Monday, May 30, 2005


Viewed from above, Cairo assumes a large verdant knot along the tenuous thin stripe of life interposed within the stark lifelessness of the surrounding wasteland. As the aeroplane lands on the tarmac and you are bused to the terminal, a shudder of recognition flickers in your eyes. This seems to be an exact copy of the old Athens airport at Ellinikon, replete with grimy unadorned concrete walls and pillars and nonchalant personnel who wave you through customs unchecked, all the while yawning. Indeed, save for the all-pervasive heat one could very well be in Athens, not the plasticky, western-approved, squeaky clean Athens of today but the dirty, chaotic, abandoned to the will of God and the fates Athens that I loved, prior to the Olympics and the Great Cultural Assimilation.
There is something unidentifiably special about cities that were once the hub of great empires. Though they may diminish in power, like old spinsters, popular and pretty within their time, they retain a certain dignity and grandeur even if, in the case of Cairo, they have altered face masks so many times that their face is now a cracked mosaic of their life, mouldering away unnoticed. Some cities rise to grandeur only once in their lifetimes and are forgotten. Not so Cairo. As Memphis, it was the religious and political centre of the Egyptian Empire. It continued thus under the name of Heliopolis, then in Roman times as the city of Babylon in Egypt (the Orthodox bishop of the city is still known as Bishop of Babylon) and later simply as 'The Headquarters' (al-Fustat) of the conquering Islamic armies and finally Cairo (al-Qahirah) under the Fatimid Sultans who extended their sway throughout the Middle East, only to be replaced by the Mamelukes and the Albanian dynasty of Mehmet Ali, ruler of Egypt, Crete and Syria. Cairo's last claim to dominance lapsed twenty years ago, with the dissolution of the United Arab Republic along with its dream of being the epicentre and capital of a United Arab world.
Traveling through the streets of Cairo, one is confronted with the logical extension of Athens' traffic aspirations. Here, four lanes of cars fit seamlessly into three. Though it may take a while for the denizens of this hypermetropolis of some eighteen million people to arrive at their chosen destination, they weave and negotiate their way through innumerable obstacles with the dexterity of a carpet weaver. "Here is the palace of President Mubarak" intones our taxi driver, "President Mubarak is the saviour of Egypt. He is brave and capable. He is very fit and eats gazelle for breakfast. No don't take photos. You might be arrested." The palace is vast but not nearly as obtrusive as the thousands of Mubarak portraits that adorn the exterior of buildings along with signs in English that read: "Egypt is the leader in world peace."
Beyond these, twenty to forty storey high jerry-built apartments whose decrepitness again would make old Athens squirm with inferiority mix it in with low lying shops and workshops. Village fellahin dressed in long robes, skull cap or kafiyeh rummage through the rubbish, cultivate garlic or onions on the nature strips or banks of the Nile, or cart their wares to market on donkeys while nouveau riche youths, their hair slicked back and their windows wound down, pass them in their flashy cars. Despite the stark dichotomy in class relations and their unembarrassed juxtaposition to the public view, Cairo hides one surprise for the visitor that he is unprepared for. Cairo is fragrant. The odours of incense and various other spices pervades the air, recalling the sensuality of a Cavafy poem, though one would think that Cairo is too starkly eastern to appeal even to that jaded orientalist, ensconced in his armchair in western Alexandria.
Leaving the tacky neo-nationalist monuments built in ancient Egyptian style to vanish in a haze of smog and 'Cairo love perfume no. 23' bought from Rameses Perfume Palace, one exits the city centre and finds themselves in another world. For kilometers, one can see nothing but the tall pointed domes of crumbling old buildings, with tall thin minarets extending skywards, as if gasping for air. There are 40,000 mosques in Cairo, on city streets, on rooftops, everywhere. This city marks the triumph of Islam over monophysite Christianity and its muslim inhabitants make sure that the visitor knows this. "These are the tombs of the Mameluke sultans," our taxi driver explains. The Mameluke rulers, like their pharaoh predecessors believed that one should go out with a bang that all should remember. Thus, they built a vast necropolis in Cairo replete with tombs and mosques so that their memory could never be forgotten. To view the tombs at sunset is to be transported into a tale of the Arabian Nights, especially when a crescent moon arises in the sky. Today the tombs have been rifled and ransacked. They play host to thirty thousand homeless immigrants from nearby villages, despite government efforts to clear them out. Further out, on top of a citadel constructed by that chivalrous scourge of the Crusaders Saladin, a vast mosque looms. Its architecture is strangely out of place with the oriental feel of the city. "That is the mosque of Mehmet Ali," the taxi driver explains as he returns to the taxi bearing hibiscus tea for his passengers. "He never forgot he was from Kavala. He built it to rival your Agia Sophia."
