Monday, June 25, 2007


“Film-making, like sex, isn't a polite enterprise. It involves a lot of mess, sweat and tears, and the bottom line is, if somebody ain't screaming, you're not doing your job.” James Woods

Movies that deal with historical events are a labyrinth promising disaster at every turn. Not only is it necessary to faithfully reproduce the customs, environment and linguistic nuances of the period, or at least justify why these have been omitted, in the case of events whose factual elements are contested, the assertion of a particular ‘version’ of the ever elusive ‘truth’ in a post-modernist world can give rise to howls of derision. Even after one obtains mastery over the facts, their method of portrayal and particular ‘angle’ can make or break the film.
Movies about contested genocides, few in number, are a case in point. Elia Kazan’s seminal, Oscar-nominated and thoroughly moving 1963 film “America America” seems to be a coming of age movie, set amidst the Armenian and Greek genocides in Anatolia, ultimately leading to the physical and temporal conclusion that America is a haven from Old World strife and Old World values, more than anything else. Atom Agoyan’s 2002 film, ‘Ararat’ on the other hand, deals with the psychology, presuppositions and emotional toll of making a movie about genocide.
Enter into the quagmire of worthy precedents, Peter Stefanidis, former secretary of the Federation of Pontian Associations of Australia and a proud, second generation Pontian. His first foray into film-making: “Pontos,” launched on Sunday , 17 June at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, is indeed a collection of profoundly moving images that offer a deep psychological insight into the lasting traumas created by genocide. Though only a short film, ‘Pontos’ manages in a few minutes, what Hollywood blockbusters cannot achieve in grinding hours: an insight into soul-blinding hatred, coupled with redemption and resolution. Indeed one would venture to say that what makes Peter Stefanidis’ film special is that the only presupposition that seems to exist in his mind in making his movie, is that the human condition cries out for a coming to terms with the past. As such, this unique film is a lasting testament to the need for reconciliation and tolerance and I think that it is fitting that it was being screened in Federation Square, the centrepoint of the intricate mosaic of peoples that make up our unique Victorian society.
Indeed, the fact that such a film, dealing with events that occurred almost one hundred years ago, in a land thousands of kilometres away is a living testament to how history continues to affect people and societies long after events have transpired. For Pontians, in many respects, the clock stopped after 1922. The tens of thousands of Pontians that reside in Australia today have not only had to deal with the decimation of their ancestors and their removal from their ancestral homelands but also to preserve a lost culture. That movies of this nature can therefore be screened in Melbourne in the year 2007 is as lasting testament to a remarkable and vital people.
‘Pontos’ is a movie that inverts the natural order of things in that resolution and redemption is screened on a dark backdrop of despair, whereas the brutal crimes of racial killing are juxtaposed against light, almost inviting scenery. An elderly former Turkish soldier, Kemal, played by Lee Mason, sits, looking at photographs taken at the time of the genocide. He is alone, in a darkened and sparse room. On the table next to him, there is a Pontian dagger and an ashtray, a profound symbol of the remnants of a holocaust. Kemal looks painfully at the photos as the scene switches from his living room to the Pontian countryside. There Kemal is young. He has a crazed gleam in his eye that is almost inviting and attractive. As a man who has transgressed the boundaries of the permissible, Lee Mason skillfully plays Kemal as a man who evokes trust, only to betray it with gusto and a good amount of sadism thrown in. Blinded by hatred, his solution to the problems of the age seem to have their resolution only in killing. Thus we see him and his men round up the wife and daughter of the Pontian hero Pantzo and slay them while disturbingly displaying pleasure at their appointed task. Kemal kills with the virtuosity and grace of a ballet dancer. There is no room for hot-headedness here. To him, killing is more than just an art. It is a science. To look into his empty, soulless eyes is to imbibe inhumanity.
The look of horror on Pantzo’s face (played by Ross Black), as he wrestles with the enormity of his grief and his desire for revenge is profound and is the mark of a consummate actor. It is a look I have seen before, in my own grandfather’s face as he described to me his harrowing tale of feeling Anatolia in 1922 and sent shivers down my spine. Pantzo flees his would-be slayers and seems to adopt their solution to the moral and political crisis that has befallen his homeland. In a scene the exact inverse of the previous one, Pantzo and his men hold Kemal, his wife and daughter at their mercy. Pantzo struggles to maintain his sense of humanity as Kemal, on his knees, with Pantzo’s dagger drawn at his throat, taunts him mercilessly and Kemal’s wife and daughter scream in horror. The entire moral conflict can be read in the lines of Pantzo’s face. The horrible death of his wife and daughter flash before his eyes, but he is no killer. In anger and disgust, he throws, the tool of murder, his dagger, and its scabbard, a potent symbol of the justification of the taking of human life at the murderer and goes on his way.
