Saturday, September 18, 2021

SMYRNA RELIEVED: JOICE LOCH, ETHEL COOPER AND THE AUSTRALIAN CONNECTION


 


In the aftermath of the First World War, humanitarian catastrophes abounded. The end of hostilities found Queensland-born, author, journalist and Quaker Relief Mission worker Joice Loch in Poland, assisting some of the three million refugees crossing and re-crossing that country in search of food and shelter. Described by Bellinda Kontominas in the Sydney Morning Herald as Australia's answer to the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Mother Teresa with a dash of Indiana Jones,” she would go on to become the most decorated woman in Australia and when she died in 1982, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Oxford stated that she was “one of the most significant women of the 20th century.” 

Ethel Cooper, musician and daughter of the Deputy Surveyor-General of South Australia had spent the war in Leipzig, helping English and American tourists move to neutral countries. Nicknamed “the Pharaoh,” because of her insistence that she was a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian ruler, she claimed that she had eaten the elephant in the Leipzig Zoo. After a brief stint assisting the Quaker Relief Mission in Krakow, she met Joice Loch in Vienna, where both were asked whether they would consider assisting refugees from Smyrna in Greece. They were informed that no funds existed for a unit there and both immediately resolved to go. 

Arriving in Thessalonika in May of 1923, Loch and Cooper were immediately faced with the plight of the refugees from Smyrna and the Asia Minor hinterland. Thousands were still arriving from the catastrophe in Asia Minor daily at Kalamaria. Added to these were Armenians fleeing the holocaust of Smyrna and White Russian refugees seeking refuge from the Bolsheviks. Barely housed, often starving or afflicted with malaria, many were perishing as a result of their ordeal. The Australians commenced work in the foothill of Mount Hortiatis, at the American Farm School, which trained Greek youths in basic literacy, agriculture and farm management. 

Loch described the desolate approach to the school in the following poetic terms: “An evil road for those who looked for evil, a heart-breaking road in the shadeless heat of summer, or in the winterwhen wheels could not be forced along it, and when the thick mud dragged boots from the feet…. When I first saw it, it was lined with the apparently dead, the incoming migrants, fallen by the wayside, overcome with malaria or blackwater fever. I found strange beauty in that road of exhausted nature.”  

After spending time in quarantine, Smyrnan refugees were moved to a tent city, until sites in villages could be found for them. They would then set off, helping government appointed contractors to construct their own houses. Along with the other Quakers, Loch and Cooper were tasked with providing medical treatment and distributing clothing, according to a strict card system that ensured fairness and stopped unscrupulous third parties from trying to profit from the clothing trade. 

In order to assist their distribution work, the two Australians acquired the services of two donkeys, which they renamed Menelaos and Agamemnon and astride these faithful steeds, they traversed the refugee settlements of Macedonia. In a land rife with lawlessness, they once encountered a battle between two armed factions. Agamemnon chose that spot to refuse to go any further, whereupon the warring factions abandoned their conflict and united to assist Cooper to get him moving. 

Having contracted malaria, Loch convalesced in Australia for a time, returning to Macedonia when her husband Sydney was appointed principal of the Farm School. Cooper, in the meantime, assumed charge of the relief unit, an appointment that grated with Loch who wrote that she: “had neither morals nor ethics.” However she was personable and got on well with both the Greek authorities and the refugees, Sydney Loch providing the following character sketch: 

“Except that she was probably a convinced pagan… she was suitable for that position, being liked by all members and popular with the Greek staff and refugees. Having learned a little modern Greek quickly, she was able to bluff her way through the rest of the language when words were missed and knowing how to put on an impressive manner when receiving distinguished visitors… she impressed many… [She was] cultured, humane and always aware of the human being under the national.” 

Heartily sick of the hymn “Marching to Zion,” which the Quakers were teaching their Greek schoolboy choir, the eccentric Cooper surreptitiously tore that page out of hundreds of the school’s hymn books. 

The Lochs, establishing a modus vivendi with Cooper, remained at the school for a number of years and also established a girl’s campus. Joice Loch took ten of the gambusia fish which the school imported from Italy to prey on mosquito larvae as an anti-malarial measure and placed them in a small pond for observation. They multiplied and were distributed throughout malaria-infested Macedonia. 

