Monday, February 23, 2004


Marriage has always formed an important role in Greek society. From times ancient, marriage alliances were treated as a form of business or property investment with families arranging marriages with a view to securing for their children some type of property and hopefully, a family with a 'good name.' Thus the value in a prospective wife lay not so much in her virtue as in the wealth of her parents and their social standing. In effect, one would 'purchase' a husband, or, considering that the dowry would have to be returned in the case of marriage break-up, 'hire' a husband. This proprietary conception of marriage was enshrined in Byzantine Emperor Justinian's legal code and formed the basis of customary law throughout Greece up until recently. It enshrines a corpus of values and way of life that has profoundly influenced the first generation's view of marriage even today.
Immigration of Greeks to Australia has seen an interesting erosion of this set of traditional values. Far removed from an agrarian and closed society that provided little if no outlet for youth contact with the opposite sex, the first generation at first tried to cling tenaciously to the old values, restricting their daughters from a free social life and the connotations of 'looseness' and 'unworthiness' that would ensue from the closed Greek community they constructed for themselves, fearing that such a 'reputation' would diminish their daughter's marriage chances.
Greek parents also developed an almost hysterical fear of the outsider. Mixed marriages were seen as taboo and then as a source of great shame on the person who 'left the race' and on that person's family. Conversations of the time centered on how superior we are as a race and how outsiders were basically, uncultivated barbarians..
Time has seen the first taboo erode. Second and third generation Greek-Australians now enjoy a social freedom that permits them to engage themselves in all aspects of Australian life. They may meet freely with whomever they choose and experience a multitude of cultures, opinions and pastimes. The second taboo holds strong. Indicative of this are the attitudes of one John Romios, recent letter writer to this publication, who mirrored the hysterical tones of his ancestors in his condemnation of those would enter into mixed marriages as 'traitors to the race,' but also made an important point: Our community looks down upon those who enter into mixed marriages.
This is undoubtedly true. When parents get together to talk about their respective children, the first question that is asked about their partners is: "Is s/he Greek?" If the answer is in the affirmative, the response is "good." If the answer is in the negative, a condescending: "Δεν πειράζει, ας είναι καλά," is proffered. Whether we like it or not, few Greek parents are pleased when told that their children's partner is a non-Greek. Some may be supportive, others understanding but nonetheless, our culture and value system has supposedly been built on cultural exclusivity and an element of dissapointment exists.
So why are mixed marriages looked down upon by the first generation (and some of the second generation as well)? A multitude of reasons exists, from families losing face, to fears that a non-Geek will not be able to adapt to a 'Greek' lifestyle, to fears of lack of communication and participation in family life and most importantly, because of the fear that mixed marriages leads to a loss of Hellenism in the subsequent generations.
Some of these fears are petty, while others are founded upon reasonable grounds. For example, it is quite plausible and has been demonstrated time and time again that culture clashes with Greeks are common. Greeks have a highly developed sense of nationality and this can choke, confuse or distance a new non-Greek member of the family. In the obverse, a non-Greek member of the family may simply choose not to partake of Greek culture, his new Greek family finding this offensive. At the end of the day, while such petty considerations seem laughable, (especially in the light of the fact that most Greek's conception of Greek culture is going to church, having namedays, cooking and dancing, much like any