It says much for the vitality of this fertile region in which it is fabled that everything you plant sprouts overnight that even the necropolis is alive and bustling. The same could also be said about the bulky and imposing necropolis of the pharaohs at Giza, now a suburb of greater Cairo housing some seven million people. Photographs of the pyramids are deceptive. They lead you to believe that they are located somewhere out in the remote desert. Yet life has extended its tendrils around this city of death so densely that it is but a mere park on the outskirts of a city groaning under the Nile's lust for pure existence. It is for this reason that the weary pyramids seem, as they suffer the indignities of the ever-encroaching sand to say: "Go away. We are trying to be dead here." The same could be said of the Sphinx, the bemused expression on whose countenance has not so much to do with the loss of her nose but with her wondering whose silence she is guarding considering the multitudes of tourists who visit her and her masters' abode every day, cruelly but short-sightedly rejoicing in their own vitality and the inexorability of life.
Life and death too are the subject of discussion at one of the traditional Arab coffee shops of Khan Al Khalili, the old market where cheap trinkets catering to the tourist market can be located along with more expensive items such as drugs and human souls, if only one knows where to look. We sit on some low carved benches, rest our wares on a carefully inlaid mother of pearl table and sip the aromatic fumes of the narghile as we watch the world go by. The regular denizens of the coffee shop look upon us with detached interest as a swarthy young woman, her face disfigured by venereal disease approaches us in the tow of a jolly and rather corpulent friend and promptly attempts to sell her to us. "This girl," she says, "is really good. You can ride her like a camel, she is like a dog to your desires." "What can they do?" the coffee shop owner asks raising his hands skywards as they leave. "Everyone has to live."
The exact same words are repeated to me at the Coptic Orthodox monastery of Mar Sabba by the parish priest. The Copts, the original descendants of the ancient Egyptians and among the first peoples to adopt Christianity number some ten million in Egypt. Traditionally traders, politicians and artisans, their fortunes have declined with the advent of Arab nationalism and not a day goes by where a Copt is not killed or a Coptic girl kidnapped and raped, then forced to convert to Islam. Though they preserve the historic tradition of the Holy Family's sojourn into Egypt, Copts are wary, frightened people who hide their faith and their lives behind huge walls in the laneways and side-streets of the city. The day I visited them, making my way through the Coptic neighbourhoods teeming with life, I was stopped at the Church entrance. "Today is Muhammad's birthday. No tourists allowed." "But I am a Christian," I responded, "I've come to pray." "Not today," came the answer of the priest. "Everyone has to live and the Muslims can attack us here at any time." The Copts are still very much alive but their hope for the future, in the face of extreme persecution, is well and truly dead.
Dead too is the Patriarchal Cathedral of St George, seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria. It was under this sumptuous building, the only four-storied church complex that houses some twelve churches within it that St George is said to have been martyred. Both muslims and Christians attend the church to pray to St George and wear the iron collar that he bore, around their necks as a blessing. The church is extremely old, its lower storey, now inundated by the Nile was built in early Christian times and it is a repository of Christianity and Greek history. Outside, in its grounds, the sumptuous tombs of the departed wealthy Cairo Greeks form a Mameluke necropolis of their own. Yet the dates on the graves are old, most are falling apart. "There is no one left to tend them," the priest whispers as we enter a nearby church which marks the spot where the Holy Family hid during their flight into Egypt. "Everyone is gone, everything is finished." Today there are one thousand Greeks remaining in Cairo, living in European 1920's style apartments that are slowly falling to pieces. They are as elderly and as dignified as the city that houses them.
As I stood before the grave of recently departed Patriarch Petros, my backpack filled with aromas and oils, tacky souvenirs and the nonchalant yet at the same time vigorous attitude of its inhabitants, I was glad that at least in this quiet place, life had no power. Outside the church, a fellow traveller, an old inhabitant of the city evicted in the fifties by Nasser's Pan-Arab policies, was desperately asking passersby in broken Arabic, "When I was young, we called this area thus. What is it called now? When I was young, the best nightspots were at such and such a place. Where are they now?" He then turned, looked at the church, remembered it in its heyday milling with the life of thousands of Greeks attending festivals and services, remembered his own dreams being spawned under the vast expanse of its dome and reflecting on his own mortality and the final absoluteness of Hellenism compared with the vital dualism of Egypt, sat upon the steps and began to cry.
