Tuesday, April 29, 2008


GOMARISTAN.Χριστός Ανέστη. The old adage, that it is not what you say but how you say it that counts is an interesting one and partially true. Take for instance the following from the Gospel of Matthew: «Είπατε τη θυγατρί Σιών, Ιδού ο βασιλεύς σου έρχεται σοι, πραΰς και επιβεβηκώς επί όνον.» Read it a few times out loud. This is pure poetry, grandiose and majestic.
It evokes feelings of Byzantine ceremony, pomp and extreme mysticism. Even the King James English version approaches this, but not quite: "Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass." The effect is rather ruined by the choice of the last word. Ass does not nearly measure up to the grandeur of onos. In Albanian however, the effect is ruined completely: "I thoni vajzes se; Sionit: ‘Ja, Mbreti yt po te; vjen, i urte i dhe hipur mbi gomare." Yes the last word gomare is a derivative of the Greek "γομάρι" which in turn is a derivative of the ancient Greek γόμος meaning a beast’s burden, and from thence γομάριον meaning beast of burden or donkey which as every Greek-Australian that has grown up here would know has been used to great effect in a pejorative sense by angry Greek mothers for generations. Knowledge of the Albanian scriptures should be a task for all Greeks-Australian youth out there. Next time your parents call you a gomari tell them: "Well if I'm good enough for Christ I should be good enough for you." The first time I tried this my mother collapsed in a fit of laughter, which kept her convulsing for about three minutes. After she recovered, she proceeded to call me by every single pejorative appellation that is not obscene that has ever been invented, causing me to compile an impressive wordlist of Northern-Greek colloquialisms. After all at the time, many years ago, I had been a naughty boy. The reader is warned however that this approach will only work if you let your parents in on the joke first. My cousin after being heavily advised by me to try this out in his youth, was greatly disappointed when all he drew from his mother was a blank stare. This is because she had never read the Bible, in any language, let alone Albanian.While I personally think that the message of the Gospel is enhanced by the double meaning of the Albanian translation ie. that Christ did not seek to enter Jerusalem in grandeur and riches but with a gomari, causing all the upwardly mobile Hellenised inhabitants of Jerusalem to mutter at his poor beast, incensed that their ultra-privileged children were not amongst His followers " Κοίτα το γομάρι" because of the unfortunate connotations of this word, we as Greeks are hard pressed to appreciate it. Why is it however that the humble donkey, the traditional Greek's best friend has been treated to such bad press?
Donkeys are quintessentially Greek, both in substance and in character. If you ask a non-Greek to characterize the stereotypical features of a Greek in the common conscience, he will tell you - hairy with a big nose. If you inquire further as to the gossiping propensities of the Greek people, you may even catch a remark about long ears. So at least in the fantasy land of stereotype, we share a great deal with our asinine brothers. Whether it is man who evolved to look like the beast or the other way around is a question for the ages.Ancient Greek literature has tended to ignore or to stigmatise donkeys and this carried on to the Roman times when Lucius Apuleius, the Romanised Greek wrote his Golden Ass, a story about a Thessalian who is transformed into an ass. While the story is fantastic, it does provide an insight as to how donkeys were treated in ancient Greece before the invention of the GSPCA. They were starved, kicked, beaten and killed at will. Lucius bore all this with the characteristic fortitude and patience that marks the asinine breed and the reader is left indignant. Lucius chose the ass as a vehicle to show converts to the cult of Isis how low a person could sink before finding enlightenment. What he doesn't mention is how many stunt donkeys were killed in the writing of his piece.
