Monday, January 29, 2007


“You don't take a photograph. You ask, quietly, to borrow it.” Author unknown.

I am rather wary of photographs, both taking them and being in them. This is because, as NKEE old boy Dimitri “Come on at least try to look relaxed” Tsahuridis can attest, I am extremely unphotogenic, possessed of a bizarre tendency to stare or snarl, rather than smile at the camera. Though not averse to the taking of photographs per se, I am conscious of the fact that invariably and in Orwellian fashion, the photograph one takes gradually supplants one’s actual memory of the event or scene it is supposed to record for posterity. Further, unlike painting, which empowers the artist to recreate or reinterpret his own cosmos anew through the use of colour, texture and depth, photography is flat, a parody of the created world at best and in its subjective portrayal of the objective eye, contrived. It lends itself easily by its very physical nature, to the danger of being superficially considered, giving credibility to Ansel Adam’s words: “A photograph is usually looked at – seldom into.”
When I first met Ari Hatzis, photographer extraordinaire, he was completing his Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, where he also taught black and white photography. Having become entranced by Palamite theology, which encourages one to view the world through their noetic eyes rather than their physical organs, as well as Klusian philosophic thought, which holds that the artist creates the myth in order to obscure the art, I voiced voluminous objections against the art of photography, wielding as my final weapon, as I hoped to devastating effect, W Eugene Smith’s conviction that: “The world just does not fit conveniently into the format of a 35mm camera.” Ari turned, laughed and riposted in a paraphrasis of Ansel Adams: “Yes, but there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.”
We became firm friends, a friendship cemented by spending a summer in Greece, a country that Ari considers to be of special significance to him as a photographer. In his eyes, it is fitting that the land of gnosis is bathed in an apocalyptic sunlight that heightens and highlights all things that are hidden but at the same time, knows what to conceal in shadow. In Greece the sun illumines an augmented reality, the epitome of surrealism. Truly, then in Greece, technical distinctions become blurred and ultimately inverted. As Ambrose Bierce held, a photograph taken there is “a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art.”
Over the space of three months, we reveled in the bizarre, the uncanny and the downright incongruous, Ari faithfully snapping away with his camera, myself looking on, both of us working diligently in concert to impress a certain but not unmanageable quantity of remarkably pneumatic Eastern European exchange students of Byzantine history. Together we discovered the pea green lawn of seaweed lining the lagoon of Messolongi like a psychedelic putting green, the mysterious reflections of geometric immortality in the compact eyes of the saints in the golden mosaics of Osios Loukas and the flaming blood red passage carved upon the waters below Mount Taygetus at sunset; a silent scream of the murdered Spartan infants emanating from the depths of time.
The apogee of that exploration would definitely have to have been our visit to the temple of Athena Aphaea at Aegina. Intoxicated by the inexorable light mitigated by the trees and the straight lines of the Doric columns, or so I assume, as a British tourist had trod on my glasses minutes before, causing me to take in the scene only through my noetic eyes, Ari lay on the ground and stared up at the temple above him. Then he stretched out his arms as if to embrace the soil beneath him and exclaimed ecstatically: «Φίλε, τα έχω παίξει παντελώς.»
It is this attitude to photography, that of a lover perenially exploring the labyrinthine and sensuous curves of his beloved’s corporeal and psychic existence, that marks Ari Hatzis as a truly accomplished photographer. Returning from Greece, we gradually lost touch, though I still have a black and white photograph he had taken of me, on the back of which he had scrawled: “If you’re photographing in color you show the color of their clothes - if you use black and white, you will show the color of their soul.”
He went on to graduate from the internationally renowned photography department of RMIT University and soon after exhibited his first published work, entitled: “When Fish had Feathers.” This entailed a series of black and white portraits and forms part of a permanent exhibition in Collingwood. His work has since been exhibited and awarded numerous times in Australia. In 2006, he received an honourable mention for his work “Reconciliation Place” in the prestigious International Photography Awards.
He worked commercially as a freelance photographer in many different areas, and his knowledge of the digital aspect of the industry has allowed him to work as a Mac operator and digital retoucher for leading professionals. Not being able to withstand his innate longing for Greece, he returned there, particularly to Rhodes, where he sojourned with his partner, Martina Gemmola and set about capturing the essence of that magical place. Now he is using its inexorable light to pursue his career among the neon lights of America.
Ari Hatzis’ and Martina Gemmola’s joint exhibition, currently at Degani Bakery, 106 Station Street, Faifield encapsulates in a visual medium as few others can, Dirk Bogarde’s assertion that: “The camera can photograph thought.” It is an artful exploration and juxtaposition of light and everyday life. Their photographs, of ruinous buildings, terrifyingly empty beaches and elderly inhabitants of Rhodes have the unnerving stillness and brooding monolithic character of historical monuments yet are simultaneously light, affectionate and often facetious.
“So what myth have you created to obscure your art?” I spar. “What is Klus but the remainder recurring of Boolean logic?” he ripostes. Indeed, it is a most difficult thing to interview a person who knows you well, for he has power over you, can guess the motivation behind most of your questions and turn them against you. Thus, to my question: “Why photos of Greece? What does Greece mean to you?” his eyes widened in surprise as he answered incredulously: “Come on, you know. You have seen.” And he points me to a picture taken by Martina Gemmola of the interior of a ruinous building, the picture featured in this diatribe. A flaking red wall in the foreground, symbolizing the immediacy of passion but also its transitory nature, opens up via an archway into a serene though mouldering green room, a telling visual parable of coming to terms with one’s past. A window within that room looks out onto the world and the future: We see some palm fronds and a verdant mountain sloping down to unburden itself in the sea. Ultimately, there is a message of hope and renewal to be viewed through the prism of the ruins. I have not ever seen a photograph that so poignantly marries the conflicting essences of past, present and future and re-interprets them in a quintessentially Greek-Australian context.
Another photo by Ari Hatzis is particularly compelling. It is a desolate beach scene. The white sand sprawled in the foreground is flawless. The sea, a deep, almost impossible blue, looks as if it has been painted by a master. The viewer cannot tear their eyes away from it. Tucked to one side, though paradoxically dominant, is a beach umbrella which provides an unsettling quality to the whole vision. The sea and sand are so perfect that they cannot possibly be real. This cannot be a cliché of paradise. The umbrella, undoubtedly left behind or purposely positioned by humans is the only indicator of our existence in a world that does not require it, and it is an ephemeral indicator at that. Yet for all the stark clarity that characterizes the photograph, the umbrella too has the unreal quality of a Byzantine icon. It seems ‘acheiropoiiti,’ not made by human hands. Again in juxtaposing the extreme majesty of nature with the precarious futility of our own being, Ari compels our ocular nerves to contextualize their own existence. This truly is one of those photographs in which it could be postulated, as Richard Avedon has, that: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” Or is it? We should all fear such photos, for they pierce the soul and our smug sense of self, but then again, to drive the motif further, fear is supposed to be the darkroom where negatives develop.
So are Ari and Martina attempting to record a world in transition, a world that is about to be lost to us simply because we do not care to notice or are now incapable of appreciating its finer details? Often while traveling with a camera we arrive just as the sun slips over the horizon of a moment, too late to expose film, only time enough to expose our hearts. Perhaps this peripatetic duo will show us how to capture and expose both.
Genius notwithstanding, and while exhorting all and sundry to get themselves down to Degani Bakery in Fairfield to view the masterpieces for themselves, I salute the accomplished artists who this Diatribe pays tribute to with a parting shot, enlisting the help of John Steinbeck: “I hate cameras. They are so much more sure than I am about everything.”