First published in NKEE on 30 May 2005

Monday, May 23, 2005


Recently the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, replying to questions by journalists from European Union countries called for an unbiased study of the “allegations” as he called them, that one million Armenians have been killed by Ottoman troops during World War One as the result of a planned genocide. “We want to open our archives to those persons who allege that a genocide took place. If the other countries were truly genuine they would do the same thing. Teams of historians from both sides can research the archives so that the truth can be told. We do not want successive generations to live under the shadow of continuous hatred.”
At first instance, these sentiments seem laudable. It is the first time within living history that a Turkish leader has spoken publicly about the issue of genocide without issuing a blatant denial or hurling invective at those who state that it did occur. This has caused great optimism within certain circles that maintain that closer ties with the European Union are responsible for this ‘spring’ and that increased ties will lead to the development of a ‘mature’ Turkey, able to cast aside the fetters of nationalist myth-construction and view the past objectively.
Even more tantalising to scholars is the promise of opening up the archives. Much of the Ottoman archives have remained closed to public viewing ever since the formation of the Turkish state, a little while after an International Tribunal in the early twenties was able to examine some of these and on their basis, along with that of witnesses, to conclude that the Ottoman regime was in fact guilty of genocide. Since that time however, the archives have remained closed and western scholarship on the genocide has basically been restricted to research of the contemporary documents and dispatches used by consular authorities of Western Powers, operating in Turkey. Henry Morgenthau’s eyewitness account of the horrors of the Armenian genocide is extra-ordinarily moving and persuasive evidence while Bill Balakian’s recent book ‘Burning Tigris’ is also an interesting account of how the Armenian genocide was perceived by Americans in Turkey and America and how government policy towards it has shifted since.
When one looks past the smokescreen of Erdoğan’s attestations of friendliness and abjuring of hatred, a few key words stand out. These are ‘alleged genocide,’ underlying the contention that the Turkish policy of denial still remains, although if there is a shift, it is that it is now a policy of ‘denial until proven guilty,’ and the proposition that if Turkey is guilty of withholding evidence about the genocide, then other countries are also complicit in this, thus shifting the onus of proof from Turkey to a broader base. Conversely, if in fact millions of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians around the world are in fact misguided, as are their ancestors who survived the ‘holocaust,’ in that the genocide never occurred, this is due to the Western Powers deliberately withholding information that would prove Turkey’s innocence.
The Ottoman archive card was a clever hand to play. The official language of the Ottoman Empire differs greatly from the Turkish of today. Firstly it is written in a modified form of the Arabic script, no longer in use since 1927. Secondly, the modern Turkish language has been ‘purged’ of all ‘foreign’ Arabic and Persian loanwords and grammatical constructions by the Kemalist regime, rendering a reading of these archives impossible to but a few Ottoman scholars. Further, it is interesting to note that by linking the opening of the archives to a similar gesture by the unspecified West, Erdoğan has made no clear commitment as to when these valuable archives, relevant not only to the genocide but to the study of the fascinating Ottoman Empire in general, will be made available to international scholarship.
Indeed it is difficult to reconcile Erdoğan’s statement with the climate that currently prevails in Turkish society vis a vis the Armenian genocide. Recently the Turkish author Orhan Pamuk was called a traitor by the governor of his home province who in an act reminiscent of 1933 Nazi Germany, ordered the removal of his books from the public libraries and bookstores and staged a public burning, just because he had the temerity to comment to a German newspaper that one million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Taner Akçam, the leftist scholar imprisoned for his non-conformist views of Turkish history is currently hiding out in Germany where he not only bravely confronts what he deems to be the undeniability of the Armenian genocide by wading through available Turkish material but also analyses with great sensitivity the reason why Turks are unwilling or reluctant to delve into this matter:
“Turkey has not yet been able to fully digest the problematic aspects associated with the transition from Empire to Republic. It is utterly unwilling to accept the political transformation from a mighty Empire straddling three continents to a republic squeezed between two continents. Herein lies the problem. If Turkey had indeed reconciled itself to what it has arrived as a result of the collapse and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, it would not have had to create taboos with regard to its own history, nor would it display the hysterical-neurotic reactions that it does. Basically, Turkey desires to be at the highest position it believes it had in its past and does not accept where it is today. This is the primary reason for Turkey’s emotional reaction to history.”
Gündüz Aktan in the newspaper Radikal writes frankly that: “Such bitterness and sorrow lie in our past that we desire not to study them but to forget them entirely. We simply don’t have the strength to face this much grief. Because others have accused us of having caused their suffering, the claim of the genocide incites us – who have struggled to forget our own grief – to indignation and rebellion.”