There is no excuse for this mistreatment of our kind and noble friend, even though this re-surfaces and re-appears in Greek literature time and time again. A Cephallonian writer Λασκαράτος, for example, writes a story during the nineteenth century about a donkey that becomes a teacher, and is quite good at it, until he is found out. No. That is totally undonkeylike behaviour. In fact, the only Greek writer worthy of any admiration in this respect is Grigoris Xenopoulos, the father of modern Greek prose, who in his brilliant magazine for children Η Διάπλασις των Παίδων felt sufficiently moved to compose a whole diatribe extolling the virtues of the donkey as a firm friend of the Greek people and suggests wonderful names to give to donkeys, such as Nebuchadnezzar - for they had much in common, the Babylonian king who bore this name being stubborn and in his madness, eating grass and took the time to point out that Christ did prefer it among all other animals for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. After all, the average Greek male of the time would spend most of his time with his donkey rather than his own wife. The donkey was a mode of transportation, a beast of burden and a worker and a close companion. In short, it has been the backbone of the Greek economy for at least two thousand years. Even today the globalised world of mass transit and instantaneous movement has not been able to push the donkey out of its Greek domain. In the mountain regions of Samos for example, they reign supreme.Looking deep into a donkey's sad and gentle eyes, one does not see any trace of the unjustified taunts that have defiled its name.There is much to admire in a donkey. Like the Greek in schoolbooks, he is hardworking, honest and tolerant. Possessed of poise and dignity, he trudges along, bearing his burdens without complaining (here he parts company with the Greek), for the good of mankind and yet like the Greek, once he is provoked and digs his heels in, that is it. All you can expect from the offended beast is a good kick in his namesake, the ass, just like our indomitable guerilla fighters during the Revolution. Respect for a donkey, as for a Greek is everything. We malign the only true independently spirited animal in the world."The problem with us is" a president of a Greek-Australian organization told me the other day, "is that we are donkey's without a saddle or bridle." I would have thought that was a good thing. For the donkey is not a wholly domesticated animal. Rather, it is an animal that has entered into a unique co-operation with mankind, on an equal basis and totally without self-interest unlike other animals and has been rewarded with the raw end of the stick. And anyway, unlike the members of the abovementioned organization, donkeys are seldom rude to each other. Nor do they have presidents. They just do their job. In actually fact, we are not fit to call ourselves by their name.A few years ago, before the opening of the border crossings in favour of Bi-Zonal, Bi-communalism, some Greek Cypriots provided their donkey with a passport and attempted to cross with him over to Turkish-occupied Cyprus. They were arrested only to be released some time later. No word has ever emerged as to what happened to the donkey, the fate of whom has been glossed over. Ws it also released, or was it, like so many other hapless Cypriot donkeys, carted over to the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose inhabitants exhibit a marked preference for Cypriot donkeys and go to great lengths to import them from that island. While this publicity stunt was purely designed to draw attention to the ludicrous insistence of the Turkish occupiers that Greeks travelling to occupied Cyprus present their passports to an illegal authority, as if this can legitimize years of pillaging looting and barbarism, I smell a rat. Mr Cyprus, as the donkey was called, (by the way why are all donkeys in Zakynthos called Nionio?) bore a passport issued from the United Federal Republic of Donkeys. Whether this is an apt description or synonym of Cyprus depends on the individual prejudices of the reader, yet is this what is actually occurring? Or rather, did we witness and subsequently forget, a most cosmohistoric event - the first stirrings of a donkey autonomist movement? How proud we must feel that our democratic traditions have been disseminated not only throughout the world but have filtered down to our bestial population as well. Let us hope and bray that social justice be returned to our brothers soon.
In the meantime, on Palm Sunday, I was accosted by a smiling church epitropos, clutching a cross made out of palm leaves. This was no ordinary, mass produced cross for the plebs but rather an intricate and ornately woven Orthodox cross, of the type hung above the icons of the iconostasis and the chandeliers of the church. On the bottom ‘λeg’ of the cross, a masterfully woven palm donkey had also been attached. “Take it,” he told me. “Even if I die, I have taught my children how to weave. The donkeys especially, are an art-form in themselves.” Ah the sweet beauty of tradition! Until next week, consider the following thought of John Erskine: That which is called firmness in a king is called obstinancy in a donkey. Ζήτω η Ονοκρατία!