First published in NKEE on 29 January 2007


“Most Greek children never went to school at all. Girls, to begin with, always stayed with their mothers until they were married, either at home or working in the fields. Slaves, whether boys or girls, also could not go to school, and many children in ancient Athens and Corinth and other Greek cities were slaves. Any boy who was poor, even if he was free, also could not go to school: his family could not afford to pay the teacher, and besides they needed the boy's work at home. There were no public schools.”
The above is a paragraph I wrote at the age of thirteen, to justify to my mother that as the institution of Saturday Greek Schools had no precedent within our ancient past, they were a foreign inclusion and thus, should be extirpated from our usages. Needless to say, my mother, who in her younger days desperately wanted to (and still does) find a decent oil reproduction of the famous painting by Gyzis: «Κρυφό Σχολειό» and hang it in our living room, was far from convinced.
The truth was that a large amount of social conditioning and brainwashing took place in order to make me appreciate Greek school. At the age of three, my grandmother would sing «Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό, φέγγε μου να περπατώ, να πηγαίνω στο σχολειό, να μαθαίνω γράμματα...» whereas my grandfather would sing Zambetas’ hit: « Ο πιο καλός ο μαθητής.» This caused me to believe as we set off on my first day of Greek school, that the said school would be conducted on the moon or at least in moonlight and somehow involve hide and seek, which I was particularly good at. Thus, I was inordinately disappointed to learn when I finally arrived, that I was not in the Sea of Tranquility but in Ascot Vale. I was pleased however to discover that hide and seek as well as tiggy seemed to be the first lesson of the day as our hapless teacher, κυρία Γεωργία attempted to round us up and herd us into class in the expert way that only a person who has grazed goats in Greece knows how. This may possibly have involved the throwing of stones at our legs and a ear-drum shattering, sound-barrier piercing whistle, but I am conscious of the fact that this memory has somehow merged itself with an early memory of watching «Ταμτάκος» movies hired from “Stavros Video” with my father and thus, is probably unreliable.
In those early times, the aim was not only to teach the Greek language but to also recreate the cultural experience of Greek schooling, at least the way it was in the sixties and seventies. An icon of Παναγία holding the infant Jesus hung above the blackboard in each classroom. Every so often, our teacher would look up imploringly at her. At first we believed that she was seeking divine assistance in order to pacify an unruly class. Later, we surmised that her look was one of defeat and sympathy à la: “Kids are so much trouble. You would know, you have one of your own.” A map of Greece hung at the rear of the room and during recess we would find our parents’ villages or at least the nearest town pertaining thereto and have arguments of inordinate length about which geographical region was better. One meek and mild child by the name of Neophytos surprised us all when, teased that his place of origin, Cyprus, was inferior because it wasn’t even shown on the map properly and what is more, it was for girls because it was shaded pink, wrenched the said map from the wall and smashed it on the class bully’s head. That classroom, which no longer exists, also marks the location of my very first personal revolution against the establishment. Learning after a punishing year of memorization that the polytonic system of accenting Greek was to be scrapped in favour of the current, simpler monotonic, I refused to accept this and despite the injunctions of my exasperated and ideologically inspired teachers, have continued to wield the polytonic ever since.
Corporal punishment, the recipient of which I was only once, when the whole class was smacked for breaking into the toilets and throwing all the toilet paper out of the window, was considered to be a badge of honour and stories of beatings would filter down the hallway into all the classrooms and drown in terrified silence as we heard the Teutonic steps of our first headmaster, a man whose eyebrows defied the laws of physics, crunching his way into his office. Despite the high jinks and escapades, woe betide any student who did not complete the prescribed homework. In those days, Greek school was considered the exact equivalent of “English school” and possibly as even more significant.
Greek school people remain with you all your life. A person that perennially comes to mind is “Koulouri Man,” a middle aged gentlemen who would materialize out of nowhere each recess and lunchtime and satisfy our huger and hyperactivity through the purveyance of steaming, melt in your mouth koulouria. His worldly manifestation at the times requisite would be invariably accompanied by distant cries of “It’s Koulouri Man,” and everyone would flood out of their classrooms, enveloping the corridor in a sea of Hellenic hunger. Hence, there was never any need for a school bell.
“Crunchy Man,” is another Greek school person indelibly etched into my memory. This student had the largest and brightest set of teeth I had and even to this day have, ever seen. Despite our teacher’s best efforts, he was particularly fond of Crunchy bars and would not stop munching on them during the lesson. One Saturday, our principal, an incredibly tall and stately but also terrifying man strode in to our classroom and began to berate us about some misdemeanour. The ensuing ominous silence, a prelude to punishment, was only broken when Crunchy Man reached into his bag, unwrapped a bar of his favourite snack and offering it to the principal, asked: «Κύριε, you want a Crunchy?”