Life for Turks who decide to take an alternative to the ‘official’ view of history experience great hardships in Turkey. If Erdoğan is genuine about studying the genocide then the pre-requisite step surely is to make the discussion of history free and unfettered within Turkish society, something that it currently is not. Only then will it be understood that Western countries rarely make history the cause for political strife but rather a catalyst for healing.
As the youth group of Pontiaki Estia once more held its remarkable both in variety and scope Workshop on the Pontian Genocide over the past two weeks, a few thoughts came into my mind which are important when we discuss such issues.
Firstly, the Turkish people are not our enemies. We have the tendency, when our souls are crying out at the enormity of the genocide to sometimes express ourselves in extreme or unfair terms. The fact that many Turkish scholars actually put their lives at risk to ‘set the record straight’ proves that the genocide is a historical issue, which should not and must not affect our relations with the Turkish people. While it may be hurtful for many of us to hear people deny the genocide, the way forward is through increased communication and consensus, something that is admittedly difficult but necessary.
Secondly, our own scholarship and activism on the Pontian Genocide is poor compared to that of the Armenians. Through sheer willpower and passion, the Armenian diaspora have had France recognize the Armenian Genocide officially and recently the governor of California Arnold Schwarzeneger has also instituted an official day of commemoration. We tend to view the Pontian Genocide as something pertaining only to Pontians. It seems not to have affected non-Pontians to any great level and this is proven by the almost total lack of Greek community interest in what occurred, let alone the events commemorating it or seeking worldwide recognition of it. Further such scholarship as is advanced to prove or delineate the events of the Pontian Genocide is of a raw and unsophisticated level compared to that of the Armenians and we have failed to attract foreign scholarship to this issue.
Which brings me to my next point. It is the height of folly to refer to a Pontian Genocide, an Armenian Genocide or an Assyrian Genocide. The fact of the matter is that a considerable population of all these three nations was simultaneously dispossessed of its homeland and life. We need to start thinking in collective terms. No one owns the term genocide and if we as Greeks are to advance a position on the issue, we cannot do so other than in consort with the other aggrieved parties. To date this has not been done with the result that the Pontian (or rather Greek) and Assyrian genocides are relatively unknown as an issue. In this, the youth of Pontiaki Estia are to be applauded in inviting the participation of our Armenian community in the Workshop this year and participating in their commemorative events. This marks one of the rare historic moments in Australia where our community has been able to transcend its shell and embrace others and we need to work in consort if we are to place the issue in the wider Australian consciousness.
Last year when I wrote about the Genocide, I received a considerable number of abusive and threatening emails from persons identifying themselves as Turks. Some of these threatened to cause violence to my family, others referred to me and Pontiaki Estia as terrorists. This signifies that the road to reconciliation or acceptance of alternate versions of facts is a long and rocky one but it must be traversed. I for one, prefer to recall the words of Fatme Hanım, my landlady in Aksaray, Turkey who once told me: “Whatever happened in the past is past. As long as you are before my eyes, you will be my son and my son’s brother.”

First published in NKEE on 23 May 2005

Monday, May 16, 2005


There is a 12th century icon in the skeuophylakion of St Catherine’s monastery on Mt Sinai that has always exerted a particular fascination over me. It is the icon of St John Climacos (“the Ladder”) and upon a brilliant golden background it depicts what could be said to be the underlying discourse of Egypt and the Middle East – the archetypal struggle between good and evil. A long black ladder extends to heaven. Bishops and laity ascend it only to be dragged down to earth again by demons. There are many rungs on the ladder of enlightenment and during our lifetimes how we ascend and descend depends on our own care for our spiritual welfare. Beyond the ladder there is only death. Upon the narrow, rickety and precipitous ladder there is a sense of purpose and life.
Everything about Egypt is as dualistic as St John Climacos, and especially its terrain. Beyond the long and narrow strip of cultivated land that is nourished by the Nile and which supports the huge twin metropolis of Cairo-Giza, supporting over 18 million inhabitants, there is only the death and desolation of the desert. Leaving the fleshpots of Cairo for the desert is therefore a dualistically sorrowful but also cathartic experience. As one delves deeper into the silence of the desert, one is purged of all worldly cares. Rounding the Red Sea and crossing the tunnel that now worms its way under the Suez Canal, one can in four hours replicate Moses’ journey of forty years with an increasing sense of appreciation at the enormity of such an impossible task. The horizon is empty save for the brooding sands, the increasingly rocky terrain and the burnt out remains of the Egyptian tanks, relics of the Suez War when the Israelis finally revenged themselves on the pharaohs and threw the Egyptians beyond the Red Sea.
