July 2015