First published in NKEE on 29 April 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008


My first ever act of a political nature took place during my Year 12 Chinese class, way back before the turn of the century, in the year of our Lord 1994. We were studying the various regions of China when we came across the Autonomous Region of Xīzàng. When I enquired of my Chinese teacher as to why Tibet formed an autonomous region within the People’s Republic of China, his usually placid features merged into a menacing snarl. “Xīzàng,” he snapped. “Not Tibet.” It was then that I pressed the point, explaining that by rights, Tibet should be referred to as Bod, which is the Tibetan word for the country, as attested by Ptolemy himself, who, in his Geography, referred to the Tibetans, as «βάται.» I then went on to concede that while the use of the word Tibet was probably inappropriate, given that it was ultimately derived from a Turkic word “tobad” meaning heights, that passed into Persian, Arabic and ultimately into English, to employ the word Xīzàng was totally unacceptable, given that this term was historically employed to denote only one of three of the traditional constituent regions of Tibet. The use of the word Xīzàng, I contended, legitimised Chinese imperialism and the forcible annexation of the Tibetan regions of Amdo and Kham into the Chinese provinces of Qīnghăi and Sìchuān. In order to drive the point further, I argued, oblivious to the meandering contortions of my teacher’s face, that at any rate, prior to the Qing dynasty, the term Tŭbó was commonly used in Chinese to denote the region and in fact, is made use of by the Dalai Lama this very day. And why, by the way, was Tibet not a sovereign, independent state? It was, I think the mention of the Dalai Lama that was the catalyst for my Chinese teacher, who had turned imperial purple, to explode. “Did they ask for independence?” He screamed. “Did they want independence?” Then pointing to the door imperiously, he commanded: “Get out!” As I popped my head around the door in order to expostulate with him about the severity of his stance on the issue, he landed a well-aimed piece of chalk upon my nose. “Youuuu… You watch your face,” he squealed, in a manner not unlike that of Bruce Lee in that engrossing scene in Way of the Dragon, where he is pulling off Chuck Norris’ chest hair in the Colosseum.
I didn’t watch my face. Later that year, I wrote my Chinese CAT, as the SAC was then called, on the liberation movement of the Uyghur Turks of East Turkestan/Xīnjiāng against the People’s Republic of China. As a result, I was banned from visiting China at the head of the school’s Chinese Orchestra, whose leader I was, consoling myself in the thought that by infuriating my microscopic Chinese teacher, who hailed from Taiwan and absolutely despised the communist regime, though not its nationalist trappings, I was doing my bit for the oppressed peoples of the world in the very best of the Hellenic tradition.
Had not the Greek revolutionaries of 1821 lit the flame of freedom against Ottoman oppression, a flame that enlightened all enslaved peoples of the Balkans, freeing them from the shadows of ignorance and despair? Was it not then the right of every person possessed of a national conscience to pick up that torch containing that flame and run with it, in order to set alight their own nation’s desire for dignity and self-determination? And should they not then in turn, hand it over to yet another oppressed people, creating a vast torch relay of liberty throughout the world? And when the immense pageant of freedom had spanned the globe, should it not come to rest at the feet of the great Statue of Liberty in the land of the free and the home of the brave and pay it homage as its protector?
Imagine then my surprise when I came to learn that in Ancient Olympia, the home of the Olympic Flame, the flame that enlightens mankind and sets them free of all their prejudices in order to participate in friendly competition, Tibetans were barred from being present at the Torch lighting ceremony. Indeed, during the Olympic Torch lighting ceremony, a French activist of the French based group Reporters Without Borders managed to breach the security and tried to unfurl a banner behind China's Olympic chief Liu Qi who was making his speech at the moment. The protester was quickly removed by security personnel. Later on, as the torch relay began, another Tibetan woman covered herself with red paint and lay on the ground, forcing torchbearers to weave around her as other protesters shouted “Flame of shame.” The Greek government actually condemned the incident as disruptive.
In response, Tibetans launched the Tibetan Freedom Torch Relay outside the sacred grove of Olympia under intense scrutiny and harassment from Greek security and 15 to 20 Chinese government officials. “Today, 8,700 kilometres from Beijing, we were watched and harassed by 20 Chinese government agents and dozens of Greek police,” commented Tenzin Dorjee, a Tibetan-American detained last April in Tibet for protesting China’s trial ascent of Mount Everest with the Olympic Torch. “The intense opposition to our peaceful torch ceremony underscores China’s constant repression of Tibetans’ undying determination to regain our freedom. Despite this opposition, the Tibetan Freedom Torch will carry the message of truth and resistance worldwide, exposing China’s Olympic lies. ”
Indeed, it seems that the arm of the government of the People’s Republic of China is quite long. In Thessaloniki, Falun Gong members were taken to the local police station for no apparent reason, save that it was felt that they may ‘disrupt’ the Olympic torch relay. In other cities, protesters were manhandled by the police. Interestingly enough, most of the pro-Tibet protesters during the torch relay around Greece were actually Greek.
Tibetans are rather sore at not being able to participate in the Olympic Games, given that they have no indepedent country, and no prospect of NATO carpet bombing China, occupying Tibet and then ‘giving’ it independence a la Kosovo, seems to be in the offing. As a result, Tibetan exiles in India are planning an unofficial Olympics from May 15-25, to be held in Dharamsala. They have even coined a counter-slogan, 'One World, Many Dreams', to the official Beijing Olympics slogan of 'One World, One Dream.’