other nationality except that it is done in Greek,) considerations such as these have caused tension and friction both in the immediate and extended mixed family unit. Differences always intimidate and repel. This is human nature and a great deal of understanding is often needed to overcome such ostensibly petty differences. Certainly it is laughable to argue that mixed marriages are undesirable because foreigners just don't fit in. This seems to be a xenophobic remnant of the times when villagers flatly refused to marry anyone outside of their own village and when this was done, the partner was referred to (and sometimes still is, as ξένος.) Ξένοι, whatever their origin are people and deserve to be thought of as such.
The argument that mixed marriages are undesirable as they lead to a gradual de-Hellenisation of the Greek community is a more difficult one to defeat. Approximately 40% of the Greek marriages in the Greek community are now mixed. These statistics, along with the alarming decrease in both community involvement by subsequent generations and an adequate knowledge of the Greek language can be linked to prove that a catalyst for erosion exists.
Yet is questionable whether this catalyst is in fact the mixed marriage phenomenon, or whether we are overlooking the root cause. Whether from 'pure' or 'mixed' homes, the simple fact of the matter is that the second and third generations do not use the Greek tongue to converse with each other. Instead, it has been relegated to an ancestorgloss, useful only for the sake of aged grandparents who have difficulty in English. As younger members of the first generation are generally fluent in English, most second and third generation Greeks speak English in their homes. When they marry, regardless of the origin of their partner, English shall be the language spoken in the home. If the offspring of that marriage learns Greek, this will usually not be due to the efforts of its parents, but rather of its Greek grandparents.
Put simply, the Greek language, the single most important factor determining a Greek identity, has been unable to bridge the intergenerational gap and have a social utility down the generations. It may be granted that it is more difficult for a child of a 'mixed' marriage to learn a language as only one parent speaks it yet this seems to be a selectively defeatist attitude. Language acquisition is quick and easy when both parents understand the importance of their children acquiring the language and culture of their choosing and make steps to facilitate this. Parents who themselves have only a cursory knowledge of Greek and attach little importance to its dissemination will of course, not be able to pass on that heritage to their children, regardless of whether those children are 'mixed' or 'pure.' The problem therefore lies in lack of effort and understanding rather than mixed marriages as a sole cause. There are of course a multitude of examples of 'mixed' children who speak fluent Greek, simply because this was deemed by both their parents to be a priority.
Of course 'culture-clashes' do exist by parents who both want to instill in their children their respective identities and traditions. While some casualties do ensue, an understanding and all embracing approach can ensue that their children are firmly grounded and are able to move freely within both cultures. This is a great boon and can only be achieved with patience and hard work.
Once the language is lost, communication with the mother culture is impeded and an identity based on a communion with a vast array of tradition and history ruptured. We cannot draw moral conclusions as to the correctness of people's choice of partners. Ever since Jason traveled to Colchis and abducted Medea, mixed marriages have been a live issue in our culture. However, as we pride ourselves on the ecumenicity of our ethnos, which holds Greeks to be not those who are born so, but who act so, let us concentrate more on ensuring that the members of our community are embraced by this tradition rather than starved or alienated from it due to distrust and/or laxity. In this age, the swan-song of the first generation, they can still do their children and grandchildren a great service.