It is typical of the sensitivity and humanity of Stefanidis that he permits Kemal to be the vehicle of redemption in his movie. Years later, it is the elderly Kemal, still clutching to the weapon that granted him a second chance, who, playing the haunting scenes over and over in his mind and reflecting upon his crimes, feels repentance. The affection one feels for this erstwhile killing-machine is as sudden as it is overwhelming and it is the mark of a master film-maker with deep insights into the human psyche that Stefanidis can humanize and dehumanize his characters with consummate dexterity, keeping them for most of the film, teetering precariously on a tightrope between the two extremes. The remarkable and seemingly unstudied ability of Ross Black and Lee Mason to portray a gamut of extreme emotions in no small part augments this.
The genesis of the film, as we learnt in the documentary “The Making of Pontos,” screened directly after the movie, was an injunction by Network Ten personality George Donikian to Peter Stefanidis upon him presenting to the annual Pontian Genocide Workshop a short clip about that event, to come back the next year with a documentary. The ever-resourceful Stefanidis, enrolled himself in a film course and immersed himself in the genre. The end process of his steep learning curve, his calling upon friendships, obtaining advice, painstakingly researching the period and having to confront his own feelings about an event that blighted the people he loves so much is ‘Pontos’, a labour of love film that confers absolution upon the repentant and shies away from the crass nationalism that has hitherto dominated our discourse. In a revealing section of the ‘Making,’ actors Ross Black and Lee Mason reveal how they taunted each other, and forced themselves to overstep the boundaries of the friendship to ‘hate’ each other, verbally abusing and fighting on and off the set, so as to truly gain an understanding of the depth of feelings that would permit mass killing. The insights they gained were as intense as they were revolting.
At the premiere of this remarkable movie, financed and created solely by Stefanidis, the point was made that the movie was created in spite of and without the support of the various Pontian organizations whose fruitless presence in our community seems to revolve only around creating internecine strife. That a former secretary of the Pontian Federation of these organizations can say this, is a tremendous blight upon their existence and proof that in their navel-gazing, their often brutal, ill-mannered and disgusting suppression of youth endeavours, there can no longer be any justification for their bankrupt existence under their present administrators, save to feed their committees member’s egos and to act as a vehicle for the propagation of the filth that masquerades as a preservation of their dim conception of their own ‘culture.’ In doing so, these would-be Noahs have steered the Ark of Pontian culture aground upon the rocks of jealousy, ignorance and assimilation.
The Cartesian Stefanidis on this point, is vehement as he is insightful: “When I was making this movie, I just wanted to scream. I wanted to scream at our apathetic youth, our inebriated, spineless and useless community leaders, at our uncultured, uncaring and selfish Australian counterparts and at the cruel and horrible people that not only took our lands away but whose descendants want a thank you when it give us permission to see those same lands again. I feel like I can breathe again.
For me it was therapeutic, and necessary. I hope that it offers some relief to others. I really hope that it informs our first generation Pontians that we haven't forgotten. I also hope that youth see this and realise that many are NOT doing enough to help maintain the culture, and above all, being Greek and a Pontian is a privilege. The privilege does not begin with a Kotsari and end with a Serra. Anyone who believes that should join the oldies in a chorus of "I think that I am Pontian therefore I am!”

Quite apart then from his talents as a film-maker, Stefanidis’ impassioned cry is a manifesto for the cultural emancipation of the second generation. Rather than lament the marginalisation and exclusion of the youth from Greek community affairs, Stefanidis points the way forward, through bravely overstepping and transcending all obstacles coming between him and his dream. As such, he is a visionary worthy of emulation.
The Pontian song that deals with the coveted renaissance of its civilization emphatically states: «Η Ρωμανία κι αν πέρασεν, ανθεί και φέρει κι άλλο.» We take your leave this week, expressing another pious hope in parallel: «Το πρώτο έργο του Στεφανίδη κι αν πέρασεν, ανθεί και φέρει κι άλλο.» Shairetias.

First published in NKEE on 25 June 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007


Greeks abroad always take a cynical view of the Hellenic Republic’s Foreign Ministry, literally translated as “The Ministry of the Outside,” and a dim view of its diplomatic prowess in general. Somehow, the Hellenic Republic seems always to be behind the eight-ball, attempting to sink the final ball into the hole without poking itself in the eye, long after its multifarious and wilier opponents have made off with the balls, cues, chalk and the billiard-table altogether.
Such failures in diplomacy as exist, do so in multitudes, and are usually defined by the populace as stemming from an inability on the part of the Hellenic Republic to make other nations do what we want them to do. Failures of this nature are particularly galling, as diplomacy, like democracy, is a Greek word, referring to a ‘diploma’ a certificate certifying completion of a course of study, folded in two and this being so, we should be better at it than anyone else.