The apogee of Greek school mayhem was inextricably linked with the fact that the facilities in my second Greek school were of questionable, Eastern-bloc quality, a feature that was both endearing and character building. This was especially true of our heaters, which were possessed of a temperament all of their own and were quite volatile. It was during History and an in depth discussion of Markos Botsaris, while κυρία Χριστοφίδου was answering the question: «Κυρία, why did the τσολιάδες wear φουστανέλες, to make them run faster?» that smoke began to pour from the heater. As we looked on bemused, κυρία Χριστοφίδου, grasped the cord and without unplugging the heater from the socket, began pulling it towards her, exclaiming: «είναι το σκυλάκι μου.» Unfortunately, the comedic effect of those words was lost on the class as the heater proceeded to burst into flames and a terrified κυρία Χριστοφίδου abandoned it and us to our fate and ran screaming from the room.
My second Greek school was an aging, crumbling building in Collins Street with remarkable Art Deco brass doors, which we christened “the Portals of Hell.” A good gauge of how well the school was going was to monitor how promptly the principal would turn up to open the doors. In the early days, we would arrive to find the doors wide open, compelling our entry. As the years passed and more and more parents and students decided that Saturday sport or bludging were more beneficial to their maintenance of Hellenism, the principal would arrive later and later and have to herd his pupils back into the building from the City Square and even as far as Myers. This Greek school was the legendary place where one of my classmates, Ioachim explained to one of our teachers, to his everlasting fame, that as his father was a roof-repairer, he was in fact a ρουφιάνος. It also saw our grammar teacher, κύριος Σοφοκλεόυς lull us into thinking that he would help us cheat in the Grammar exam by providing helpful spelling hints such as: «το α με άλφα να το γράψετε.»
Greek school for me was not just about learning the Greek language. It was more of a tutelage in being Greek for there were many lacunae in my Hellenism that could not be filled by my parents or grandparents. By reading my «Αναγνωστικό» I was transported to a world where all Greek fathers wore moustaches, all grandmothers lived with their grandchildren and all little boys wore shorts. A καντήλι was always burning before the εικονοστάσι and there were some strange days like Καθαρά Δευτέρα when it was incumbent upon all true Greeks to climb to the highest mountain peaks and fly kites. I learnt when it was time to sow, when it was time to reap in Greece, what the απόκριες were and in studying a diverse range of subjects such as history, religion and geography, a diverse vocabulary with words such as υλοτομία, πληθυσμός and καραγκιοζόπουλα began to be formed. Though the homework was difficult, we persevered, variously out of interest or parental pressure and as a result of being taught Hellenism (ie. Greek language as a first language plus Greek culture) rather than just the Greek language as a second language, most of my classmates became functioning bilinguals and biculturalists.
I cannot but look back nostalgically at carefree sunny days when κύριος Παπαδόπουλος would usher us outside into the schoolyard, distribute bread and cheese and lecture us passionately as to the superior wisdom of the ancient Greek philosophers. As opposed to “English school” teachers, whose job description and function is prescribed by the Education Department, our Greek teachers took on the role of mentors, passing on life skills as we grew older and giving us advice for the future. If anything, they were our invaluable guides in learning how to bridge cultural gaps, behave in a Greek social setting and understand the Greek as well as Greek-Australian mentality. Some of these, like the grandfather of all Greek teachers, Κώστας Γκονόπουλος may be gone, but surely must never forgotten and it is to our community’s great shame that we do not do more to honour the people who often selflessly strive for the perpetuation of our identity. Many private Greek school principals and teachers currently provide vital support to other Greek community activities and most importantly, serve as a facility for the integration of Greek-Australian students into the wider Greek-Australian community, endeavouring to preserve the societal framework instituted by the first generation. Nonetheless, Greek language learning both in enrolments and quality is facing an unprecedented crisis, lending the thoughts of a well known and pioneering Greek teacher even more veracity: «Η γλώσσα δεν παρακμάζει. Οι άνθρωποι παρακμάζουν.»
Though I personally believe that Greek education in Australia was blighted at its core by our own short-sighted policy of permitting various Education Departments to assume control and dictate its curriculum to their own purposes, the experience of Greek schools, both in terms of actual language learning and acculturation is an irreplaceable and enduring one. Just how enduring it is can be evidenced by a recent trip I made to Cheimarra in Albania where I was told that an other Australian, one Kostas Gionis had recently been there before me, to visit his relatives and would soon return there. Remembering that he had been my Greek school teacher some seventeen years ago, at an age when I was particularly unruly, and being asked what message I would like to leave him, I replied: “Just tell him to give me back my confiscated pencil case.”
This short foray down memory lane now leaves you with perhaps the most telling justification (as if one is at all necessary) for Greek education in general, as well as the publication of this supplement, by the master teacher himself, Patrokosmas:
«Και δια τούτο πρέπει να στερεώνετε σχολεία ελληνικά, να φωτίζoνται οι άνθρωποι· διότι διαβάζοντας τα ελληνικά τα ηύρα οπού λαμπρύνουν και φωτίζουν τον νουν του μαθητού ανθρώπου.»


