Saturday, March 25, 2017


I will never forget the first time I obtained a taste of the famed Kung Fu movie: “The Way of the Dragon.” I was fifteen and chanced to come across the scene where Bruce Lee is fighting Chuck Norris in the Colosseum. The sheer majesty of the ancient edifice, the chiaroscuro interplay of the light between the arches and the galleries as the two masters attempted to harm each other lent the film a palpable Dutch master-like quality. For weeks afterwards, my friends and I, haunted by the incongruity but also the majesty of the conflict in such an iconic place, attempted to recreate it in the playground, to no avail, for we lacked the necessary chest hair which would grant our re-enactment, the requisite verisimilitude, though I do remember feeling slighted at the time, that Bruce Lee was not possessed of the sensitivity and respect for Greek civilisation, to set one of his signature fight scenes, amidst a similarly iconic Greek building, such as the Parthenon, or the OTE Tower of Thessaloniki. The thought of Bruce Lee ripping off Melina Merkouri’s chest hair in front of a restored Parthenon, fully replete with marbles, remains an enduring fantasy, to this day.
It is not as if the Parthenon has not been used for commercial or political reasons before. In 1929, the photographer Elli Sougioultzoglou-Seraidari (known as Nelly’s) published a series of photographs of scantily-clad or nude models frolicking in ancient-pastiche poems between the columns of that temple. At that time, the intellectual Pavlos Nirvanas, defended her actions against accusations of ‘desecration’ of a scared site by saying: ''I see respectable gentlemen sitting around a table, scratching their heads and writing about desecration. Desecration would occur if, in the throes of archaeological enthusiasm, they happened to throw off their clothes on the Parthenon Marbles and pretended to be Hermes of Praxiteles...'' Neo-pagans would be nudists be warned….
Whether it was due to Nelly’s artistic talent, or the public’s inherent voyeuristic tendencies, by 1951, when Christian Dior artfully posed ethereal his models before the Caryatids, bravely inviting comparison, and then, artfully arranged them before the columns of the Parthenon like mid-West prom queens asked to assume the air of an ancient Greek chorus, the populace at large seemed unperturbed.
Given this precedent, the largely adverse and rather indignant Helladic reaction to the news that Gucci has recently sought to use the Parthenon as the setting for a fashion show, for a vast sum of money, appears mystifying. That is, unless one is to infer from the vehemence of the Greek reaction, that the Greek populace know good taste and that Gucci, manifestly does not partake of it. The Greek authorities’ declining of a request to use the Parthenon as a setting for one of those excruciating Bourne Conspiracy, Identity, Inadequacy sequels should also be seen in this light.
Ostensibly mystifying too, is the Orthodox Church of Greece’s weighing into the debate, with its Primate, Archbishop Hieronymos stating his opposition to Gucci’s proposed utilisation of the space, by commenting: “When something is de-sanctified, it is cheapened. And when it is cheapened, it becomes a valueless commodity.” The leader of a church, which, it is common knowledge, does not particularly appreciate pagans, has suffered under their hands, and has persecuted them in turn, (and there are still in effect innumerable church canons prohibiting pagan usages) is, without hesitation, calling what we understand to be a pagan temple/archaeological site, sacred.
From an Orthodox point of view, such an appellation is completely justified however. The Parthenon was converted into a Christian church in the final decade of the sixth century AD, becoming the Church of the Parthenos Maria. It remained as such until 1458, when Athens was conquered by the Ottomans, after which time it operated as a mosque until the liberation of Athens in 1832. Although it is therefore a building sacred to at least three religions, importantly, it cannot be denied that it has been used as a Christian church for longer than anything else in its history.
