Saturday, June 15, 2024

EXILES

 


It was while driving to one of the outer suburbs in order to visit a client, marvelling at the extraordinary spread of the urban conglomeration that is our city, narrowly dodging a kangaroo that bounded across the road, and admiring all the MacMansions dotting the horizon, gleaming white like teeth in the cranium of a dead man, registering surprise at the one proudly flying a PAOK flag from its balcony, that I recalled the verses of Constantine Cavafy’s poem, “Exiles.”

“It goes on being Alexandria still.

Just walk a bit along the straight road that ends

at the Hippodrome

and you will see palaces and monuments

that will amaze you.”


I have similar feelings while walking down Lonsdale Street, which is never the Lonsdale Street of today, but the one in which Antipodes restaurant, where I would sit for hours over a bowl of avgolemono soup discussing Greek current events with friends and passersby, is open for business, a mushroom cloud of tobacco smoke is billowing from inside Medallion Café, smiling students are cascading down the stairs of the RMIT Greek Centre, elderly members of the community are shuffling towards Hermes Travel Agent, in faux protest at the fact that they are being somehow forced to book flights for a six month stay in the motherland, and the same customers, clutching their bank-books tightly and looking around nervously are walking into Laiki Bank in order to ascertain how much interest their bank balance has earned them since yesterday. In those days, it took a good half hour to walk from the Russell Street end to Swanston Street, on account of all the people one would meet along the way. Now, the walk is markedly brief in duration, and yet:

 

“Whatever war-damage it has suffered,

However much smaller it has become,

it is still a wonderful city.”

 

I am able to point to the exact spot where I stood twenty years ago, when spontaneously everyone rushed to Lonsdale Street in order to celebrate Greece’s victory in the European Cup. The next day, I took my books and my files with me and spent the day working from Medallion, intermittently glancing up at the television screen in order to observe the interminable long triumphal procession of the bus conveying the victorious Greek team from the airport to the centre of Athens, stopping only to answer the questions of other dozing denizens such as: “What are you reading?” and “How do you see the future of the Greek community.”

 

“And them, what with excursions and books

And various kinds of study, time does go by..”

 

These at least have not faded with time. Open social media, or consult the print media and one will find a plethora of announcements and advertisements for plays, lectures, wreath laying ceremonies, and other cultural events. Their quantity seems to have increased with time, even as the number of attendees decreases. One attends and greets the same people as last time. The elderly among them shrug their shoulders: “Eh, we came to pass the time. Δεν βαριέσαι, it gives us something to do. I haven’t seen so and so for a long time. Do you think he is ok? Strange that he is not here. He always used to come.” The interstitial time loop we appear to be trapped in is set at one minute before the end. We attend and augment our knowledge and out studies time and time again, believing always that this time, may be the last.

 

“In the evening we meet on the sea front,

the five of us (all, naturally under fictitious names)

and some other Greek of the few still left in the city.”

 

One can only carry with them throughout their life a sense of ennui about the fact that they use their baptismal name and the proper Greek version of their surname as a pseudonym, while an Anglicised bastardisation of both is registered as an “official” name. Nonetheless, we sit, my friends and I, of diverse interests and walks of life, united only in the metamorphosis of our names and our propensity to converse with each in Greek in Port Melbourne, ruminating over inherited memories of ships arriving at these shores, spilling our collected ancestors on the quayside. The eldest among us remind us of a time when Greeks abounded in the area. Their traces are still there, behind walls and closed doors, at the pharmacies and the supermarkets, if you look closely, if only cared to look.

 

“Sometimes we discuss church affairs

(the people here seem to lean towards Rome

and sometimes literature.

The other day we read some lines by Nonnos:

what imagery, what diction, what rhythm

And harmony!”

 

Among us is what can only be described as an Orthodox fundamentalist. According to him, we are all papists because apparently the Patriarch and all who serve him are in thrall to Rome, which as we all know is a harbinger of the Antichrist and a sign of the End Times. Another of our brethren, though Orthodox, has had his children received into another denomination so as to ensure their continued enrolment in their local high school, which matters not, since its all the same and the differences between the rival franchises all revolve around money anyway. We shy away from discussing the key players of the day, because it is urgent that the Monophysite controversy be resolved in our lifetime.

 

When we do read literature, we argue to what extent literary works written by Greeks in English can be considered “Greek.” We engage in disputation as to whether it is the cultural constructs imposed by the dominant ethnic group in our country that inform the manner in which the narratives of ethnic minorities such as our own are created or whether they are an authentic expression of the communities from which they have arisen. Nonnos, a native of Panopolis absorbs us as he did Cavafy, not only because like us, he was born in a region that marks the southernmost extremity of Hellenism in his day, but also because he wrote what is possibly the last great epic of late antiquity, the Dionysiaca, consisting of 48 books at 20,426 lines in Homeric Greek and thus looms large as a powerful terminal point, or at least as a Metabole, which coincidentally is the title of his poetic paraphrasing of the Gospel of Saint John, into an entirely different age.

 

“So the days go by, and our stay here

is not unpleasant because, naturally,

it is not going to last forever.

We’ve had good news: either something

is afoot in Smyrna, or in April

our friends are sure to move from Epirus.

So one way or another, our plans are

definitely working out,

And we’ll easily overthrow Basil.”

 

Scholars tend to agree that Cavafy set his poem in an Alexandria that had ceased to be dominated by the Greeks, was Arab-ruled and in which Greek cultural influence, was waning. It is a topos of decadence and of decline. The exact historical period still invites argument, with some contending that it is set early in the reign of Basil I of the Macedonian dynasty, a few years after he murdered the Emperor Michael, around the time of the Photian schism, hence the reference to Rome, around twenty years after the Arab conquest of Egypt. This Alexandria then, would still have retained its Greek cultural characteristics, even as they would begin to erode under the city’s new rulers, and the exiles’ admission that life is not too bad would make sense since they were able to live a similar lifestyle as that to which they were used to at “home,” can thus be paralleled by newly arrived members of our own community whose exile from the motherland is softened by the commonalities in the elements of life style within our portion of the Diaspora.

