Saturday, August 13, 2016
I am unsure as to when I precisely learned that the Greek word ρουφιάνος had dual meaning, one innocuous, the other anodyne, but I believe my epiphany came in my first year of Greek school. Our newly arrived teacher from the motherland was inquiring as to our fathers’ professions, having assumed of course, that our mothers were not possessed of same. This was an easy question to answer, since my grandmother had already apprised me of the fact that my father was an εντζιουνίας and therefore, I enthusiastically imparted this knowledge to my educator. Having spent ten minutes upbraiding me and the entire Greek-Australian community for my Gringlish, she moved in to the next boy in class. Quoth he enthusiastically, ᾽Κυρία, ο μπαμπάς μου είναι ρουφιάνος.᾽
- Τι; She exclaimed in horror.
- Ρουφιάνος, κυρία. Φτιάχνει ρούφια.
During the next quarter of an hour, through which our teacher cursed our collective Vlach ancestry and our manslaughter of the beautiful Hellenic tongue, I was finally able to make sense of my aged uncle’s mutterings when they collected at γιορτές and relived times past. According to them, there were many ρουφιάνοι, during the Κατοχή. Now I knew why. Obviously many bombs were dropped upon the homes of the hapless Greek people during the war, requiring an army of skilled ρουφιάνοι in order to render them water-tight once more. In my youthful eyes, the ρουφιάνοι were therefore as heroic as the women of Pindus who lugged ammunition to the soldiers up sheer cliff faces.
There seemed however to be a preponderance of ρουφιάνοι in our local community, because all the older Greeks I knew seemed to consider most of the people they knew, either as ρουφιάνοι, or as τομάρια, which according to my limited understanding, had something to do with hides and leather. For this reason, it took me a long time to make an auricular connection between the word ρουφιάνος and ruffian, which in fact are derived from the same Italian word: ruffiano, meaning a pander or a pimp. From the fifteenth century onwards, this word was introduced into English and gradually came to signify a boisterous, brutal fellow, capable of committing any crime. In Greek, its sense remained extremely close to the original Italian from whence it came.
My uncles’ ρουφιάνοι, were neither brutal, nor boisterous. They were the sly, slimy, insidious creatures who ratted on their friends and family’s activities and political beliefs, first to the Nazis and then to the government of the day. As a result of their denunciations, many Greeks lost their lives, while thousands of others were exiled, or denied the employment of their choice, and indeed any prospect of career advancement, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Indeed, many prospective migrants to Australia were forbidden from emigrating until they had formally renounced the political ideas, which according to the ρουφιάνοι, they espoused, in humiliating ceremonies of abjuration.
Unbeknownst to me however, was the fact that in some cases, the relocation to Australia did not necessarily mean putting the ρουφιάνοι and all that they stood for behind them. Instead, for many Greeks, the Civil War was not over and continued to be fought in various ways, cleaving our community in two, as Greek consular authorities sought if not to dictate to Greek migrants what manner of political and social convictions were acceptable, at least to classify them in terms of ‘loyal’ and ‘disloyal.’ In an era where mainstream Australia was terrified of the existence of reds lurking under the bed, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Greek consular authorities shared with the relevant Australian bodies, details as to which Greek migrants they considered to be subversive, that is left-leaning, pro-democracy, or anti-monarchist. As a result of such ρουφιανιές, on the part of the representatives of their homeland, some Greek migrants were denied the right to Australian citizenship for a considerable period of time.
And the source of their epic ρουφιανιά? Why, other Greek migrant ρουφιάνοι of course, who, out of political conviction, coupled with sheer spite, thought nothing of defaming their fellow Greek community members to the consular authorities, as unreliable and dangerous influences. Our own Aussie-Greek ruffians therefore, translated a long-standing tradition of Helladic grassing, upon these Antipodean shores, along with Greek dancing and long-winded poetry.
Enter an elderly gentleman from Northern Greece, who I had the honour of meeting recently. As he related, he has been here since the sixties. Of a particularly enterprising nature, he operated several successful businesses and thus was able to travel to and from Greece on a regular basis, seeking to make improvements to the public amenities of his village as well as to construct various buildings on family land. Somehow, all his efforts, in obtaining the relevant permits were frustrated by the various municipal and prefectural authorities and he eventually abandoned his grandiose plans, returning once more to Australia on a permanent basis.
In the eighties, he suffered immense pangs of homesickness and despite his previous experiences, decided to try to realize his dreams once more. This time, when ensconced deep within the bowels of his prefectural offices, a bored bureaucrat opened a file, read through it nonchalantly and then, uncharacteristically, gave a gasp of shock as his features assumed an almost human expression.
“What is it?” the man asked.
“Is so and so known to you?” the bureaucrat enquired.
“Of course, he is my koumbaro. Why do you ask?” the bewildered man replied.
“A fat lot of a koumbaro he is. According to this file he reported you to the Consulate in Melbourne in the seventies as being a prominent member of the Communist Party, a known communist agitator within the Greek Community of Melbourne and a man of base and suspect morality. See look. His name appears here and this notation is signed by the Greek Consul-General.”
“But I’ve never been a member of the Communist Party. I have never been involved in politics in any way,” the man tried to explain.
“At any rate, that’s all over now, it means nothing,” the bureaucrat shrugged, going on to explain that though the man had come to the correct office, he had not had the appropriate forms stamped by the municipality, so he would have to go back, obtain the forms, re-attend to have them stamped, take them back to the municipality to have them verified and…. “By the way, be careful of your friends. Not that it matters now. We have heaps of files just like this. You should see your faces you Australians…”
Thus through no fault of his own, a person he considered his closest friend, the archetype of the true ρουφιάνο, acting, in a fit of pique, in conjunction with the representatives of the Greek state, in an organized collaborative ρουφιανιά, saw fit to defame him, and ensure that basic rights and freedoms were taken away from him. It is probably for this reason then, that ρουφιάνοι and τομάρια go together.
It is unknown just how many Greek-Australians were unknowing victims of Consular ρουφιανιές, as the evidence for these is anecdotal Certainly it beggars belief that a Consulate-General traditionally renown for being unable to service the needs of the Greek community in anything approaching a timely and professional manner was able to allocate the appropriate time from its commitment to being as inefficient and dysfunctional as possible, in order to methodically indulge in the recording of ρουφιανιές against members of the community. As the Stasi files of East Germany have been made open to those to whom they refer, perhaps, in the interests of history and sociology, Consular authorities could do the same, assuming of course that these exist, or, that they can be found, or that the relevant persons can be bothered retrieving them. Assuming that they are capable of addressing the issue and confirming the existence of such practices, surely an apology, however belated, is in order.
Cretans express a belligerent view of ρουφιάνους in their mantinades, which should now be the motto of our entire community, for though the incentive is gone, the tendency remains the same among some, especially considering the slowly evolving polarization of the Greek people into political extremes: “Ρουφιάνοι να προσέχετε βαστώ καλό τουφέκι, να μην με ρουφιανέψετε σε τούτο 'δω το στέκι.” Sadly, a more realistic approach is that provided by Loudias, who has the final word, in his homonymous 2004 song, Ρουφιάνος: «Εγώ είμαι ο υπάλληλος που ξέρουνε οι πάντες/ Κοιτάζω τους εργάτες αν χτυπάνε τις κάρτες/ Τους βλέπω αν δουλεύουν ή αν ξύνουνε τους όρχεις/Το ρουφιάνεμα είναι ταλέντο, ή το `χεις ή δεν το `χεις.”
First published in Neos Kosmos on Saturday 13 August 2016