Monday, September 27, 2004


Phillip Constan, or "Hollywood" Phillip, as he is known to his closest associates, is not your average Greek-Australian. A consummate gentleman, whose deportment and demeanour transports one to the suave and debonair days when men wore dinner jackets and knew how to handle fish knives, he is also possessed of a profound knowledge of things theological, historical and allegorical.
He is also an actor of many years experience, having performed in various plays, not only in the Greek community but in the wider Australian sphere as well. He is certainly passionate about his work, treading the boards lightly, with a gait that one can only be jealous of but also with a sense of deep responsibility. For one of Phillip's major desires vis a vis the thespian arts, is to finally see the vast corpus (as opposed to corpse) of Greek theatre enter the mainstream. The ever poetic Phillip sees this as a metaphor for the wider acceptance of Greek culture as it is practiced in Australia, reinforcing a commitment to multiculturalism. To some extent, this is to be expected and, has already occurred. Theatre is inextricably linked with the rise of the Greek city-state, along with the belief in the teaching, healing and social utility functions of the performing arts.
Ancient Greek theatre especially is held in high esteem by the English-speaking world, which places it at least on par with Shakespeare. The gloomy but poignant tragedies of Euripides, where a fatal flaw in the character of the hero leads him to disaster regardless of his valiant attempts to avert it, or the side-splitting, bawdy comedies of Aristophanes strike just as sharp a note with a contemporary audience, as they did with the Athenians of hallowed antiquity.
Paradoxically enough however and for all the first generation's veneration of all things ancient, in our community ancient comedies have not enjoyed the same popularity as they do in Greece. Among the second and third generations, language difficulties often prevent a full enjoyment and appreciation of the timeless Greek theatrical classics. This is where Phillip steps in, to revive, make relevant and accessible to the wider community, the apogee of Greek theatre.
Phillip is currently starring in a radically new interpretation of Euripides' Bacchae written and directed by Malcolm Rock on behalf of Autonomous Production and director in training under the guidance of Simon Phillips of the Melbourne Theatre Company. In this interpretation, the Bacchae, arguably the most ambiguous Greek tragedy is taken to rock concert highs. Neither sex is safe when Greek god Dionysus – 400 BC's answer to David Bowie, Elvis and Eminem – rocks into Thebes leaving a horde of ecstatic female fans in his wake and the repressed King fuming in gender confusion. Dionysus' wild Bacchic groupies possess superhuman strength and go about recruiting others within the city. They dance and sing to electric guitar, beat drums and chant: Dionysus! Ho! Misogynistic King Pentheus, enraged that his own mother has joined the fanatical cult, sets out to capture the rebelling women and punish their propagandist leader. "Like Robbie Williams on a bender, Dionysus and his seductive reputation sweep across the city until vengeance-seeking god and hot-headed king come face-to-face," says director Malcolm Rock. "As with the best of tragedies, on this day one of the diametrically opposed leaders faces imminent downfall. The result is macabrely comic and true to Euripides' ironic sense of humour – let's just say it involves slaughter and a sexy red slip."
By indulging extremes, Bacchae sees order clash with chaos, fact with faith, male with female, East with West, and we come to learn the shocking price paid for freedom.
The play runs for approximately 1hr and half and is a one-act piece, without interval. It certainly is a dynamic energetic and powerful interpretation of the elements and issues observed in Euripides masterpiece. As Phillip Constan, who plays a role crucial to the play's development and outcome along with two other Greek Australian actors, Alex Tsitsopoulos and George Zach, states” "All the classic ingredients of a Greek drama are highlighted with the devotion and betrayal of god Dionysus and the fury of the Bacchae women expressed in the chorus of hissing rhythm stomping girls to the electrifying beat and sounds of a background rock band. Amongst all the havoc and frenzied energy of the chorus we see the heartbreaking plea of a mother in losing her child and king, we hear the prophetic warning of a wise seer, predicting the future catastrophe of the city of Thebes, and the final justice, punishment and reward of lives granted and lives taken from those who refuse honour and homage to the God of bread, wine and theatre, the elements of life itself, Dionysus as Euripides portrays him and as director Malcolm Rock along with a youthful and vibrant cast have interpreted this classic play in contribution to the Melbourne Fringe Festival. "
The unsung heroes of our community are those who dare to share their culture with the mainstream. They do so out of their passionate love for their cultural identity and with the resolve that that identity is universal and beneficial to all. Phillip Constan is an old hand at this. As a director of Historia Events, he has already played an important role in presenting Byzantium to a non-Greek public here in Melbourne. With his role in the Bacchae, this truly polished performer gives us his all, reaching the apogee of his technical proficiency, though not of his passion, causing us not only to rethink the messages of Euripides but to be energized and reinvigorated by them as well.
Baccahe is playing between September 28 to October 2, at 8pm every night at Gasworks Arts Park Theatre, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park, bookings 8412 8777. This is definitely a performance that you cannot afford to miss.
First published in NKEE on 27 September 2004

