Monday, May 14, 2007


“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road; and it was trampled under foot, and the birds of the air ate it up. And other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it, and choked it out. And other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.” Luke 8:4-21
This parable is ended by the injunction: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The idea of a seed symbolizing immortality and re-growth is also encapsulated in the Greek proverb: «Το μήλο κάτω από την μηλιά θα πέσει,» and it is no wonder that the Syrian Greeks offered grains and other seeds to the god Adonis when celebrating the feast of his supposed rebirth. Pontian Hellenes, lamenting the loss of Constantinople and facing the prospect of losing their identity applied the symbolism of the seed as a symbol of regeneration when stating in a famous folk-song: «Η Ρωμανία κι αν πέρασεν, ανθεί και φέρει άλλο.» Similarly, it is a motif often employed to express the pious hopes of antipodean Greeks, of cultural, linguistic and racial perpetuation. According to this motif, the first migrants are the sowers of the seed of our identity. Ignoring Darwinian theories of evolution and adaptation, the expectation is that the seed that they sow in the furrows of their toil, which are watered by the tears of their anguish and pain for their ancestral homeland, will bear the same, unchangeable fruit, in perpetuity.
Reality however, has deemed otherwise. Quite apart from the vicissitudes of nature outlined in the biblical parable that may prevent a seed from germinating, there are also other factors that may pervert the expected natural order of things. There is such a vast linguistic and cultural gap between the generations that we can safely speak, if not of disparate species, then surely of sub-species. Some of these proverbial fruit of the sowers’ loins have reacted to the alkalinity of the soil of their birth to produce fruit of remarkable colours and shapes and others still, have grafted themselves onto other varieties, either as a result of natural selection or a considered wish to produce hardier, more prolific plants. Monocotyledons find themselves producing dicotyledonic offspring and then shake their heads in disbelief as their offsprings’ offspring in turn, espouse the genetic ideology of a fungus. However, despite the evidence to the contrary, the fact that we are just as much a product of our environment as of our genetics is something too beastly for us who have been brought up upon and conditioned by absolutes, to contemplate.
Another factor that we seldom take into account when taking stock of the seed of our own cultural perpetuation is the competence and character of the sower. Some of the sowers in this land have been benign and well-meaning and their seed had germinated and borne fruit. Too often though, the first generation sowers have been motivated by egotism, malevolence and ignorance while paying lip service to their self-appointed task of cultivating young Greek shoots. As a result, their crop is one of bitterness, paranoia and indifference, culminating in assimilation.
The legacy of those anti-sowers was brought subtly into question by the Workshop of Pontian Continuity in the Antipodes, in their magnificent exploration of Pontian heritage through song, dance and historical footage, aptly entitled “Seed,” on 6 May 2007. Indeed, they begin their program with these words: “If it is time to depart from this world and our children have no recognition of the past, what have we gained in this life?” This is a savage indictment upon the numerous Pontian organizations who, under the pretext of promoting their unique culture and raising awareness about the tragic fate of their ancestors, have instead misused these to play politics of ascendancy with each other and in the process, have short-sightedly failed to realize the germination of their seed.
Divine Providence is perhaps to be thanked that these seeds of internecine strife and soul-knawing hatred have not sprouted. Instead, the organizers of Seed, a group of young Pontian and non-Pontian members of the Greek community have disrupted the preconceived order of things whereby the first generation sees itself as the sole repository and disseminator of culture and have abrogated that right to themselves. They deserve it, for they are steeped in the minutae of Pontian lore and what is more, they love it selflessly, with a passion pure and unsullied by self-interest.
