Saturday, June 25, 2016
Though I am not of Pontian descent, and lack the decidedly Pontic features of the bowed legs and prominent nose that serve as readily identifiable markers for all those who would be members of the clan, Pontiaki Estia has always been part of my life. The Central Pontian Organisation: Pontiaki Estia was founded one year prior to my birth and its first club rooms were in my neighbourhood. They exercised an intense fascination upon me during my early days as the lettering adorning the looming yellow and black edifice: ΠΟΝΤΙΑΚΗ ΕCTIA, was the only public Greek signage in my immediate area, upon which I could test my Greek literary skills. Furthermore, the existence of what appeared to be an English C in an otherwise Greek title, was a source of wonderment to me. Long before, I knew precisely what Pontians were, I learned, from them, the Byzantine alphabet.
I became obsessed with the clubrooms and would create stories in my head about what would go on there. Finally, after much nagging, my parents consented to take me to a function. I was very young and dimly remember the prevalence of black chairs and a multitude of people. What did manage to inextricably etch itself into my memory, was the sound of the music that assailed my ear drums. I had never hear anything like it, and just having started to learn to play the violin, I was entranced at the way in which the Pontic kemenche is used almost like a percussion instrument in the Pontic tradition. At that time, Pontian music had melded with the local Macedonian musical traditions found by Pontic refugees in their places of refuge and it was difficult to separate their disparate strands and locate the authentic tradition beneath, something that Pontiaki Estia has, over the years become expert at. On that day, I resolved to a) acquire a kemenche, something that I did almost twenty years later, a flimsy, balsa wood construction from an impoverished Russo-Pontian at Omonoia, and b) find out more about these mysterious, marginal and yet fascinating Pontic beings. This last strand of my resolve, I completed hand in hand with the good people from Pontiaki Estia.
Estia of course, in Greek, now denotes a home but in ancient Greek, it signified a hearth, fireplace, or altar. It is also no coincidence then that the ancient Greek goddess Estia, was the virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, and the state. Over the four decades of its existence, Pontiaki Estia has provided just that function. Countless people have been warmed at the hearth of its members fervor for Pontic culture in all of its diverse and manifold forms, or have been illuminated by the light of the fire burning within some of it more intrepid members as they went on their own journeys of self-discovery, learning much about some of the more obscure of dark chapters in their ancestor’s history, and so many others have worshipped at the altar of togetherness, solidarity and communalism that best exemplifies the culture of Pontiaki Estia. Defying the trend of Greek organisations that gradually become more insular and seek to exclude ‘others,’ whether by ideology or background, Estia has extended its guest friendship to the wider community, absorbing dancers, thinkers, historians and countless others, which is how I came to find my home there. So closely have its members begun to identify with Pontiaki Estia, as their Estia, way from their own estia, that they have even placed the words “Estia” on their number plates, in a profound and telling statement of identity.
At the recent function commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the foundation of Pontiaki Estia, the dance floor was filled with youth from the various dance groups, all sporting versions of their diverse national costume. I commented that there were more dancers than some Greek brotherhoods currently have members. A young woman who was sitting beside me launched into a lengthy and learned disquisition into the regional variants of the Pontic costume, which can be distinguished by time, marital status, class and geography, all of which have been carefully and painstakingly preserved by the youth of Pontiaki Estia, I was amazed and heartened, though the extent of her erudition should not have come as a surprise. In a club that is now run by its younger members, (a transition that took a decade of conflict to achieve) these second generation Pontians have, to employ the buzz-word, taken “ownership” of their traditional culture. There are to be found within its ranks, specialists on Pontian song, dance, (of late they have been experimenting with new fusions, exploring common threads with Cretan music, showing how a tradition does not have to be oppressive but rather can be teased, explored and transformed into something entirely novel) costume, traditional lifestyle, cookery and of course the Pontian Genocide.
These embracive rather than prescriptive qualities of Pontiaki Estia are perhaps the key ingredients of its brilliance. One finds on of the stultifying, officious parochiality of other Greek organisations here. Instead, I have found, through my involvement in the Genocide Awareness Workshops, pioneered by Estia and the means by which awareness of this tragic event has been disseminated to the broader community, a desire to embrace the unconventional, to seek new and novel ways to get the message across. While some of these efforts bear more fruit than others, it is this willingness to experiment, to try out new approaches without fear of recrimination or keeping them in thrall to undercurrent strategies in fractious endo-community squabbles, that the true value of Pontiaki Estia lies. Thus, in regards to the genocide, Pontiaki Estia has over the years, approached elements of the Turkish community in order to celebrate commonalities of culture, rather than just focus on death, sought to honour those righteous Muslims who protected Christians during the genocide, rather than merely demonise all Ottomans, pioneered a co-ordinated approach to genocide recognition in concert with the Assyrian and Armenian communities (and as such Pontiaki Estia remains one of them most multi-cultural, outward looking Greek organisations in Melbourne), used the media of drama, song, dance, theatre and film in order to tell its story and has now gone entirely mainstream, currently engaging with the City of Ballarat to erect a monument to George Devine Treloar, a savior of the Pontian people, in that city. Their immensity of scope is as breathtaking as it is remarkable, and considering the multifaceted means employed to express their identity, historically important.
Even more important is Pontiaki Estia’s harnessing of local resources in the furtherance of their aims. While they remain an inseparable part of the world wide organized Pontian movement and sponsor visits by overseas artists on a regular basis, they also foster the growth and development of their own musicians, teachers, artists, activists and thinkers, in a way that some other Greek organisations who are still emotionally tied to Greece via a strange and complex inferior complex do not. What we are witnessing emerging in Pontiaki Estia is a particularly Australian development of Pontic culture, one to which all Australians, regardless of ethnic or cultural background, are welcome to participate in and are in fact, actively encouraged to do so.
There were tears in the eyes of many of the attendees of Pontiaki Estia’s fortieth birthday function, not only for those who have departed, carving their mark on the organization but also for those who now follow, or rather dance, in their footsteps. Yet for all of the radical innovation and the exciting new directions forged by a most uncanny, and to many Greek-Australians, marginal group, some challenges remain. The Pontic dialect is being lost and most emerging youth now have diminished facility in the modern Greek tongue. How they will negotiate and contextualize their Pontic identity within a superimposed Greek-Australian one remains to be seen. Nonetheless, they have tremendously inspiring precedents to draw from and immense reserves of positivity to sustain them. And some things, such as the dances that enthralled me almost four decades ago as a child, remain, as a touchstone, a staff and a guide, through the uncertain times that are to come. They, like the Pontians, show us how to transcend time itself.
First published in NKEE on 25 June 2016