Monday, September 20, 2004


In 1821, a mob of fanaticised muslims arrives at the Oecumenical Patriarchate en masse, lays hold of Patriarch and Ethnomartyr Gregorios V and proceeds to hang him. In September 1922, the bishop Chrysostomos of Smyrna is delivered to a raging mob of fanaticised muslims by Nureddin Pasha and is promptly torn to pieces. In September 1955, another fanaticised mob of muslims runs amuck in the streets of Constantinople, looting Greek shops, bashing and raping Greeks, burning churches and smashing tombstones. Is history being doomed to repeat itself, again and again?
One could be forgiven for thinking so, especially in the light of events taking place last week outside the Fanari district of Constantinople, the seat of the Oecumenical Patriarchate. A mob of fanaticised muslims held a protest outside its perimeter, bearing ancient Ottoman flags as well as (paradoxically enough) Azerbaijani flags. They demanded that the Patriarch be delivered to a "people's court" to be tried for "anti-Turkish behaviour." They also protested against the possible re-opening of the Halki Theological school, which was closed by Turkey in the seventies. They then hanged the Patriarch in effigy, while vowing to force open the "Gates of Hatred," these being the old gates of the Patriarchate, from which Patriarch Gregorios was hanged and which have remained closed as a protest against intolerance and persecution ever since.
The timing of the protest was particularly interesting, as it came on the 49th anniversary of those same riots of 1955 that decimated the Greek population of Constantinople, forcing thousands into exile. It certainly did send shivers up the spines of the few remaining Greeks of the City, as well as those who once lived through persecution there. On the face of it, it would seem then, as it does to many ex-Constantinopolitans living here in Melbourne, that nothing has really changed in Turkey.
This is a particularly worrying thought, especially for a Turkey that is trying desperately to assume a European profile of late. Already great strides have been made in this direction with Prime Minister Erdogan showing an unusual inclination for rapproachment with Greece. For the first time in many years, talk of re-opening the Theological School of Halki and handing back control of the Patriarchal property trust, wrongly appropriated by previous governments seems to be concrete rather than empty rhetoric. And then this happens, an event that scratches sores that have barely healed.
The perpetrators of this heinous act of terrorism belong to the ultra-nationalist "Grey Wolves," the same group responsible for the death of Solomos Solomou in Cyprus as well as the recent bombing of St Mamas Church in Turkish-occupied Cyprus. For this detestable group of terrorists, murder, sabotage and threats of violence against religious leaders are praiseworthy acts and nothing is sacred.
It is commendable that the Turkish police disbanded the protesters quickly and took pains to ensure that no one came to harm. Yet the mere existence of such a group begs the question: How can a state with aspirations of joining the European Union tolerate the presence of terrorist organizations that threaten minorities within it? One cannot help but think that a certain section of Turkey's elite is not entirely comfortable with the new image of tolerant and democratic Europeanisation and is sponsoring a wave of nationalist reaction. The army in particular, has been raised on a Kemalist theory of the exclusivity of the Turkish identity, whereby there is no room for minorities in the national myth. Indeed the Kemalist state was founded upon the elimination of such minorities. It is worthwhile to note that this institution, which has dominated the Turkish political process since the inception of the Turkish Republic, stands to lose much from the increasing openness of Turkish society to Europe. It stands to lose a stranglehold over the nation's political life it has enjoyed for eighty years. And the affiliations of some of the Grey Wolves to the Turkish army are unsettling to say the least.