In “The Christian Parthenon,” Professor Anthony Kaldellis of Ohio State University  reveals that not only was the Parthenon a Christian church for almost a millennium, far from being derided as an unwanted relic of an unsavoury past, it actually became the fourth most important Christian pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine Empire after Constantinople, Ephesos, and Thessalonica. Such was its significance that in 1018, the emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer deliberately embarked upon a pilgrimage to Athens directly after his final victory over the Bulgarians for the sole purpose of worshipping at the Parthenon. In doing so, he followed in the footsteps of the many monks and pilgrims who had gone before him and who have carved their names on the building’s columns and walls. Further, in so doing, his view of the Parthenon unwittingly mirrored that of those who originally constructed it: as a monument for the celebration of a military triumph over “barbarians.”
By the twelfth century, the Panagia Atheniotissa had become famous throughout the Eastern world and also become a foundation for other religious founding myths: According to one story, the miraculous icon of the Theotokos written by Saint Luke and taken to Mount Soumela by the founders of the Panagia Soumela monastery in Pontus, was removed from its original housing, in the Parthenon.
The central importance of the Parthenon in the Christian world defies easy justification. No significant religious events took place in or around it. Instead, Professor Kaldellis argues convincingly, that the Parthenon was “trapped between a discursive Christian element and a non-discursive subliminal supplement that pointed to the monument’s non-Christian background.” In other words, the Byzantines revered the space because it had always been, outstandingly special and sacred and they sought to enshrine that outstandingly special sacredness in their own religious discourse. By doing so, they maintained its importance and cult status according to the manner it had always been regarded.
It would have been easier to understanding the complex and beguiling manner in which the Parthenon has been seen by the Greeks throughout the ages had not, soon after liberation, the Greek authorities decided to strip the Parthenon of all of its Muslim, Venetian and Byzantine accretions, rendering instead, an interpretation of a building that is both anachronistic, and Orientalistic in the Saidian sense, a manifesto, rather than a building, calculated to instil pride in a culture of which the West claims it is the sole inheritor, inducing in all of us Neo-Greeks, an ontopathology of self-loathing and inadequacy far more dysfunctional and disruptive, than the Byzantine experience of appreciation and continuity.
When it comes to the Parthenon and its numerous palimpsests, we are therefore extremely touchy, for we too pick which of our many layers to emphasise or efface. We make our symbols in our image and our symbols make us in theirs. To all intents and purposes, whether we are Christian or pagan, secular or spiritual, a large part of our psyche is enmeshed and interwoven within that glorious marble ruin that crowns the Acropolis, for it is the first image that comes to mind in most, when one evokes Greece. Because we are bonded to it, each in his own way, we are willing to overlook the fact that its existence is owed to the theft of the treasury for the mutual defence of the Greek city states by Athens and is actually, the product of stolen goods, for its beauty, and by corollary, our own, absolves us of our sins. Similarly, any slight, real or perceived, upon the Parthenon, is a slight upon us and is not to be countenanced and it is to this interweaving, rather than the incontrovertible Christian history of the Parthenon, that Archbishop Hieronymos is possibly alluding.
Though I suspect my own psyche would escape unharmed from the aftermath of pre-anorexic girls prowling in impossible clothes than no one can plausibly wear upon a Parthenon proscenium, there is something heart-warming, though unsurprising, in knowing that at this particularly low eddy in the collective Helladic fortunes, the Panhellenium’s pride cannot be bought, and remains intact… except for that part that is housed in the British Museum, that is….
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 February 2017