First published in NKEE on 29 January 2007

Monday, January 22, 2007


Translation… is in fact an art both estimable and very difficult, and therefore is not the labour and the portion of common minds. It should be practiced by those who are themselves capable of being actors, when they see greater use in translating the works of others than in their own works, and hold them higher than their own glory the service that they render to their country.”
Ignacy Kasicky, Primate of Poland.

This week’s diatribe discovers the exception that proves the rule. No, we did not invent translation, though it could conceivably be argued that we provided the seed of genius which, fertilized in the womb of necessity, achieved its conception. This is because though peripatetic sages of old such as Pythagoras and Herodotus sojourned in lands of equal if not superior civilizations to our own and gained invaluable lessons therefrom, they never felt the need to receive any texts they may have encountered there, within the Greek language. Conversely, the Persians, having to deal with a multitude of ethnicities and languages in their multicultural empire, became adept at rendering texts from their own language into others as diverse as Egyptian, Aramaic and Elamite.
Owing to our own introspection, cultural homogeneity and quite possibly, a good dash of cultural superiority, we did not translate. Instead, other peoples, notably those who hitherto had no estimable literary tradition of their own, (and thus had an inferiority complex), such as the Romans , felt compelled to render our works into their own language, in order to derive the benefit of the knowledge therein contained. Translations from other languages into the Greek were a relatively late phenomenon and largely took place only after Greece’s inclusion within the multi-ethnic empires of the Hellenistic period and its Roman successors, whereby translations were compelled by force of conquest. In this regard, it is interesting that arguably the greatest literary translation into Greek was attempted not by Greeks but by Hellenised Jews between the third and first centuries BC, when their elders, fretting that the younger generation could no longer understand the Hebrew of the Old Testament, arranged for its translation into a language that they could more easily understand. In fact, the only notable translation in antiquity into Greek was made by Choerilus of Iasus, who was Alexander the Great’s campaign poet and who was said to have translated the epitaph of Sardanapalus from Assyrian, though this is disputed. Given then that we cannot claim to have conceived translation, we can console ourselves in the knowledge that we were the primal cause of its genesis and can proudly call ourselves its fathers.
Having established our paternal credentials, it follows logically that any claim that we have of being translation’s godfathers is downright incestuous. This is especially so, given that the term currently used to name this activity is of Latin origin. Indeed, it stems from the word ‘translatio,’ meaning to carry across. In contrast, the Greek word, ‘metaphrasis’ is infinitely more exact, as it connotes the object of the transfer: a ‘speaking across.’ It is etymologically fitting then, this word has supplied the English language with ‘metaphrase,’ meaning, a literal, word by word translation.
Perhaps the most common misconception about translation is that there does exist a simple “word for word” relation between any two languages and that translation is therefore a straightforward and mechanical process. On the contrary, translation is always fraught with uncertainties with the potential for inadvertent ‘spilling over; of idioms and usages from one language into the other. Take this snippet from the as yet unpublished work of a Greek-Australian author I am currently translating, which proves that translation is not an exact science and that firmly defined one to one correlations do not always exist between words and phrases in different languages: «Ενώ έκλαιγε η μαύρη με μαύρο δάκρυ, μπήκε μέσα στο δωμάτιο το μονάκριβο παιδί της και της ξεστόμισε: «Κούνια που σε κούναγε.» A literal translation, that does not account for traditional symbolism and cultural idioms may read: “As the black one cried with black tears, her only precious child entered the room and spoke out: ‘Oh the cradle that rocked you.’ Or take this gem, lifted from the English version of a guidebook of a folklore museum at Ioannina: “Jug with tubed cock, mostly glassy. Decorated with rose petals at its large surface. Interior orifice is chocolate colour.” The object in question by the way, is not a Scandinavian instrument of pleasure but rather, a jug with a handle shaped like a rooster.