Other scholars contend that the poem in fact is set in the 1330’s during the reign of Basil of the Empire of Trebizond, the mentions of Smyrna and Epirus referencing the time after the Latin sack of Constantinople in 1204 which resulted in the emergence of three rival versions of Byzantium, the Empires of Trebizond and Nicaea, as well as the Despotate of Epirus. Basil purged high ranking nobles from his court, hence the possible need for exile.

Viewed from this perspective, the exile seems gratuitous and far-fetched. The exiles could have easily escaped to a closer successor kingdom, to Georgia, or to the West. Instead, they have deliberately chosen to settle in one of the furthest and at that time, culturally most foreign to them, regions of their world. One cannot help thinking that this is a self-imposed exile, that its rigours and sadnesses actually bring pleasure and that there is a masochistic element to Cavafy’s sarcasm of all of those who maintain that they are compelled to live on the margins but would never tear themselves away from them, when the right opportunity arises. Nostalgia, the pain of desiring a return is the opposite of what seems to be happening here. Rather, this is Nostophilia, when the desire for return, with all of its exquisite contradicitions, brings pleasure.

 

My own grandmother’s intention was to remain in Australia for five years, work hard and then return to her village. She never did, even though her entire mental world continued to revolve around that village until the day she died. One of our brethren, not able to endure the prospect of dehellenisation, resolved to abjure his comfortable lifestyle, return to his parents’ village, enlist in the army and then carve a life out for himself among his own people. He lasted a month.  As for me, who in my youth contrived time and time again to seek out opportunities to relocate to Greece, a country my father does not remember, only to pull back at the last minute, I eke out my existence, entrench my realities in a language that is ceasing to be spoken, ensconce myself in the sweet pleasures of the books and poems of my exile and bide my time awaiting the overthrow or the overcoming of all our fears, anxieties and neuroses. For as Cavay reveals in his last line: “And when we do, at last our turn will come.”

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU

kalymnios@hotmail.com

 

First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 June 2024

Saturday, June 08, 2024

IN THE STASIS CHAMBER: THE TERMINAL DECLINE OF MODERN GREEK STUDIES


In the building hopefully accompanying these words, over the course of three years, Anna Chatzinikolaou, lecturer in Modern Greek Studies at Melbourne University, changed my life and that of all my classmates, forever. Through her, we learned that Modern Greek was not just the conjugation of verbs in a plethora of tenses, nor was it an arcane field of study with little relevance to the modern world, but rather, a singular stance and perspective on life itself and we were infused and enthused with her devotion to it.