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I have a theory that one of the reasons one rejects or discards a language, is because that language is an imperfect medium for communication. If one does not possess enough words in a given language to express that which they wish to communicate and need to resort to another language in which they have greater facility to do so, then it is logical to suppose that over time, the language in which the speaker has the larger vocabulary will be preferred over the former, at which time, the former will gradually be discarded.
Within our own community, the absence of “words” primarily stemmed from the socio-economic background of most of the first generation migrants. Coming from a rural background and settling in an urban centre for the first time, those migrants did not possess the vocabulary of the city. They could neither express nor articulate names for consumer goods, trade, or even concepts such as wages, or compensation. The hybrid Greeklish that was subsequently developed to fill in the lacunae, was an admission that their own language, tailored as it was to a completely alien rural reality, was a medium considerably lacking in the ability to address their new environment.
Younger migrants and second generation Greek-Australians also found that their idiomatic Greek was severely limited in being to articulate the school or social experiences of growing up in Australia. The requisite ancestral words simply did not exist in order to discuss the difficulties of growing up, or the issues of the day. Slowly, English, the most accessbile became the preferred medium, for its words for multiple uses abounded and the Greek language receded to where it generally tenuously survives today, the kitchen of yiayia (this apparently is how grandmother is pronounced nowadays in Greek-Australian, with the emphasis on the first syllable).
As a child I remember being bundled into a living room, sardine-packed with relatives, there to watch, what was referred to as an «Ελληνικό Βίντεο». All of us would scour the screen, for this was our tool to Re-hellenisation. Through such videos, I learned that Greeks say εμπρός when answering the telephone, not άλαου, the way my grandmother did, and, thanks to Stathis Psaltis, that a σούζα, was a wheelie. Sadly, under the influence of said videos, I also thought it expedient to ask my teacher, Tamtakos’ question: «Ντου γιου λάικ δε γύφτος Γκρικ;»which earned me a detention, my educator forming the opinion that I was a precocious seven year old making indecent suggestions to her.
Nonetheless, the fact remained that in those days, when communication with Greece was sparing and except for the weekly VHS tape, access to media from Greece was almost non-existent, such small exposures to Greek media as we were able to glean had a powerful effect upon us linguistically. I remember my uncles in the eighties, most of whom had been brought up in Australia, laughing gleefully as they repeated word for word, all of Harry Klynn’s expletives, from one of his comedy tapes, for up until that point, they did not possess the words to swear properly in Greek. At that point, our polite, bourgeois family structure transformed into something earthy and refreshingly robust.
Nowadays, should we choose to be so, we are swamped by Greek media, via cable television, radio or the internet. Nonetheless, in my daughter’s kindergarten class, of the four third generation students of Greek background attending, only one speaks and understands Greek. This, is not only because the parents of the three children choose not to speak to their children in Greek, but also because they themselves lack the skills to express anything more than simple concepts in that language. As a result parents feel uncomfortable and insecure about passing on a medium that they themselves have not mastered.
Yet all is not lost and paradoxically enough, technology can come to the rescue in order to provide children with a linguistic experience in line with the modern urban world, in Greek, that will assist them in supplementing their vocabulary and learning new expressions: Kαρτούνια, as we called them in Greeklish back in the day, more commonly known as κινούμενα σχέδια. For, unlike the days of old when parents would pay large sums to secure Greek DVD’s that would be played to children ad nauseum, there exist on the internet, an inexhaustible supply of Greek language media that young children can be exposed to. Many of these are Greek dubbings of known children’s favourites, such as Peppa Pig, Ben and Holly, Charlie and Lola, Fireman Sam, Thomas the Tank Engine, allow children to seamlessly flit from one language to the other, comparing and contrasting vocabulary, in the manner of a true bilingual.
Animated well known children’s tales, Greek myths, and even tools for teaching the alphabet, by way of jingles and cartoons (the Ένα γράμμα, μία ιστορία series that can be found on youtube is brilliant in this regard) can also be found, so that children can be introduced slowly and gradually to vocabulary and linguistic experiences in an age appropriate manner. Furthermore, in viewing cartoons about Aesop’s fables, or even the well-constructed Zouzounia series of Greek songs for children, the child is being inducted into the traditional world of Greek thought, history and poetry and absorbing cultural references that might otherwise be lost. Of course, all the while they are developing an attachment to Greek culture as something absorbed rather than imposed, imbuing them subconsciously with a profound sense of identity.
Additionally Greece does not belong to the Anglosphere, cartoons dubbed in the Greek language are sourced from a multitude of other countries, such as Germany or Russia, and thus the cartoon experience in Greek actually becomes a multicultural phenomenon, providing for a richer experience than that which would otherwise be offered solely by way of English media.
As a result of my own daughter’s exposure from a young age to Greek language cartoons, (as part of a daily diet of family members speaking Greek to her as well,) she has, at the age of four developed a vocabulary in that language far broader than that which I would have possessed at the age of ten. This is simply because she is, via the medium of television, being exposed to words and expressions that no one around me in my time would have known even existed. Since the amount of media available on the internet is diverse and not repetitive, there is always something else to explore and engage with. All the while, the facility to express any though whatsoever, is being built. Thus quite apart from being greeted each evening with expressions such as: «Ώστε ήρθες απαίσιο τέρας,» I become stumped by questions such as:
- Μπαμπά, τι είναι πίδακας;
- Πίνακας;
Ξέρεις τι είναι πίνακας.
- Τι είναι πίδακας, λέω.
- Είπαμε, πίνακας.
- Όχι μπαμπά, πίδακας.
- Δεν ξέρω μάνα μου.
Εμείς δεν είχαμε τέτοια πράγματα στο χωριό του παππού.
I had to resort to the dictionary to learn that a πίδακας is a spurt or jet of water.
Cartoon Greek language learning does create some idiolectic discontinuities. Even though we understand each other, my daughter does not speak the way I do. At home, among my family, I make of use my father’s regional dialect, replete with its idiomatic expressions. My daughter’s accent and expressions on the other hand are modern Athenian, signifying how a linguistic spoken tradition can, through various influences, in this case, the fact that Greek cartoons invariably utilize the Greek of the capital, come to an end.
Greek cartoons, carefully selected, though valuable in introducing children to a diverse Greek linguistic world and supplementing words, expression, attitudes and customs that we may not know of or have forgotten, will only get us so far, however. For if the opportunity to practice and interact with others in the language, as a language of daily life, does not exist, then sooner or later that language will again be discarded, not as an imperfect but as an irrelevant medium. Utility therefore is key and March, the month in which we all speak Greek, is as good a place as any, to start putting words in our children's mouths. In the words of PJ Masks, dubbed in Greek as «Πυτζαμοήρωες,» έτοιμοι για δράση!