The disruption of the relay and the utilisation of the Olympics for political purposes seems to have incensed the world community more than it has created sympathy for the plight of the down-trodden Tibetans. It appears then that a double-standard is being implemented. While the Western powers pay lip-service to concepts such as democracy and freedom of speech, their practice of Realpolitik suggests that we find ourselves in a Metternichian-like era that abjures all forms of national self-determination on principle, in favour of a finely balanced sphere of competing interests. In such an era, the use or rather abrogation of symbols that supposedly unite mankind under common values espoused by the powerful nations of the world, is off limits to the dispossessed. The Tibetans are thus paradoxically being told that they should not introduce politics into the Olympic Games and its ancillary ceremonies, despite the fact that the Olympic Games have, throughout most of their existence, been the arena where the Cold War was fought out. One cannot recall the US’ boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics being condemned as a politicisation of the invasion of Afghanistan.
The mainstream reaction in Australia, where sport is considered holy, and anything that disrupts it, tantamount to blasphemy is typical and reeks of rank colonialism. It becomes apparent that the national aspirations of non-Western European (and thus by implication inferior) peoples must be subordinated to the secular ceremonials of World Powers, lest the cultural hegemony of those Powers over the rest of the world be subverted.
The Greek stance is much more simple to explain. We are justifiably proud of our Olympic Games – as one of the few occasions where something of ours attracts the entire world’s unquestioned and total sympathy. Despite the fact that, given that our own national identity is constructed upon the concept of liberation, we are as a people, generally sympathetic to the plight of other aspirant peoples, we cannot tolerate anyone stealing our thunder. In the popular consciousness, the Tibetans had as much right to disrupt the Torch Relay as they would have had to disrupt the Good Friday Epitaphios Procession. Liberation is everyone’s right – but only if that doesn’t impinge on the limelight of unrelated parties.
Yet the ultimate irony of the whole Torch Relay seems to have been lost on all parties concerned. It is encapsulated in the singular fact that the Olympic Torch Relay has absolutely nothing to do with democracy, life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness. The relay of the Olympic flame from Greece to the site of the modern games had no ancient precedent and was introduced by Carl Diem, with the support of Adolf Hitler, at the controversial Berlin Olympics, as a means to promote Nazi ideology.
The first relay, captured in Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia, was heavily utilised by the Nazi propaganda machine in its attempt to add myth and mystique to Adolf Hitler’s regime. Hitler saw the link with the ancient Games as the perfect way to illustrate his belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich. In a further twist, Nazi explorers and sympathisers, notably Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, speculated the origin of the Aryan race to stem from Tibet.
Therefore the Tibetan’s attempt to disrupt a relay that it fascist in origin assumes greater poignancy. It is a cry against all forms of racism and totalitarianism, long after these have been forgotten, ignored, or swept under the carpet. It is true that the issue of Tibet is a complex one and that there is much to be said on both sides as to the question of Chinese sovereignty over the region. Notably, China has laid claim and intermittedly exercised control over the region since the Qing dynasty and only relaxed that hold in the interregnum between its downfall and the resolution of the Chinese Civil War. While the consolidation of Chinese rule in Tibet since 1955, has crushed Tibetan nationalism and destroyed valuable aspects of Tibetan culture, living standards have increased markedly. Yet, impassioned pleas by smug, well-fed, filthy rich, self-satisfied Hollywood film-star Buddhists aside, it would be a sorry world indeed that would not permit the utilisation of any legal and inoffensive means by which one can lift their voice in righteous and peaceful protest. The Tibetan protesters have never before been able to publicise their cause to such a global extent. In doing so, they and their families are not without peril. The world owes such people a hearing at the least, and some understanding. To this effect, Prime Minister Rudd’s spirited representation to the Chinese government as to conditions in Tibet is praiseworthy. All governments must realise that they are accountable not only to themselves but to the entire world in matter that pertain to the upholding of human rights. To stand aside and condemn the cries of the suffering is tantamount to collaborating in their persecution.