Entering her bolt-hole of an office, crammed with stacks of books that appeared as if they were ready to topple over her and us, enveloping us with their words, we could not tell whether she or those tomes, formed the underlying, fundamental state or substance that supported all of her reality.
Anna Chatzinikolaou taught us to accept nothing, think critically, engage in microscopically close reading with the precision of a demented Nordic surgeon but to embrace everything, «για εύλογους λόγους», as she used to quip with an enigmatic grin. This is the reason why instead of indulging in the usual pursuits that absorb the attention of newly emancipated university students, we could be found huddled together between lectures, deconstructing Eggonopoulos’ surrealist masterpiece “Bolivar,” and trying to make sense of his cryptic expostulation: «Μπολιβάρ, είσαι ωραίος σαν Έλληνας», reciting Ritsos’ “Moonlight Sonata” in the most stentorian tones possible or attempting to write an absurd play in the style of Giorgos Skourtis’ «Οι Νταντάδες».
Always animated, always ready to give of herself and share her knowledge, Anna was and remains, the guardian angel of Greek letters in Melbourne. When non-Greek students studying Greek who had won scholarships to study in Greece could not afford the airfare, she would pay those fares out of her own pocket. Unlike some other Greek "academics" who viewed their vocation as a source of profit, Anna's approach to her profession was imbued with conviction and she gave selflessly of herself.
Some of her students reciprocated by singing songs under her window seeking lyrical extensions for assignments. Others, by inducting her into their homes and hearts. The fact remains that at least two generations of Modern Greek tertiary students emerged from her capable hands, ready and able to engage with the Hellenic World. Many of those have made lasting contributions to the Greek community and the broader Greek world.
In a society that worships the new and makes a cult of the now, in a Greek-Melbournian community that has effectively abandoned its erstwhile conviction in the principal of quality Greek language tertiary education, in favour of gimmicks, stunts and slogans, it is easy to forget people like Anna.
But we should not. Without people like Anna, our community, even in its decline, would undoubtedly not be a tenth of what it is. Nor would we, her many students. It is the height of folly that we have living among us, such gifted individuals and, in the self-satisfied torpidity of our community’s winter, are unable, unwilling or indifferent to harnessing their powers for our benefit.
In the Deisis Iconostasis of Greek tertiary education, on the left-hand side, sits Anna Chatzinikolaou, holding in her arms, her students. On the right, sits Professor Vrasidas Karalis, wearing a hair shirt and yelling: «Μετανοείτε», to the ingrates who have forgοtten or do not appreciate their invaluable contributions to our life and learning.
This is because, for all of my effusiveness, I did not go on to engage in post-graduate studies in Modern Greek. Granted, I poured all my love and passion into the study of the subject, even attending lectures after the completion of my degree, but I did so from having the privilege of studying a double degree, and I commenced my professional career in the law immediately after my graduation.
For all their genuine love for Modern Greek, none of my classmates went on to higher studies in the field, except for the stalwart Steffie Nikoloudis who is now charged with steering the LaTrobe Modern Greek Language Programme through troubled waters with singular success. While some went on to become distinguished academics in other fields, the general consensus was that while life-changing, one could not make a viable living as a scholar of Modern Greek, all the tertiary teaching positions being largely taken with limited scope for further study. There existed no scholarships or bursaries or foundations (except for one whose collapse was spectacular) which could support a new graduate while undertaking research and within our own community, one which prided itself when I first entered university on having Modern Greek taught at five of the state’s tertiary institutions, there seemed to have been little thought given to the viability of the programmes it had fought so hard in the seventies to introduce, or indeed their relevance to Greek-Australians in general. Considering that most of us do not have the luxury of engaging in tertiary study purely for pleasure, it is not unreasonable to assume that students will choose a field of study that will actually facilitate earning them a decent living, rather than occupying the deepest darkest recesses of the Retreat, pining over the demise of Apodimi Kompania and the manner in which the Athens Polytechnic Generation sold out, while seeking a life partner whose father was a successful builder and owned a number of investment properties in Malvern East.
When I first entered university in the mid-nineties, like many other Greek-Melbournians, I had previously chosen to study Modern Greek in years 11 and 12. The work was challenging, as it was assumed that we had a proficiency in the language but many who would otherwise not have chosen the subject did so because it was widely known that credits existed for the language that would enabled one to boost their tertiary entrance rank. These incentives no longer confer advantage to such extent, and most community secondary education facilities have by and large failed in the task of having their students achieve a standard of Modern Greek sufficient for them to undertake academic studies in the field, even if a future for them existed in it. Thus, there is limited opportunity for secondary educational institutions to feed students into Modern Greek studies programmes to any meaningful extent, especially considering that less than two hundred students studied the language at VCE level in Victoria in 2023.
For reasons pertinent or not, we as a community, have turned our backs on the Modern Greek language and for all our bluff and bluster, can conceive no practical use in its academic study. is axiomatic that administrators of tertiary institutions would eventually realise this and in a field where education is business, seek opportunities for profit elsewhere. If anything, we should marvel that we lasted this long, in no small part due to the superhuman efforts of visionaries such as Anna Chatzinikolaou and others like her.
Dr Patricia Koromvokis, Lecturer in the Modern Greek Studies Program at Macquarie University is another such visionary. One can read with interest about her work in developing and implementing impactful initiatives and international collaborations that showcase innovation in the field of humanities, teamwork, critical thinking, and effective communication skills with various stakeholders to promote the role of the Greek language in the diaspora and to build long-lasting academic bridges between Greece and Australia. Or one can feel, in the timbre of her voice and her intense gaze when she talks about her students just how passionately, how fervently she loves the Modern Greek Language. Dr Koromvokis’ work up until now, especially her superhuman efforts to stop the inevitable and to make lasting contributions to the development of her students has been supported by a community Foundation, but even that has not been sufficient to deter Macquarie University from announcing that the programme, along with the teaching of Italian, Russian (the language of a world power) and Croatian will be discontinued.
There is no point lamenting over the demise of something we have no use for. Our modus operandi in this regard is pitifully always the same: Rally around each other, engage in intense lobbying in order to save any given Modern Greek Studies programme, and then, having achieved a temporary stay of execution, publish a photo of the main protagonists in the local media, and promptly forget all about it, until the next crisis. As successful capitalists, some of us may even turn our hand at funding the maintenance of collections of archives, holy relics of Greek programmes long gone, and which no one ever studies, for the prestige this confers upon us. What we seem to desire then, is not a vibrant, dynamic academic component to our community, but rather a form of stasis, with Modern Greek studies arrested just before the point of death, in the hope that at some time in the future, the knowledge will exist to thaw it out and cure it of its ills, whilst we wear its existence, after Brezhnev, as a medal upon a moribund uniform and promote it as an community achievement.
Let us honour and remember the contributions of our academic luminaries who raised our expectations and excited our aspirations. Let us lament the demise of Modern Greek from Macquarie and wherever else it is scheduled to expire. The certainties of the world in which it was possible to entrench Modern Greek within the Australian tertiary sphere no longer exist. Instead, considering that the generations that will come after us will possibly not have the opportunities that we foolishly took for granted, let us engage in true debate and soul-searching as we explore collaborations and seek alternate ways to support students passionate about the Modern Greek language and culture in Australia. If, at least, that is what we truly want.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@gotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Saturday 8 June 2024

Saturday, June 01, 2024

INTO THE MOONLIT VILLAGE – THE BATTLE OF CRETE



Austrian historian Robert Musil has observed that “there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument.” Despite their intended purpose to commemorate, memorial artworks and monuments often have a brief period of relevance before their explicit significance fades, leaving them as mere landmarks, decorations or conceits. Art of this nature is designed to prompt viewers to remember; however, it frequently becomes forgettable or even invisible. This tendency for commemorative art to lose its impact over time can be attributed to various factors, such as conflicting agendas, collective decision-making, and compromised artistic vision. It is also plausible that the act of forgetting is an inherent aspect of commemorative art, serving as a form of built-in obsolescence.