First published in NKEE on 11 March 2017

Saturday, March 04, 2017


“What?” the incensed Ελληναρού spluttered, her heaving chest encased in a tight fitting Nikos Kazantzakis “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free,” souvenir T-shirt purchased in Santorini, her Sue Sensi bedecked arms jangling wildly with various Ottoman inspired charms, all the colour of the Aegean sea. “I’m telling you that we gave the world democracy and you are telling me that in the same way we gave the world democracy, we also gave them twerking? Are you serious? There is nothing worse than a self-hating Greek.”

There actually is, and that is an uncontrolled gesticulator with the propensity to make grandiose, sweeping hand-gestures that result in the toppling of their frappe and the latitudinal dispersal of its contents. I abjure the frappe, considering it a western perversion (even though it is not;  it was invented at the Thessaloniki International Trade Fair in 1957 by a Nescafe representative named Dimitris Vakondios), so the Ελληναρού, σβαρνήsied (her word, not mine) her own frappe and my βαρύγλυκο, across the table, mingling it into a pleasing viscous mélange of the old, the new, the traditional and the invented.

“And anyway,” she continued, flecks of saliva foaming at the corners of her deep-red painted lips (“Do you like this colour,” she had asked. “It’s called ‘Vixen,’) as I proceeded to mop up the contents of her wrath. “Miley Cyrus invented the twerk. And she is no way near to being Greek. If anything, her name sounds Persian and everyone knows that the Persians are the ancient enemy of the Greeks. Who invented democracy? Abraham Lincoln? No it was Democritus. But like everyone else, you’ve been taught to deny your own heritage by the Judaeo-Christians who destroyed the pure Greek civilization. If we are going to survive as a people, we need to regain the glory of the ancient Greeks.”  Pausing, she reached into her burgundy Callista leather hand-bag, purchased last summer in Mykonos and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. Now in the first fabulous years of our friendship, the Ελληναρού, was a committed non-smoker. However, her first trip to the Greek islands and her rapid conversion to Neo-hellenism has led her to espouse the constant quoting of Hatzigiannis lyrics (no doubt to fumigate the mind), and the lighting of cigarettes (to fumigate the soul) as rites intrinsic to the preservation of the purity of the modern Hellene from the ersatz variety. She took a deep drag and sighed with exasperation. Είχε ντέρτια η κοπέλα.

I felt it would be impolite to refute my interlocutor’s claim as to the origins of democracy. After all, had not sundry members of the Greek Democritus League over the years also strenuously maintained to me that said club was named thus because Democritus invented Democracy? (He didn’t. He, along with his teacher Leucippus formulated the atomic theory of the universe). And in any event, in English-speaking liberal democracies, whose political system has evolved slowly but surely from the witenagemots and local assemblies of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking rulers, forged through feudalism, Magna Carta, Oliver Cromwell’s rebellion and the Glorious Revolution, rather than from any direct inspiration from an Athenian polis democracy that did not even last a century, it seems trite and hyperbolic to become riled up about the self-evident. (We antipodeans are complaisant like that. No insecurities about democracy here. More than happy to export it to the Middle East and the Maghreb and let everyone share the love).