Seed, a folkloric concert is the first of its kind here in Australia. Presented at the state of the art Clocktower Centre in Essendon to a packed, largely non-Pontian and tremendously enthusiastic crowd, it was the brainchild of Nick Krikelis, who has been at the forefront of Pontian dance for years. Under his direction, Seed guided the audience through a journey beginning at Kerasounta of eastern Pontos. The sonorous, awe-inspiring narration of Katina Stehpanidou transported everyone back in time as they listened, saw and felt a lost culture not only being brought back to life through the use of archival footage, archeological remains and cultural artifacts displayed on a video screen but also through the efforts of young musicians such as Harry Parharidis and George Sevastopoulos and many others who through their expert playing of the kemenche, the kemane, the angion, a type of droneless bagpipe and the daouli, have taken the heritage of their ancestors, studied it lovingly, preserved it and adapted it as a part of their own individual identity.
Then of course, there were the Pontiaki Estia dancers, a more dedicated to the cultural heritage of their art performers as can ever be seen. Under the initial direction of the multifaceted Pontic guru Ioannis Pilalidis and Penny Tsombanopoulos and Tasos Athanasiadis, his worthy successors (and seedlings), these talented youth have delved deeply within themselves and history in order to understand what it is that makes the dances of their people a primary expression of their souls. Upon seeing them stop, heave, quiver and shake while performing the war-dance, the ‘Serra’ the ghostly visions of a century ago take blood and flesh, they come alive and sit among us to tell us that as long as we remember them, they are not truly gone, that as long as we consider them our own, we will preserve our sense of family. As they twirled and gyrated their way through the Pontic regions of Trapezounta, Matsouka, Nicopolis, Argyroupolis and Kars, the Pontiaki Estia dancers granted us a most precious gift: that of the ability to see living history.
Sometimes seeds may lay dormant upon the ground during a drought and germinate only when the rains come. This seems to have been the case here. As the Workshop Committee stated: “The Hellenes that came from Pontus and all of Asia Minor, brought with them very few belongings, but a plethora of traditions and customs. They spoke of their homelands, their villages and friends so that their motherland would never be forgotten. Most importantly, they reminded us of our dead, those who never made it, remaining unburied somewhere across the Aegean. Many died in Anatolia; men women and children. Those innocent children, those Pontian Seeds had no chance of survival. Their parents weren’t permitted to watch them grow and pass down the cultural values they loved and knew from a young age. Continuity was not an option for them as they died taking with them knowledge and customs that are only now being rediscovered.”
The generative and ultimately redemptive power then seems to come not from the fractious and incestuous organized Greek community but through knowledge of the thread of history that binds the spinal cord of consciousness of all Greeks, regardless of where they live. It is because of this, that a tired, ravaged and apprehensive Greek community were able to catch a glimpse of a vibrant, emancipated and vigorous youth reveling in displaying their OWN labours, their OWN understanding of the meaning of their cultural heritage to them and in doing so, offer consolation and hope for the future, that most of them left the performance in tears.
The Workshop Committee is generous in its wisdom and bold in its aspiration: “Today, the Seeds born here can survive freely, ensuring a haven for Pontian culture in the Antipodes. We are now witnessing the rebirth of an ancient Hellenic culture, in Australia, on safe ground where continuity is an option. Seed are the generations that will follow and it is the cultural ethos that we will hand over to our children... Three thousand years of culture will not cease to exist in our hands. This way, when it is time to close our eyes and depart, we can do so peacefully, knowing that our children are aware of the past. When that time comes, they too will replant and nurture our Pontian heirlooms amongst the future generations.”
The concepts to note here two: that continuity is an option, not something imposed from above and that the Workshop Committee is well aware that to not deal with continuity responsibility is to see it perish in their hands. Ultimately, we, not our parents are responsible for just how far down the generations we will pass on our identity and whether, in Cavafian fashion, as expressed in his poem ‘Poseidoniatae’ this identity will take the form of some mantras and customs to be performed mechanically and with no intrinsic meaning, or whether following the example of the mega-gardeners and Seedmeisters, we shall enjoy a bounteous harvest for aeons, now and forever. For, to paraphrase the song “Spare me the Details,” by the fittingly-named ‘Offspring,’ we are the ones who must act like hoes (to till the soil and plant seed, not the other variety,) we are the ones who have to know. We are the ones who cannot mess up big time, so give is the details, if you don’t mind.”

First published in NKEE on 14 May 2007