All of a sudden, the sands hurl out vast mountains and boulders, eroded into innumerable shapes that absorb the all pervasive light and heat of the desert sun. The stone here is all red granite and it can only be likened to photographs of the Martian landscape save that dotted here and there are a few desert oases, signified by the ten or twelve date palm trees that fringe the wretched tents of the totally destitute Bedouin. These Bedouin have a long and glorious history and they exhalt in it. As the 9th century Patriarch of Alexandria Eutychius relates, when the Emperor Justinian decided to found the Monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai in the 6th century, he established families from Pontus and Alexandria at Sinai to serve and protect it. They do so still, though they may have lost their language and have outwardly adopted the forms of Islam. These Jebeliya or mountain-dwellers call themselves Romioi just as we do. They practise Christian rites in the safety of their own homes and are utterly devoted to the Monastery, guarding it, serving its needs and recognizing it as the head of their tribes.
Arriving at Saint Catherine’s is another dualistic experience. The stark world of rock and light is diffused by an unearthly glow. In the semi-darkness, monks chant the same chants and in the same church that has been in continuous use for the past 1,500 years. The hospitable monks of this area once granted refuge to a fugitive Muhammad. As a result, the monastery has remained untouched by the ravages of religious hatred and is the only monastery in the world that houses a mosque, though unused, to commemorate the visit of its ideological enemy and paradoxical protector. The apse of the monastery church is decorated in a fine gold mosaic depicting Christ’s transfiguration. This is one of the earliest Byzantine mosaics to have survived the ravages of time and it did so, by hiding unassumedly for centuries under plaster, until it was uncovered in the nineteenth century. Now it ranks as one of the greatest works of art ever made.
In a room behind the altar covered in gorgeous blue Nicaean faience tiles, a shrine marks the root of the Burning Bush, as seen by Moses. The root extends from inside the shrine and directly outside the church walls, a vast hanging rose bush offering shade to passers by. “This is the Burning Bush,” Father Apostolos tells me. “Nowhere on Mt Sinai can such a bush be found. It is the only one of its kind. A few steps further down you can see the well where Moses met the daughters of Jothor when he fled into the land of Midian.” Involuntarily I express doubt. Can the Burning Bush have survived and if so, be identified with certainty? Father Apostolos smiles and his emaciated face becomes a ploughed field of wrinkles: “Why is this question relevant? Had you not given up archaeology at university, maybe we could search for the remains of the scientifically proven real burning bush together.” I shudder. How does this desert father, who knows me not from the innumerable stones thrown down from the mountain that strew our path know that indeed I had discontinued studying archaeology in my second year of university? He smiles again. “You know, there is no such thing as silence. At night time, the desert speaks to you.”
The skeuophylakion of Saint Catherine’s is a veritable treasure trove of the ages. In it is housed the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus dating to the fourth century, though the vast majority of the pages were ‘borrowed’ by the German Count Tissendorf in 1865 and never returned. Instead he gave them to the Russian Tsar and they were sold in 1933 by Stalin to the British museum. Glagolithic texts, Greek philosophic treatises and the first printed Greek books are also housed here as well as an eye-absorbing array of fine metalwork, chalices and gospel covers. Then, out of nowhere, those things that I have traveled so far to see: The almost contemporary Arabic, Armenian and Syriac versions of St John Climacos’ ladder whose dualism seems to have captured the imagination of all, accompanied by illuminations reflecting the original art of each culture. In comparison to the vibrant purples, pinks and Asian looking features of the Arabic manuscript, the original Byzantine icon is somber, almost pensive yet not despondent. Looking at the ladder for a long period of time, one sees the rungs merge into each other and form an escalator, propelling one forward to self-examination.
The icon of Christ Pantokrator should be the last article to be viewed before the attempt to scale Mt Sinai is made. One of the earliest surviving Byzantine icons, it was painted in the now lost encaustic wax technique and it sums up the dualistic experience of Mt Sinai better than anything else. One side of Jesus’ face is compassionate and lovely. This is Jesus Philanthropos, symbolising His nature as Man. The other side of his face is stern and reserved, almost angry. This is Jesus Kritis, the Judge, symbolising His nature as God. There can be no greater man-made expression of the miracle and inexplicability of the dual nature of Christ than this.