That we are not, is usually attributed to two distinct factors: a) that the nations we are trying to approach are, in the vulgar parlance «πουλημένοι» or that b) the diplomats and politicians purportedly serving the interests of Greece are «πουλημένοι.» Indeed, the whole problem with the popular conception of Greek diplomacy can be attributed to the fact that it does view the process of diplomacy as one of buying and selling, rather than negotiations and for this we have our Byzantine ancestors to blame.
When Constantine VII wrote De Administrando Imperio, an internal and foreign policy manual for his son Romanus II, between 948 and 952, Byzantium’s power waxed supreme. The august Emperor’s main contention was that rather than indulging in expensive wars and having to cope with the consequential social upheaval, it was much cheaper and politic to expend vast amounts of cash from the treasury in order to manipulate smaller fringe states, set them against each other and with any luck, their dependence on Byzantine gold would make them compliant to Byzantine requests, while they would be too busy fighting amongst themselves that they would forget about even attempting to take a bite of the fat ripe plum that was Byzantium.
All this was well and good when all one has to deal with is smaller and weaker states. What happens though, when other powers, just as strong emerge who vie for these states’ obedience and are determined to eclipse one’s own resplendency? The answer: Decline, death, destruction, desolation and despair - the ultimate fate of Byzantium
The Balkan foreign policy of the Hellenic Republic often appears to be a de novo version of De Administrando Imperio, where it is held that by grants of increased aid and heavy investment in the coterie of Balkan states that perch precariously upon Greece’s perimeter, incentive is provided for the governments of such ‘tributary’ nations to be receptive to Greece’s will. Though, in matters of convenience and trade this may often be the case, unfortunately, what is often not observed by our diplomatic neophytes, is that these same countries were created in spite of the Byzantine Empire and/or Hellenism and thus their ‘national’ interests are inimically opposed to those of Greece. Thus, though they may be temporarily bribed, they cannot be expected to be ‘friends’ or to subordinate their will to that of their donor.
Conceivably, De Administrando Imperio de novo could have a chance of working if other, greater powers did not exist, capable of larger grants of largesse to the countries of the region. As much as Greece has difficulty in extricating herself from the Byzantine myth that she is a Balkan power, it cannot be disputed that other powers exist with interests in the region not always coinciding with those of Greece, who are capable of providing larger subsidies and opportunities and who are culturally and geographically remote enough not to excite opprobrium. If diplomacy is about buying and selling, then Greek diplomats must be aware that in the auction for influence, favours are invariably sold to the highest bidder.
Greece too has been and is still the recipient of such largesse which is why her attempts to become a Balkan power on the back of the advantages of such largesse are amusing. What is not amusing is that Emperor Constantine, not being able to countenance a situation where his basileuousa, whose manifesto was to rule over the entire oikoumene, would have to placate and seduce larger powers, left no instructions in De Administrando Imperio as to how to do so. Thus, we are left scratching our heads wondering why the powers that be do nothing to reverse a clearly unjust situation in Cyprus, or why the United States in their infinite wisdom and intricate knowledge of the complexities of Balkan history, decide to recognise the nation ruled at Skopje as ‘Macedonia.’
Our Albanian neighbours seem particularly adept at winning friends and influencing people, if U.S President George Bush’s recent visit to that country is anything to go by. Proof of this can be found in George Bush’s statement that the U.S supports detaching the province of Kosovo from Serbia, of which it has been part since Serbian independence and giving it independence. In doing so, George Bush is giving tacit approval for the proposition that a group of disaffected militia may rape, loot, pillage, kill elderly Serbs and destroy and vandalise cultural monuments such as Christian cemeteries and the monastery of Dečani, and then be granted independence.
As such, the Diatribe proposes that Greek diplomats, nay the entire Greek people be sent to Albania for a study tour. After all, it appears that the only way to win friends and influence people is to prostrate oneself at the prospective friend’s feet and tell them how much you love them. We need to learn how to do this, as it appears that thus far, we have only been trained in receiving the homage of those grateful for us generously granting them the precious gifts of democracy and the Olympic Games.
The waves of government organized adulation in Tiranë directed towards George Bush could never have been staged in Athens, where the emotionally immature Greeks, not known for their tact, would have most likely thrown Molotov cocktails at him. Apparently then, gratitude for providing them with the illumination of civilization is a debt considered paid a long time ago and we had better wake up and understand that homage that is obtained by a weaker party is only symbolic. Largesse on the other hand, is tangible but needs to be earned.
