Thursday, June 30, 2005


The following is an article published in NKEE on 30 June 2005 by George Mouratides MA about Dean Kalimniou's second poetry collection "Αλεξιπύρινα"

πάντοτε εκεί,
τα πουλιά της αυλής μας.
Μόνο που έφυγαν τα δέντρα»

This poem, «Επικουρικά» more than any other marks the link between Dean Kalimniou’s first collection of poetry (Garden Enclosed) and his latest collection, «Αλεξιπύρινα» (Inflammable.) For me, «Κήπος Εσώκλειστος» was about establishing a secret garden of the soul and planting and cultivating in it all those home truths that we so desperately search for throughout our lives. Its prototype was Dean’s own grandfather’s garden, a place where as Dean would often say to me during our years at university together, his grandfather, having left Asia Minor for Greece and Greece for Australia, could turn his back on the world he found so faulty and restore it anew.
In many respects, «Αλεξιπύρινα» is the fruit of that secret garden, which can last even after that garden’s demise. The word Αλεξιπύρινα is a paradox. It can mean something that catches fire quickly and it also can mean something that can withstand fire. In it is represented a key facet of Dean Kalimniou’s own paradoxical character, his dualism.
That dualism can be evidenced first and foremost from the manner in which he uses the simplest of words to convey the height of emotion. In the above poem, a simple garden description becomes a cry of anguish for a lost direction, for the excessive belief in symbols that no longer have any substance. In other poems in the collection such as «Χειμάρρα,» he employs what can only be described as ‘big words’ like «βεβορβορωμένοι,» a Byzantine word meaning dirty. Yet this use of big words is uncontrived, as the poet’s conception of the Greek language is not limited to the past hundred years. It spans the whole gamut of the Greek language from Homer to Ritsos, all dialects and constructions, as anyone who has ever spoken to Dean would know. Dualistic even in his speech, he is often laconic, curt, enunciating his words with a heavy, rolling Samian burr, then switching to Modern Greek with ease and embarking on long sentences of amazing complexity and even more amazing vocabulary after which time, Albanian, Turkish, Persian and even Chinese words will begin to make their appearance. He rejoices in language more than anyone I know.
Furthermore, just as in his poetry, he talks in parables. If Dean’s grandfather is the foundation for «Κήπος Εσώκλειστος», then undoubtedly the foundation for «Αλεξιπύρινα» would have to be his great-grandmother who at 99, still reels off reams of advice in perfect decapentasyllabic meter, as cryptic and as meaningful as the Oracle at Delphi. This is a boy who learnt to read people before he learnt to read books and the traditional riddles and circumspect way of expressing oneself so as to delve deep into the core, the very essence of his subject matter without causing offence, is present throughout. I once wondered aloud whether this form of poetry does not take advantage of the reader by disarming him through a prism of images and words, then entrapping him into a sense of viewing the truth about himself when he least expects it. After all, did not Ritsos, Dean’s poetic hero say: “και να αδελφέ μου που μάθαμε να κουβεντιάζουμε ήσυχα και απλά»? Another thing about Dean is that he not only experiences extreme difficulties in talking about his poetry (‘why would I write poetry if I had to explain it anyway? As Archbishop Stylianos says, asking a poet to explain himself is like asking someone to withdraw their confession,’ Dean ripostes.) but that he also answers all questions is a self-deprecating and cryptic fashion. “As the Bible says, he who has ears will hear,” he responds.
In many respects, Dean resembles an alchemist. Just as medieval alchemists sought to turn base metals to gold, so does Dean try to reduce words, ideas and constructs to their lowest common denominator. His poetry is elementary in the sense that he believes, or at least leads us to believe that he does, in certain core values or πυρίνες from which everything stems. This is the reason for the quotes from the work of Heraclitus, which introduce many of the poems. «Αλεξιπύρινα» is then a crucible in which our petty egotisms, face saving constructs and facades are burnt away through the purging fire of Dean’s sarcasm, wit, probity or introspection. This is evident in the first poem of the collection «Φλόγιστον» which was the name given by early chemists to the gas that they believed caused things to catch fire. In that poem he states that «φλόγιστον και μόνο φλόγιστον ρέει στις φλέβες μας.» In other words, Dean declares that we are all able to purge ourselves of whatever obscures our particular vision because the strength to do so lies within us all, though the methods may be varied and subjective.
As compared to his previous collection, sarcasm, as a purgative is developed to a high degree. It is interesting that in many of his poems that express futility, he turns to the Greek community in Australia as a prime example. In «Πρώτη Γενιά» he writes: «Μπήκαμε στα ημιτελικά/ με την αυθάδεια/ ενός Διαδάλου/ που χάρη του/ βλέπουμε τους Ίκαρους/ να μεσουρανούν/ και να προοδεύουν...» The style of humour is decidedly deadpan and all the more so scathing because it is so unexpected. Some of the humour is cryptic itself and culturally specific. For example, one can only appreciate the poem «Προφητικόν» («Μέχρι να έρθει/ το ποθούμενο,/ το μύδι/ θα βγάλει γένια,» unless they have some knowledge of Epirot culture and are conversant with the prophesies of St Kosmas. Yet it is in picking apart these small gems of humour that the process of reduction in one’s own crucible can take place.