Through their careful management and diligence, by 1926, the school bosted a dam, pigs, cattle, gardens, vineyards, carpentry and blacksmithing workshops and an electricity generator. Although the community was a multicultural one, intercommunal strife was kept at a minimum, Joice Loch observing that it was: “the friendliest, least scandalous foreign community in the Balkans.” 

It was while spending the summer near Mt Athos in 1926, that Joice Loch discovered the edifice that would become her last home in Greece and with which her legacy is associated. This was the Byzantine tower of Phosphorion in Ouranoupolis. Erected by Emperor Andronikos Palaiologos in 1344, it had been gifted to Vatopedi Monastery and only cleared of monks in the previous year. Joice recorded her discovery in her memoirs, highlighting the desolate plight of the refugees: 

“The tower fascinated us from the first moment we saw it… Half the inhabitant were already there…and their houses – wretched, cement boxes – were waiting for them. It was an appalling place for anyone to settle, especially for people who had come from a much richer country. The land was decaying, granite, heavily covered with a thick thorny scrub. Here they were expected to farm.” 

While periodically returning to the school, Joice Loch and her husband were sufficiently moved by the parlous condition of the refugees of Ouranoupolis, many of whom were starving. They decided to settle in the tower and to provide employment for the inhabitants. A chance offer by a refugee rug-maker to weave her a carpet gave Joice the inspiration she needed to set up, in the face of opposition and disbelief by critics, a domestic rug-weaving industry, using local materials and purchasing looms and other equipment. 

Via a process of experimentation with local plants and careful consultation with the native inhabitants, Joice Loch was able to develop viable fast dyes. She also took a leading role in designing the rugs, ensuring that they told a story and were replete with symbolism. For example, her “Creation” rug, which is now exhibited in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, features a circular motif comprised of a double-headed dragon which is biting itself and exhaling evolving plant and animal life, a profound metaphor for renewal. As a result of her efforts, otherwise unproductive members of refugee households were able to find gainful employment, relieving their dire poverty and empowering them with a sense of self-worth. The carpets were generally considered by connoisseurs to be of high quality. One of them won an award and according to historian Hugh Gilchrist, one was even purchased by Adolf Hitler. 

Joice Loch, in absence of a doctor stationed at the village, also provided rudimentary health care to the refugees and during the devastating earthquake of 1932, she worked for 45 hours treating villages and even baking bread on the flotilla of British ships that arrived to assist, in order to relieve their hunger. Moving between the school and Ouranoupolis, Joice Loch continued her welfare work for many years. During the Second World War, she would go on to perform other heroic feats, such as masterminding Operation Pied Piper, where she saved a thousand Polish and Jewish children from the Nazis in Romania and arranged for their evacuation to Cyprus. 

Ethel Cooper remained at the school until 1928, after which time she travelled around Greece alone on a donkey, photographing the ruins of Corinth after the 1928 earthquake. The Quakers freely acknowledged the importance of her work: “The development of the Centre has owed much to her initiative, powers of organisation and knowledge of the Greek language.” Returning to Australia, she worked in Intelligence during the Second World War. 

By the selfless acts of kindness of two of Australia’s most remarkable women, thousands of shattered Asia Minor refugee lives were saved and thousands more given direction, purpose and dignity. While in Australia Joice Loch is celebrated more for her lifesaving work with Jewish children and Ethel Cooper is commemorated more as a musician,  both of these ladies compel the gratitude of the Greek Australian community. Without their philanthropy, we would be much diminished. 

DEAN KALIMNIOU

kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 September 2021

Saturday, September 11, 2021

SPIRO AND THE LAND TAX OF THE GREEKS

 


I am convinced that if Kafka were alive today, he would be writing a novel about a man who, during the pandemic, has the distinct misfortune to call a Victorian government agency and then spends his life trying vainly to press the correct option on his telephone keypad, only to be put through, after an hour’s wait at being thirtieth in the queue, to the wrong department, and then being redirected to the original options again. On occasion, the phone is mysteriously hung up on the other end just as he appears to have gotten through, and other times, he is asked to enter a customer number which, though it appears on all his documentation, is registered as non-existent by the department. 

If said Kafka was extant and I knew him, I would suggest that he feature the telephone service at the Greek Consulate in Melbourne instead, at which Kafka would raise one of eyebrows at me quizzically and chide me for being obvious. 