Twerking though, is quite another thing entirely. For one, it is an activity around which I harbor surprisingly strong emotions. I cannot sit idly by and allow anyone, Ελληναρού or no, to ascribe its invention to the unspeakable, though evidently not unshakeable, Miley Cyrus. For Miley did not invent the twerk, neither did JLo, Shakira, Rihanna nor even the limber Fergie and anyone who makes such spurious claims cannot count themselves among the philhellenes. While it has been associated with West African traditional dances, specifically a style known as the ‘Mapouka,’ and most likely came to the American continent through the transplantation of those dances, in actual fact, the twerk has its origins in the ancient Hellenic homeland in which my Ελληναρού  friend feels, salvation lies.

According to some, the twerk has its origins in the kordax, a provocative, licentious, and often obscene mask dance of ancient Greek comedy, with similar moves as twerking. In his play The Clouds, for instance, the master comedian Aristophanes complains that other playwrights of his time try to hide the feebleness of their plays by bringing an old woman onto the stage to dance the kordax, much as B-grade film directors of the sixties and seventies filled the plot holes in their sword and sandal epics with equally suggestive exotic dancers. Aristophanes, on the other hand, notes with pride that his patrons will not find such gimmicks in his plays. Rather than being hyptonised by the rhythmic undulations of buttocks, he expects his audience to actually pay attention to his finely crafted instances of anal humour. Phat chance.

Not only did the Ancient Greeks invent twerking but, my angry at the world Ελληναρού was incredulous to learn, they also had twerking competitions, which makes sense when one considers what a competitive bunch the ancient Greeks actually were. In his "Letters of Courtesans" second century AD author Alciphron relates how one such twerking contest took place and precisely in which spirit connoisseurs were supposed to savour the game: "But the thing that gave us the greatest pleasure, anyhow, was a serious rivalry that arose between Thryallis and Myrrhina in the matter of buttocks—as to which could display the lovelier, softer pair. And first Myrrhina unfastened her girdle (her shift was silk), and began to shake her loins (visible through her shift), which quivered like junkets, ((which is the direct ancestor of the pertinent to the art of twerking phase “junk in one’s trunk.’))  while she cocked her eye back at the wagglings of her buttocks. And so gently, as if she were in the act, she sighed a bit, that, by Aphrodite, I was thunderstruck. Thryallis, nevertheless, did not give up; on the contrary she outdid Myrrhina in wantonness. “I certainly am not going to compete behind a curtain,” said she, “nor with any affectation of coyness, but as if I were in a wrestling match; for the competition brooks no subterfuge.” So she put off her shift; and, puckering her croup a little, she said, “There now, look at the colour, how youthful, Myrrhina, how pure, how free from blemish; see these rosy hips, how they merge into the thighs, how there’s neither too much plumpness nor any thinness, and the dimples at the tips. ((Again the direct ancestor of the Missy Elliot ‘Work it’ lyrics: “See my hips and my tips, don't ya,/ See my ass and my lips, don't ya.”)) But, by Zeus, they don’t quiver,” said she with a sly smile, “like Myrrhina’s.” And then she made her buttocks vibrate so fast, swaying then-whole bulk above the loins this way and that with such a rippling motion, that we all applauded and declared that the victory was Thryallis’s."

A great and resounding silence ensued after I expounded the above, especially upon the revelation that even the seemingly innocuous word orchestra, is sexually charged, come from the world ὀρχοῦμαι, meaning to dance, but literally, to swing one’s genitals, presumably, while dancing. The Ελληναρού’s painstakingly plucked eyebrows were furrowed, her cigarette, still in one hand, had burned to ashes, while with the other hand, she nervously examined her split ends. All of a sudden, all that she had been taught to think of as imposed, decadent, oriental and inimical to the identity of a cool, rational and noble ancient Greek had been found to emanate from the source of her pantheon. Fearing that I had committed a crime tantamount to revealing to children that Santa Claus is not real, I haltingly went on to state that some pundits consider that the kordax can be compared with the modern Tsifteteli. It was at this point that those vixen lips parted into a dazzling smile. Flicking her hair back, she twittered happily, “ I knew the tsifteteli wasn’t Turkish. Thank God! No more guilt trips! Just wait until I tell the parea at Kinisi…..”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 March 2017