The dialectic between myth and reality also concerns Dean in his poems. In many he seeks to demythologize our own conception of our importance, often by juxtaposing totally disparate elements. In «Ολονύκτιος Ίαμβος» he talks of rats under one’s bed worshipping a ray of moonlight as their Sun whereas in «Μετάπλαση,» he views broken clay bricks as our brothers. The masterly way in which symbolism is employed to highlight the difference between myth and reality is astounding but again it requires the total devotion of the reader, who must delve within himself to decode the subtle clues that are given. If in «Κήπος Εσώκλειστος» we are required to ‘dig’ for truths, is it not easier to just burn them out with a flame in «Αλεξιπύρινα»? I asked Dean. “Not if you have to rub two sticks together to produce the fire,” he answers laconically.
One of the key features of Dean’s poetry is his approach to Hellenism. Though he has produced some excellent English poetry (produced reluctantly during endless discussions with me over a cup of coffee, where exasperated and struggling to put a voice exactly to what he is thinking, he scribbles furiously on a piece of paper for a few minutes and then says: “there, that’s what I’m talking about” – a perfect, finished poem.) he avoids writing poetry in English, just as he avoids speaking English to his close friends and loved ones. Greek is obviously a language of special significance to him. Quite apart from his idiosyncratic retention of the old polytonic system of writing Greek (“the words look naked without the aspirants,” he says) Hellenic culture as viewed by Dean is extremely individualistic and broad in scope. Dean doesn’t confine himself to narrow geographic or cultural definitions, exploring both the origins and the overflow of Greek culture. Thus, while we will not be shocked to find Empedocles, Aristotle, Nikolaos Kavasilas, Heraclitus, Procrustes or Karyotakis peopling his poems, or to be transported to ancestral places such as his father’s village of Mitylinioi, Rio, Karlovasi, Arkadi and Ioannina, his view of Hellenism is broad enough to embrace such people as Jelaleddin Al Rumi, the founder of Sufism, Ibn Al Mutaji, St Anthony the Copt, the prophet Jonah, Arp Arslan and places that are no longer ‘Hellenic’ in the strictest of senses. His scholarship and knowledge of history is immense and he consciously adopts the Orthodox view of time which permits all things past and future, to co-exist on the same plane. There are some four or five poems that deal with Albania, Northern Epirus and Asia Minor, ancestral places of special significance for the poet and these increase in number in the third, yet to be published collection. It is remarkable that he can apply these as paradigms for our daily lives. The city of Melbourne gets especially bad press, as if the poet cannot cope with the thought of living there: «Εδώ δεν φυτρώνουν/ παπαρούνες κάθε χρόνο/ούτε ξεφυλλίζονται/ τα δέντρα πριν πλαγιάσουν.» («Χειμερινή Μελβούρνη») Nonetheless it still forms a part of his own unique conception of Hellenism, though often, divorced from absolutely any feeling of chauvinism or patriotism whatsoever, one gets the feeling that this is Hellenism viewed from the outside and that in the poet’s hands, it is merely another tool for explaining the world around us. The only other Greek poet who views Hellenism in such wide scope is Cavafy and it is fitting that while he did this from Alexandria, Dean does this from what many here in Melbourne call “the new Alexandria.” I remember attending challenging Greek lectures with Dean given by Stathis Gauntlett and Anna Chatzinikolaou at Melbourne University where we were told that «Εδώ πρόκειται για ελληνισμούς, όχι μόνο ελληνισμό.» Dean has adopted this outlook wholesale.
Two elements which are omnipresent in Dean’s «Αλεξιπύρινα» and yet are dealt with subtly and can therefore be easily overlooked at the risk of totally misunderstanding the entire premise of the work are love and hope. In keeping with the poet’s Spartan style, a product of his obsession with reducing ideas to their elementary form, there is no place for a romantic treatment of love here. In fact the tone of almost all of the poems is emotionless and this correlates with the character of a master poet who will not dictate to his reader how he should feel but rather permit him to extract the emotions from the images and ideas he evokes. Eroticism in poems like «Πήχες» does not appear in the form of the traditional love poem. Instead it is again reduced to its chthonic elemental form, something which comes out of us in spite of ourselves, belying our own self-righteous attempts at self-control, or lack thereof. Perhaps the most masterly example of this is «Υγρό πύρ,» which employs the motif of fireworks in a novel way.
Hope is a central message of «Αλεξιπύρινα» and is present in almost every single poem. Though the poet’s view of the world may seem negative or futile, a close reading of the text reveals small, subtle nuggets of optimism. In «Επικουρικά» for instance, the birds remain though the trees have gone, assuring us that nothing is banished forever. Mostly, the poet places his hopes in his ability and that of reader to transcend themselves. Thus in «Χαραυγή» he states: “I touch the universe with the future in my palm./ I jump/ past my fingers/ into the infinite.” In «Εμείς,» he asks why we, who can make it rain by speaking just one word, wake up in the middle of the night bathed in sweat. Thus, in keeping with his own deep humility, he empowers the reader, rather than dictate solutions and pathways.
For Dean, illusion can be dispelled through preparation and incantation and many of his poems read like prayers and litanies. It cannot be denied that the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church is a key inspiration for Dean and that he draws on it considerably. After all, one of its greatest lyricists, Romanos Melodos, is the subject of one of his poems, while in another, «Συμποτικόν» he talks about composing one’s own Song of Songs. On the same token, he is just as influenced by the ecstasy of the Sufi tradition, the poetry of Omar Khayyam and Al Rumi this comes out when least expected. «Φλόγιστον» and indeed the entire «Αλεξιπύρινα» are rich in Zoroastrian symbolism. In «Σοφία» the marriage and conflict of two related but opposing cultures, Byzantine and Islamic are signified through a confusion of both architectural styles and religious ceremonies. At the same time, the need for cultural and religious continuity is stressed is poems such as «Άσκηση» where the reader is exhorted to ‘fast from the sky.”