Today, as at the time when Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate and 'invented' Turkey, the Turkish people are at the crossroads. They are being called upon to review their sense of identity once more. 'Grey Wolves' and other terrorists who preach racial purism ignore their own societal context at their peril. There are significant Greek-speaking muslim populations living in Turkey. One Greek-speaking author, Tanyu Izbek was recently awarded the Ikpeci prize for her novel written in the Cretan dialect, as it is spoken in the region of Gunda (Moschonissia.) The identity review process is not without teething problems and violent reaction is a lamentable but foreseeable consequence of this, by a demented fringe that still cannot spare a place for peace-loving minorities within the wider sphere of Turkish society. They threaten them, because they themselves feel threatened by the 'other,' though that other has always existed within their midst, and within them.
The vast majority of Turks deplore physical violence and intimidation. And yet, as American President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in response to the Armenian Genocide early last century, this is of no use if they do not make "their fine feelings manifest." Europe can impose as many guidelines as it likes and governments can do the same but unless the grass-roots of Turkish society takes a stand against terrorism and intimidation by whichever groups are bent on perpetuating social discord and terror, then they will consign themselves to an eternity of stultifying introspection and fear.
One of the most common complaints of Greeks by Turks is that Greeks are obsessed with ancient injuries and the past in general, bringing up issues that died generations ago. This is often thrown up as an excuse for the difficulties in achieving a Greco-Turkish reconciliation. Yet reconciliation requires positive steps on both sides. The Turkish government could facilitate in directing public opinion towards creating a more harmonious and tolerant society by legislating to protect the rights of its Christian minorities and promoting pluralism. That it is already doing this, by returning houses wrongly seized by the gendamerie to returning Assyrian refugees in Mardin is a promising sign. It could use such Christian minorities as goodwill ambassadors to the west. Finally, in an increasingly insecure world, it must take a stand against terrorism and racism of any kind, especially that of the Grey Wolves and the sinister powerbrokers who hide behind the ugly shadow that they cast over Turkish society.
Unfortunately, Christian minorities have long been pawns in Turkey's conflicts with its neighbours. As such, they have never been accepted as valid members of Turkish society, despite the fact that many are the aboriginal inhabitants of Anatolia. Rather than be provoked to similar rash reactions however, the whole world must assist Turkey to cast off its attachment to homogeneity and embrace the diversity that made the Ottoman Empire a vibrant mosaic of cultures. Greece in particular has a responsibility, without conceding anything, to take Turkey by the arm only when she is ready, and lead her into a peaceful Europe where all are welcome, free from persecution, and respected.