Some loan words that have been received into Greek from other languages take upon a meaning of their own which becomes untranslatable. How does one translate the word «Ντόμπρος» which derives from the Slavic word for ‘good?’ (Добро) In Greek, this adjective can either mean trustworthy, reliable or upfront, depending on the context. Of especial interest are loan words that are adopted by Greeks in various parts of the world and at different times without reference to each other. Woe betide, for example, the Greek-Australian who, while enjoying a souvlaki at a tavern in Plaka and having tzatziki run down his fingers, turns to the waiter and requests the provision of a «σερβιέττα.»
Some mistranslations involve a multitude of languages and linguistic misconceptions. During December, while visiting a Greek school in Albania, I was provided by the principal with a copy of the DVD for Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, left behind by a Chinese visitor. The DVD seemed to be a camera recording of the theatrical release that was dubbed into Mandarin Chinese and included a feature for English subtitles. The subtitles however, were translated from the Chinese characters and not from the original English track. As such, the words and phrases in the film were mangled beyond belief. The title went from being called “The Revenge of the Sith” to the reminiscent of a Eastern Bloc erotic exploration: “The Backstroke of the West.”
Among all the faulty mistranslations, one was of particular interest as it involuntarily enmeshed the Greek language within it as a middleman. For in this particular DVD, the renown Jedi Council was rendered back into the English as “the Presbyterian Church,” having Anakin Skywalker mention to the insidious Emperor Palpatine: "The Presbyterian Church like enjoys you not." How this came about, unravels a comedy of errors worthy of an Aristophanes.
Firstly, it is worthwhile to take a look at the "Presbyterian Church," and her origins. The word ‘Presbys’ (πρέσβυς) in old Greek denotes an ‘Elder.’ In time this word was applied to elders of the Christian community who led them in prayer and hence the word ‘presbyteros’ (πρεσβὐτερος) came to signify a priest. The Chinese language does not lend itself easily to the assimilation of foreign loan words as each syllable in the word must denote its meaning, not just a sound. As the word Jedi means nothing in Chinese, the ingenious translator had to search for an equivalent to convey its meaning. ‘Elder’ must have seemed to be an adequate approximation.
The Chinese characters used to represent the “Jedi Council,” can also be translated as the “Elder Gathering.” As the term “Church” signifies a ‘gathering,’ or ‘assembly,’ we can read these characters as the ‘Elder Church.’ In Chinese characters, there is no way to distinguish between Presbyterian and Elder; hence, the Elder Church becomes the ‘Presbyterian Church.’ Even if we consider the purported Greek origin of Star Wars creator, George Lucas, it is uncertain whether he intended to wield the Jedi Council as an instrument for the criticism or promotion of the sci-fi Presbyterian Church.
Or maybe not. For if we meditate upon the infinite stealth characteristic of the devious Sith Lords, we perceive that further sub-motifs have been expertly woven into the Star Wars narrative. The Jedi Knights, dressed in the equivalent of the schema worn by Orthodox monks, represented by Ben Kenobi (Kenobion, (κοινόβιον) being the Greek word for a communal monastery) struggled for the salvation and redemption of their enemies (see here Luke Skywalker’s mission to Darth Vader). Is it stretching the parallel too far to venture to say that the Christian apostles and disciples carried metaphorical swords of light, conquering their enemies, and bringing the light of the Gospel all over the world, just as the Jedi Knights wielded their light sabres against the isopteric Geonosians? How does one render into New Testament Greek the phrase: “I feel a disturbance in the Force?”
Incidentally, we can all be reassured that in aeons to come, when the world as we know it will cease to exist and the myriads of galaxies will gather to resist the onslaught of the Trade Federation, a delectable princess from Naboo, Amidala, whose name signifies the beneficial qualities of almonds, (gamma is silent in Naboovian) will accost an inarticulate Hayden Christiansen in the Senate and lecture him on the immanent destruction of the only Greek word that has survived the centuries untouched and untranslatable: Democracy.
Until next time, may the Force be with you. We leave you with a snippet of the new authoritative translation of Lefteris Pantazis’ collected works: “Every night I cut veins/ I keep vigil with various frappes/ and I unravel sofas/ in order to sleep.” Βασανιστείτε μυστήρια πλάσματα!