In keeping with the poet’s esoteric message, his sarcastic sense of humour and humility, his final poem, «Παραοπισθόφυλλο» marries opposing and contradictory elements in order to poke fun at his own temerity in attempting to pass on a message to the reader, thus placing himself above him. He likens life to a book, adopting for this purpose, the first lines of the Gospel of Matthew. He then says: “The aim of our life/ is to decorate its parchment with calligraphy and miniatures./ Ours is the final hope/ that the splendour of the last page/ entraps the eye./ So that it [the Book]/ needs not be read at all/ and remains closed/ in glory.” The final joke then seems to be on the reader, who was expecting an Apocalypse but has received quite the opposite, signifying that just as the alchemist’s task in turning base metals to gold is futile, so to is the chosen task of burning impurities and conglomerates in the crucible of one’s soul. The final message then seems to be Cavafyesque. It is not the destination but the journey that matters and Dean certainly takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of self-discovery in «Αλεξιπύρινα».
It is again fitting with the poet’s self-deprecatory character that the cryptic message of his final triumph is not to be found in the end, but somewhere in the middle of the work, where it can easily be overlooked, in the poem «Κογχύλι» where he exclaims: “I am complete./ I sew my mouth shut/ and curl up in your ear/ to listen to the sea.”
«Αλεξιπύρινα» is a work that compels you to read it over and over again in order to savour its full meanings. It is also begging translation into English, something which I have attempted here and which I hope the author seriously considers. In a rare moment of revelation, Dean remarked to me last week: “For me poetry is a window that lets in light and fresh air into the room.” For countless readers, «Αλεξιπύρινα» does the same. That a third generation Geek-Australian can embrace and delve into Greek literature to such an extent and with such skill is proof of the vitality of our community here in the Antipodes.
George Mouratides MA
University of Melbourne
English Department

Monday, June 27, 2005


Copyright Peter Nicholson
If there is any proof that Greek-Australian politicians are selfless, totally committed to the welfare of their country and their constituents and definitely not trammeled by the demands, opinions and needs of the Greek community, then that proof would most assuredly be personified in the form of the Federal Member for Kooyong, Mr. Petro Georgiou.
In keeping with the traditional Greek custom of sticking to one's opinions and defending them to the hilt, though in the case of Aristeides, another principled Greek politician this brought about his ostracism, Petro Georgiou is defying self interest and the injunctions of many of his party members in order to take a principled stand for what he believes in. In a world in which government is increasingly losing its transparency and accountability, where legislation can run roughshod over its citizen's rights or expectations and it is increasingly difficult to take it to task or criticize it without fear of reprisal, there is something particularly Greek in having a member of the ruling party stand up, admonish his own government over its policy of mandatory detainment of illegal entrants into Australia and demand reform. Such is the strength of his conviction, so pure and selfless is his concern for inmates of the various detention centres that he has also been able to sway the opinion of many of his colleagues, causing an unprecedented crisis within the Liberal Party. Here then is an MP whose career is not about power, either obtaining or keeping it but about serving people and we are all grateful in this cynical age that such people still exist.
Democracy is not just about allowing people to speak their minds. It is a system whereby any person can speak their mind but also demand and be given the opportunity to hold a government or group of people that effectively exercise considerable sway over their life, accountable. In Democracy, no one is immune from criticism or accountability and its key feature is respect, not lip-service for the opinions of citizens. In his monumental book 'Europe,' Norman Davies points out that western parliamentary democracy may not have its roots in ancient Greece but rather in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon witangemots, the councils of nobles formed to assist the King to rule. It is a form of government that while it relies on the goodwill of ordinary people to retain its position, effectively is granted carte blanche to determine policy. In the case of the government's mandatory detention policy, this means that such policies can be retained even in the face of immense public opposition, until election time. Petro Georgiou's stance could be attributed to a different perspective on how democracy should operate and if so it is timely given the way that the government has sought to steer attention away from what appear to be the flagrant extremes that their policy can lead them to, including the incarceration of Australian citizens, possibly even after it is suspected that they are unjustly imprisoned.
Or maybe again not. It is well-established liberal tradition that any member can take a vote of conscience on issues. This is exactly what Petro Georgiou was attempting to do with his private member’s bills. Viewed from the perspective, Petro Georgiou appears to be a staunch upholder of traditional liberal principles and is certainly not a “political terrorist”, as he was called by colleague Sophie Panopoulos. Indeed, it appears that from this viewpoint, any liberal who disputes the right of another to take a stand on an issue of confidence, is in fact undermining not only that tradition but also democracy itself. One feels sad that a Greek-Australian politician feels the need to launch such a vitriolic and misguided attack on a colleague, also a Greek-Australian and a member of her own party. One hopes that she did not do so out of a need to 'prove her place and loyalty' within her party by attacking a 'fellow-Greek' though it is increasingly becoming apparent that there exists within parliament and both parties, some type of anti-Greek bias and the policy of setting one 'Greek' up against another is not without precedent in Australian politics. While Sophie Panopoulos' political convictions may cause her to be satisfied at the government's policy of locking up women and children indefinitely, she should respect her more senior colleague's right to take a public stand on humanitarian issues, something which one would have thought, overrides and complements any petty party loyalties.