The haunting expression of this icon is what I carried with me up what the Arabs call Jebel Musa, the Mountain of Moses. In the beginning, the ascent is easy, almost comical. Picking one’s way through the mountain path, lovingly built of the local stone by the monk Moses, you can easily laugh and be dismissive. “The first rungs of the ladder are always easy,” Father Apostolos had said. “But once you get to the middle and temptation makes you look down, that’s when things get difficult.” By the middle of the way, when the soft incline turns into precipitous steps, the air becomes more rarified and you gasp for a breath, your relaxed attitude is gone. Instead, as you view the enormity of the mountain that you are still yet to climb you whisper to yourself: “Can I go on?” Slowly, inexorably, you move on, passing fellow climbers who have attempted the climb with enthusiasm and who after falling by the wayside in exhaustion are climbing back down, despondent that they had not the strength to make it to the top. Two-thirds of the way up, you reach a mountain oasis, surrounded by granite peaks. The silence here is overwhelming and you begin to feel the presence of Something. You sit and rest, reflecting upon your life and of those around you. You could have done better, should you do better?, you will do better.
The sun is beginning to fall low on the horizon and you stand up, dust your pants and realise the temptation of finality has almost thrown you off the mountain. Gasping for air, you reach the peak of the dekalogos, the exact spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments. There is a small, pathetic little church built on the site and as the monks chant vespers you look down around you at the Marscape below, noting how far you have climbed and back towards Cairo, noting how far you have traveled. Then you look up at the sky, sigh that the rungs are no longer visible and make the steady descent down the mountain, before you are enveloped in darkness and the steadily increasing howl of the mountain jackal.

First published in NKEE on 16 May 2005

Monday, May 09, 2005


"Hi is your mother in? I've come to see her. Don't just stand there, let me in" Aunt Ismini is a formidable woman, reminiscent in her sharp geometric angles and her broad shouldered frame, of a Bulgarian tractor. Much like the Bulgarian tractor of the sixties, her face is covered in deeply chipped and furrowed with wrinkles, as if the ploughshare of time and hard work carved furrow after furrow upon her, sparing no millimeter of her skin. She frowns, causing her vast bushy eyebrows that have not been plucked since her wedding to converge with cataclysmic energy, sending her glassy, beady eyes into continuous flicker as she surveys her surroundings. When aunt Ismini is on the loose, no one's secrets are safe.
She pushes past you, the aftershocks slamming you against the wall. She lurches along, her voluminous posterior rebounding against itself, encased in lime green leggings and giving up any hope of escape, achieving a profound equilibrium. As you struggle to contain your breakfast within, you hold your nose as you pick up aunt Ismini's cork slippers tossed here and there and throw them outside. Years and years in the cleaning industry have done remarkable things to aunt Ismini's feet. They are the habitat of a unique fungus, only to be found in the Amazon that cause the soles of the feet to turn a muddy green while her toenails, infested with more flora and fauna that have over the years become resistant to chlorine, handy andy, pine-o-clean and all other chemical abrasives have swelled to three times their natural width and have turned a sickly yellow.
You can hear the chair sigh with resignation as she stomps into the kitchen and collapses on it. "Make me a cup of coffee," she yells to your mother, "and I'll tell you the news." As your frightened mother cautiously inches towards the briki, aunt Ismini surveys her every move. Her restless eyes rove up and down, viewing, analyzing and storing for later transfer to others in her long list of coffee stops, exactly what you and your mother are wearing, the quantity and quality of plates still left unwashed in the kitchen sink including whether or not they were Mikasa or of an inferior design, the volume of dust on the television and its exact proportion to the volume at her last visit, inversely proportioned and compared to the mean dust volume of all the homes that she visits. "Where did you get that doily from," she asks. "Maritsa has many doilies. She says that she makes them herself but you can tell that they are made in China. She gets them from the paliomarketa at Footscray. Anyway you can tell the handmade ones can't you? Nitsa still makes hand made doilies, poor girl, as if anyone has the time to make doilies these days and anyway they don't look nice with the black granite benchtops, I mean where do you think we are, in the village or something? How's that coffee coming along?"
Finally, the steaming hot coffee arrives. "Do you have any toothpicks?" aunt Ismini asks. Aunt Ismini picks her teeth at any given opportunity, whether eating or not and it is no wonder for as she opens her cavernous mouth, dark as the grave, one shudders in horror as she exhumes pieces of rotting flesh, remnants of last night's dinner at her niece's house and with dexterous movements, deposits them onto the saucer. Her gold teeth gleaming in delight, she sucks up her coffee noisily, making hoarse guttural sounds of satisfaction. This is one woman who definitely has the Midas touch. As she deposits her coffee cup on the table, she reaches towards her legs and with difficulty pulls up a plastic bag. "I've brought you some kolyva," she says triumphantly. "These are from Tasos' funeral."
