Monday, February 07, 2005


Indiana Jones, Howard Carter and Manolis Andronikos step aside! Greater than the re-discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the Holy Grail and the tombs at Vergina, more glorious, I would dare to say, than the re-discovery of the Tasmanian tiger, is the revelation that despite years of furtive hiding and rumours of extinction, most ancient cultural traditions are beginning to re-emerge, vibrant and vigorous as ever. In the Hollywood tradition of taking old movies, re-packaging and re-launching them as Blockbuster hits (Ocean's 11 for example), ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Proxy!
That the Proxy had almost vanished of the face of the Greek-Australian earth can be evidenced by the fact that in a recent survey of first generation Greek-Australians on what the word Proxy meant to them, 70% answered "that is when you give your vote at a συνέλευση of your local brotherhood, to one of your friends so you won't get bashed and you can remove the president, who is evil." Those surveyed then began to argue amongst themselves as to whether the proxies at the 1975 general meeting were in fact valid in accordance with the constitution and as the thermometer of conflict overflowed with mercurial pathos, our hapless Diatribe surveyors had to beat a hasty retreat.
Proxies have been around for ages and are deeply ingrained within the Greek soul. Indeed it was the ancient Greeks who invented the concept. A proxenos was a person who was a host in his own city, and served the interests of citizens in another city. Thus persons arriving at a foreign city could be met by the proxenos, who would look after them, vouch for them with the city's authorities and make sure that they were protected. In this respect, the proxenos was like a big brother, or at least, one of those bodgy business references you get from your mates when you are buying a business and have no prior business experience, in order to get the landlord's consent to the transfer of the lease. The name says it all, he was pro-xenos, the foreigner's advocate.
Somewhere along the line, the role of the proxenos diversified into two distinct institutions. The proxeneio became the Consulate, an office in a city that represents the interests of another country in that city. Its head is the proxenos. His job is to 'vouch' to the host government, for the acts and intentions of his home government and also look after his government's nationals resident in the city. In Melbourne, this would mean looking after Greek citizens, as opposed to those of Greek extraction. That the two limbs of the proxeneio's responsibilities are uneasily balanced can be evidenced by the fact that Greek nationals who require the proxeneio's assistance are being told to make an appointment in a month's time, presumably because it is too busy trying to raise the image of Greece in the eyes of the Australian government, as it did with great success, during the anti-Greek media blitz during the Olympic Games.
The proxenitis on the other hand, named thus so as to not offend the sensitivities of the proxenos, who believed that his job was infinitely more important, also was an advocate. His job was to find one a prospective partner and vouch for their good character and suitability, in the tradition for the old adage: "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't." Old-time proxenites, like modern day real-estate agents would wax lyrical to interested parties of their prospect's fine facilities and features, enquiring discretely as to the size of the purchaser's deposit, propensity for capital and stomachic growth and other necessities. Once the prospective acquisition was approved, all were happy and the proxenitis received his agent's commission.
In Australia, the proxenitis' role changed slightly. Hitherto, a champion of the xenos, now the proxenitis' main role was to ensure that Greek-Australians chose only their own imported product and had absolutely nothing to do with the 'foreign', domestic market. The system of tariffs, customs and duties in place, including for example the rule that girls and boys are not allowed to talk to each other or be with each other alone as this would diminish their market value, was so complicated as to ensure that no one could cross the picket line, and seek freer markets, elsewhere. Love and Darwinian concepts of natural selection be damned. Once the matriarchs agreed with the proxenitis that a match was made, the rest would be history. Talk about mergers and acquisitions….
It was when the "proxy," became a method of compelling people to marry that decline set in. After all, it is an insidious marketing ploy and the pressure is great. How can one say no, if both sets of parents want the match and the proxenitis has gone to so much time and effort? How can the proxenitis, who is the keeper of all virtues have any future incentive to extol these, if his efforts are going to be thwarted? By the late eighties, the much maligned proxy, indeed a word that would cause Greek-Australian youth to turn up their noses in disgust and exclaim “Oh my God”, sending shivers down the spines of their parents, many of whom would choose their children's partners on the basis of whether they enjoyed the company of their in-law's, was slowly entering the shadows of history.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new era was heralded in the sphere of what used to be rightly called, the νυφοπάζαρο, or bride market. The recession and de-regulation brought an end to this small, protected market as boys and girls, enjoying their new-found emancipation, were able to go out and mix freely, without the stigma of their virtue somehow being compromised through such interaction. Indeed, the virtue commodity crash of 1987 spelt the end of public demand for this hitherto prized article of sale. Instead, freedom of choice was championed, the bouffant coiffeured seeking equally permed ‘Mario” males without any parental or proxenitital intervention whatsoever. Thousands swarmed and spawned in countless nightclubs, parking lots and Gemini backseats, as the swirling disco-ball wiped away the iniquities of tradition, providing hedonistic absolution. Indeed, many of these riders on the free merry go-round of love felt such delight at their emancipation that they forgot to get off and are doing the rounds of the Greek community today, making and breaking relationships ad infinitum.
Proxenites joined the dole queue in their thousands, their livelihoods destroyed, along with, in many cases their reputations, given that some of the business references they had given to their clients were indeed dodgy, with some girls being less roomy, less airy, some guys brick veneer instead of the solid brick that was advertised and, with leaky drainpipes to boot. In this era of consumerism, where each party could go out and inspect, purchase or otherwise anything he wanted, without the need for a middle man with a vested interest, proxenites, representing the deluded old ideology of planned economy crushed under the foot of triumphant capitalism, were anathema.
By the turn of the millennium, I along with many others could thus have been forgiven for thinking that the proxenio was a thing of the past, along with innumerable other traditional customs. After all, two generations of Greek-Australians had grown up without direct experience of the proxenio, which to them was merely a bogeyman of the past. Not so however. For though the proxenio receded tactfully into the underground, it never really died out. As it happens, the display cabinets at most flesh markets these days are said to be too dark, too skewed to allow the purchaser a close and candid inspection. Recourse seems to be needed to someone with intimate product knowledge, and who has used this type of model before.
The other day, I visited a mate. Walking into his living room, I felt an atmosphere that I had not felt for 20 years, the time since I had experienced the same scene before, except without the mothballs. His comfortable and relaxed living room was stifled and stuffy. His parents, second generation Greek-Australians who married for love, thoroughly modern in outlook and almost totally assimilated, sat stiffly on one side of the room, facing an unknown couple also sitting stiffly. Next to them, was a girl, their daughter, looking blank and tired. And in the middle, out of hiding, with the fervour of new-found freedom, the proxenitis plied his trade. She is kind, funny, beautiful, patient. Unbeknownst to her husband to be, she is also one of those hapless riders of the merry go-round of love who having ‘done the rounds’ of the entire Greek community and more besides, has finally been jolted off the saddle of her last steed. As a result, she looks eternally nauseous. He is strong, hard-working, sensitive, and owing to his demanding job, also quite lonely. Both have punted on a free market that has failed them. Now the proxenitis, welcomes back all his prodigal sheep to the protective tariff fold and offers them, extreme absolution, though not a money back guarantee.

First published in NKEE on 7 February 2005