Petro Georgiou’s example should inspire respect in all of us, even though there are many who do not share his position on the issue of mandatory detention. Indeed, not a few first generation Greeks vehemently support the policy of mandatory detention even though many of these were illegal immigrants themselves and others, escapees from the 'detention centre prototype' of Bonegilla. Unfortunately, their support for the policy seems to hinge on the racial background of the detainees and one does wonder whether the same policy would have been applied if the majority of illegal entrants into Australia were White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. I have on occasion, when pointing out to quite a few old Greek-Australians that they too were detained and hated it, been told: "That's different, we are άνθρωποι. What are they? We don't want them here." This type of attitude is contemptible as it is ridiculous.
Whatever our viewpoint on the issue, Petro Georgiou has done us proud. For through his principled stand he has in effect, re-asserted the traditional values of democracy that for some time now, have been eroded by globalism and the rightist reaction that accompanied the fall of communism and September 11. By standing up for the basic humanitarian principles that underlie our existence and compelling the Howard government to make some reforms to its mandatory detention policy, he effectively protects the borders of our democratic and free way of life from further reactionary incursions, reminding us who we are, and causing us to reassess who we want to be. We thank him, because he restores at least a small portion of the faith we have left in the Westminster system.
Aristeides was ostracized for his deep commitment to the welfare of Athens and Themistocles, the saviour of Athens was exiled for his pains. No matter what and the subsequent effect of this principled stand on Petro Georgiou's political career, we can all feel great pride in the fact that he has become a Cavafyesque hero, guarding the Thermopylae of humanity, all the while knowing that the Medes will most definitely come, for they will.

First published in NKEE on 27 June 2005

Monday, June 20, 2005


One of the most frequently expressed sentiments at the recent community forum of the Pan-Macedonian Federation (Pan-Mac) and its related Australian Macedonian Advisory Council was that over the last ten or so years, the Greek government has totally 'lost the plot,' with regards to the proper handling of the 'Macedonian' Issue. If this is in fact correct, then our community in Melbourne are fellow travellers with that approach. So it would seem at least, from the proceedings and outcome of the forum in question.
That the creation of the Australian Macedonian Advisory Council in November of last year was timely is proved by the difficulties it had in registering its very name. Save for an enlightened few, the word Macedonian has Slavonic connotations in Australian society and the powers that be were hard pressed to understand how a 'Greek' organization could be 'Macedonian,' and were thus loathe to register a 'Greek' organization under a 'Macedonian' name. When the Council was created of young, active members of the Greek community, it was charged with the responsibility of exploring ways in which the Greek 'position,' on the Macedonian Issue can be promoted and in time to allay popular misconceptions such as the one mentioned above.
The early deliberations of the Council explored various ways in which this could be effected, including multimedia, educative functions, lobbying and most importantly, obtaining grass roots support from younger members of the community and harnessing their skills. Quite apart from this, it was suggested by Pan-Mac, that some type of demonstration be held in Melbourne in relation to the issue. After holding three public forums on the issue over a period of seven months, the Council finally called yet another forum. In its announcement a few weeks ago, it stated: "This forum aims to inform the entire Greek Community of Victoria of the latest developments on the Macedonian Issue, discuss all the possible scenarios and as well as make a decision as to the need to hold a public Rally in protest to any decision that may not be in favour of the Hellenic truth. The Council appeals to all the people of Hellenic Origin who believe in the Historical Truth and who feel passionately about the Macedonian issue and wish to contribute to attend the meeting. Everyone's attendance is of paramount importance."
Of interest here are the terms 'Hellenic truth', possibly suggesting in keeping with post-modernist tradition, that there can be various versions of the truth, depending on one's ethnic origin, juxtaposed with the absolutist, divine 'Historical Truth,' which may or may not have an ethnic origin, depending on one's point of view of the nature of the Divinity.
Disassembling the announcement into its constituent parts provides an adequate mechanism wherefrom one can gauge the success or otherwise, of the forum in question. "To inform the entire Greek Community of Victoria of the latest developments on the Macedonian Issue." Interestingly enough for a community so concerned at recent developments that it feels the need to call a forum to discuss them, the members present, as well as the forum's organizers experienced extreme difficulties in determining what these 'recent developments' actually were. While the president of 'Pan-Mac' maintained that Greece was prepared to accept the UN-brokered Nimitz plan to recognize FYROM as the 'Republic of Makedonija-Skopje,' other attendees referred to Prime Minister Karamanlis' assurance that while the Nimitz plan was acceptable as the basis for negotiations, it was not acceptable per se. Mysteriously, the fact that the foreign minister of FYROM has signalled his non-acceptance of the Nimitz plan, thus setting the likelihood of a quick settlement of the issue at nought, escaped the consciousness of most attendees.
Perhaps the issue could have been resolved by the presence of a representative of the Greek Consulate at the meeting. He could have informed the attendees of the current status of negotiations and also of Greece's strategic aims, thus permitting them to plan a course of action with greater ease and less hysteria. However, neither the Greek Consul nor a representative was present and it is rumoured that the Council is looked upon with disfavour by the Consulate, which refuses to meet with it. One would like to think that this is due to the pressures of work and not out of any disrespect towards it or the wider Greek-Melbournian community. Whether or not the Greek Consulate agrees with the convention of the meeting or its organizer's opinions, it should respect the existence of many Greek-Melburnians who are deeply disquieted about the issue and it owes to these people, who took to the streets in such numbers in 1992 and 1994 in support of Greece, the courtesy of an explanation, information and perhaps, some advice. By its absence and the fact that while it shies away from dealing with the Council it meets freely with members of the Vinozhito-Rainbow Party, the Consulate merely reinforces further the low standing it enjoys within our community. Of further interest is the fact that none of the members of the Council, whose appointed task was to concern itself with the Issue, actually attempted to inform the meeting of the current developments, no doubt because this had already been attempted by Pan-Mac, to their satisfaction.