Commemorative art aims to ensure that we remember an important event or person by depicting an element of that person or event through artistic representation. However, this goal of perpetual remembrance contradicts the natural functions of the human mind. Freud suggested that forgetting is a crucial part of the mourning process, where it is necessary to endure the painful act of remembering, store memories consciously, and ultimately reach a point where forgetting is possible. Forgetting is not a failure of memory but a characteristic that allows people to move forward with their lives. As a physical embodiment of memory, a memorial can support this gradual process by providing a way to revisit the experience of loss in a controlled and manageable manner, with the memorial serving as a container for the memory.
This is how I see the book “Into the Moonlight Village- the Battle of Crete.” It is a piece of commemorative art, in the form of poetry, in English and in Greek translation and visual art, causing us to remember a most important event in our combined Greek and Australian histories, the Battle of Crete.
The poet, Poli Tataraki in seeking inspiration from this epic event, is partaking of a culture of memory that stretches right back to the beginning of the genre, right back when a blind bard sought the help of the Muses to commemorate another epic battle, requesting: “The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird;”
This is thus a very Greek practice and the poet consciously or subconsciously overlays and or positions her poetry within the framework of the classical tradition. The very title itself suggests this: “Into the Moonlit Village,” suggesting a process, a movement into somewhere (whereas the Greek translation «Στο Φεγγαρόλουστο Χωριό» is more ambiguous, στο meaning towards, into but also at – so that connotations of position exist on many levels simultaneously), reminds us that the queen of Crete, Pasiphae (whose name means “Eater of All,” a fitting title for War if there ever was one), wife of the bloodthirsty King Minos, was worshipped on Crete as a Moon Goddess. Consequently, from the outset the poet is connoting that there is something particular primal about war. It is an element, like the titans, which unfortunately is inextricably attached to the Cretan world. The lunar element is one that the poet will return to repeatedly throughout the work. In the poem “In Rethymno” for example, the soldier seeking to evade the “enemy” which “prowls” the earth” is described as lucent, in Greek: «διάφεγγος».
These mythological links exist throughout the work which is interesting because if one reads the poetic and literary responses to the Battle of Crete emanating from the Greek world, references to mythology are few and far between. These works will be in dialogue with the Holocaust of Arkadi, they will reference the continuous and bloody battles for Cretan independence, which as we know came quite late, but they are distinctly light on mythology. It could be argued that the poet’s heavy drawing on Greek mythology reflects a uniquely Australian, or Greek-Australian approach to the Battle of Crete. We know that Greek mythology forms an important component of Western culture and that it is via the complex process of western appropriation of elements of Greek classical culture that support was given for Greece’s aspirations of emancipation and statehood. In the diaspora, the process by which Greek culture is appreciated by the West is also subconsciously absorbed and replicated, replacing other traditional perspectives, or critiqued by, or otherwise informs the writing of Greek Australians.
Manifestly, the poet is very conscious of this process. Evidently, the poet is very conscious of the fact that the event she is trying to commemorate involved not only Cretans in the narrow sense, but also Australians, British and New Zealaders and we can thus conclude that in making use of symbolism derived from Greek mythology, she is consciously endeavouring to find and to utilise a common vocabulary that can be employed as a means of inclusion within her discourse,  reflecting an immensely generous vision.
Thus, Daedalus makes his  appearance in “Daedalus Wept” where the poet contrasts the “long walk down the gangway,” with the tortuous twists and turns of the great inventor’s labyrinth, fraught with danger at every turn, a fitting metaphor for war if there ever was one, but hinting always at the possibility of escape and liberation. Daedalus, of course, the legendary inventor of man-made fight, would have sufficient cause to regret his decision in the light of the Nazi airborne invasion of Crete.
In the poem “In Iraklio,” recourse to mythology is made in order to examine the futility of war and the hubris which characterises those who deign to wage it as aggressors: “As antiquity joins the din….. How many times must Icarus die?” Like the hapless hero of Greek mythology, when the warnings of the wise are not heeded,  tragedy will ensue again and again. Thus the mythologic motif allows the reader to regard the Battle of Crete in a broader anthropological context. The poem is also interesting in the manner in which some of its terms can have different connotations in Greek rather than English. Her use of the term of the “Bull’s eye,” for example, is masterfully ambiguous since we can choose to interpret this as a target or rather as the gaze of the Minotaur, a symbol of the horror of war in popular culture, as evidenced in such paintings as Picasso’s Guernica, also has the same effect, whereas in Greek it also connotes a type of stone.
In “At Phaleron,” a poem inspired by the experience of Melbourne-born Dimitri Zampelis who was killed in action outside Mournies in 1941, it is Minoan history that is employed as a motif to juxtapose the bounty and life-abounding nature of Crete as embodied by “blue dolphins cavorting with fish,” a common decorative motif in the palace of Knossos against the prospect of Hitler assuming the alabaster throne of Minos, a long-gone king of an extinct civilisation. The poignancy here is in the reflection of how many have, as a result, become: “forever lost to the soil of Crete.”
The Angel of Nuremberg on the other hand conflates motifs from the early history of the Greek world with the Old Testament juxtaposing the gender-ambivalent but convivial Lily Prince, being absolutely gorgeous while immured and perpetually parading “in a diadem of peacock feathers” against an Australian who utters his own adopted ceremonial, the haka, before being forced to wrestle with the angel of Death.
“Stragglers in Imvros Gorge,” continues this dextrous and ambiguous historical perspective, describing a Homeric katabasis, via which “soldiers retreating march with ghosts of martyrs…defeated souls in the twilight, following the masses down a canyon,” descend as psychopomps into a labyrinthine psychological Underworld. This is not Elysium, nor is it Paradise but rather an emotional Tartarus from where no escape is apparent and: “hearts will sink.”
The accompanying linocut images by artist Michael Winter may predate the poems by fifteen years but they too, are a product of the artist’s response to his trip to the island and his discussions with its local inhabitants about the wounds left by the Battle of Crete. Nightmarish figures and dismembered shapes in monochrome exist in conversation with Tataraki’s poems, forming visual poetic mediations of their own about the horror, inhumanity but also endemic nature of mankind’s insistence on destroying itself. These are highly emotive works that seek not to portray those involved in conflict as valiant or indeed to dehumanise them unilaterally, as the enemy. For example, the illustration to the poem “Churchill’s Salamander” does not depict the wartime leader as redoubtable “British Bulldog” with his characteristic and by now clichéd Victory Salute. Instead, a dark, faceless figure looms over a group of helmets which, strangely illumined in the moonlight, resemble a heap of skulls such as those depicted in Vasily Vereschagin’s famous anti-war painting: “The Apotheosis of War.”
In the accompanying illustration to the poem “Life Cycle of a Paratrooper,” a spectral, wraith-like soldier looms over a counterpart whose face is transfixed in horror. Although the paratrooper has wings, he is still fixed via ropes, to his parachute which appears to be stuck in a tree, suggesting that for all his fearsomeness, he is merely a marionette, manipulated at the behest of higher, darker, nefarious powers, of which he himself is a victim.
The most absorbing image in the collection in my view, is the companion to “The Angel of Nuremberg.” Two soldiers with distorted faces hold each other. They are mirror images of each other, both white and black, save that the soldier with black wings looms over the prone soldier with the white wings. We cannot tell if he is trying to choke him, cradle him in his arms or both. There is no right or wrong here, enemy or friend. In the topography of Death which Michael Winter’s depicts so starkly, there is no room for Manichaean dualism, for nationalism or ideology. Instead, there is only an omnipresent chiaroscuro Thanatos that saturates the eye until it hurts.
For those seeking further information about the particular events informing the writing of the poems, there is a useful and rather extensive appendix which provides historical information and which augments the reader’s appreciation of both the poet and the artist’s art.
“Where smoke will rise one day, from slaughtered partisans, doused in petrol/ Remember the villages of Kedros/ Remember Gerakari,” the poet enjoins us as Michael Winter’s emaciated and care-worn Promethean phantoms look down upon a landscape as rugged and as long-suffering as there are.
We can do aught else.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
Dean Kalimniou will launch “The Moonlit Village: Into the Battle of Crete” an artistic collaboration between Poli Tataraki and Michael Winters, on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne, the Cretan Brotherhood of Melbourne and the Greek Australian Cultural League on Sunday, 9 June 2024, at 2:30pm at the Greek Centre.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 June 2024