In contrast, in Albania, a country that oppresses its ethnic minorities and whose system of governance resembles democracy in the same way that Kim Jong Il is the archetype of a benevolent leader, ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations of joy, uncannily reminiscent of those ‘spontaneously’ organized during the communist Hoxha regime buoyed the unpopular U.S president’s spirits. He waved and smiled cheesily at the adoring crowds of Albanians, who rhythmically chanted “Bushi, Bushi, Bushi!” When questioned about the provenance of the chant, Mr Ali G, a spokesman for the Albanian Foreign Minister explained that this had to do with Bush’s interest in a particular region close to the hearts of the Albanian people: “We love Bush. We is down with any foilazh that covers the Punani region.” The crowds, heaved, Bush smiled, they lurched forward as one to touch his face, his hands, his arms. If one looks closely at the footage, one can see that while at the commencement of the bout of moaning, groaning and ecstatic gyrations by the aroused Albanians, George Bush is waving pontifically, a watch strapped to his wrist, after the mass heavy petting session, he extricates his arm from the crowd, sans watch! Even this erotic massage mugging was not able to erase the smile from George Bush’s face. Some day, a venerable Tiranë elder will claim that he is George Bush’s lovechild and present the watch lifted on that happy day as evidence. I can’t wait.
If Greek diplomats were made to frequent nightclubs as part of their training, they would have discovered that is inordinately difficult to resist the advances of someone who literally throws their self at you. Imagine now a horde of horny Albanians rushing at you holding placards begging you: “Come and occupy us!” - with all the Freudian implications that this entails. It would be terribly rude to say no. While this orgy of adulation was transpiring, the Albanian government is said to have seized the opportunity to indulge in some pillow-talk of its own, namely to state its irredentist claim over sections of Greek Epirus, and all this while it persecutes the Greeks of Northern Epirus, vehemently. We are sure to find out sooner or later, how the planetarch responded to his political concubines over the post-coital cigarette but if Kosovo is anything to go by, the future is bleak indeed.
What do we, the young boy scouts of the Balkans learn from today’s lesson, then? Simply this: that if we want to annoy other people and occupy parts of their country, we can only do so if we know how to bow before the Scout Master in the approved fashion and bark like a wolf upon demand. Protesting and hurling abuse at those who keep us on a short leash will only result in them placing less food in our doggy bowl. Oh and another thing - we need all need a change of lingerie. Imagine how much better off Greece would be if every time Karamanlis presented himself before Bush, he was not wearing those metre long brown yiayia Katina parachute knickers that he inherited from Simitis. Take a leaf out of Albanian PM Sali Berisha’s book and get yourself a g-string. Not only are they economical, they also add an appealing twang to Balkan sessions of mutual adulation. See how great the sinuous and sexy young Balkan hottie, Nikola Gruevski, PM of FYROM, looks in suspenders and well done I say, for it was these suspenders that paradoxically won FYROM Membership in La Francophonie, the international organization of French-speaking governments and peoples. Didn’t you all know that Alexander the Great was a French-speaking, suspender-wearing Macedonian queen?
Let us therefore prepare the Greek people for the official visit of the divine George W Bush to the Hellenic Republic, by teaching them the new Amero-Balkan anthem in his praise, penned by the Divinyls:
“I don’t want anybody else, when I think about you I touch myself….A fool could see how much I adore you, I get on my knees, I do anything for you.” World domination, here we cum….


First published in NKEE on 18 June 2007

Monday, June 11, 2007


There we all stood, our hands by our sides, bending and genuflecting, surrendering our consciousness to the harsh, compelling sounds of the single drum, as the pipiza emitted a lone, heart-splitting note. Suddenly, a girl tugged at my arm: “Is it ok in your culture if I dance next to you?” “I’m Greek,” I replied. She looked me up and down and laughed. “I would swear that about sixty percent of the people here are Greek. See those girls over there? They are my friends. We are Greek too.”
I had certainly seen her friends. My friends had not stopped talking about them, comparing them favourably to Greek-Australian girls and waxing lyrical about them personifying the inherent femininity of Middle Eastern females. This was invariably followed by a learned treatise into the natural propensity of the Middle Eastern female to dance the tsifteteli in a graceful manner and not in the crass, vulgar way that Greek women do. To have my friends discover then, that the girls in question were in fact compatriots, was not without irony. For we were in ‘Ya Leil ya Ayn,’ a Lebanese nightclub, feeling slightly self-conscious, knowing that in our paranoid, hellenocentric universe, the slightest exposure to an ‘inferior’ culture could result in contamination and contagion. Surely before returning home, we would have to cleanse ourselves and our cars of the sickly sweet smell of narghile smoke, one of my friends, of a more religious bent, swearing by the utility of church incense, in this regard.