When aunt Ismini is not going from house to house, terrorizing the inhabitants into giving her a free meal, she can be found at church. Not every Sunday mind you, but only when she knows a mnimosyno is being held or on weekdays for a funeral. For good pickings are to be had on these days. With the earnestness of a professional mourner, Aunt Ismini beats her chest and pulls her hair, loudly lamenting the futility of life, the passing away of beauty and hope and the final, inevitable descent into darkness. Week after week she is there, crying copious tears, falling upon the bereaved families, consoling them and assuming command of the funeral arrangements. Simultaneously, the beady eyes are hard at work scanning. The data is stored and regurgitated: "I mean it was a decent funeral you know, not like Spiridoula's. Yes, I was there last week. So cold and unemotional. Like Englishmen. They walk in quietly, not even a tear or a sob and get this, her daughter is supposed to be distraught with grief right? Yeah right? She went out the next day after her συχωρεμένη mother died and got her self a brand new low necked, short black dress so she could look good for the funeral didn't she? And she went to the hairdressers to get her hair done. And her bitch of a daughter in law just sat there looking at her husband the whole time, didn't try to console her πεθερό or anything, but that’s ξένες for you what would they know - what am I saying, the younger generation are all like that, they have no sense of tradition. If it wasn't for the poor woman's sister who fainted, I would have thought I was at an Aussie funeral."
As she speaks, Aunt Ismini inspects the kolyva with the eye of a connoisseur. "Mmmm not bad…I told you, Taso was a gentleman and his whole family knows how to treat a person. They were crying the whole time and his daughter actually came and thanked me for being helpful, no not the one with the mole on the nose and the bad fashion sense, the one who married that αχαΐρευτο who has spend half his life on the dole, poor girl she knows what pain is so she can appreciate a gesture like this. Good kolyva I tell you. And you should have seen afterwards in the church hall. What a spread! They had psarakia, pites, sausage rolls, salads, even chops and keftedakia. Τhere was so much food and they were so nice. They even asked me to take a plate home and filled it right up. I would have brought some but we are saving it for tomorrow night's dinner."
By this stage, Aunt Ismini has, with the aid of a soup spoon ("no don't get me a teaspoon, I can't feel it in my mouth") devoured the whole of the kolyva and is engaged in scraping the last remnants from the sides of the bowl. "Good people I tell you. You should have seen how they all cried at the grave. I went for a bit of a wander. Did you know that Kyriako has been dead for over a year and they still haven't ordered a tombstone for him? But his wife has time and money to go down to St Kilda for coffee with her friends. When you die, that's it, don't expect any favours. Have you been down to the cemetery lately? No? Next time you do, try to find Dimitri's grave. I don't know what the stuck up bitch of a wife of his was thinking. The whole thing looks like the Parthenon. But she didn't know him when he was living like a pig in a shed with all the animals and all his other brothers back in the village did she? My word these people have something to prove."
Then abruptly as she arrives, Aunt Ismini gets up, causing the coffee cups to lose their balance and fall on to their sides. "No I really must be going. I couldn't be at Anna's father's funeral because of Taso's. I promised I would swing by. Anyway, they won't have finished the food yet. Thanks for the coffee. Are you sure that vase looks nice there? Oh you are, are you? Ok then, I'm off." As we breathe a sigh of relief and hold our noses as the Aunt Ismini locates her slippers, opens her crypt of a mouth and engulfs us in the despair of the damned on each cheek, she turns and says: "Oh, I almost forgot. I managed to get these flowers for you from Taso's grave. Such a waste. You could put them in a vase or something. I've got plenty more in the car. I might take some to Matina's funeral tomorrow."
When Aunt Ismini died, her children were too busy to come to the funeral, being interstate. We all gave her a good send off and as we sat at home, surrounded by piles of food that no one could eat, her nephew approached her photograph in the living room and placed underneath it, a rose snitched from the grave opposite. "Rest in peace auntie," he said and walked away.

First published in NKEE on 9 May 2005

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Χριστός Ανέστη to all of you. Throughout the world, hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians are celebrating that which not only distinguishes Christianity as a whole from every other religion but which for Christians at least, is the greatest event in history – the Resurrection of Christ. What in fact is celebrated by the Resurrection of Christ, is the renewal of human nature and the recreation of the human race. If Adam’s expulsion from Eden marks the fall of mankind from its original state, then by His Resurrection, Christ returns man back to that original state. If we consider the word revolution to mean returning to a former position, then there is scope enough to claim that the ultimate, most significant revolution in the history of mankind took place through the Resurrection of Christ. That this singular event is of the utmost significance for the orthodox faith is evidenced in the words of the Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians: “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile.”