Saturday, May 25, 2024

METROPOLIS v METROPOLITAN: THE TROUBLED TENURE OF THE FIRST ARCHBISHOP OF AUSTRALIA

 


When it was all over and he had returned to his home island of Samos, Metropolitan Christophoros spent his retirement writing and telling all who would listen, tales of his sojourn in a remarkable country beyond the seas. Elderly members of the Samian community in Melbourne remember their childhood including a charismatic and kindly old man who would regale them with stories of a topsy turvy land where the seasons were reversed and strange and wondrous animals reigned. His vivid descriptions of the exotic Australian outback informed my own grandfather’s decision to migrate Australia, just a few years before the Metropolitan’s death.

Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1924, Metropolitan Christophoros stepped on Australian shores, despatched by the Ecumenical Patriarch to lead the emerging antipodean Church. It is fair to say that he exercised an unprecedented fascination upon the Australian media of the time. His arrival in Fremantle on 9 July 1924 was reported on by various news outlets, including regional ones, with the Sun News-Pictorial of Melbourne describing him as: “a tall, commanding figure, liberally bearded, and benevolent of countenance.” The Tweed Daily of Murwillumbah, New South Wales, informed its readers on 11 July 1924 that: “he is first office-bearer of his status in his church, to take up residence in Australia, and comes commended by the Patriarch to the Governor-General.”
From the outset, he enjoyed almost celebrity status among the media. As various mainstream news publications reported on his progress through the country and his rapturous reception by various Greek communities at stops along the way, much was made of his education, his erudition and connections. The Brisbane Courier opined that: “The Archbishop, who has a charming personality, is, among other things, an Oxonian, and his conversation reflects the outlook of a mind broadened by culture in many countries.” The Herald, in Melbourne, on 9 September 1924, informed its readers that: “he was a student for four years at the University of St. Andrew's, Scotland, and passed to the University of Oxford, where he took the degree of Bachelor of Letters. His treatise entitled “Ordination and Matrimony in the Eastern Orthodox Church” earned him warm praise from the Oxford professors, particularly from the famous English critic, Professor Brightman, who published the entire treatise in the Oxford official theological organ.” Indeed, he was the first Greek theologian to graduate from Oxford University since Mitrofanis Kritopoulos in 1630 and upon his graduation, was closely involved in discussions between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the British and American embassies regarding the situation of the Greeks in Cappadocia. He also led missions to complain about Ottoman mistreatment of Orthodox Christians to Serbia and Romania, was appointed on a diplomatic mission to London in 1919 by Eleutherios Venizelos and successfully organised the relief and re-housing of refugees in war-ravaged Serres, where he was appointed bishop. All of these things were reported by the Australian press, with admiration.


Urbane and only slightly oriental, Metropolitan Christophoros was every bit the “venerable and cultured ecclesiastic,” as Perth’s Daily News gushed on the day of his arrival, displaying the first example of the Australian media’s captivation with Orthodox vestments that has continued until the present day: “the distinguished visitor went ashore looking a picturesque figure in the impressive headgear and robe of his high office.” The Herald, in Melbourne, in contrast, was fascinated by his engolpion, writing:  “He wore a large jewelled symbol of his ecclesiastical rank, about four inches long, which glittered with emeralds and rubies. This hung from his neck by a long chain reaching just below his breast. It is not unlike a Mayoral ornament.” On 23 September, the Herald would report that a thief had broken into Evangelismos Church, “apparently under the impression that the crown set with rubies and emeralds, which, is worn by Archbishop Knetes… was kept inside the church.”
As presentable as he was, he was still however, as exotic figure to the local press. On 4 September 1924, Melbourne’s Sun News-Pictorial, in an article entitled: “When Greek meets Greek, Even a Bishop Must Submit to be Kissed,” observed:
“When he stepped from the train countrymen implanted resounding kisses on his bearded features. A porter or two looked on astounded. It was just the Greek way of welcome. To the onlookers it was all Greek.”
From the outset, the Archbishop let it be known that he had grand plans for Australia, with the Herald reporting: “People have been so kind to me since I landed… I feel that I am a kind of ambassador. I shall travel throughout , Australia, establishing churches which shall have a threefold purpose, religious, educational and charitable. They shall make Australia known to my country.”