First published in NKEE on 22 January 2007

Monday, January 15, 2007


Generally speaking, the first thing one would hopefully see when arriving in a country after air travel, is its airport. As such, it acts much like the entrance hall of a domestic home, in that it is either a harbinger of what the actual home contains or instead, acts as an ideological installation employed by the owner to convey to the guest, its own desired interpretation of what the home should be. The dinginess of the old Athens Airport at Ellinikon for example, conveyed the message: ‘we are poor and Balkan’ whereas the new Athens Airport at Spata personifies the slogan: ‘we are clean, efficient and oh so European.’ Cairo Airport prepares one for a city that may be dusty or run down in part, but is vivacious and bustling, whereas if my recent arrival at Melbourne Airport just before the new year is anything to go by, that airport, (replete with staff appearing to harangue and intimidate non-English speaking arrivals who are unable to fill out their English-language passenger cards and ostensibly guiding them through the customs procedure as cattle are led through the corral,) intones sonorously: ‘strangers beware.’
On the odd occasion, nations will seek to impart to their airports a touch of local history, not only to honour famous people or places but also to highlight their importance to foreigners. Thus we have Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney and Atatürk Airport in Constantinople. Athens Airport is named after Modern Greece’s great statesman, Eleutherios Venizelos, whereas Thessaloniki airport is not named ‘Basil the Bulgar Slayer Airport’ but rather ‘Makedonia’ so that travellers have no misconceptions about the geographical region in which they have landed. Similarly, Ioannina Airport is named ‘King Pirros’ after the ancient Epirotic monarch Pyrrhus who deserves to have his name transliterated correctly, Kastoria Airport is named ‘Aristotelis’ and Kavala Airport is named ‘Megas Alexandros.’
This is all well and good where there is clear delineation between nations’ history and culture. However, when historical elements or personages normally associated with one culture are claimed by another, this naming process becomes somewhat more complicated.
Enter the government at Skopje’s recent decision to rename Skopje airport after Alexander the Great (Аеродром Алeксандар Вeлики). At the outset, this is a marketing masterstroke so skilful as to even cause John Singleton to turn green with envy, for let’s face it, prior to this fortuitous announcement, most of the world did not even know that an international airport existed in that city. Indeed, the only time that airport has ever previously achieved any prominence in the world media is when on 5 March 1993, a Fokker F-100 belonging to the local airline, Palair, crashed seconds after taking off from Skopje runway 34 on a flight to Zurich. Investigation determined the cause of the accident to be the failure of the Skopjan flight crew to have the aircraft de-iced before departure. Sadly, 81 of the 97 passengers on board perished.
Already, the gloves are out. Even before being asked, the Foreign Minister at Skopje, Antonio Milososki has pointed out that Alexander the Great, a historical military leader was an international figure and not the property of one country. He hastened to add that the renaming of Aepoдром Cкопје (Aerodrom Skopje) was not an attempt to monopolize the name and Greece should not take it as a provocation, this despite the fact he knows Greece would and in fact has, interpreted it as such. In a gesture of magnanimity, Mr Milososki advised that while the original intention was to name the airport ‘Alexander the Macedonian,’ the more conventional name would be applied in order not to hurt Greece’s feelings.
Poppycock. For years the government in Skopje and/or its predecessor and various of its people have been trying to appropriate to themselves pieces of history, selected at whim, in order to forge a national ideology. This includes the publication of Thessalonican landmarks such as the White Tower on proposed banknotes, abrogation of the Star of Vergina, the publication of provocative maps of ‘Aegean Macedonia,’ concerted attempts to dissociate the ancient Macedonian royal family from any reference to its Hellenic descent and the formulation of a thoroughly racist and exclusionist conception of the term ‘Macedonian.’ One can therefore appreciate the context in which Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis’ expounded her position on the issue, namely: “The attitude shown by Skopje is not in line with its obligations for good-neighbourly ties that result from its commitments to the European Union and are not in favour of its Euro-Atlantic ambitions.” The meaning of the government at Skopje’s clumsy gesture is therefore apparent to all and it shall be interesting to see what, if anything, the Greek government attends to do to address the issue in the face of continued recalcitrance.