"To discuss all the possible scenarios and as well as make a decision as to the need to hold a public Rally in protest to any decision that may not be in favour of the Hellenic truth." At the point that the above was broached, the attendees were unsure as to what the current developments were and therefore, how best to respond to them. The president of the Council, Mr Bill Giavris attempted to outline possible causes of action in brief, including holding a rally and appointing representatives to consult with the Greek foreign ministry among others. He validly suggested that any course adopted should be done so with the full support and enthusiasm of the Greek community for if it is not united behind a common course of action, any such action would be doomed to failure. The floor was then turned over to the attendees, to 'propose' various causes of action. Apart from the few firebrands who talked about not being afraid of going to war (try standing in the middle of Epping and saying that) and the very few who spoke pejoratively about people who have cultural affiliations with FYROM, it was pleasing to see the president of Pan-Mac, Mr Dimitris Minas take a firm stand against racism of any kind. "We have lived alongside this community for many years," he said. "Some of its members have married into our families, have become our friends and neighbours. We will not tolerate any racist slurs here." Well done, I say. What was particularly not well conducted though, was the discussion that circumambulated around the desirability of holding a rally. Surprisingly, very few of the attendees actually had the prescience to consider the consequences of their proposed actions. Their hearts inflamed with patriotic zeal, they waxed lyrical about the heroic Greek, about historic injustices and the need to 'prove that we can do something.' The how to do it, the why and the consequences thereof were consigned to oblivion. Those who urged caution and a consideration of the consequences and logistics of any proposal were insulted. Their 'Hellenic origins' and patriotism were called into question, if not impugned. One member, his Adam's apple trembling in righteous anger, called fire and brimstone upon the 'pen-pushers' of the Greek media, who according to him are no patriots and always serve to dampen the zealous patriot's enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, forums of this nature are dangerous as they prove that the Greek community is no more able to work collectively and maturely than it was twenty years ago. We love to hear ourselves speak, to brandish our patriotic sentiments in our fists in the hope of proving our loyalist credentials but when all is said and done, a hell of a lot more is actually said, than done.
Surely it is immature to equate prudence and caution, attributes we would expect from those who purport to deal with our community affairs, with vested interest and προδοσία. We still seem to be suffering from the civil war syndrome of 'anyone who disagrees with me is an enemy and a traitor' and this obstructs our ability to think clearly and work communally, let alone develop a long term-strategy for the promotion of certain important issues.
One would have further expected the Council, which has already staged another three community forums and which has been charged with the promotion of the Macedonian Issue by Pan-Mac to have by now gauged community consensus and instead of weakly requesting attendees to 'make proposals,' to have come up with a few detailed proposals of their own, fully explain them, submit them to the approval and debate of the community and move forward. They failed to do this and in so failing, allowed the forum to degenerate into a directionless and purposeless talkfest. One its members advised me that: "We aren't here to present proposals. We are here to listen."
With respect, this is incorrect. For if it was, then what is the purpose of the Council's existence? In actual fact, the members of the Council do have some novel and dynamic ideas with regard to promoting awareness of the Greek position on the Macedonian Issue. It is a pity that they shied away from boldly making these known. For in doing so, they have in effect unwittingly undermined confidence in themselves. Given that they were appointed by popular mandate, have garnered community consensus for seven months and developed some very good methods of approaching the issue, by deferring once more to directionless forum-talk, they belie hopes of the first generation's acceptance of the younger generation's leadership on this issue, which was a primary stated reason for the creation of the Council. Hence remarks of one old community stalwart: "Who cares about these kids. They are just a front. They are being used and they don't even realize it." It is this contemptible sentiment that can only be weeded out through strong youth leadership.
It is hoped or rather anticipated that the Council will find its voice after this shaky start and put its mark well and truly on the community map, for it is not lacking in talent. As long as we bicker, remain misinformed, blinded by emotion and do not defer and entrust those more capable than us with our affairs, we consign ourselves to stagnation and inactivity. When a Greek wants to pay a particular compliment to someone, he says that he is "όλο καρδιά." If our valiant nation is also όλο καρδιά, a bit of μυαλό also won't go astray. Let us maintain our rage and our sang froid simultaneously. But then again the concept of the everlasting balance between the yin and yang is one of the few things we did not invent, no?


Monday, June 13, 2005


There is an exhaustingly long line of cars awaiting to pass the last checkpoint into Jerusalem. After traveling through the erstwhile desert, now irrigated and blooming, owing the determined efforts of the kibbutzim to coax the land of Canaan to produce milk and honey once more, the starkness of Jerusalem is marked. The stark limestone walls of the Old City seem to recede inwards to themselves, seeking to enclose their weariness and their problems within, while at the same time angrily defying the immensity of the totally blue sky above.