Despite his sympathetic reception, Archbishop Christophoros was sensitive to the prejudices held by the mainstream towards his people. He had a solution for that too, informing the Herald, in an article entitled “Farms for Greeks:” “I have heard it said that Greeks congregate in your cities, and do not go out on the land. That is true, but there is excuse. My countrymen, as a rule, does not speak English. He clings on arrival to those of his own kin. But already I see a way out, whereby the, Greek will become a producer in this fine land of yours… As soon as practicable, I hope to establish throughout Australasia training farms presided over by Greeks who speak English and are familiar with your ways. To these farms arriving Greeks may be sent, and will receive the necessary training whereby they may go on the land and add to the prosperity of the great country which has received them so kindly.” The farms never eventuated.
Although he was initially welcomed with great fervour by the Greeks of Melbourne, it did not take long for the relationship to sour. Historian Hugh Gilchrist points to a rivalry between the longer established Ithacans and the parvenu Samians as a factor. A further factor would be inability of the local Greek bourgeoisie who employed their fellow Greeks in conditions of wage-slavery, to accept the precedence of another of the running of their communal affairs. The catalyst appears to have been the Archbishop gently correcting the parish priest Eirinaios Kasimatis when he read the wrong gospel reading during the liturgy, causing the priest to seize the Bible from him shouting: “I am not from Ankara – I am from the Ionian Islands.” He would go on to acquire the Greek community newspaper Ethniki Salpinx, from where he would accuse the Archbishop of various misdemeanours.
It did not take long for the matter to end up in the Courts. Prominent Greek community members Panayiotis Lekatsas and Constantine Black issued proceedings against the Greek Community of Victoria in the Supreme Court, claiming that the Archbishop’s appointment was invalid as the Greeks of Melbourne acknowledged only the “free” Church of Greece as their spiritual leaders and not the Ecumencal Patriarchate. The case was widely and extensively reported in the mainstream media, betraying the public’s bemusement at the conflict by such titles as “Greeks At Law” (The Argus 31 March 1925) and it involved some of the greatest legal minds of Australian Jurisprudence, such as Sir Own Dixon, counsel for the Community and the Archbishop, who went on to become Chief Justice of Australia and Sir John Latham for the plaintiffs. Justice Leo Cussen, in adjudicating the dispute, urged the parties to settle their differences, noting: “all Orthodox Churches, including the Autocephalous Church of Greece, recognise the Ecumenical Patriarch as the undisputed head of the Eastern Orthodox Church.”


Perhaps the most lurid description of the case was that which appeared in Labor Call, on 9 April 1925, the official organ of the Political Labor Council of Victoria, which is noteworthy for its excoriation of the litigants, its overtly racist overtones and its lampooning of the Archbishop: “There is a row on in the Greek community in Melbourne, which threatens to become as interesting as a wrestling bout at the Stadium…The parties to the conflagration are Archbishop Knetes, a recent arrival, who was received in great state, paid an officialcall on the G.G., and partook of ice-cream and bananas all round, and the old-established Greek community in Melbourne. It seems that, prior to the arrival of the man with the kink in his name from Turkey (not a very healthy place for a Greek bishop), the religious welfare of the ice-cream and banana merchants was looked after by a gentleman with the simple, childlike name of Ireneos Cassimates, who had been appointed by the Holy Synod—(get off the grass!) One of the first acts of the new archbishop was to remove Mr. Ireneos Cassimates, on the ground that he could not spell his name, and replace him with another reverend with the devastating name of Christoforos Demopoulos. This person was not acceptable to the ancient Melbourne Greeks, so Messrs. Panayottu Lucas and Constanine Black raised the flag of revolution, and now it seems by no means certain that the gentleman who arrived with so much ceremony and ice-cream is an archbishop at all, and there are dark rumours that the two rebels with the above short names are going to prove that he is simply Mr. Knetes, or even Knetes, without the Mr. On the other hand, a number of recent arrivals, headed by Messrs. Pestiferos Stinkopolois and Athanasius Credoforos, are prepared to support the archbishop, and to blazes with the Holy Synod or any other blamed thing.”
In seeking to have the Sydney Community change its Constitution in order to transfer its spiritual allegiance from the Church of Greece to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Archbishop Knetes inadvertently caused a schism, with the Sydney Sun Newspaper of 18 July 1926 gleefully publishing a photo of the Archbishop with his congregation at St Michael's Anglican Hall, in Surry Hills where he was compelled to perform the liturgy after being locked out of the church of Agia Triada, under the title “Greek Cleavage.”
The worst was yet to come. Kasimatis’ smut and slander, with allegations of homosexual practices and indecent exposure, including incidents in Constantinople bath-houses and the Zappeion Gardens in Athens began to be picked up by the tabloids. Four Sydney Greeks began to publicly accuse the Archbishop of sexual misconduct with visiting British Sailor from HMAS Adelaide. On 26 January 1926, the Archbishop issued criminal libel proceedings against the four men and the matter again was followed closely by the Australian media, which reported on the case in detail, employing sensationalist headlines such as “The Conflict of the Greeks. Allegations of a Put-Up Job” (Truth, Sydney February 1926). The same newspaper on 14 February 1926 published a photograph of the Archbishop trying to hide his face from the camera, and considering the court case, a reflection of the fallen state of the Greek people as a whole, writing in purely orientalist style in “Faded Glory that was Greece”: “Ancient Greece, famous in song and story as the birthplace of culture, knew also the troubled times of internecine strife. But civic differences were conducted on a grand scale then, and concerned no less illustrious personages than Pericles, and such like giants of the past. BUT the glory that was Greece is no more ! Only sordid squabbles and recriminations remain to characterise the tattered remnants of a once splendid race. The conflict between the Australian leader of the Greek Orthodox Church and some of his flock which was aired in the Police Court last week indicate that some, at least, of the Hellenic survivors have departed gravely from the standards of their magnificent past.”
The hapless Archbishop’s humiliation, with allegations about his past paraded blatantly in the public forum of the court, was only partly complete when he lost the case, for in turn, his four accusers issued defamation proceedings against him, in which they were successful, the Archbishop being ordered to pay them £500. Soon after, in April 1926 Ecumenical Patriarch Vasileios announced the recall of Archbishop Christophoros, only for this to be revoked in August, after expressions of support from local Greeks and the intervention of the Greek Consul-General in Sydney, Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos. Meanwhile, the Sydney church was still divided and in conflict. Although the Archbishop had proceeded with the construction of the church of Agia Sophia, described as “the first Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the southern hemisphere,”  in September 1927, the Foreign Minister of Greece Andreas Michalakopoulos demanded the Archbishop’s immediate removal, “for the sake of national and ecclesiastical dignity, even if this involves the abolition of the Archdiocese in Australia.”
Soon after, on 15 December 1927, the Archbishop was knocked down by a speeding motorcycle and his skull was fractured. Unbeknownst to him, on the same day, a committee of bishops appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch reported that while no incriminating evidence against him had been found, it would be better for the Church in Australia if the Archbishop was transferred to another position.
Appointed titular Metropolitan of Vizyi in Eastern Thrace, Archbishop Christophoros served in that capacity for only a year, notably attending the coronation of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa in 1929 and retiring to Samos a short while later. Despite his harrowing experiences at the hands of the Australian Greeks, he retained an abiding love of the country, even unsuccessfully petitioning the Ecumenical Patriarch for his return.
As we celebrate this year, the centenary of the arrival of the first Greek Orthodox Metropolitan in Australia, it is worth considering the manner of his reception and his ultimate fate, causing us to reflect upon the ensuing clashes of class, influence, ideology of governance, leadership and vision, that ultimately shaped the Greek communities of Australia.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 May 2024