However, before the Greeks of the world rush off complaining about Skopjan duplicity to a western post-modern world that believes in no ultimate truth and in the right to call one’s self whatever one wishes, is complacent about its own history given that it cannot be assailed and is contemptuous of petty and dare we say inferior people’s squabbling over historical rights and titles, let them pause and reflect for a while. For quite possibly, the government at Skopje’s renaming of Aerodrom Skopje as ‘Alexander the Great’ has repercussions beyond the ken even of the petty populists in both camps.
Firstly, to all intents and purposes and despite decades of inept propaganda to the contrary, in the wider worldwide consciousness, the historical personage of Alexander the Great is inextricably linked with Greece. This singular fact is attested by aeons of folklore by peoples from the Balkans all the way to Chinese Turkestan. Therefore, while the populists in Skopje think they are scoring points with their own electorate and attempting to obtain sole title to a historical personage, what they are actually doing is sending the message that they are honouring a Greek King and that their country once belonged to him. It goes without saying that this is not devoid of benefit for the Greek people.
As an aside, it is worthwhile to note that if the various dedicated internet forums are anything to go by, the government in Skopje’s decision is unpopular with a large section of its constituents that view the Greek King Alexander as a ‘Grekoman’ and thus, as a ‘race-traitor.’
Secondly, if we apply the esteemed but rather inept Mr Milososki’s argument that no country has sole right or title to international historical figures or concepts further, then logically, the name ‘Macedonia’ is also one of historical and international significance and not the property of one country. This being so, Mr Milososki has conclusively proven that his government and people cannot solely abrogate to themselves the right to call themselves Macedonians.
Greeks feel a sense of pride when they consider Alexandria, one of the greatest cities of Egypt and of Hellenism combined. They do not consider the continued use of Alexander’s name by that city a slight in any way, as that thriving metropolis is a living testament to the impenetrable will and almost superhuman achievements of a most unique man. Ultimately, all places or things that bear the great Greek King’s name resound to and reflect his eternal glory, not that of those who misappropriate or utilise it for their own ends.
I find it touching that the government in Skopje should seek to honour arguably the most famous Greek in history, by naming their airport after him. This is a gesture the great Greek king would have appreciated. After all, was it not Alexander who in his quest to find Eschate – the furthest limit of human endurance and attainment, founded a multitude of cities throughout the world and named them all after himself, a more grandiose equivalent to graffitiing on walls the slogan: ‘Alexander was here?” Further, this gesture takes a lot of guts. In contrast to their western cousins, the Bulgarians could not tolerate the existence in their country of a city that bore the name of a Macedonian king, Thus Philippoupolis, founded and named in honour of Alexander’s father and existing under that name for centuries was renamed Plovdiv after its inclusion in the Bulgarian state.
Therefore, in order to nip any problem that may arise over the naming of the airport in the bud, and to head off any criticism directed against us and our brothers in Skopje by our enlightened western friends to the effect that we should raise our heads above the quagmire of history I would humbly submit my own solution to the problem:
Not only should we accept the government in Skopje’s noble gesture in honouring our great Greek king by giving their airport the same name as our own in Kavala, we should reciprocate by naming a local airport within Greece after a famous Fyromian personality of historical importance. I would nominate the great Fyromian diva and queen of Balkan pop music Kaliopi Bukle for this most singular honour. Travellers arriving at Kaliopi Bukle Airport could have their auditory nerves massaged by such masterpieces of the musical stave as Kaliopi’s rendition of “Smeh,”Ne Mi Go Zemaj Vremeto” or “Za Kogo Postojam.” Suitably captioned exhibits could entrance and inform travellers on Kaliopi’s international importance as a songwriter, focusing upon the unparalleled artistry she displayed in composing lyrics for such worldwide musical heavyweights as Elena Risteska and Maja Grozdanovska-Pancheva. In bad weather, Kaliopi’s songs could help planes to really take off. As we say at Kaliopi Bukle International Airport, ‘sky’s the limit.’While we are at it, let us be guided by our northern brothers’ example and institute a campaign to rename all the airports in all the cities ever conquered, founded or visited by Alexander the Great after him, including Kabul Airport in Afghanistan, Tehran Airport in Iran and Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. To this effect, it is imperative that an aerodrome is also built in Heidelberg, adjacent to the Warriors’ Soccer Ground. And when the neraida arrives one day at the terminal asking the perennial question of the Passport Control Officer «Ζει ο Μέγας Αλέξανδρος;» he will smile, nod and reply, «Ζει, ζει και βασιλεύει.»