We put up at an immense sandstone castle replete with turrents and gargoyles, a remnant of the Crusader occupation. Now the castle is a hostel run for pilgrims by the Catholic Church. It has been a long drive along the desolate Negev desert route, skirting the absoluteness of the Dead Sea with the Jordanian border always to our right and some of us are rather ebullient. Immediately, the slender black-cloaked figure of the Catholic archbishop glides from its lair behind one of the immense Crusader pillars and suddenly hisses before us: "Be quiet!" and then in a softer tone, narrowing his serpentine eyes even further "Where are you from?" We tell the good prelate that we are Orthodox pilgrims from Australia and entreat him to pray for us. "Ah, Greek Orthodox," he hisses, withdrawing his scaly hand from mine. "Pray for you, I don't think so."
The good prelate's hesitation does not stop him from welcoming pilgrims of all persuasions to enjoy the hospitality of the castle. Nor does his forbidding slithering around the grounds perturb the most august Orthodox archbishops of Bostra, Timotheos and of Captioliada, Hesychios from taking it in turns to sit with the Orthodox pilgrims in the hotel lobby, gauge public opinion, share gossip and start a few rumours. No other place in the world can remind the Australian traveler so much of his own seat of democracy, Parliament House in Canberra.
We walk through the bleached and unexpressive Jaffa Gate, the entrance to the Christian quarter of the Old City. Passing by the Greek Catholic Cathedral, we sit at an Arab coffee shop, sip aniseed flavoured Greek coffee and watch corpulent Orthodox pilgrims from Greece and Cyprus push past the immense and crumbling tower of David, haggling and bargaining for petty cigarette lighters and handkerchiefs that they would never dream of purchasing back home. They are invariably dressed in multi-coloured shirts whose gaudiness scream their western origin and tracksuit bottoms that are at least one size too small, causing their not insignificant paunches and posteriors to groan in perpetual struggle for freedom. They beg, cajole, swear and shout, gesticulating wildly to their friends. In the end, the bargain is made and both sides smile at the triumph of the free market, while the Greek purchaser exclaims: "Πω, πω γυφτιά." "You know Greeks and Arabs are exactly the same," the coffee shop owner exclaims, in broken Greek, "except that we Arabs are much more polite." He offers us another coffee on the house and he talks to us about the poor impression that pilgrims have made on him. "The Greeks are loud and rude, especially at Easter. They strut around as if they own the place. Now we have the Russians. They are quiet and pious. You see them praying silently and waiting to venerate the tomb of Christ without pushing of shoving, for hours. Actually," he continues, turning his inquisitive eye to the well-turned buttocks of a young Greek tourist, "I don't trust the Russians. At least you Greeks are like us, we understand each other. But when the Russians take over the Patriarchate, I don't know.." It is impossible to spend five minutes within the walls of the Old City and not be caught within the ever-tightening net of intrigue and rumour-mongering. "After all, that is why their president Putin is here for Easter no?" the shop-owner offers, "the Israelis will give the Patriarchate to the Russians after what has happened and then no more Arab Jerusalem. Until now the Greeks have kept the city Arab because we are one people, Greek Orthodox."
As we get up to walk away, we are approached by a burly, heavily bearded man in an open shirt. In a polarised world where everything and everyone is categorized and has their proper place, it is quite difficult to classify him. "Hello," he says and scratches his ever disappearing beneath the folds of his overhanging stomach, crotch. This seems to have formed the catalyst for some kind of chemical reaction within his brain that caused him to fire off an innumerable amount of questions: "Where are you from? Where are you going? How long have you been here? Do you know that man in the coffee-shop? What were you talking about? Did he ask you to do something for him? Who told you to visit this shop?" It finally dawns on us that this is either an extremely incompetent incognito member of the Israeli police or one who is about to retire and can afford being sloppy. "Look mate," I advance, in broad Australian, "we aren't gonna answer any more questions until you do up your zipper."
We move on past the infinite narrow streets, crowded with stalls selling anything from incense to drums, to t-shirts reading "Free Palestine." The Israeli police presence in asphyxiating, a reminder that this most holy of places is also one of the most volatile. They glare unsmilingly at tourists and vendors alike. It is this area that ex-Patriarch Eirenaios was said to have leased almost perpetually to Jewish investors. The Arabs, already an increasingly oppressed minority within the bounds of the Old City, are up in arms. They view their half of Old Jerusalem, that is the half that was taken from Jordan by the Israelis in the 1967 War as the capital of a future Palestinian State. Now they are slowly being pushed out through the absence of employment, restrictions on building in the Old City and the tantalizingly high prices Jewish investors are willing to pay for a foothold within the Christian quarter. Passing through Bethlehem a few days later and seeing both the Great Concrete Wall of Shame enclosing its hapless Palestinian inhabitants within, the importance of every single centimetre of land to them becomes harshly obvious. Graffiti written on the walls of this imprisoned community reads: 'Welcome to the New Auschwitz.'
The manifestation of the Orthodox presence in Jerusalem is in inverse proportion to the power it wields and the controversies that it has recently sparked. It is only the invariable picture or relief of St George on the faceless limestone buildings, particularly loved by the Palestinians as a 'native' of the area that demurely denotes the existence of an Orthodox family within. These buildings can be deceiving. Miniscule doors in the façade open the way to a labyrinth of dirty, time-blackened laneways, leading either to more sagging Christian houses or out of the way places of pilgrimage housing a small church. These are invariably always indicated by the plethora of Palestinian children playing ball directly outside them.