Long before the golden age, when men were heroes and the gods walked among them, Prometheus stole fire from heaven and the world has been self-immolating ever since. Tibetan Buddhism holds that the five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential stuff of all existent phenomena. In that process, fire is temperature. As things heat up and the flame of controversy threatens to cloud our humanity in smoke, let us be nice to each other, remembering the words of the Dalai Lama: “We can live without religion and mediation, but we cannot live without human affection.” Until next week, the jewel is in the lotus, not in the torch relay.


First published in NKEE on 21 April 2008

Monday, April 14, 2008


In many ways, it is ironic that Mr Atanas Botev, a citizen of the state that is governed at Skopje and an anthropoid harbouring pretensions of being an artist, (Atanas of course is the original of its corrupted Greek derivative ‘Athanasios,’ which in various south Slavonic signifies immortality,) chose to deface the Greek flag by replacing its cross with a swastika recently, an act that was widely publicized by the Greek media and which has inflamed Greek passions during the most crucial NATO membership talks. Apparently, this flag, and Botev’s portrayal of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis as a Nazi officer had been temporarily erected upon Skopjan billboards, in anticipation of Greece’s veto of FYROM’s NATO accession bid, by way of advertisement for an art exhibition.
Indeed, it is most ironic that Botev chose to deface the symbol of the cross, given that it was the Greek missionaries Cyril and Methodius who, during the early years of the Byzantine Empire, took the time out to learn the Slavonic dialects of the Balkans and introduced Christianity to the erstwhile pagan Slavonic peoples of the region. In doing so, they also introduced as an ancillary to their spiritual enlightenment, the rudimentary form of the alphabet which is still used by the majority of Slavonic peoples to this day and also, a good dollop of Byzantine civilisation, which still forms the basis of Balkan culture to this day and of each states’ national identity. A field trip to the surviving Byzantine and Ottoman-era churches of the regions of Achrida (modern day Ochrid) and Monastiri (modern day Bitolj) are most instructive in this regard. One of the first things that the visitor will notice is the predomination of Greek inscriptions in the frescoes of these churches. Given that Hellenism and Christianity are inextricably linked in the popular consciousness of the region, Botev’s defacement of the cross is a powerful manifestation of the identity hysteria and schizophrenia currently afflicting his compatriots. In their quest to disassociate themselves from and denigrate their neighbours, they are in actual fact, impugning the substructure of their own culture, as they come to realize that its foundations are Hellenic - something which according to them, should be hated. Consequently, they entrap themselves in a vicious cycle of self-loathing and fantasy.
Ironic too is the choice of the swastika as the design with which to deface the cross. For during the Second World War, the majority of the Slavonic inhabitants of the region sallied out to meet and welcome the Bulgarian army and is Nazi allies as liberators. It is estimated that up to 40% of the soldiers comprising the Bulgarian occupation battalions of the region during the war, were drawn from the enthusiastic local population. Thus again, Botev’s self-loathing and schizophrenia of identity assumes a telling parable. At a time, not so long ago, when there was no nonsense about ethnic identity or naming disputes, the people of this region identified themselves as Bulgarians and as such, actively assisted the armed forces of their compatriots in carrying out Nazi kreigpolitik. Botev’s defacement of the cross by transforming it into a Nazi hakenkeuz, is thus nothing more than another manifestation of self-loathing and guilt, as well as a vain and rather childish attempt to transfer guilt and an unacceptable past upon modern-day perceived enemies, in the hope that its descendants no longer have to face it. It is in short, an evasion of responsibility.
The swastika itself, is a defacement of the Christian cross. In its name, countless atrocities were committed on millions of innocent and defenceless people. Thus, the conversion of a symbol of peace and love into a symbol of hatred and evil is a particularly offensive and insensitive one, considering that the Bulgarian army was allied to the Nazis who perpetrated the greatest genocide ever in the history of humanity: the Holocaust.
Fittingly, the Jewish community of Greece has this to say about Botev’s artistic efforts: “The defacing of the national symbol and the attempt to depict the Greek prime minister to a Nazi officer constitute unacceptable actions and an insult to the Greek people as a whole including members of the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki… These actions become more heinous because Greece was among the first countries in Europe to clash with the tide fascism and the first to defeat Axis Forces on the battlefield in WWII, [referring to the Albanian front (1940-1941], where Jewish and Christian Greeks fought side by side. Furthermore, the use - for the sake of creating impressions --of symbols that are directly linked with the period of the worst crimes committed against humanity is an insult to the memory of the six million victims of the Holocaust and those who survived the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. Our Community welcomes the stance adopted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a descendant of the Mallah family from Thessaloniki, who backed Greece's positions on the self-evident Greekness of Macedonia.”