Saturday, May 18, 2024

ΗΜΕΡΑ ΤΣ ΜΑΔΑΣ


-Δε θα νάρτου αύριγιου στν’ κκλησιά, the old lady, of northern Greek extraction informed her friend after the Saturday liturgy.

- Γιατί καλέ; Αύριο έχει μνημόσυνο, her Peloponnesian friend replied.
- Αύριγιου είνι τσ’ μάδας κι θα μι βγάν’νι όξου.
-Τι; Θα σε μαδήσουν και θα σε βγάλουν έξω; her friend asked, in complete shock.                                                    
All the secular holidays of our adopted homeland generally leave us indifferent, save for the Melbourne Cup holiday and Mother’s Day, which although celebrated on a different date than the rest of the world, has been adopted most enthusiastically by our entire tribe.
All of my close friends are called George and this is deliberate, because I have a very poor memory and uniformity creates ease of reference. George the elder, who is most devout, opines that our adulation of our Mothers is not an adopted Australian custom but one that has its roots deep in our people’s psyche, somehow connected to our deep reverence for the Panayia, and before that, of the various Mother Goddesses of times ancient and obscure. Mother’s Day, in his household, commences in this fashion:
George to his wife: “Happy Mother’s Day love. Thanks for our beautiful family.”
George’s wife to George: “Thanks. Where is my present?”
George: “What present? The kids have got you presents.”
George’s wife: “Yeah, but what about you? Where is your present?”
George: “But you’re not my mother.”
George’s wife (triumphantly): “Finally, after so many years, you’ve got it.”
George the second hails from the shady groves of Elis and he is the apple of his mother’s eye. When stereotyping Greek mothers, he points to stock phrases such as: “Have you eaten? Eat, you are too skinny, Πάρε το μπουφάν γιατί θα κρυώσεις αγόρι μου, and of course «μη σηκώνεσαι, θα σου το φέρω εγώ” to illustrate just how in thrall to their male progeny, they are. He employs these phrases also to indicate that this level of self-negating devotion could never be obtained from a romantic partner, because there is nothing like a Greek mother’s love. George, now approaching his fifth decade, is unmarried and though his mother periodically falls upon her octogenarian feet begging him to find a wife, this pursuit is fraught with danger, for after rising from the floor to sit upon the couch, she informs him that the modern woman is only interested in spending his hard earned money on getting her nails done and will “eat” his, or rather his parents’ periousia. Despite his close relationship with his mother, George is independent. He lives two houses away in a brick veneer home that his father built as an investment and visits his mother only in the evenings in order to eat and provide her with clothes to wash, which is very important for her mental health as she is retired and it is important to remain active. George’s mother is also respectful of boundaries, and will only go over to his once a day to clean, while he is at work.
George the third comes from Northern Greece and laughs derisively at George the second’s description of his filial relationship, considering those from the south soft and dangerously sentimental. In place of the martyr mother, he postulates the monocrat matriarch whose steely visage inspires terror and whose word is law. To this effect, he has compiled a stock decalogue of classic maternal phrases that suggest to us that in terms of parenting, it is the thought, not the delivery, that counts.
1. Ωχ να σ' είχα κάν’ σκατά καλύτερα.
2.Ω ξυλιάσου και ξερώσου.
3. Θα σ' δώκω τα δόντια σ’ να τα φας για στραγάλια.
4. Σήκω μη σε σαβανώσω.
5. Ουι νά κλεινα τα πόδια’μ την ώρα που σι γένναγα.
6. Φάε μη σε φάει η λέπρα.
7. Ντερλίκωνε, μη σι πάρ κι σι σκώς νεφταρσμένο.
8. -Θα το ξανακάνεις; -Όχι. -Οχιά να σε φάει.
9. (Spoken during a Greek dance when there was «ντίσκο για την νεολαία») Τι τουρλώνς τον κώλο σ’ κι τανιέσαι σαν τσιουπροθήλυκο;
10. Πώς θες να την φας; Απ' την ανάποδ' για απ’ την καλή;
Mother’s Day was always a perennial source of dread for George the third as try as he might, he could never get the requisite gift, quite right, which is a problem as it is his mother’s considered opinion that a son should know exactly what his mother wants, otherwise he either does not care, does not take the maternal bond seriously or is just plain stupid. Many is the time where visiting his mother on Mother’s Day in order to offer moral support, I have seen her fling the proffered present across the other side of the room, only to invariably land in a pot plant, screeching:
-Σε πήρε πολλή ώρα να σκεφτείς να μου αγοράσεις αυτή την βλακεία;
Then turning to me, the inevitable question:
-         Συ τι πήρες τσ’ μάνα’ς.
-         Τίποτα θεια. Της έσκαψα τον κήπο, I would lie, shamelessly.
-         Μπράβο εσύ είσι άνθρουπους, όχι σαν αυτόν το χαϊβάν’ εδώ.