Similarly, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the last of the four ancient Patriarchates of Orthodoxy, is unassumingly hidden beyond a thick, yellowing wall, a welcoming Greek flag and the red and white flag of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. Within it lies the Church of St Constantine and Helen, a typical example of the tasteless depravity that ensured upon the marriage of the solemn Byzantine art, with gaudy and tarty Baroque. Upon its roof one can easily look down into the square of the Holy Sepulchre below and indeed, a narrow stairway links that most holiest of Christian shrines with the Patriarchate, allowing the Patriarch of Jerusalem easy access without having to suffer the adoring mobs or lately, those howling for his blood. The Patriarchate houses a vast array of Byzantine and Ottoman manuscripts as well as other historically important artifacts but there are too many people, so little time to request an inspection of them and the few guards and monks that are around are increasingly frustrated at the pulsating, relentless antics of the mob, who push, chatter and scream as they try to jostle for a good position. The Patriarch will conduct a service here in three hours time. Extricating oneself from between the imposing bosoms of two Cypriot ladies sporting mustaches that George Donikian would surely envy, is exhausting and we try to make away along the narrow cobbled paths, ignoring the entreaties of the Arab vendors to buy more souvenirs. (Indeed it is a great testament to our enterprising way of life that Greek-Australian pilgrims will stop and peruse and haggle at every single souvenir stall no matter how inane or tasteless the goods proffered actually are.)
Unwittingly, though we later ascribe it to Providence, we traverse the entire Via Dolorosa, the route taken by Jesus as he bore his cross to Golgotha. It is hard to imagine the layout of the city in those times, though each station of the cross is marked with a marker, a suitable shrine and a tourist stall. What is not hard to imagine however, is the hatred and emotion of the crowd for this seems to have been passed on through the ages, as we discover when we are turned away at the door of a shrine held by the Greek Catholic Church, while Catholic pilgrims are admitted. Our enthusiasm unabated, we venture unwittingly into the Islamic quarter, only to be turned back by a Falasha Israeli policeman who asks: "Are you guys crazy? Do you want to be killed?"
Finally we make it to the Holy Sepulchre, the multi-faith church built over the spot where the Crucifixion and Resurrection took place. We want to pray at the Holy Sepulchre, the tomb of Christ before nightfall, yet this proves impossible. Once inside, we push past the hordes of Russian pilgrims, slowly making their way to the shrine in a dreamlike trance and join the critical mass of Greek pilgrims pushing and heaving their way in. Suddenly, a piercing shriek cuts their air like a damascene scimitar. On tiptoes, we see an aged Greek monk, his face purple and twisted with rage grabbing hapless pilgrims as they try to enter the tomb and push them into the crowd. As dozens of old ladies topple like ten-pins and the Russians look on in wonder, the monk shrills: "Get back! Get back! I will tell you when to come in! I will tell you. You idiots, what are you doing there?" As he sends another ten elderly Orthodox ten-pins sprawling into the crowd, he marches to a doorway cut into the recess of the rotunda encircling the tomb. The doorway, as opposed to the wall next to it, which belongs to the Armenians, belongs to the Greek Orthodox. An elderly Coptic couple, dressed in the peasant robes of the fellahin are resting there. The monk lurches forward and wrenches them from their seats. "Go away!" he screams, ignoring the entreaties of the Coptic monk who tugs at his robe, trying to explain. Having finally consented to having the terrified couple dragged away by the equally terrified Coptic monk ,the Greek monk, consumed with the fire of his mission to protect at all costs the tomb from the heretics and non-Greek power lusters, turns, views the steady stream of people entering the tomb behind his back and screaming "Nooooooo!!!" launches himself into their midst once more…
Silently, we make our way along the Jaffa Gate, back to the bastion of hospitality which awaits us. As we trace the fragmented limestone walls of the city, three Orthodox Jewish teenagers are engaged in pushing a young Arab boy against the wall, smiling sarcastically. They stop as soon as soon as they see a Greek priest approach and the boy spying his chance, hides under his robes and they walk away.
That night, as the multitude of pilgrims prepares itself for Holy Week, pushing and shoving along the streets in the face of the sarcastic, sun-glassed (even ant night) stare of the Israeli police, I sit in a lonely Armenian restaurant entitled Yerevan, sip hibiscus tea while listening to countless stories of the Armenian genocide and wonder why everyone searches here for a God they have long forgotten.
First published in NKEE on 13 June 2005

Monday, June 06, 2005


One of the most enduring self-myths we have created of our community is that of the value of the political influence we yield. It is often the case that in conversation, Greek-Australians will count the number of state and federal politicians of Greek origin on their fingers and talk about how we 'dominate' parliament while at the same time lament that 'our boys' do not 'do more for the Greek community.'
Like all myths, this one has some basis in fact. One of the most important aspects of Greek-Australian history is our community's aptitude for political organization. The mass migration of the sixties and seventies saw Greeks land on our shores who had experienced terrible political conditions in their homeland. They were ideologically energized and determined for the most part, to fight against social and economic injustice and ensure that conditions of the type they left behind would never arise in their new homes. The history of the Greek people in Australia is thus intertwined with the history of the Australian union movement. Most of the first generation Greek migrants found themselves transformed from peasants to members of the proletariat and assumed their new class-role with gusto. As union representatives Greeks played and to the extent that they are still able, play an active role in campaigning for the improvement of working conditions.