We danced the ‘dabke,’ the Lebanese equivalent of the kalamatiano, very much akin to Pontian dancing, feeling every drum beat deep within us, indistinguishable to the untrained eye from the Lebanese revelers, save for the relative palour of our skin and the fact that Greeks, especially mainland ones, are unable to co-ordinate the movement of their feet with the rhythmic shaking of their shoulders. Heated discussions of the authenticity of Nancy Ajram’s latest music film clip ‘Ah wa Nos,’ a homage to Egyptian cinema and analysis of the Freudian implications of Faris Karam’s ‘Al Tanourah,’ a pleasingly addictive ditty about a girl and the effect of her short skirt upon the singer, soon degenerated into the gleeful yells of ‘Aiwa, aiwa!’ the Arabic equivalent of ‘opa’ as we saluted the remaining dancers. As opposed to the poisonous, mouldering «πηγαδάκια» of Greek dances, the paranoid looks, the gaudy floral numbers barely covering the long forgotten modesty of matriarchs gorging themselves upon bread rolls and tarama, looking convincingly like dioramas of Amazonian rainforest orchids, a spirit of pure delight and enjoyment pervaded the room, everyone had a youthful appearance and what is more, everyone here was a habibi.
We were drawn again and again to ‘Ya Leil ya Ayn,’ that most friendly of places, until we learned that someone had been stabbed there, after which time our merry party dispersed variously to seek oriental pleasures at Sahara Nights or Che Zina and the most authentic gyrations of the ubiquitous Skopjan belly-dancer, Princess Yasmina, often to be found also in Greek tavern around Melbourne and thus providing a valuable cultural link between our two worlds. For it appeared at that time, that the music we enjoyed there, reviled by our orientalising compatriots but forming the basis of much of the corpus of Modern Greek music, seemed to preserve a tradition that post-Phoivos, we were well on the way to discarding. Looking further at the region, we were astounded to discover the strange attachment the Lebanese Orthodox had to Greek culture. “We are ‘Greek’ Orthodox,” they would say proudly, emphasizing the word Greek. They pointed out that the university of Beirut was, during Byzantine times, the greatest law school and centre of Greek jurisprudence in the entire Hellenic world, that St John Chrysostom was a native of Antioch and thus, at least geographically speaking Lebanese. The greatest hymnographers and musicians of Byzantium, Romanos Melodos and St John of Damascus also came from this region. Even the strange glottal cries of Arabic women at weddings have their antecedents in the ancient Greeks’ «αλλαλαγμούς.» Everything from customs to conceptions of family, social activities and behaviour seemed refreshingly more compatible to the Greek character than the strange and ill-fitting hybrid Greco-European ways our cousins seem to have adopted in the homeland and our own Greek-Australian ways, which are sadly, often marked by a total lack of delicacy, tact and manners. And this, politeness, this ‘philoxenia’ (a word that also exists in Arabic and Aramaic) from a people that Greeks dismissingly shrug off as uncivilized and uncouth «Αραπάδες.» This notwithstanding, it appeared to me that beyond the surface, acculturation and assimilation were already wreaking the same havoc within this so-called ‘pristine’ culture. Our habibis are just as fractious, arrogantly proud of their identity and prone to discarding their tradition where this suits them as we are. Its just that we have been here longer and have had a head-start. However, one thing remains certain. They know how to party a lot harder and better than we think we do. As we say in Lebanese: «Άλλος έχει το όνομα και άλλος έχει την χάρη.»
Nonetheless, it is fascinating to consider that when a common thread of culture flows throw the bedrock of several nations, that various of those nations can authentically preserve elements of that culture that their sister nations discard. Though the nationalists and Europeanisers amongst us may be reluctant to admit this, Middle Eastern Christians, their cultural basis being the Ancient Greek philosophy that they lovingly preserved and passed on to the muslim Arabs, and two thousand years of Byzantine theology, are culturally indistinguishable from us. It is invariably amusing for me to expose reluctant Ellinares to them, and to hear him complain that their music is over-adorned, their food over spiced and their manners over-affected for this is precisely the complaint that the Crusaders made of the Byzantines, and over exactly the same things. Our cultural siblings are a useful yardstick in measuring just how far we (and they) have departed from our traditions and a useful auxiliary and reinforcement, when we seek to dip within that culture again. It is no wonder then that contact with them may reinforce our own sense of identity, serve to augment it, or result in an addiction to apple-cinnamon flavoured tobacco.