 

At least so I mused the other day when on telephone to the State Revenue Office, in order to resolve a matter for a client for about half an hour, being passed from one servant of that august institution to another. It should be said that while waiting, I am actually in a state of rapture, for at least one can still, during the pandemic, call the State Revenue Office and engage with its personnel. The oracle that is the Land Titles Office on the other hand can no longer be consulted save via email.  

Eventually, I am put through to the relevant person who in a very pleasant manner, resolves my client's problem quickly, efficiently and with the minimum of fuss. 

The lady has a crisp, professional but very personable way of communicating and her diction wins my utmost admiration. It resembles the almost British enunciation of ABC radio announcers past, a cross between Lorraine Bayly and Cate Blanchette.  I refer her to an email I sent last week, which I hope has found its way to her and after a pause indicated that she is searching for the communication in question, she emits a gasp of shock. Praying that I sent her the correct email and not the one containing the joke about the Vicar, the Parlour Maid and the Health Department official I also sent a colleague, on the same day, I enquire demurely as to whether all is in order. And it is then that her accent slips. Then I get this, in Brunswick-accented pronunciation: 

- Re, are you Dean Kalimniou? 

- Yes. 

- The one who writes in Neos Kosmos? 

- Yeah. 

- Oh, no way re! That's sick! I read your articles. 

- Thanks. 

- Not all of them. Only when I visit my mum. 

- I'm sure that's more than enough for anyone. 

- Κοίτα να δεις ρε, I've got Dean Kalimniou on the phone. Oh my God, small world re..... 

- You know I couldn't pick from your name or your accent before that you are Greek, I tell her. 

She laughs. 

- Yeah I changed my name because I married a ξένο.....  

- Well, thanks for helping me out. I was beginning to think that I was getting nowhere.  

- No worries re! If there is anything else I can do, let me know alright? 

- Give me a remission in my land tax? 

- If I could, I would, she laughs. 

 

Since she appears benign and friendly, I start to confide in her about a film script I am working on. It features my alter ego, Spiro Spanakopita, a down and out Oakleighite whose gambling den in his charcoal chicken shop in Mulgrave is actually a front for clandestine meetings of purveyors of ethically sourced mail order vitamin supplements. 

I explain to my interlocutor, who intersperses my narrative with commentary containing the words “sick re,” “that’s mad,” and “omg pissa,” that the dialogue will be liberally sprinkled with stereotypes designed to denigrate socially unenlightened members of our community and to maintain our faith in the superiority of mainstream values, for the sole aim of capturing air time on our national broadcasters. 

 

The story commences seven years before the present, when, enmeshed in the throes of righteous anger, and while high on smoking livani, Spiro smashes the statue of Leonidas in Brunswick, as a protest against hot air produced at nearby Greek Brotherhood meetings contributing to Global Warming. 

 

Spiro Spanakopita’s world changes for ever when he meets Stella Suave, an emancipated Greek woman from Sterea Ellada who migrates to Australia to set up empowerment workshops for unappreciated Queen Ants and sells raffia lingerie on the Internet, on the side. After a whirlwind courtship, Spiro and Stella marry and set up a household in Thornbury. They separate five months later, when Spiro, having after a heady night of livani smoking, transferred the title to his shop and the Thornbury property to his spouse, finds out that she has sold his shop and fled to Greece with the proceeds. In the rather messy and convoluted court proceedings that follow, she ends up with the house as well, leaving the hapless Spiro with a large amount of raffia and little else. 

 

By this stage, Spiro has moved back with his widower father, his mother having died of nervous exhaustion during the divorce, and is rather depressed. His only consolation is that his father is old and it will not be too long before the six investment properties in the family trust (which Stella spared because her friends in Agrinio neglected to advise her to look out for such things, trusts not being de rigeur among the emerging Helladic bourgeoisie), will be his. Being single and being able comfortably to live off the rental income, Spiro looks forward to spending the rest of his days becoming a fixture in Eaton Mall and perhaps having a statue erected to his memory in the fullness of time. 

 

It is then that tragedy strikes. His father informs him that after GST and Land Tax is paid, there is not enough money to support either of them. In fact, his father informs him to Spiro’s absolute horror, if they are going to survive, one of them will have to be sold. In the interim, Spiro will have to get a job. 