first published in NKEE on 23 February 2004

Monday, February 16, 2004


The Evil Troika: 'Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?"
The Evil Troika in Answer: "Fountas stole the cookie from the cookie jar."
Fountas: "Who me? It couldn't be."
The Evil Troika: "Then who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?"
Simitis: "What cookie?"
Karamanlis: "Typical "PASOK, handing out cookies and not accounting for them."
Papariga: "The workers should unite and seize the means of cookie production for themselves."

Greeks love a good financial scandal. Obsessed as they are with conspiracy theories and suspicions of others' nefarious purposes, they like nothing better than pointing the finger every time a public cent is unaccounted for. By necessity this diatribe along with the conversations of most Greeks in our community restricts itself solely to public monies because as is commonly known, the private financial and/or taxation dealings of our community, whence all suspicions derive are strictly taboo.Apologists for our particularly Balkan behaviour as is evidenced by our paranoia and delight in questioning the motives of others tend to point to the Ottoman Empire as a catalyst for such unhellenic behaviour. Before the Ottomans arrived on the scene, the land of fair Hellas flowed with milk and honey and everyone walked around discussing philosophy and being noble. Yet nothing is further from the truth. Coveting our neighbour's goods and thinking up of sneaky ways to attain them is well entrenched in the Greek blood. No wonder then that these self same Greeks are suspicious of all others.Arguably the greatest and most probably the earliest Greek epic poem, the Iliad by Homer has as its subject matter, two thefts, the first, of Queen Helen of Sparta by means of a cunning trick by the Trojan Paris and the second, of the pillaging of Troy by means of a cunning trick by the Ithacan Odysseus. Yet what can we expect from a people whose gods were thieves themselves? Did not Hermes accede to his deityship by being able at the tender age of two days old, to steal Apollo's sacred herd of cows? Did not Jason of Jason of the Argonauts fame travel to Colchis to steal the Golden Fleece from the poor Colchians who had never done anyone any harm? Did not Arion have to go to the extreme lengths of setting evolution into reverse and seek assistance from a dolphin to evade pirates?
Even the Classical Age, which is supposed to mark the apogee of Greek civilization is not free from scams. The best of these were perpetrated by none other than Pericles, the great leader and stalwart of democratic Athens. After the Persian Wars, it was deemed desirable by most Ionian Greeks to band together and establish a union for mutual support and defence. This union, known as the Delian League was to have its headquarters and treasury in Delos, with all members contributing funds to it. However, it was not long before Athens was able to have the headquarters transferred to its own environs. Pericles then systematically began to denude the League's treasury of funds and applied the same to the building of one of the most ambitious and lavish displays of Athenian might: the Acropolis. When Athenians demand the return of the Elgin Marbles, let them beware lest rankled Ionians, nursing their grievances for over two thousand years demand their just restitution in turn.Byzantium itself was not free from scams with such bureaucrats as John the Cappadocian almost sabotaging Belisarius' attempts to regain Carthage for the empire by provisioning him with stale food and pocketing the difference and Michael "the Scissors" who was engaged by the Paphlagonian dynasty, who was adept at clipping metal from coins and was able to debase an entire currency with the hapless Byzantines being none the wiser.
It is against this tradition then, that we are faced with the sorry situation here in Melbourne that a group of disgruntled community members, possessed of the suspicion that only comes with a deep knowledge of history is raising heaven and earth to discover "the truth" about the Greek governments gift of some two million dollars to the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. So hell bent are they indeed that the issue has been taken up by opposition parties in the Greek Parliament, creating the impression that either a) we as a community are liars and cheats or that b) we are party to a Greek government scam. Oh well done guys.Perhaps it is time we all grew up a tad. While fiscal responsibility is totally unhellenic, there is much to be said for it. At any rate there are no indications to date that the GOCMV has in any way been fiscally irresponsible.
At any rate, it is the sad fact that in the money obsessed community of which we are part, a great deal more time and effort is spent by impotent and angry community members in trying to uncover 'scams' rather than to carve a future for the organizations they are supposed to care about. I have been to annual general meetings of Greek organizations where the issue of moneys paid for postage (some $100.00) formed an item of discussion that took two hours to exhaust and where the simple matter of the purchase of an air-conditioner nearly brought down a Committee.This petty nit picking is not only counter productive but also damaging. It forms a major reason for the non-involvement of youth in community affairs for two reasons. The first is that the discussion of such mundane topics as postage stamps and the price of potatoes is not conducive to the retention of Hellenism, nor is it remotely interesting. Secondly, such antics do not exactly inspire respect in the first generation who are supposed to be our "founding-fathers" but will possibly turn out to be our community's undertakers as well.
At the end of the day, the airing of the gift of monies to the GOCMV in the Greek Parliament succeeded not in its aim of discrediting an august and hallowed organization but in highlighting the pettiness of those protagonists behind its airing and others whose world view is in similar vein. It is a great shame that we still have not been able to surpass our petty jealousies and criminal that we mask them in the guise of "concerned members." Meanwhile, while senile old fools hunt for El Dorado at the end of some ledgers and accounting books, our very identity is slipping away. And because Zeus commissioned Pan to slay Argo, the guardian of the one hundred eyes and steal his beautiful prisoner, there is no one to watch over us any more. Bloody thieves.
first published in NKEE on 16 Fenruary 2004