If one is permitted a stereotype, it would be safe to say that the Greek people's obsession with public life and improving society also caused them to enter and concern themselves with mainstream politics in a volume of participation unprecedented by any other ethnic minority in this country. From the outset, this participation embraced the entire political spectrum, with Alfred Kouris campaigning for a seat as a Liberal representative and others flocking to the long since defunct Australian Communist Party. By far the greatest level of Greek participation in the political life of this country however, will have to have been effected via the Labor Party. From the outset, this party was seen variably as 'our' party, the 'worker's' party, the 'migrant's' party, or as one recent arrival told me not so long ago, the 'wogs'' party. This is because it was in the policies of that party that the majority of Greeks saw the potential for their ideologies of equality, democracy and social welfare to come into fruition. They, along with their other 'ethnic' counterparts also made a lasting contribution to the formation of a new policy and ultimately, a new way of life: multiculturalism and campaigned hard both for the election of the Whitlam government as well as the Hawke government two decades ago.
It could be said that it was in the womb of political participation that the Greek community was re-born as a Greek-Australian community, though not without some enduring labour pains. Twenty years ago, our community was much more divided along ideological lines that it is today and there were not a few Greeks who involved themselves in "τα κοινά" that were taken to task for supposedly putting political considerations above the interests of the Greek community or the 'Greek National Interest.' Historians' archives are full of examples of these and so are the still bitter conversations of the more ancient among the first generation.
Despite any differences of ideology, the Greek community as a whole was and is justifiably proud of its members of Parliament, though it often harbours unrealistic expectations of them. It sees them as a supreme symbol of their own acculturation - that finally, after an agonizingly slow process of societal change, the presence of members of Parliament of Greek origin lends us all some type of legitimacy as natural and valued members of Australian society. I mean if you're letting us run the show, it's gotta mean that we are on the same side right?
Against this background the recent developments within the state Labor Party are bewildering, especially to those in our community who are intimately acquainted with its affairs. It appears that Labor MP's of Greek origin along with branch members and other assorted functionaries have been enmeshed in the throes of a veritable 'civil war' between the Labor left and right factions. The recent smear campaign against Theo Theophanous MP and others, as well as the disparaging comments made by Labor personalities about the function of branches that have a significant Greek membership have gravely disquieted Greek Labor supporters.
Further, though some party old-hands may attempt to dismiss this phenomenon as shrapnel of age-old recurring strife, others are not so sure. Just when they were made to believe that they had truly been accepted as both legitimate members of Australian society and the Labor Party, the recent bout of strife has left them scratching their heads. All of a sudden, many feel that they are no longer seen as comrades, fellow party members and espousers of Labor ideals. Instead, they feel that they have been lumped together and seen as something 'foreign,' as Greeks. Understandably, many feel betrayed.
It is common knowledge that some within the Party have over the years expressed resentment over the 'domination' by Greeks of prized Labor Party positions. The shift from comradeship to mere utilization for votes is also exemplified by the cynical bipartisan pre-selection of Greek-origin candidates to oppose other Greek-origin candidates. Now our whole existence within the Party is openly questioned. How the mighty, or rather complacent have fallen. We have gone from being comrades, to vote-fodder, to suppositories in line to be purged when the bottom falls out of the Party, in the minds of a twisted but vocal few.
I must confess that my mind is taxed to find a logical reason for the recent outpouring of vitriol against the 'Greeks' of the Labor Party. I shudder to think that this could be a mere manifestation of racism towards a community that has served it so well and so selflessly. What the Labor Party needs to realize is that the Greek members of the Labor Party do not pose a threat of any type to it or Australia. There is no secret plot of world domination being hatched between them, nor do they serve the interests of a Greek community so fragmented that it would be impossible to discern one mutually agreed interest within it. By and large they are elected to seats not on the basis of the support of the Greek community who is by now too dispersed to possess any effective electoral power. Nor do they instinctively attempt to bring 'ethnic' issues or exercise favouritism towards their compatriots, as Minister John Pandazopoulos found out when sectors of the Greek community had the temerity to label him a 'traitor' and 'liar' over the way they believed he handled aspects of the 'Macedonian' issue and as Theo Theophanous also found out when he was booed by his compatriots at one of the Greek community's 'Macedonian' protests. In short, 'our' pollies are Australian or Victorian politicians who though they may bring a 'migrant' perspective to certain issues, do so as a representative cross-section of the wider community and serve only the interests of the integrated whole.
What is said to be going on in the latest bout of Labor factional strife sends a clear message to the Greek community of Australia that it cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to its position within the wider Australian society. After all, there were Greek representatives in the Ottoman Parliament as well and memories, especially in politics are extremely short. We need to continue to provide moral support to all of the politicians that sprang from the loins of our community regardless of their political persuasion for as long as they, by their conscientious service to Australia, serve as an example of our integration within its society and that we see our interests to lie therein. For how long and how many times will we have to be called up to prove this however? Ultimately, our community's survival is linked to our successful interaction with all facets of Australian life. The recent antics of certain members of the Labor Party teach us that it is suicidal to place all of one's eggs in one basket. This is more to Labor's detriment than that of an astute Greek community.
Finally, it is hoped that the Labor Party will not abandon its Greek members or see them not as comrades but ethnics because to do so would not only constitute a smear upon its own history but the values it purports to espouse as well. Hopefully, these are but the growing pains of a Party in labouriously re-assessing itself. Despite the increasing diversity of the Greek community and its relative affluence, despite the gradual sacrifice of the ideology the first generation fought for to political expediency, there will always exist a large proportion of the Greek community, myself amidst it who will always view the Labor Party with sympathy and gratitude for its role in facilitating our integration and acceptance without demanding assimilation. How that view will change over time though, is directly dependent on that Party's view and its treatment of one of its more faithful cohort of foot-soldiers.


First published in NKEE on 6 June 2005