The Resurrection of Christ is celebrated by the Church from the moment of His descent into Hell, where He freed the souls of the righteous of the Old Testament from the power of death, this forming the basis of the Resurrection troparion where we sing: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…” Thus we celebrate the ultimate freedom, our liberation from death, when Christ’s soul, united with divinity, smashed the power of Satan over mankind. If in accordance with Christian teaching, the fall of the human race and its demise is attributable to Adam, then its apokatastasis comes because of the sacrifice of the second Adam, Christ. By the power of His death, he conquered death, made it completely powerless and weak, and gave every person the possibility, by His power and authority, to escape the dominion, the authority and power of death and the devil. The rich poetry of the Orthodox liturgical tradition is unparalleled in the triumphant Easter troparia that give voice to the devil’s lament at his impotence: “my dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom once I ruled, in my strength I devoured them but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs, the power of death has no more strength.”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Christian scriptural tradition is the vast array of parallel motifs and prophesies spanning both testaments. Thus the three day sojourn of the Old Testament prophet Jonah in the belly of the whale is seen as an interesting precursor and symbol of Christ’s three day sojourn in Hell and his resurrection. St John of Damascus puts it most eloquently when he writes: “Thou didst descend into the nethermost parts of the earth, O Christ and didst shatter the bonds eternal which held the prisoners in captivity and after three days thou didst rise again from the grave, like Jonah from the whale.” Similarly, Christ’s preaching on the Earth is immediately paralleled by his descent into Hell, were he gave the dead the same benefit of his redemptive message. Again as St John of Damascus says: “Just as the sun of righteousness had risen on the dwellers of the earth, so also the light of God had to shine on those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow if death.”
Christ’s Resurrection differs clearly from other resurrections that took place in the Old and New Testaments, in that Christ as true God, not only exercised extreme humility in offering Himself on the Cross for mankind but also raised Himself. This goes to the core of Christian belief in Christ being both human and divine. In the Resurrection, His human nature was raised with the divine nature by the power of the hypostatic union of god-man. Though the Apostle Peter, referring to Christ in his homily on the day of Pentecost said: “whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death,” this means that when God the Father raised Christ, this refers to the Trinitarian God. The divinity, which is an aspect of its nature, raised up the human nature.
It is often overlooked that the first people to see the risen Christ were women who had come bringing myrrh to anoint His corpse. The Apostles, frightened by the events which took place were enclosed in the upper room, while the women, with love and courage went to the tomb, afraid neither of darkness or persecution. This is a poignant symbol of the fact that in order to have a vision of the Risen Christ, one most have love and courage. The first manifestation of the risen Christ to the women is given an extremely deep meaning by the great theologian St Gregory Palamas. The saint teaches that the Resurrection of Christ is a reformation and return to the immortal life of the first Adam. After his creation, the woman Eve was the first to see Adam, because at that time, there was no one else to see him. So in parallel the new Adam was seen by no one when he first emerged from the tomb, though later the myrrh bearing women were the first to see him. Quite distinct form the often misogynistic views of various sects, the Orthodox teaching considers the place of women to be paramount in the Resurrection and Christianity in general. By their vigilance, the Myrrh-bearing women were evangelists of the Evangelists and apostle to the Apostles. This also has a parallel meaning. It was Eve who brought the message of Adam’s fall, now it is women are the ones who bring the message of Christ’s Resurrection to the apostles. In this way the restoration of humanity is complete, for no one can blame women for the transgression and fall of Adam.
Christ’s Resurrection is inextricably enmeshed within the psyche of the Greek people. The triumphal hymn that escaped everyone’s lips spontaneously during the crucial moments of the War of Independence, or Greece’s liberation from the Germans in 1944 was not a patriotic jingle but the grand, heartfelt Resurrection hymn. There is magic in the Anastasis, the greatest event in history. Through it life and death acquire another meaning. Life is not regarded as the whole of the events of history but communion with God. And the Church does not regard death as the end of the present life but our withdrawal from Christ, while separation of the soul from the body is not death, but a temporary sleep. Soon, we will be granted the extreme privilege of being raised, just like our Maker.
As we spare a thought of the multitude of the destitute worldwide who await in Easter renewed hope in the alleviation of their plight, it is worthwhile to consider the words of St John Chrysostom who says that through Christ’s Resurrection all human problems have been overcome: “No one should weep about poverty and in general about deprivation of necessary material goods, because the common Kingdom has arrived. No one should bewail the sins he has committed, because forgiveness has arisen from the tomb. No one should fear death as the death of the Saviour has freed us.” It is this absoluteness of ‘no one’ that causes millions to riposte firmly and in hope to the commencing phrase of this diatribe: «Αληθώς ο Κύριος.»

First published in NKEE on 3 May 2005