First published in NKEE on 15 January 2007

Monday, January 08, 2007


"Therefore the LORD Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son and she shall call His name Emannuel.” Isaiah 7:14

The prospect of God in his immense condescension assuming a human nature and being born among us is of profound significance to Orthodox Christians. Indeed, while in various other religions gods are said to have descended from heaven and assumed a human-like form, their nature was always held to be solely divine. In the birth of Christ we witness the inconceivable, the Theanthropos, who not only is Divine in essence but also Human. If the First Adam, brought about the fall of man from his original purpose and state of enlightenment through his own will, the Second Adam, Christ, will, by virtue of his Divine-Human essence, restore and redeem the whole of humanity to their original state. Christmas, therefore, commemorates a grand mystery, one that believers receive with joy and wonder and it is therefore clear why the Church extends the following thanksgiving him to Christ in the Christmas Matins: "Glory and praise to the One born on earth Who hath divinised earthly human nature.”
That Christmas remarks the apogee of the spiritual development of mankind is evidenced by the Christmas fast and the special days of preparation before Christmas itself, with the week of the Holy Forefathers and the week of the Holy Fathers. The Church services for these days of preparation commemorate the patriarchs, the prophets and all who had lived by faith in the Saviour who was to come and had prophesied about Him long before His coming. The hymns for the Feast of the Nativity are thus full of the original joyful excitement at the mere thought of God's appearance on earth. The Christmas canon begins with a joyous declaration, gradually swelling in volume, of the Saviour's birth: “Christ is born!/Glorify Him!/ Christ descends from the heavens, welcome Him!/ Christ is now on earth, O be jubilant!/ Sing to the Lord, the whole earth,/ And sing praises to Him with joy, O ye people,/ For he has been exhalted!”
Close scrutiny of the icon of the Nativity reveals much about the theology of Christmas and its significance. It depicts creation it its entirety taking part in the birth of Christ. To paraphrase one of the Christmas Vespers, the angels give thanks with their song; the heavens produce the tremendous luminous star; the Wise Men give their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The poor, humble shepherds give their praise and amazement; the earth provides a cave, and humanity gives the Virgin Mary, for to quote the Nicene Creed, Christ is he “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
The Icon of the Nativity is a portmanteau of many co-existing depictions. Primarily, it stresses the importance of the Theotokos, the Mother of Jesus. She occupies a central position and is the largest figure in the icon. The Church troparia marvel that a human being could be so honoured as to bring forth God into the world: "The fire of the Godhead scorched not the Virgin,/ When He entered into Her womb.” Her tenderness towards her Child and by extension to the whole of humanity is highlighted by her depiction as kneeling with crossed arms, looking fondly at the Christ-child. Three stars, denoting her virginity before, during, and after the Nativity, are conspicuous on her garments. This scene also has its counterpart in the pre-Christmas troparia, where the Theotokos tenderly wonders at the enormity of what has just transpired: "O my child, child of sweetness,/ How is it that I hold Thee, Almighty?/ And how that I feed Thee,/ Who givest bread to all men?/ How is it that I swaddle Thee,/ Who with the clouds encompasses the whole earth.”
The Christ-Child , in the centre of the icon, is in swaddling clothes and is lying in the manger. In the background is the dark cave where He was born. In the cave are an ox and a donkey guarding the newborn Babe. Even though the Gospels say nothing of a cave, Holy Tradition affirms its existence. Similarly, while no Gospels speak of the presence of an ox and the donkey in the cave, all icons of the Nativity depict these animals. Their depiction and presence fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, "The ox knows his master, and the donkey his master's crib; but Israel does not know me, and the people have not regarded me." The long ray of light emanating from the star points directly to the cave and travels throughout the world. This represents the Church’s teaching that in Christ’s birth, all people receive spiritual illumination. The Christmas troparion consequently maintains: “Thy Nativity,/ O Christ our God/ Has illumined the world like the Light of Wisdom”. According to the Orthodox Church, God enlightens each of us in the way that is most accessible and understandable to the particular person. Thus, when He wished to enlighten the Magi, whose custom it was to observe the stars and their movements, He sent them the unusual star depicted in the icon, which guided them to the Christ. As the Church hymn proclaims: “... They who worshipped the stars were through a star,/ Taught to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness /And to know Thee, the Day-Spring from on high.”
Thus, on the left hand side of the Magi, illuminated by the star, are riding upon horses to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus. Gold, because He is the King of ages; frankincense, because He is the God of all men; and myrrh, with which the Jews were accustomed to anoint their dead, because He was to lie three days in death. The Magi are depicted as being of various ages. One is a beardless youth, whereas, the others have long hair and a long beard, indicating that they are much older. This teaches that regardless of age and appearance, the Good News of Christ’s birth was given to each and everyone. The star of Bethlehem gave the Magi an opportunity to see the rise of the Sun of Righteousness. All who have sat in spiritual darkness and waited for the true light have, like the Magi, can now come to know this extraordinary Day-Spring of the Sun of Righteousness as exemplified in the Protagogion of the Christmas Matins: “Our Saviour hath visited us from on high.../ And we who were plunged in darkness and shadows/ Have found the truth,/ For the Lord hath been born of the Virgin.”
Opposite the Magi, is the depiction of the shepherds. An angel proclaims the tidings of Christ’s birth to them. A young shepherd plays a reed instrument. This scene reveals that the music of the humans was added to the hymn of the angels. To parallel this, across from the shepherd's scene is the heavenly choir of angels. They are giving glory to God. The triumphal hymn of the Feast of Christmas is the "Gloria" sung by the angels to the Shepherds, to herald the coming of the Messiah is thus characteristic of the salvation prefigured by Christ’s incarnation and which will be completed by his crucifixion and resurrection: “Glory in the Highest to God, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” (Luke 2:14). According to the text of Luke's Gospel the "good tidings" proclaimed by the angels wer not a repetition from the heavens of things that were well-known before. The innumerable heavenly host that appeared suddenly in the wake of the Angel who had stood before the shepherds of Bethlehem confirmed his “tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke2:10). They also sang of the new, marvellous act of God's goodwill, His sending the Saviour to this earth, the personification of God’s loving kindness.
In the right hand corner are the two women Joseph brought to take care of the Christ-Child. They are bathing Him just as any baby is bathed. This emphasises the second of Christ’s dual nature, his humanity. Opposite the bathing of Jesus scene sits a sad and worried Joseph. He is not part of the central depiction of the Christ-Child and the Theotokos. Joseph, not the natural father is troubled and despondent. An old man speaks to him. He is Satan. True to his Greek name «διάβολος (‘diavolos’ meaning ‘slanderer’) he is tempting and disturbing Joseph by telling him that the virgin birth is impossible and that he is a fool if he believes this. This story comes to us from Holy Tradition. The perturbed Joseph emphasises not only his personal predicament but also the dilemma of all mankind having difficulty accepting that which is “beyond words or reason.”
Finally, the tree that is in the middle of the lower part of the icon, is a symbol of the Tree of Jesse. This tree refers to Isaiah 11:1-2, “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.” King David was often mentioned as the son of Jesse and Jesus was descended from the house of David.
It is with the Gloria of the angels that Diatribe greets you in this new year, thanking you for your tolerance, wishing you enjoyed happy holidays and hoping that we all spare a thought for the dispossessed and unfortunate of the world, whose numbers are multiplying throughout the year. Especially deserving of our thoughts are the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East whose simple acts of faith can offer lead to their martyrdom. Peace on earth and goodwill to all men is as topical and fitting a wish as one could ever hope to make in our troubled times. Καλή Χρονιά!


First published in NKEE on 8 January 2007