George refuses to go attend therapy, ostensibly because he holds that therapy is a western construct that does not lend itself to an adequate correspondence with the eastern mind. Funnily enough, his mother absolutely loves the presents his wife gets her for Mother’s Day. Unwrapping them, she always exclaims: «Α νάις, νάις» before turning to George, impaling him with her gaze and then muttering under her breath: «Αυτή το διάλεξε; Καλά το κατάλαβα», before filing them away in the drawer where all her Mother’s Day presents are archived, unused and which she takes out once in a while when she thinks no one is looking, touches them lovingly, before putting them back in their places.
Sojourning in a shopping area frequented by Greeks, I have been privileged to overhear these conversations evidencing preparations for Greek Australian Mother’s Day
- Mum what do you want for Mother’s day?
Answer:
- Εγώ; Τι θέλω εγώ; Εγώ που σου τα έδωσα όλα; Πού θυσίασα τα νειάτα μου για να σε μεγαλώσω, να σε σπουδάσω, Τι θα μπορούσες να μου έδινες εσύ που σου πλένω ακόμη τα σώβρακα; Τίποτα. Να ακούς τη μάνα σου θέλω. Να σταματήσεις να είσαι γάιδαρος θέλω. Να γίνεις άνθρωπος. Αλλά σε ποιον τα λέω; Σε κάνα γηροκομείο θα καταλήξω…..αχαΐρευτε, αχάριστε, άσπλαχνε, άει χάσου από τα μάτια μου που θες και μαδεσντέι. Να ξεμαδεστώ να ησυχάσω..
Then there is this:
- Mum we are going out to Brunetti’s for Mother’s Day.
- Τι θα πει Ουι; Με ποιους;
- With Giovanni’s mum, she is coming as well.
- Τι δουλειά έχω εγώ με τους μακαρονάδες στο Πουρνέτι. Για δε καθόμαστε στο σπίτι να φάμε το πουρνό;
- Come on mum, it’s Mother’s Day. I’ll get you a chai latte.
- Τι μάδες ντάι και μαδέρια, που να με μαδήσουν οι τέσσερις; Ένα τσαί του βουνού δωσ’ μου με δηλητήριο να φύγω μιαν ώρα νωρίτερα που με ποτίζεις φαρμάκι από τα γεννοφάσκια σου. Άσε με εδώ να βρωμίσω. Για δε μου λες, το ταγιέρ το μπλε να φορέσω;
And of course this:
-Μαμά, είμαστε καλεσμένοι όλοι στης πεθεράς μου για το Mother’s Day.
-Γιατί; Δεν έχεις εσύ μάνα και πρέπει να πας αλλού;
-Come on mum, we came to you last year. Now it’s Soula’s turn. She has a mum to you know. Come with us. I’m sure she will not mind.
- Καλύτερα να φάω σκατά, παρά από την κουζίνα αυτής της βρώμας που καθαρίζει κάθε δεύτερο Πάσχα η χολεριασμένη. Αλλά καλά να πάθω που γέννησα τον έχθρο μου. Σύρε στην πεθερά σου βρε άχρηστε. Τον πατέρα σου έμοιασες. Δεν είσαι άντρας….
In past years my own children were not convinced that we celebrate Mother’s Day. Their opinion was that we actually celebrated Grandmother’s Day since we tended to place all our emphasis upon them. This changed only on last year’s Mother’s Day. Lying on the couch, emaciated and thoroughly ill while enmeshed in the throes of chemotherapy, my youngest daughter regarded her mother in silence for what seemed an age. Then turning to me, she whispered: «Μπαμπά, θα πεθάνει η μαμά;»
At that moment all the lives of all the important women in my life coalesced and flowed as one, a viscous current of sacrifice, generosity and overwhelming love, through my entire being. As my wife smiled at us, I could not tell whether that smiled belonged to my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my mother-in-law, or her. What I did know however, is that as omnipresent as the sun as mothers are, there will come a time when we will have to live in the shadow of their passing, and try to find meaning in a life lived without those who granted it to us. There is nothing I fear more in the world.
«Σιγά μη μας αφήσει ήσυχους,» I snorted, turning  my face away in order to hide my tears.
Rather than permitting us to take her out on Mother’s Day, my mother insists on inviting us all to lunch at her house instead, for in her mind a commemoration so intimate only belongs to the initiated. What always ensues in the family hearth, for her culinary skills cannot be surpassed, is a feast elaborate and intricate, involving an innumerable number of courses all of which have symbolic and thematic meaning and an interminable recounting of the memories of all the mother figures who occupy our ancestral pantheon. It was my sister’s first Mother’s Day this year and as I watched my wife, her face beaming, scoop up my niece in her arms and twirl her around the room, causing her to squeal with delight, and my daughters brace in anticipation of avoiding ensuing projectiles, I was granted a vision of seeing them, when I am long gone, seated at the head of their own tables, whispering as my mother was doing to my father in sheer triumph, something my great-grandmother had whispered to her on her hundredth birthday: «Αυτοί όλοι που κάθονται σ’αυτό το τραπέζι  είναι δικοί μου».
For that is exactly who we are.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com
First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 May 2024