 

The next scene presents Spiro as an employee of the State Revenue Office. Working his way around its various departments, he finally settles on debt recovery, where he makes a name for himself for the ruthless and merciless manner in which he terrorises elderly retired property owners for their dues. Yet all of this is a front. For when the time is right and enough trust is garnered, Spiro then launches his plan: He develops a virus that hacks into the Office’s debt recovery system and waives all land tax for Victorians that have Greek surnames in Melbourne. Owing to the fact that the algorithms embedded within the virus scan for surnames that end with s, the virus also waves land tax for Latvians, Lithuanians, a number of Lebanese and Spanish members of the community as well. As a result of Spiro’s endeavours, the State of Victoria is bankrupted and is about to be purchased at a fire-sale auction by an emerging world power that just wants to be our friend. 

 

At this point, my interlocutor lets out a raucous laugh and abruptly, her voice becomes Menzies era ABC again. 

- You realise this call is being recorded for training and evaluation purposes? 

I should add that no State Revenue Office employees or office furniture were harmed during the making of the film, I hasten to assure her. 

 

She giggles and switching to Greek, launches into a lengthy analysis of the office personalities and politics of her workplace, including who is claiming the credit for the other’s work, who is skilled at sucking up to the boss, and which person is pretending that they aren’t carrying on a relationship with one of the guys from Duties Online, after an inebriated incident at the 2019 Christmas Party.  

I scribble down these details furiously, knowing that they will lend my script verisimilitude. 

  • ΚαλάI ask her. You said that the call is being recorded for training purposes. Aren’t they listening? 
  • Άσε, she sighs. Δε μιλάνε αυτοί wog. Να πάνε να χεστούνε.  

 

Unrestrained mirth ensues from both sides of the telephone line. Little does she know that Spiro Spanakopita is listening, and is about to make a killing selling evaluation data to emerging world powers who just want to be our friends….. 

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU 

kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 September 2021

Saturday, September 04, 2021

FOR THE LOVE OF BOOKS: THE LAST GREEK BOOKSHOP IN MELBOURNE

 


“It is not who we are when we read a … book that is most important, but who we are when we close it.” St Mark the Ascetic. 

Books are revered in our traditional culture. Our entire way of life for the past two millenia has been based upon the teachings contained in a tome which is called in Greek “the Book” (ἡ Βίβλος). The act of reading is central to worship in that culture, as can be evidenced by the central position afforded to the reading of sections of the Bible (ἀνάγνωσμα) at key moments in the Orthodox liturgy, in which the congregation is enjoined to “attend in wisdom.” Within the Book itself, injunctions to study writings abound. John 5:39 for example begins: “Study the scriptures.” In the Pauline epistle to Timothy, there is the instruction to devote oneself “to the public reading of Scripture,” something that should not come as a surprise in a religion which sees the world, according to the Gospel of John, as based on words and worships God as one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

Recently canonised St Paisius considered the act of reading to convey health benefits, at least spiritually, advising: “Read… even one or two lines a day. They are very strengthening vitamins for the soul.” Such advice can only be understood within the context of a precedent set by “Teacher of the Nation” St Kosmas the Aetolian, whose ministry was based upon him enjoining his flock to learn how to read and write as a prerequisite for the development of the appropriate moral compass that would facilitate the re-genesis of a modern nation (“Why, my child, do you not know how to read?”), even going so far as to claim that places in which reading is taught, schools, are more important to a country than rivers or springs. 

I remember as a child visiting the homes of elderly Greek migrants who apart from their carefully shelved old schoolbooks, retained stacks of mouldy newspapers in their backyards or garages. When I asked them why they didn’t throw them away, I would invariably be given the same response: to contemplate their disposal was inconceivable. The printed word was holy. 

Back then and until recently, there were a number of Greek bookshops available to the Greeks of Melbourne. Once a year, as a treat, my father would take me on a pilgrimage to the Greek bookshop in Richmond, where I was permitted to pick a book for myself. Later, we would make the hike to Mylonas Bookshop in Brunswick, or to the marvellous pirates’ cache of printed booty that was Tsonis booksellers, the late Theodore Tsonis taking books to the masses literally, by visiting them in their homes. Travelling around Melbourne in Tsonis’ book van was a profoundly moving experience. As we drove, Theodore Tsonis would expound his theories on the importance of the development of a local Greek-Australian book culture to the perpetuation of our community as a distinct entity and expended thousands of hours and kilometres in its furtherance. 