This being so, it would be silly to permit too much publicity to Botev’s attempts at artistic endeavour, as this would give him ill-deserved and undue prominence. A cursory glance at his ‘art’ on the internet reveals that among other things he has a penchant for drawing cartoons. Of the three displayed on the website “Macedonian (sic) Comic Art” and attributed to him, the first, entitled Alisa, presents a prepubescent schoolgirl being accosted by a nude muscular male with the head of a Playboy bunny, holding a fish. The second cartoon portrays a ghastly, corpse-like ghoul in various stages of decomposition, sporting a huge erection, while being caressed by two ecstatic females, possessed of large breasts and firm, round buttocks. The ghoul, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the artist, is snarling, while tweaking one of the female’s nipples. The last of the cartoons portrays the lower part of the female body, with an eye staring out of the vagina. This then, appears to be the person who the Greek public has allowed to inflame its passions - a purveyor of smut, whose pornographic fantasies seem to come dangerously close to crossing the line into necrophilia and paedophilia. The best thing we can possibly do is to show him the contempt he deserves by shunning him, while at the same time muse in wonderment at the level of the artistic discourse in Skopje and especially how it captures the popular imagination.
At any rate, it could be argued that Greek genius and comedian Tzimis Panousis’ replacement of the cross on the Geek flag with the hammer and sickle could be just as offensive, given that this symbol too, could be taken to allude to the millions that have perished through the persecution, purging and wars that have taken place in the name of Marxism since the installation of the first communistic government in Russia in 1917 and Botev’s feeble attempts to gain attention should be relegated where they belong, the dustbin of history.
If the Greek people are to be offended by anything, it should be the smug and self-righteous assurances by various NATO powers, that the non-resolution of the naming dispute between Greece and the No-name Republic does not give Greece the right to veto its accession to NATO. A not very ample amount of street-logic could be easily employed in order to argue the point successfully. Quite simply, NATO is a club and Greece is a member of it. Each member of the club is allowed a certain amount of face control. This is known as a veto. Just as a bouncer is entitled to exclude non-members from entering a club on members night because he doesn’t like their face, taste in footwear or the ultra-violet aura surrounding their person, so too can members of NATO, exclude others from entering their club. Of course the perennial preppies of the State Department, who spent their years at Harvard using daddy’s social position in order to bribe and buy their way into White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant sororities would have an axe to grind against those members who got to enter clubs, just because they were cool.
Another argument that does not cut the lutenica, is the one proffered by the same scoffing Western diplomats, namely that it is paranoid and stupid for Greece to argue that the No-Name State’s insistence upon calling itself Macedonia, is a prelude to it formulating irredentist claims upon Greek territory. Casting aside for the moment, incidences such as the printing of the unreleased Skopjan banknote depicting Thessalonican Ottoman landmarks and the removal from the No-name States’ first constitution of references to that State coming to the assistance of ‘minorities’ in other countries, we can agree that the No-Name State can no more successfully invade another country than it can manage to keep its own struggling, multi-ethnic polity in any state of coherency. This however does not mean that this NATO candidate state is averse to petty and coarse displays of retro-nationalism. Indeed, it would be paranoid and stupid to think otherwise.
Consider the picture accompanying this diatribe. The male bending over in it, is the No-Name State’s Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski. He is laying a wreath at a monument dedicated to the Bulgarian nationalist hero, Goce Delčev. Above him, is pinned a map of what irredentist Slavs refer to as ‘Greater Macedonia,’ that is, the territory, comprising parts of Greece, Bulgaria and Albania, which they would like to incorporate into the No-Name State. Is this then the act of a head of a responsible, post-twentieth century government? Or is this rather, yet another characteristic of a government which derives its politics from the dashing side-burned but ultimately fatally flawed romantic patriots of the Baroque Era?
What all of this does show, is that the No-Name State is unable to carry on civil bi-lateral relations with NATO members that don’t buy its unique brand of re-constituted nationalism. How can such an unreliable and politically immature State be entrusted with such weighty tasks as the oppression of Iraq or the continued production of Opium in Orozgan? Perhaps the incident a few years ago, where the No Name State rounded up a few hapless Pakistani illegal immigrants and killed them, proudly announcing to the world that it had thwarted an Islamic terrorist cell and had kicked a goal in the ‘War against Terror,’ is instructive.