A few weeks before the Eurovision Song Contest, I was driving down Bell Street, Coburg with my mother. Passing by the Lefcadian Brotherhood building that is situated in close proximity to Sydney Road, I turned to my mother and pointing at a sign above that building, I asked: “Do you want a glimpse of the future of the Greek community? Read that.” For underneath the intricate Arabic thuluth script that adorned its upper perimeter was the following arabesque inscription: “Zaman Narghile Night.” My mother, who is tone deaf, and whose knowledge of Arabic music is so erudite as to not permit her to distinguish between Faris Karam’s ‘Dakheeloh’ and Serbo-Skopjan siren Esma Redžepova’s Romani smash hit ‘Čaje Šukarije,’ physically recoiled in horror. Assuming my best Darth Vader voice, garnered over years of throat-scraping practice, I breathed: “It is futile to resist. Turn to the Dark Side of the Force,” after which time, my vexed mother pointed out that if I didn’t return my attention to the road, I would certainly come to witness the dark side of her force, and believe me, to be exposed to the light-sabre like force of an enraged Epirot mother who can scold you in the scalding intervals of the ancient pentatonic scale is a fearsome prospect indeed, matched only by the horror of watching Greek folk singer Effie Thodi attempt to dance tsifteteli while singing the English hit: “You’re just too good to be true.”
Given the above, it came as no surprise then to learn that Sarbel, (properly pronounced Sharbel, as he is named after the eponymous Lebanese Maronite Saint Charbel) was chosen to display to our European habibis, the very best of tackiness the Hellenic stave has to offer. He did so with particular aplomb and the sinuous dexterity of a well-tempered adagio dancer, his dark and exotic oriental looks and slight, halting semitic lisp while sensuously pouting the ultra-hellenic words: “Yeia sou Maria,” set many hearts a flutter and teenage girls into swoons of ecstasy. Sarbel’s gyrations upon the stage, especially his peacock-like fluttering of the shoulders, rejected by my ancient great-aunts as ‘unmanly’ but eliciting murmurs of appreciation from my great-uncle, are directly derived from traditional Lebanese dance moves. Here is then, in this hybrid marriage of tributaries from the same cultural stream that is personified in the personage of Sarbel, the apogee of Greek music.
It is only because of the Slavonic bloc vote and the former communist countries’ equation of diamond hard rock with progress and capitalism that caused the light, graceful and optimistic Greek entry to come seventh. It is a pity, as it transcended cultural barriers beautifully and paves the way for global understanding. From its post-feminist admission that “this is a lady’s world,” he attempts to safeguard criticism of his beloved Maria by evil sexually repressed easterners, who would take issue with her “dancin’ like a cheeky girl” by reassuring us that: “First off, she’s a lady.” However, this does not stop him from urging her to undergo various bodily undulations, for his own pleasure, as if she were a paid odalisque. Thus the chorus: “Shake it up, shake it up, there you go/ Oh oh… yeia sou Maria/ Turn around, bring it down, go slow…” At this point, when Hellenists are uneasy at this barbaric confluence of oriental and occidental decadence, the history lesson is interposed: “Moves like Aphrodite, so high above the rest/ Smooth like Cleopatra, an angel in a devil’s dress.” Further, as if to press the point that we have not just ripped off a series of Lebanese song lyrics, the song’s Hellenic credentials are re-established: “Her hips, lust in motion, her lips, red like wine./ She is the heart of attention/ probably should mention – she’s mine.” Taking that particular knowledge into account and juxtaposing it against the previous: “All eyes on Maria, no lie, she’s the bomb/ Oh my they all wanna see her/ All wanna be the lucky one,” we can see that whereas a decadent Arab would lock his wife away from prying eyes, thus defending her honour, the liberated Greek, is more than happy to show her off to his mates and boast about what an achievement she is. So to summarize in Greek: «Κοίτα πώς χορεύει η δική μου γκομενάρα, όλοι την θέλουν, αλλά εγώ είμαι ο μεγαλύτερος μάγκας, σε όλη την Ελλάδα.» Aiwa, habibi, aiwa.


First published in NKEE on 11 June 2007

Monday, June 04, 2007


I have a copy of the psalms of David written in Karamanlidika, dating back to the previous century, when the Karamanlides, Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians of Cappadocia and Karamania, decided to print religious and other books in their language. In doing so, they made the conscious decision to reject the Arabic alphabet and employ the Greek one instead, with various interesting modifications. Thus, the title of my Karamanli psalms, is not «Ψαλμοί του Δαυίδ,» but rather «Ζεππούρι Δαβίδ,» and is a vital record of the pronunciation of Karamanli Turkish at that time. The Karamanlides were, by virtue of the fact that they were almost solely Turkish speaking, originally exempt from the population exchange of 1923, though they were later included and thus had to leave their homes, en masse for Greece.