published in NKEE on 20 September 2004

Monday, September 13, 2004


Cavafy, in one of his poems, states: «Την εκκλησίαν αγαπώ...ο νους μου πηγαίνει σε τιμές μεγάλες της φυλής μας, στον ένδοξο μας Βυζαντινισμό.» One of the major appeals of Cavafy was that, learned in all aspects of Greek history as he was, he developed a syncretist approach to the Greek identity. He mulled and mused over minute occurrences in the whole 4,000 year gamut of our past that for him, highlighted the sensuality, frailty but also the poignancy of the human condition.
At the time Cavafy was writing, such an approach, was an anathema to the Establishment. Small nations with illustrious pasts often try to aggrandize them in an attempt to gain legitimacy. In this respect, Greece was particularly unfortunate in that western scholars such as Gibbon and Fallmerayer had already 'picked out' the 'good bits' of Greek history for them. The Neoclassical Revival that took place in the western world at the least looked passionately back to the ancient world for inspiration, and at the most, denigrated everything else anteceding it as a corruption. There were few westerners, such as Lord Byron, who were willing to accept the Greeks on face value.
The Greek State, back when where nationalism was still an infant concept, attempted to create an identity by sifting out all 'foreign' additions and making people feel bad about the way they were as opposed to the way they supposedly were in Pericles’ Golden Age. Thus, for generations of Greek schoolchildren, the ancient Greeks, ie. the Athenians, the Spartans, and very little else, assumed 'godlike' status, so much so that the rest of our past was seen as an aberration, something to be ashamed of or to be clumsily explained away.
The dividends of such a policy are seen today in the attitudes of our first generation. After a lifetime of hard work establishing themselves in this country and enjoying a well-earned rest, many are turning to the age-old question that has plagued Greece for time immemorial - What does it mean to be Greek?
That the question is not new is evidenced by the fact that it taxed the minds of the Elanodikai at Olympia who were forced to determine whether Alexander I of Macedon and indeed the Macedonians in general were Greek. That two and half thousand years later, the same question is unresolved, speaks volumes for the flimsiness of any ‘concrete' sense of identity.
The prevalence of commentary in our community media adoring ancient Greece, while at the same time denigrating Christianity as 'foreign' and 'Jewish' (since when is something foreign or Jewish necessarily bad?) continues a debate that had its origins in the anti-Christian writing of Porphyry in the 3rd century. Societies dedicated to 'reviving' our ancient glory by purging us of 2,000 years of Christianity enjoy unprecedented popularity as work-weary members of our community rediscover past glories and are delighted for it. Many of these activities are quaint and delightful in the way they celebrate knowledge newly acquired. When however, self-appointed spokespersons of the ancient world decide that Greek civilization comprises only of all that occurred prior to the closing of the Olympic Games by the Roman Emperor Theodosius, thus discarding a further 1,500 years of our history as foreign and corrupted, problems emerge.
The anti-Christian agenda of many of these spokespersons is virulent to the extent where it is often offensive to the sensitivities of believers and if directed at other religions, could land them into a seething cauldron of trouble. I was shocked to listen to an ex-academic read extremely bad poetry recently on a community radio station that advocated the burning of priests. Another radio presenter commented that the Byzantine float in the Athens opening ceremony was 'offensive because Christianity has nothing to do with Hellenism'. Surely when the vast majority of Greek-Australians are nominally Christian, a level of maturity and discretion is required if anyone is to enter the identity debate. Sadly, we seem to be stuck in a Civil War mentality of polarization where a person possessed of an opinion opposite to one's own can be publicly mocked and ridiculed. In some cases, this can even reach defamatory proportions, where youth are publicly mocked in the print media for their religious or other affiliations by self-righteous spokespersons. It also speaks volumes for our ability as a community to validly conduct any sort of debate on any contentious issue whatsoever. Interestingly enough, it is a fact that many of these spokespersons' children are decidedly absent from participating in the Greek community and are oblivious to the views their progenitors would impose upon the rest of the world.
At the end of the day, our self-appointed purveyors of identity are potentially doing more harm than good. If the first-generation laments that second and third generation Greek-Australians reject their 'identity' then they themselves have provided the riposte: What identity should we be assuming when you, the first-generation with a direct experience of Greece cannot define this identity?
Fortunately or unfortunately, the greater body of the second and third generation does not access our community Greek-language media and are thus largely oblivious to the debate that is raging above their heads. Surely at this stage, where assimilation and distance from our mother culture are the threats to our community that we should be addressing, it is inappropriate to engage in pointless and endless insult-hurling vis a vis our identity. Whether we bury our heads in the sand or in the stinking quagmire of the irrelevant argument of the aspiring intellectual, the truth is that we have other priorities: the nurturing of our youth in a community that has of late turned in on itself and become decidedly nasty, exclusive and totally anti-communal.
Of vital importance to us is that the identity issue be buried once and for all. For all their shortcomings and appeal, all stages of our history, whether ancient, medieval or modern are equally as Greek and ought to be recognized as such. History is not about picking the good events to fit an image. Instead, an image is created out of the collective of all events and experiences and is used to interpret the way we are, not to mould it. And nothing exists in a vacuum. Civilizations borrow and share with one another in order to develop, just like people do.
The constructivist world of creating and imposing identities upon people to fit a demented fuhrer's vision belongs to the time of Stalin and Hitler and has no place in our community. Let us leave the bitter and angry old men to ridicule youth for their attachment to the Church in their isolation and unbiasedly embrace our entire identity and use it as a worthy compass to guide our path into the future.