Fast forward twenty years and the demise of Greek bookstores in Melbourne, which in the hubristic height of the nineties and in complete ignorance of the ultimate fate of its book repository was re-named by us “New Alexandria,” along with the unlikely prospect of their resuscitation was considered a prospect sufficiently improbable as to provide the foundation last year upon which Neos Kosmos could construct its customary April Fool’s Joke. On April 1st, it published a story announcing the opening of a new Greek bookshop in Melbourne. A poignant, though heart-rending joke if there ever was one. 





The word “Fool” is an apt one. As he in his unassuming but persistent manner, compelled municipal libraries to purchase and stock the books of local Greek-Australian authors and traversed the highways and byways of our increasingly congested city in order to provide isolated old ladies with religious books, Theodore Tsonis would comment: “So many people say: “Why are you doing this? You are a fool, to go out of your way.” But we fool ourselves if we think we can survive as a people without books. For the sake of ensuring that every Greek household in Melbourne has books, I am more than happy to be called a fool.” 

 

It was this word Fool, that echoed in my head, as I attended Theodore Tsonis’ funeral at his beloved Northcote Monastery. Sixteen years later, it is fitting but perhaps not coincidental, that the last Greek bookshop in Melbourne is housed on the very grounds of the Monastery in which we bid our final farewells to that late lamented bibliophile. 


For Northcote Monastery houses the Melbourne branch of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese’s bookshop, the last bastion for the purveying of Greek publications in Melbourne. It is centrally located, within the idyllic grounds of what is perhaps one of our most iconic community edifices, Axion Esti monastery. 

 

Beautifully set out within large, well-appointed rooms whose exquisite red brick architecture exude an otherworldly feel, a cross between an English university library and a Byzantine scriptorium, it is a treasure trove of knowledge and piety, stocking bools on diverse subjects such as art, literature and beyond, in many languages, including Russian, Serbian, Arabic and English. While the main focus of the selection is religious, one can find numerous hard to find publications on an almost limitless gamut of topics, including to my absolute delight when last I visited, precious editions of the work of Art historian, Andre Grabar, the stories of Alexandros Papadiamantis and much more remarkable literature besides. 

Most importantly, the bookstore stocks the works of local scholars and writers. Our organised community functions mostly centred upon the performative or the social and we tend, to our detriment, to neglect the fact that within Australia, local academics are making significant contributions to fields of study pertaining to key aspects of our culture and identity. Many of these works are ground-breaking and yet without the bookshop making these available to the general public, they would be largely unknown and their impact, decidedly muted. Works such as Basilios Psilacos’ recently published Byzantine Ecclesiastical Music: Chanting in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, on the other hand, mediate an age-old ecclesiastical heritage through a uniquely Australian lens, providing a cogent framework for the continued relevance and perpetuation of such elements within the antipodean context. Being singularly poised as no other institution to contribute in such a meaningful way to the intellectual diversity of our community and broader Australian society, the bookshop is thus a powerful symbol of multiculturalism and offers us, in the absence of any other providers a much-needed intellectual infusion. 

As befits a Greek Orthodox bookshop, it also stocks a comprehensive array of Bibles, liturgical books, lives of saints, books dealing with ethical questions and the modern world in both Greek and English, which prove perennial favourites in many families. It also houses a broad selection of icons, crosses and religious implements, in all of the multifarious diachronic styles that comprise our traditional aesthetic. 

While it is possible for the visitor to spend hours browsing in the jewel-like, cozy bookshop, dissolving one’s cares in its welcoming, serene, contemplative atmosphere, perhaps the most vital of its elements is its extensive children’s
section that is eminently user friendly. Few of our community institutions go out of their way to cater for children in such a targeted fashion and to address their needs. The exhaustive selection of accessible stories and activity books available in Greek and English have been specifically written in order to impart aspects of ethics, faith and culture to a younger, and largely although not exclusively English-speaking readership.  Considering that of late there appears to be a spontaneous grass-root movement from within our community towards encapsulating our values, however these are defined, within the medium of children’s books, it becomes evident that the Northcote bookstore has placed itself as a driving force behind such endeavours. 


The other day I asked my children which would be the first place they would like to go after lockdown. The Northcote Bookshop was their universal response.
An Aladdin’s cave of all things spiritual, literary and besides, this last fortress of Greek literary culture is a must visit. In the meantime, most of the items it stocks are available online and offer perfect solace and company in this time of solitude. 

 

The Greek Orthodox Archdiocesan bookshop can be found at Axion Esti Monastery, 7 Hartington Street, Northcote. 

