Saturday, July 09, 2016
“The future came and went in the mildly discouraging way that futures do.” Neil Gaiman
Ἑ ρε γλέντια῾ Karagiozis
It is an incontrovertible truth of the human condition that all things change and nothing ever remains the same. Thus, some members of our community still remember the Oakleigh Greek Glendi in its previous manifestation, the panegyri of the Unmercenary Saints Cosmas and Damianos (that’s Agioi Anargyroi to the rest of us), a decidedly Orthodox Festival. As one member reminisces: “I remember when we had chicken and potatoes in the Church hall and after Father Nicholas Moutafis blessed the food, he talked about the saints and what miracles they still performed for the sick.. Everyone knew that apolytikion back to front inside out...”
There is not much unmercenarism to be found among the businesses of Greek Oakleigh these days. Instead, the Oakleigh Greek Glendi, removed from its original religious context has evolved to the point where it is seen by most Greeks of Melbourne as an expression of ethnic exuberance, a carousal of Antipodean conviviality and celebration of all that we have come to believe make us who we are, in the heart of the area in which dynamic Greek forces have demographically coalesced. Thus when the Greeks of Oakleigh indulge in their glendi, one of the key events of the Graeco-Victorian calendar, they do so with an infinite amount of joie vis a vis their own collective and particular vivre. That is to say, they take great delight not only in celebrating their own Greekness but also making that sense of identity manifest within the framework of a multiethnic polity. The Oakleigh Greek Glendi thus constitutes a powerful manifesto of the role we believe we occupy as an ethno-cultural entity within Australia.
It is for this reason that the recently updated Oakleigh Glendi logo has caused consternation within sections of the community. The word “Greek” which hitherto was prominent is excised and underneath the words Oakleigh Glendi can be found the qualifying words “Food, Music and Culture.” What can we read into such a ‘re-branding and in particular what if anything is significant about the deliberate (if it is such) discarding of the ethnic identifier ‘Greek’?
One should note from the outset that the loss of ethnonyms from the title of festivals should not necessarily be deemed as an attempt to resile from the culture of their organisers. The long running Lygon Street Fiesta, never contained the word Italian in its title yet there was absolutely never any doubt in the minds of attendees, as to the ethnic provenance or character of its organisers. Similarly, the Antipodes Festival, now known as Lonsdale Street Glendi has never contained the word “Greek” within it and yet there can be no mistake about it being the peak Greek cultural festival of Melbourne. That Glendi’s recent name change can be distinguished from the Oakleigh one by reference to the fact that Antipodes is actually a word employed in English as a fancy way of saying “Down-Under” whereas by its renaming, the whole Lonsdale precinct, the historical heartland of the Greek community is being showcased and celebrated within that Festival.
Like Fiesta but even more so, the word Glendi in and of itself denotes the ethnic group to whom the language belongs. In this manner it could be argued that the inclusion of the word “Greek” is a pleonasm and its removal makes good syntactic sense. On the other hand, the removal of the word Greek from a Glendi that can be mistaken as nothing else than Greek seems to many to be superfluous, an unnecessary act within which is encrypted a great deal of uneasiness either about the way we see ourselves or how we believe others see us within the multicultural paradigm.
Many have posited that the removal of the word can be linked to a desire to make the festival more accessible to other members of the community. If this is so, one must ask why it is felt that the retaining of the word Greek inhibits the participation of others in multicultural activities. Indeed, what does this say about the way contemporary multiculturalism operates, if the very terms employed to denote the various cultures that comprise the multicultural construct become causes for intimidation and exclusion rather than inclusion? Furthermore, assuming that this is the rationale for the word “Greek’s” removal from the festive diptychs, what representations or prevailing societal indicators could caused the organisers to feel that by stating their ethnicity, they were actively or passively alienating other Australians?
As a corollary, various Oakleigh Greeks speculate that the name change is being made at the request of government funding bodies, in the interests of fostering “inclusion” and “diversity.” There appears to be no means by which to verify such speculation. If it is correct, then possibly we are witnessing an important waypoint in the development of Australian multiculturalism; its evolution from a mosaic, in which all self-contained and self-proclaimed cultures in and of their own right are autonomous tesserae within a broader picture, to that of a melting pot, where the vital ingredients of each culture are dissolved and melded into something new and unrecognisable in the quest for social cohesion. As such, do we therefore proceed to rebrand the Chinese New Year Festival simply the New Year Festival in the interests of homogeneity, or is it a case that while within the melting-pot, all cultures assimilate, some assimilate quicker and better than others?
The Chinese New Year Festival forms an interesting parallel because here, the ethnic identifier does exclude the other south Asian nations that also celebrate that festival from acknowledgment. In this case, then, rather than making statements about our own identity, are we in actual fact conforming to unconsciously accepted stereotypical expectations of the dominant culture as to how our own ethnic and cultural expressions shall be manifested. The Oakleigh Glendi logo is a case in point. The ancient-like font employed much like Chinese character-like English font, employed in the relevant marketing paraphernalia conveys a sense of Hellenism to the non-Greek viewer. As mentioned previously, the Festival is physically and semantically underscored by the triad: “Food, Music and Culture.” (In years past the underlying buzzwords were “Unity through Diversity”). The triad’s order possibly is not coincidental, as it is provender, followed by the aural apparition of the muses, rather than an appreciation of the history, mentality or other important characteristics of a people, that are cited by the dominant culture as the key methods according to which they can appreciate the existence of other ethnicities. If marketing is the means by which the purveyor may find a common language with which to entice the consumer then certainly it will be the consumer who will dictate the manner in which the merchantable entity is conveyed. Possibly the same applies to the removal of the word Greek. As one critic mentioned somewhat acerbically:
“Terms like "inclusiveness" and "diversity" are a one way cultural current, and have always been: an attempt to please a bunch of appropriating plunderers who want to feel less guilty about their position of cultural dominance by stuffing their gaping bearded maws with loukoumades and embracing our lowly provincial rustic earthy culture with their arrhythmic dancing.”
As an aside, it has been suggested that ensuring that the Festival is given no ethnic name is but a marketing gimmick by the homonymous No Name Greek restaurant, though of course, we can give this highly imaginative conspiracy theory short shrift.
Quite possibly all or none of the abovementioned considerations inform the decision of its organisers to divest the Oakleigh Glendi’s title of the word “Greek.” Nonetheless, that decision has caused ripples of disquiet throughout a community that is very sensitive about the way it is perceived as well as how it constructs those perceptions in turn. Whatever the motivation behind the dehellenisation of the title of the Oakleigh Glendi, one this is certain, where there is a Glendi, there are reveling Greeks, keen to unselfconsciously project their identity through the haze of the expected souvlaki smoke, amidst the cadences of the klarino or the laouto, over the rooftops of Oakleigh and beyond, proclaiming to all Melburnians, named or not, the vital zest, earthy compassion and elemental harmony that is at the core of what it is to be a Greek. And like all elemental forces, they defy description.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 July 2016