published in NKEE on 13 September 2004

Monday, September 06, 2004


Recently CNN apologized for their negative coverage of the Greek Olympic effort. This was magnanimous of them. They admitted that they were wrong and in poor taste. Yet don’t hold your breath if you think perpetrators of anti-Hellenic comments in the media will follow suit here. One entity, when questioned about the likelihood of an apology stated: “The humour is not based on any cultural stereotypes. It is based on the situation, not the characters.” So there are no apologies. Indeed most of these entities seems not to understand why they should apologise and also seem genuinely bemused by our complaints, when they arise. In short, they could be likened to a child that claims does not know what it has done wrong and as a consequence, does not know how to make amends.
No one doubts that many remarks or advertisements screened recently did not deliberately set out to offend the Greek community. Herein lies the problem. In a society where it has become acceptable to demean all things Greek, it is no longer possible to know when one crosses the line. Unfortunately, this is reflected in the Greek community itself. A complainant, calling an entity to complain about their advertisement was told: “I don’t know why you found it offensive. We have a lot of Greeks working for us and they all found it funny.” There is a great danger here. When offensiveness becomes the norm in society and its target no longer realises that it is being demeaned, then that target is condemned to the purgatory of sub-status. It seems that a section of our community has already blindly made its way down this path.
The Press Attaché to the Greek Embassy, Efthymios Aravantinos made an interesting point when he commented to The Age that while he understood that one such commercial, dealing with the Olympics might offend some in the Greek community, he was not upset by it because the success of the Games made redundant any implied criticism of Greece. Unfortunately, this is missing the point entirely. In the aftermath of an anti-Hellenic climate that has reached hysterical proportions, where the Australian media only grudgingly accepts the success of the Athens Games while still trying to cast aspersions as to the achievements of Greek athletes like Fani Halkia, a climate which, it should be noted, the Greek Embassy has done nothing to address, surely any advertisement or comment should not be seen as an example of a concerted effort to denigrate the Games of Greece but a manifestation of a general negative societal attitude towards the Greek people which from something marginal, has become mainstream. This should be a matter of concern for a Press Attaché whose role is to monitor the press and promote a positive opinion of Greece, within this community.
It was Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister who once quipped that if one tells the people a lie often enough, they will believe it. Aravantinos is right. The Games are a success. But he is misguided if he believes that this success negates any implied criticism. For the media here have not portrayed the Games as a success. They have instead gleefully commented on the Greek drug scandals, the attachment of the Greek people to their erring athletes and the prevalence of empty seats at the Games. They have done all that they possibly can to lower people’s opinions of Greece. For the past two weeks, every singly Anglo-Australian that I have spoken to has begun their conversation stating: “Not many spectators at the Games are there?”
It is this negative attitude that recent commercials and remarks are an offspring of and it is rightful that Greek-Australian community leaders should protest vociferously and do all that they can to dispel the toxic cloud of racial stereotyping in our community. Yet one cannot but feel, from the Press Attaché’s non-confrontationalist position that as with other important issues, the Greek community on the whole has been left alone and unaided to ‘defend’ itself, as best it can, having to resume a struggle for legitimacy within the wider Australian sphere without the valuable guidance and co-ordination that an Embassy could provide. In this respect our Consular authorities could have become a rallying point for constructive and positive marketing for all things Hellenic.
How many posters, marketing material and positive expositions did we all see placed in the mainstream Australian publications promoting the Olympic Games and Greece in the lead up to and during the Games? Very little, especially here in Melbourne. In truth it is the Greek Embassy and the various consular authorities that are charged as part of their diplomatic duties to create such positive images of their employer within their host country and its press. One cannot shake off the impression that the Greek authorities here manifestly have failed to do so and in doing so, have failed the Greek-Australian community as well. In this respect, the negative Australian publicity does not constitute something to be merely dismissed of as untrue. It represents a logical consequence of a Greek Embassy marketing and public relations disaster that the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs should take serious notice of.
Again, the Greek community has been left alone, «να βγάλει το φιδι από την τρύπα». Most of our self-appointed community leaders, secure in their positions and their benign navel gazing in an ever diminishing and blinkered world are not probably even now aware of this issue. Yet the multitude of people calling various stations and other entities to complain is a promising sign. We need to be pro-active and responsive, ensuring that as potential patrons, purveyors of product know exactly how far they can go. Vociferous complaint equals people thinking twice before they denigrate Greeks ever again. In short, it’s time we ourselves, seized back our self-respect.


published in NKEE on 6 September 2004