Monday, February 09, 2004


Of the many things that the Greeks invented, the one that sticks to mind, is the idiot. Ιδιώτης meaning private individual in ancient Greek has evolved over time and through its adoption into the English language to refer to a fool. This is a particularly apt derivation from Greek to English and is paralleled by our own migration from Greece to English speaking Australia.Greeks also invented resuscitation. Here in Australia, the Greek community has developed resuscitation into an art form.
Regular readers of this paltry column would know that around about this time, the writer is prone to launching into diatribes peppered with ferocious invective, designed purely to motivate, cajole, harass or force people to study Modern Greek, for the multitude or re-hashed and re-ruminated reasons that one supposedly should.
Not this year however. Instead, this diatribe applauds the decision of the Hellenic Club in Canberra to discontinue its funding of the Modern Greek Program at the Australian National University, resulting in the program's cessation. This article also lampoons those who would criticize the Hellenic Club. Shock, horror! The Hellenic Club does not wish to fork out $10,000.00 every year and suddenly the whole Greek community is plunged into doom and gloom. Yet another Modern Greek program gone. Let's have a drive to find some other sponsors to resuscitate the already mouldering corpse that is Modern Greek language Studies. Not withstanding the fact that while we are able to as a community raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to resuscitate a defunct and socially useless soccer club such as Heidelberg, we seem not to have pockets of like depth when it comes to promoting our language, seriously, how Greek is the gloom and doom reaction? It is as if we have descended into a Euripidean tragedy where the only means of escape is to throw money in the vain hope that it will go away.
The fact of the matter is that money will not solve the Modern Greek problem, nor should it. The Hellenic Club in Canberra, oft cited by various community leaders as a shining example of how the future of the organized Greek community should be, has proven this once and for all. This is a Club whose sole motivation seems to be in the words of many Canberrians "to run a business", and survives mostly on the revenue of pokies. This is a club that demands that Greek Melbourne-based booksellers present themselves in Canberra for their festival without assisting in the transportation of these books. Quite the opposite, apparently these booksellers should feel grateful in bearing this cost and inconvenience as the Club is opening up "new markets" for them. Yeah right. Let's put together all our pokies revenue, put it in a nice in-ground pool and swim in it. What an outstanding contribution to Hellenism.
Money, money, money. Patriots and community leaders such as Arthur Synodinos had their hearts in the right place when they wrioe to the Pokies, (sorry) Hellenic Club asking it to reconsider its decision. Yet this approach is misguided. Even if one pumped $100,000 into the Modern Greek Studies program, if there is manifestly only a token interest in the program, what justification is there in persisting in our wild perverted delusions that we will make any difference. It would be, and is rather, like "flogging a dead horse."Ever kissed a dead horse? Yuk. So why are we trying to resuscitate it? The cargo cult of acquisition for money runs deep within our veins. Greek Australians buy houses, sons-in-law, education for their children, radiostations, newspapers, university chairs and even the respect of their peers. Yet the one thing we consistently forget is that we cannot buy language acquisition, nor the perpetuation of our "culture." If fewer and fewer students are studying Modern Greek, it is because fewer and fewer want to. If fewer and fewer students want to study Modern Greek, it is because as a community, as a family or as a support network, we have failed to create a climate where the non-study of Modern Greek is socially acceptable. This is criminal if one considers that Greek studies are more vital now than ever, given the increasing number of students from mixed marriages who desperately need access to good quality Greek education so as to be able to retain that part of their identity. No amount of money will fix this problem. To continue the equine analogy, you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.
So what is to be done? Let's step back 200 years to see a solitary monk travel up and down the length of Greece and Albania, inflamed with the fire of Hellenism and the Holy Spirit. Agios Kosmas the Aetolian in his lifetime visited over a thousand villages and so convinced the otherwise ignorant and impassive villagers of the necessity of them keeping the Greek language and culture alive, especially when many of these had become primarily Vlach or Albanian speaking. Agios Kosmas was able to build over 200 schools, giving birth to a tradition of Greek education which still exists today and re-claiming vast areas of land for Hellenism. He did not do this with money. Instead, he achieved it by speaking to people's hearts, by inspiring them and convincing them. People listened and caused their children to listen as well and a new generation of Greek teachers emerged to lead Greece into the revolution and the modern world.
The Hellenic Club cannot be blamed for its stance, nor its clumsy attempt to redeem itself by ‘reversing’ its decision. It is a product of its times in a society bent on apathy and the accumulation of capital. Its only error was, by initially funding the program, to cause us to believe that it was in any way responsible for the education of Canberrian Greeks. Of course it isn't. As ιδιώτες, individuals, we are alone responsible for the perpetuation of our language. As idiots however, it will hardly be surprising to see some new deluded "saviour" of the Greek people purchase his way into respect by funding some other defunct program. Because let's face it, it is quite hard to inspire someone and the application of window dressing is much easier. Potemkin, the patron of the Greek communities of the Black Sea, who sought to impress Catherine the Great with his re-settlement of the Crimea by erecting facades of buildings and shopfronts with no structure behind them would have been proud.