Greece is right to veto the No-Name State. It is an infantile conglomeration of groups struggling to deal with their own identity and ethnic minorities and grossly unable to indulge in meaningful relationships with other countries. The inclusion of such an archaic polity, in preference to better developed and cohesive states such as the Ukraine or Georgia, in NATO is of next to no value. And if that was not a clinching argument - then this is: Rumours have it that in preparation for the No-Name States’ accession to NATO, national artist Atanas Botev has been commissioned to re-design the NATO logo (being derived from the symbols of the ancient No-Namian kings), by replacing the four compass points with suitably engorged phalluses. Каде е тоалетот?


First published in NKEE on 14 April 2008

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Have you ever caught a whiff of pita baking in its own tapsi in the oven? Its fumes deftly escape the rubber seals of the oven and gently caress the left nostril while surreptitiously wafting themselves up the right. If you are famished, the imminent promise of pita as you enter a kitchen, can send you quite mad.
As a comfort food, pita cannot be surpassed by any other. Its history is as multi-layered as its form, though as an ideal, it exists quite without the world of decay and remains unsullied, as an inspiration to those who aspire to greatness. Its etymology too, is multi-layered. Our word πίτα, or πίττα comes from the Italian pitta, which in turn is derived from the Latin picta, which in turn again is said to be derived from the ancient Greek πηκτή. Thus, pita, a paradisiacal composition of alternate layers of pastry and filling, is a purely Greek phenomenon, though it is one that has spread throughout the Balkans and beyond. So ancient and exalted is its pedigree, that a rudimentary form of pita is described in the cookbook of the celebrated Graeco-Roman chef Apicius.
Pita can take many forms, but arguably, the most unexpected of these would have to be lasagne, considering that it just fits the layered definition. Lasagne too is a particularly ancient and Hellenic form of pita. It derives from the word lasanum, being the Latin word for the receptacle in which Roman legionnaires disposed of their bodily refuse in a hygienic and environmentally friendly manner, which in turn, derives from the ancient Greek «λάσανον,» meaning simply a vessel. Whether or not the choice of receptacle was the decisive factor in the survival of this dish into the modern age and its institution as classic pub food is a vexed question. However, one can only speculate at the amount of mirth that a dish created in an army issue chamber pot would have raised among the Greeks of the Roman Empire. Had the profounder etymological aspects of the joke survived to the present, it is quite plausible that we would refer to this culinary mainstay of the western world as «καθηκόπιτα.»
Historical precedents notwithstanding, conventional Greek-Australian pitology recognises only a narrow cross-section of its various possible forms. Spanakopita and tyropita are generally the most readily available savoury forms, though obscure sub-species such as prasopita, makaronopita, kreatopita, kotopita and even galatopita do exist. The role of pita in sweets is a contentious one. While kolokythopita is of itself self evident, is karydopita truly a pita? And, if we consider that pita merely is comprised of layers of pastry alternating with filing, why is not baklava and galaktoboureko considered to be a form of pita as well?
Pita is one of those Greek foods that are yet to received the legitimacy or widespread appeal of focaccia. I remember the first time I brought some spanakopita to school for lunch. My classmates looked at it in a horrified fashion, exclaiming: “Oh my God, it’s alive! What the hell is that?” My response, to the effect that what I was holding in my hands was in fact a Greek quiche, failed to convince them and though over the years I did my bit for multiculturalism by offering up to my British-Australian fledgling cultural legitimisers, samples of my mother and grandmother’s cooking, the existence of spanakopita was something that they could never induct into the multicultural culinary melting pot.
One of the interesting things about Greek-Australian pita is the way that it tends to polarize Greek-Australian males into tacitly acknowledging the matriarchal fabric of our society. There seems to be a consensus that no one can make a pita tastier and more satisfying that one’s own mother of grandmother. This observation was gleaned in the following way: Chatting with some friends a few weeks ago, I was offered some spanakopita by one of them. I rejected the offer indignantly for two reasons. The first came in the pita variant of the Islamic shahada: “I confess that my mother’s pita is the only (decent) one and I am its prophet.” For truly, I am convinced that my mother’s pita is superior to all others. Secondly, and this I did not articulate, I observed that the ‘thing’ masquerading upon the plate as pita had been constructed with supermarket-purchased filo pastry – notably, the Antoniou type.