Had the most famous living Karamanli, Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis adopted Karamanlidika or to use the proper Karamanlidian term, «Καραμανλιτσιά» as his language of official discourse while on his recent visit to Australia, his appeal and receipt of adulation from the adoring Greek crowds would have not been any less. Two events particular appeal as characteristic of the first generation of Greek-Australians: One is the besotted with excitement, built like a brick outhouse, middle-aged woman from Sydney, who strode up to the Prime Minister and patted him on the cheek, exclaiming, in her own take of Karamanlidika: «Γκουντ Μπόϊ.» The other celebrates the particular ingenuity of one of the more diminutive stalwarts of the Melbourne Greek Community, who managed to wheedle his way into every single photograph opportunity that arose during his sojourn here and thus has become a mainstream media personality. Του γκουντ ρε μάϊκ.
There were many more such characteristic scenes. An electrically charged by the current of Hellenism Oakleigh crowd plowed into the Prime Minister’s retinue, causing him to seek refuge in a cake shop. At the Thursday private reception at the Park Hyatt, attended by the luminaries of the Melbourne Greek Community (here read very few women and absolutely no one under the age of thirty), it took the august Prime Minister and his wife some forty minutes to traverse the twenty or so metres to the podium. It was there that I discovered that the Prime Minister is possessed of remarkable linguistic expertise. While posing for a photograph with me and seeing me frown, he poked me in the ribs and exclaimed, in fluent Australokaramanlidian: «Σμάϊλ, βρε!»
Natasha Karamanli on the other hand, the darling of the Greek community a la: «Κοίτα τι γυναίκες βγάζει η Ελλαδάρα μας, και δεν φαίνεται για Ελληνίδα,» the wonder of the Australian media, especially radio announcers who practically drooled over her and then commented: “She doesn’t look Greek” (because Greeks are proverbially dark, ugly and have bad teeth), paragon of the exceedingly small waist, and saviour of small children who faint during long speeches, merely looked benign, oh so European Union and conceptually adopted her husband’s injunction, communicating in the international language of the dazzling smile.
When Dora Bakoyiannis, foreign minister and Queen of the Amazons smiles, you breathe a sigh of relief that you have not angered her majesty. Her dimensions defy the definitions of Hellenism and cause stereotypes to crumble in dismay. A remarkably dynamic presence, she exudes confidence, power and no-nonsense amiability. To my question: Will you take a photo with me so that I can prove to latter generations that I cannot even reach your armpit, she smiled and acceded willingly, proving the old adage: «Ο ψηλός είναι υπηρέτης του κοντού» right after all.
His reputation as a cunning linguist earning him an eternal place in my pantheon, I could not wait to hear the Prime Minister’s public speech at the Rod Laver Arena on the Friday, despite my aged aunt’s pidgin Karamanlidian insistence that: «Θα μας φάει το πένσιο.» Making my way through a sea of Greek flags, and noting the odd Byzantine, Macedonian and Florinian flag, I was gravely disquieted. For among the bleachers of the plebs, far removed from the privileged ground-floor positions of the praetorians, there were no cries of: «Έρχεται, έρχεται, ο Καραμανλής,» or «Καραμανλή, ζεις, εσύ μας οδηγείς.» Nor did Kostas Nikolopoulos, the ubiquitous Master of Ceremonies direct the crowd to chant songs of praise in his honour, to match the kitschness and sycophancy of the slogans positioned around the arena. Instead, the watchword for the day was: «Ελλάς, Ελλάς,» and the countersign: «Μακεδονία,» despite his best efforts to coerce the largely elderly crowd to sign soccer chants derived from the 2004 European Championship. Notably, it was the patriotic members of the Hellas Fan Club who chanted the words «Μακεδονία» the loudest, everyone else contenting themselves with the two-syllable: «Ελλάς,» which in Karamanlidian, means ‘beloved poor country across big water.’
When Karamanlis emerged, surprised, touched and humbled by the galvanizing jubilation of the crowd, he could not have failed to notice that he was not its recipient. Instead, the crowd was saluting its homeland, the land whose memory and legacy they have kept locked in their hearts for so many years, the land, which has provided the second generation with an ego boost and a sense of differentiation from their Australian peers. We chanted, clapped and waved our flags because we wanted to convince the Prime Minister, Premier Bracks, the Greek television cameras, Australia but more importantly ourselves, that we still exist. We cheered because it has been a very long time since our fragmented, insular and fratricidal community has felt so united, so proud. It was if you like, the swan-song of a feeble, terminal community that fears the end and wants to summon its strength for the last hurrah.