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU 

kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 September 2021

Saturday, August 28, 2021

IN THE NAME OF THE GREEK

 


This year’s Census gave rise to an interesting cultural phenomenon: the perennial debate as to what our ethnos should be called. As debates go, it is rather baffling. Considering that we have been around for millenia, one would have thought that by now, we would have arrived at a broad consensus as to our collective nomenclature. Yet this is not the case.  

From the rugged romaic borderlands of Oakleigh came the cry: “Why is the Australian government calling us Greeks? This is an insult. We are Hellenes.” (Cue youtube clip of Canadian internet phenomenon Katerina Moutsatsos screeching “I am Hellene!” on a computer generated background of island whitewash here.) 

There are two reasons sundry the patriotic denizens of our ethnic enclaves in Melbourne feel affronted by the term ‘Greek’. The logic of the first is simple. It is not the name we call ourselves. Since we call ourselves Hellenes, so should everyone else. To impose a different name upon us is thus seen as cultural imperialism. Of course the fact that we Greeks have no problems in referring to those who call themselves Deutsch as Germanoi, those who call themselves Zhongguoren as Kinezoi, those who call themselves Hayer as Armenioi, those who call themselves Magyarok as Oungroi (and in times Byzantine as Tourkoi), those that call themselves Kartvelebi as Georgianoi and those who call themselves Bhaarateeyon as Indoi, either completely escapes us, or finds us totally indifferent at the inconsistency. After all did not one venerable ancestor opine: «Πας μη έλληνβάρβαρος»? 

The logic of the second reason is also straightforward. According to the erstwhile pre-lockdown patrons of sundry coffee shops in Eaton Mall and beyond, the term “Greek” is insulting because apparently it was imposed upon us by the occupying Romans and was used to denote an effeminate and weak race. Best stick to Hellenes which has always been the name of our proud and glorious conglomeration of tribes that acknowledge Pericles, Alexander the Great, Kolokotronis and Otto Rehhagel as our common ancestors.  

Except it hasn’t. From the Homeric epics, we learn of several appellations pertaining to our people such as Danaans and Achaeans. The Persians called us Yauna, after the Ionians, who colonized part of the coasts of western Asia Minor. This term was later adopted into Hebrew as Yevanim, and into Arabic, and strictly to describe the Greeks living in modern day Greece, by the Turks. The word also entered the languages of the Indian subcontinent as the Yona. The facebook etymologists who claim on this basis that the Greeks must have reached the southern province of China known as Yunnan, however, are mistaken. Yunnan means “south of the colourful clouds” and has nothing to do with the Ionians. Tantalizingly, in ancient times, the Chinese called the Greek-speaking kingdom that existed on its borders, “Da-Yuan,” that is, Great Ionia. Modern Chinese, conversely, refer to modern Greece as Xila, that is, Hellas, so they deserve a round of applause. 

It makes sense that a people would name a nation after the part of it that they historically encountered. The term ‘Greeks,’ merely reinforces this. Contrary to common prejudice, the term Γραικοίis not a Latin term. Indeed, the first use of the word as equivalent to Hellenes is found in Aristotle to describe a tribe living in Epirus. Homer, while reciting the Boeotian forces in the Iliad's Catalogue of Ships, provides the first known reference to a region named Graea, which is why the name Graecoi, whence ultimately the term “Greek” is derived, was given by the Romans originally to the Greek colonists from Graea who helped to found Cumae, a Greek colony in southern Italy where the Italic peoples first encountered the Greeks and then to all Greeks.  

“Graeculus” or “Greekling,” not Greek, was the term coined by Cicero and employed by certain Romans to belittle their Greek contemporaries who they considered much fallen and debased in comparison to their illustrious ancestors, engendering a form of orientalism that persists in the West until the present day.  Conversely, according to Rene Olivier, in the French language the word ‘grec’ is sometimes also used as an ethnic slur meaning fraudster, whereas ‘hellénique’ has no negative connotations and is euphoniously très chic to boot. Considering that the letter y in French is referred to as i-grec, we can best leave the French, who have adopted the name of a Germanic tribe, instead of their original Galloi (which we retain), to their own devices.  

Assyrians in Australia further reinforce just how nuanced and loaded with meaning the terms used to denote our people can be. They uniquely refer to the Greeks of Greece as “Yunaye,” (Ionians) but to the Greeks they have encountered in Australia as “Greknaye,” a linguistic phenomenon that does not exist anywhere else in the world and which serves to differentiate a diasporan community from its mother culture by adopting the ethnonym used by the dominant culture in order to define us. 

