Monday, October 11, 2004


When traveling in 'foreign lands' familiar objects or sights often bring comfort. I remember the sense of camaraderie I felt when traversing the empty and sagging streets of the Fanari district of Constantinople, I saw two familiar things: a Greek inscription on a doorway and further down the street, kicked into the gutter, a crushed Foster's Lager can. I also remember being greeted at passport control at Istanbul Havalimani by a grinning Turkish female officer asking me in broad Australian: "How about those Doggies? Go Footscray!" Similarly, if you are ever lonely in Athens, walk down to Omonoia Square. It is by now tested fact, that on a given day, a Greek-Australian walking in Omonoia will invariably bump into another Greek-Australian that he knows and especially one that he hasn't seen for a long time.
This is all well and good but nothing could prepare me for the familial shock visited upon me on a recent trip to Albania. Albania is the land that time forgot. As you cross the border and you taste the bitter, astringent squeeze of the mountain air on your tongue, as you see the old Greek stone houses perched precariously upon the slumbering mountain-sides, you forget that you have ever lived in the twentieth century. I was visiting the University of Argyrokastro, the largest Greek city in Northern Epirus and I was checking out the library of its Hellenic Studies Department, one hand tracing the spines of the books on the shelf, the other greedily clutching a handful of most excellent κουραμπιέδες. Suddenly, coming to a particularly tall, blue spine, I halted and almost choked on the bolus of κουραμπιέ that I had been forming while in my literary reverie. For there on the shelf was indeed a familiar sight and a most unexpected one: Alfred Kouris' book "Migrant" based on his Australian experiences. A quick glance at the back of the book revealed that this publication seemed to have been heavily borrowed. "We all like that one," one of the students smilingly volunteered. "What do you know about how we can apply to come to Australia?"
On second thoughts, it should not strike one as remarkable that Kouris' book, one that has achieved legendary status in Australia, is to be found and appreciated in such far-flung corners of the globe. For Kouris' book is truly remarkable, simply because he has made his sojourn in this country remarkable. In a Greek Community whose ageing first generation is increasingly inward-looking and threatened by the monocultural hybridisation of Australia, Alfred Kouris stands as an example of a successful integration with the wider Australian sphere. A man with a passion, he has been a prominent member of the Greek community for many years. My father remembers as a boy being taken to Alfredos', his clothing business in the city, to buy a suit for church. Few of us in the second-generation, and especially the shopaholics among us would know that it was only through the pioneering personal endeavour of Alfred Kouris in the 1970's, lobbying for changes in the hospitality and retail trades that such taken-for-granted concepts as Friday night shopping, footpath dining and relaxed licensing laws were instituted here. In fact it could be argued that Melbourne's reputation for cosmopolitanism and fine dining is directly attributable to Kouris' successful campaign.
Alfred Kouris' also established new business practices in this country and was in particular a great benefactor of newly arrived migrants who he was able to train into a trade (he ran a trade school) and employ. He is also, paradoxically enough, responsible for the introduction of the shower screen door to Greece among other things.
For me the attraction of Alfred Kouris while reading "Migrant" available in both the English and Greek languages, is the Odysseus like character that is formed from the pages and pages of newspaper clippings, certificates and other primary evidence that are interspersed in the book. Like Odysseus, Alfred Kouris can and has, done almost anything. He ran for Parliament and had his campaign building burnt out. He was a prominent member of the Liberal Party and continues to campaign for such causes as the restitution of the Parthenon Marbles and most importantly, for the recognition of the anniversary of the Battle of Crete as a national Greek Holiday. His long dalliance with Greek-Australian journalism has given him an encyclopaedic behind the scenes knowledge of our settlement and development here and much juicy information is provided for those who have forgotten or had no idea. Old age has not mellowed him and he appears larger than life-like, a veritable Greek Gough Whitlam, a senior statesman of the Greek community, always willing to offer sage advice and to launch into fresh activity that he believes will further the welfare of the Greek-Australian community.
Kouris' story is an amazing one. It is a testament to the indefatigability of the Greek pioneering spirit, one which permits people in reduced circumstances to arrive at the shores of the blank canvas called Australia and not only enrich themselves but to enrich that canvas a thousand fold.
What I love about the book most of all is the wealth of primary sources, pictures and newspaper clippings all of which are raw data that make up the history of our community. I found myself looking interminably for familiar faces, finding out who the dead ones were and laughing at some of the now aged community leader's sideburns and bell-bottomed trousers. This is a throwback to a youthful time, where everyone had boundless energy and efforts to spare in building Australia and the Greek community. Whether their hopes and aspirations have been realized remains as elusive a question today as to whether these can change and adapt over time anyway.
One person who is guaranteed never to sell out (his ideals not his books which are selling fast) is Alfred Kouris. Seek out the book on this site You will not regret it. It is your history and mine and it is a thoroughly engrossing read.

published in NKEE on 11 October 2004