Just how close that end seemed to be was was underlined for me by an old lady who was sitting in front of me. Seeing the sea of flags heave and roll into each other as a Hellenic squall, she turned around and said sadly. “See, we are still alive. For the moment.” It was this feeling of despondency that the Prime Minister mitigated by his presence. His speech was unnecessary to this end and had he instead made it in Karamanlidian, thus: «Καρντασλάρ, τεσεκκουρλέρ εντερίμ γκελντερινίζ ιτσίν,» we still would have applauded him enthusiastically. Neatly summarizing the key-words of Karamanlis’ speech as “proud, Greek, nation, strong, economy, Europe, well done, make us proud, thank you, well done, Greece, pension, Greece, you are great, thank you,” it cannot be doubted that his presence and his magnanimous speech were a fitting tribute to a tired community that fought great battles to establish itself here and for whose manifold achievements one would struggle to find a counterpart. We waited patiently for him to tell us, Psalm like, in answer to our impassioned pleas to Greece: “How long will you forget, me, forever?” that he would make our enemies footstools for our feet, that our souls shall lodge in prosperity (here read pension) and our children inherit the land. Judging from the crowd’s response, Karamanlis did much to expand the straits of our hearts and bring us out of our troubles. And yea, though we dwell in the valley of assimilation, we shall fear no evil, for Greece is with us and Karamanlis is her shepherd. As Kostas Nikolopoulos, rightly stated, our coming together was a true anabaptism for our community.
The elderly crowd sat politely and endured the new wave and ‘modern’ songs of Eleni Dimou and Eleni Peta, applauding them, though they were visibly mystified by these offerings from a higher being that they could not understand but which must undoubtedly be beneficial. Consolation here was provided by the unforgettable performance of local act Rebetiki, along with cheeky and subversive commentary provided by Argyris Argyropoulos as to the unsuitability of performing such songs as «οι κυβερνήσεις πέφτουνε μα η αγάπη μένει,» proving that local, home grown acts are just as good, in this case arguably better, than the home-grown variety, though the commentary, not being expressed in Karamanlidian, was largely lost by the crowd.
The most poignant moment for me would have to have been at the point where Prime Minister Karamanlis spoke about the Greek government developing methods to help our children to retain the Greek language. There was a low hum and mutter throughout the speech; at this particular juncture, I turned around to listen to a mother sitting behind me translate the Prime minister’s speech for the benefit of her unenthusiastic teenage son, who looked as though he had just been forcibly dragged away from an internet game: “He means that he’s gonna teach youse Greek vre,” she stated emphatically.
It comes no surprise that anti-Karamanli newspapers in Greece sought to portray us in a different light. According to Eleftherotypia, we have all been conned into attending a Nea Dimokratia campaign rally, organized by the PM and his lackey, Archbishop Stylianos. Others centered upon the pertinent issues of the day, such as Natasha Karamanlis’ wardrobe being limited in variety, or reported us as being from Florida, misquoted our number, stated that we all support the Prime Minister’s political party and rendered us as useless and silly pawns in a wider political game. In doing so, the Greek press, not known for its perspicacity, journalistic ethics or general knowledge, insulted and denigrated the Greek community of Australia. According to them, we are nothing but leprechauns, when in fact, they are rude, malevolent and ignorant avian excrement upon the eye of Mother Hellas. Look at what the hideous and disgusting Vasilis Hiotis of Ta Nea had to say: “See, this far off land, apart from being the home of lovely cuddly, kangaroos, also is home to many Greeks, the majority of which have New Democracy tendencies and were just the right crowd to stage a rehearsal with Karamanlis and Natasha.” It is this petty mindedness and unwillingness to look at the wider issues affecting Hellenism that have compelled migrant populations to pick up the pieces. Yes Mr Hiotis, we happen to be more Greek than the Greeks of Greece. For we welcome ALL Greeks into our homes, regardless of their politics or shortcomings. And whatever his political legacy, Prime Minister Karamanlis happens to be the leader of our mother country. Φιλοξενία then, must be a quaint cultural legacy that we fringe-dwellers of Hellenism have retained when it has been long forgotten among the stupid and conceited journalists of the motherland. Contrast his bovine idiocy with the ecstatic statements of elder members of our community, who remarked on Karamanlis; humanity and humility, adding that having a Greek Prime Minister visit them, was one of the greatest moments in their lives.
Γκιουλέ, γκιουλέ Γιουνανμπάσι Karamanlis, and come back soon, or at least send us a paraclete to continue your work. For while you were, we were good to each other and redefined ourselves as worthy in your eyes. Stay close to us and I will pull out my Ζεππούρι Δαβίδ and recite for the benefit of the non-Karamanlica speakers:
“I will praise Γιουνάνισταν with all my heart
I will tell about your marvelous works.
I will rejoice, I will exult in you:
I will chant your name, O most high..
Karamanlis ole, ole ole!”


First published in NKEE on 4 June 2007