first published in NKEE on 9 February 2004

Monday, February 02, 2004


When Mimis Sophocleous, the erstwhile director of the Modern Greek Program at RMIT, left Australia to set up his own publishing house in Cyprus, he left this country with a secret. That secret was that he had discovered within the Greek community, a writer of unprecedented quality and not only that, a writer who shared his passion for his homeland, Cyprus and had delved deep into history to bring to life a period that we know little about.
Enter Betty Coracas, or as she prefers to be known in the literary world, Donna Raven, which is of course a direct English translation of her name. Born in Limassol, Cyprus in 1951 and migrating to Australia with her parents in 1954, Betty is a remarkable woman, widely traveled and in true Renaissance style, a universal person, with a degree in Commerce and interests so diverse as poetry, writing and painting, in which field, she is self taught.
In keeping with her Renaissance attitude to life, Donna Raven is captivated by her Cypriot heritage. In a land where worlds, traditions and aspirations collide, subsume each other or merge into an exotic vitality of spirit, everything is possible. Betty revels in the complexity of Cypriot history, its tolerance and permissiveness as well as its role as a cultural and political entrepot of the Levantine World, a true jewel of the world’s desire.
Her recent historical novel, Daughter of Venice, is a much needed foray into the world of Renaissance Cyprus. Sadly, our view of Greek history has been clouded by one hundred years of narrow nationalism in which the sojourn or rule of other peoples in our lands has been either ignored or seen as an aberration. Traditional Greek history remains focused on the essentially “Greek” experience,” disassociated from its geo-political context. The fallacy of this approach forms one of the driving forces behind Donna Raven’s book, a historical drama on the life of the last queen of Cyprus. How many of us know that Richard the Lionheart, the darling of English history actually conquered Cyprus and was married there, or that the Frankish knights actually established a kingdom on this island, introducing feudalism and chivalry, jousting and all those elements we usually associate with the technicolour world of Hollywood chain mail movies?
The other driving forces of course are Donna Raven’s continuing love affair with Cyprus and the artists’ instinctive sense of a good story.
And Daughter of Venice is truly an engrossing novel. Light and easy to devour, the reader is immediately through the art of Donna Raven’s pen, transported hundreds of years into the past, to the sunny Mediterranean. Flung into the midst of labyrinthine Venetian diplomacy, byzantine plotting and treachery, the reader follows the life story of Caterina Cornaro, daughter of one of the most powerful families in fifteenth century Venice, with bated breath. We see her, an innocent girl in a cloistered Venetian household where every single one of her activities is heavily regimented set her soul free in the pluralistic and permissive society of Franco-levantine Cyprus, a melting pot of cultures, religions and political agendas.
Donna Raven artfully thickens the plot. Caterina Cornaro is officially adopted by the Venetian State as “Daughter of Venice,” so that she may marry the rogue King of Cyprus. This is not a fairy tale of princes and princesses though. When the robust King James dies amidst rumours of foul play, Caterina, at the tender age of nineteen, is forced to assume the reigns of power alone, as regent for her young son, also doomed to die as a baby. In the years that follow, she finds herself at the centre of the competing on her island by the then world powers: she fights off her sister in law’s attempt to remove her from the throne and dexterously balances the diplomatic intrigues of Venice, Naples, Rhodes, Mameluke Egypt and the Ottoman Empire until personal tragedy and increased aggression causes her to make fatal mistakes. Venice assumes control of Cyprus and she is caused to abdicate and retire to the Venetian town of Asolo, where she becomes a great patron of the arts.
This is history and it is fascinating. Donna Raven’s eye does not only pierce the veil of the Frankish ruling class of Cyprus however. Her artists’ touch gently paints a picture of the humbler echelons of Cypriot society, the Cypriot peasant who patiently labours under his foreign master, secure in his faith and his love of his natural environment. The interwoven motif of faith is of vital importance. It is to Orthodox clerics that the Venetian Queen turns for solace after the death of her child and it only through them that she is able to transcend the usual cultural barrier of east/west, ruler and ruled, mix with her people and be loved by them. Donna Raven is also through her personal experiences shed some insight into the mind of the young Queen and humanize the chronicles wherein her story has been originally recorded. She weaves a rich tapestry of loves, illegitimate children and unexpected twists and turns of plot that serve to ornament a narrative already richly studied with cultural, linguistic and historic gems. How much of Donna Raven is in the Queen? “There is a bit,” the author laughs.
So is Donna Raven’s Queen a feminist icon? She certainly is a passionate woman and a woman who loves, whether that love be directed to her paramours, her children or to her nation. She also is a strong willed woman able to defy the odds and remain in power. At the end of the day however, she is a victim of her patriarchal society and able to resign herself to her fate.
Donna Raven’s book is a valuable addition to the corpus of Australian literature and a credit to the vitality of the Greek community, providing new insight into our history and serving thus, both an educative and entertaining purpose. It also serves as an example to other budding writers out there that our history is an untapped mine of inspiration. A sequel, dealing with the descendants of the Queen is envisaged, after the ever busy Donna completes her latest projects, children’s books, which she has authoured under the name of Penny Crow. The truly inspiring “Daughter of Venice” is available at all Readings stores, and at Collins South Yarra. Go and get it. It is a must read.


first published in NKEE on 2 February 2004