In his “Meteorologica” Aristotle refers to ancient place called Hellas in Epirus between Dodona and the Achelous river. According to him the land was inhabited by the Selloi and Graeci, who later came to be known as Hellenes. Homer refers to Hellenes as a small tribe settled in Thessalic Phthia and in order to unduly complicate matters,  the Parian Chronicle mentions that Phthia was the homeland of the Hellenes and that this name was given to those previously called Greeks, something which is reinforced by Spartan lyric poet Alcman, who in the seventh century BC, wrote that the mothers of the Hellenes were the Greeks. Both ethnonyms therefore, refer to tribes that lived alongside each other, or engendered each other. 

The confusion regarding ethnonyms is further intensified by the fact that in Hellenistic times,  the word ‘Hellenic” no longer referred to a nation but rather, to an attitude and a way of life. As rhetor Isocrates, declared in his speech Panegyricus: "And so far has our city distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood". 

This idea of a shared culture has been appropriated by the West, which continues itself the successor of ancient Greece, (not Hellas). As Percy Byshe Shelley wrote: “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.” 

While in early Byzantium the term “Hellenic” came to refer to a pagan, it enjoyed a resurgence in late Byzantium. 

It should be noted as an aside, that just as there once existed a soccer team in Melbourne called South Melbourne Hellas, which dropped its ethnonym in order to be accepted into the mainstream. Perhaps we could do the same, signifying our assimilation into the mainstream by expressing our ethnicity via a lacuna in the text, or a silence, or nervous hum, where the word Hellas used to be. 

Yet for much of our modern recorded history, the Greek people called themselves neither Greek nor Hellene. Instead, they identified as Romans, originally referreing to their citizenship as subjects of Byzantium, which was the continuation of the Roman Empire. This state of affairs persisted until modern times, with one author writing how when in 1912 the island of Lesbos was liberated from the Ottomans, the local inhabitants, hearing the words “the Greeks are coming” were mystified, as they referred to themselves as “Romioi.” In the Middle East, the situation is even more complicated. There “Rum” is synonymous not only with the Greeks, but with the Orthodox religion. Thus, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is known in Turkish as the “Rum” patriarchate, just as they termed central Greece “Rumeli,” a term that persists today. The Orthodox in Syria refer to their Church as the “Rum” Orthodox Church and on the basis of that, which translates as “Greek,” some of them espouse a Greek ethnic identity. In modern Greek, the word “Romios” or “Romiosyni” still persists to denote a cultural identity that encapsulates the entire historical experience of the people in a manner that other terms do not. Pontians still lament their lost homeland as “Romania,” and while most modern Greeks refer to themselves as «Έλληνες,» they still call the Greeks of Constantinople: “Romioi of the City,” (Ρωμιοίτης Πόλης). 

Given this concatenation of names, signs and signifiers, do we get rid of the word “Greek,” when one of our greatest heroes, Athanasios Diakos, consigned himself to a horrific death all the while maintaining: “I was born a Greek and as a Greek I will die?” («ΕγώΓραικός γεννήθηκαΓραικός θε να πεθάνω».) 

Do we insist on the use of the word “Hellenes,” when the West associates our ancient civilisation with the term “Greek,” thus creating a rupture that reinforces prejudices which cast doubt upon the historical continuity of our people?  

Do we divest ourselves of the word Romios, when the term Romiosyni is still used to describe the quintessence of our ethnic identity, enshrined in such masterpieces as Ritsos’: “Don’t cry for Romiosyni? (Τη Ρωμιοσύνη μην την κλαις). 

Ultimately, the names we are called by others say more about the nations that come into contact with us, rather than just ourselves. Calling someone by a name establishes not only an identity, but also a history of cultural exchange. Viewed from this perspective, it matters little whether I am called a Greek, a Hellene, a Romios, a Rum or an Ionian because my people defy description and definition. 

Yet if I were to settle on one officially approved ethnonym to denote our polymorphous hypostasis, I would look no further than the word Georgians use to describe us: “Berdzeni.” Derived from the Georgian word “brdzeni,” it means: “the wise men.” Flattery will get you everywhere. 

DEAN KALIMNIOU 

kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 August 2021