This is tantamount to blasphemy. Whatever form it takes, whether that be the conventional layer upon layer or the complex Vlach ‘şorci’ or serpentine, twisted and rolled pita, the fyllo, or ‘petra’ as it is known in Epirus, must be rolled, paper thin from scratch, upon one’s kitchen table, using the long, thin rolling pin known as the οκλαή, from the Turkish ‘oklava,’ and which also doubles as a rod for the meting of punishment to Greek-Australian children, thus reinforcing the fine line that exists between pleasure and pain. There is absolutely no place in our complex, multi-faceted, pluralistic society for pre-prepared fyllo, and when our august Kevin completes his education revolution and embarks upon the cooking one, all those purveyors of this pernicious product will be dealt with so severely, that they shall never rise to vex us with their pestilential presumption, ever again. For that matter, stay away from those pites whose fyllo is said by its maker or recipient to have been rolled by a «πλάστη.» Yes, this is the proper Hellenic term of a rolling pin but herein lies the problem. It is too contrived and artificial a term to be applied to such a homely, traditional instrument and thus must be viewed with revisionist suspicion.
At my rejection of the proffered pita, my friend sighed in understanding and empathy. He too contended that there was no pita in the world that could surpass that of his mother’s. He went on to tell me that he almost came to blows with his cousin on the issue, while on a hunting trip. Stopping their slaughter of fierce woodland creatures for the sake of replenishment, the two cousins, whose mothers are sisters, quarreled terribly over whose mother made the better pita and actually stopped speaking to each other. Their quarrel was only resolved when one of the sisters admitted her sister to be the superior in the art of pita-construction, something that her dumbfounded, adoring son, found to be an earth-shattering revelation.
I can trace the development of my mother’s pita among several generations and locations, much as a wine connoisseur can not only tell you the region in which the grapes of a wine have been grown, but also which vineyard in a particular chateau, and whether the vines are of a first, second, third or fourth growth. My mother’s pita is thus an amalgam of her grandmother’s pita, and the pita of her primary school teacher, who hailed from the villages of Zagori, a renowned centre of pita-making in Epirus, with a few bits and pieces from some aunts great and ancient, thrown in and a good deal of my mother’s own inspiration in the choice of the blend of cheeses and inclusion of aromatic greens. No other influences outside these are permitted, for my mother is, as all true artists should be, a purist.
The matrilineal link is well and truly broken in the case of my grandmother, as occupant of the intermediate position on the pita chain between my great grandmother and my mother. I will never forget the look of scorn on my great-grandmother’s face, when, on a trip to Greece, her daughter tried to please her by attempting to construct what she termed ‘pita.’ The result was a Picasso-like tapsi of asymmetrical fyllo of a fascinating and original texture but which was totally inedible. While my great-grandmother and I stifled peals of evil laughter, my poor grandmother offered what seemed to be her final excuse for her failure: “After all, I’ve lived in Athens most of my life.”
Pita is a funny thing. In the case of my grandmother and great-grandmother, it acted as a metaphor for a dysfunctional relationship, that has never been able to be set aright, with the passage of time. In the case of my sister and I, vis a vis my mother and great-grandmother, its accretion of layers over the years is commensurate with their own passing down of layers of information, family history and lore to us. One of my earliest memories is of my mother and great-grandmother in the kitchen, draping newly rolled sheets of fyllo over the chairs and spreading flour on the table, in preparation for the next one. While this opening of the ‘petra’ took place, other, older horizons unfolded. I was transported thousands of kilometres away, to a place I had never seen but had always been a part of, in a time not my own. In that tableau of imagery and the spoken word, was an insight into the lost, pre-Promised Land world, a world of deprivation, yet simultaneously, of vibrant vitality. In it, I learned village history, understood the context of ancient feuds and why my mother’s compatriots behaved in the way they did. I also learned that a particularly fat, obnoxious woman could be described a ‘zhaba’ (an Albanian and ultimately Slavonic word for a female toad) and that no-one outside a certain small radius could understand pejorative terms such as ‘bouliana.’
As the first fyllo was laid upon the tapsi and my great-grandmother’s gnarled hands reached for the dried, prepared filling, the entire circumstances of the family’s arrival in Australia was elucidated. After that, a sigh and a further covering of fyllo to obscure the disappointments, unfulfilled dreams and disillusionments, regrets and yearnings of a life that could have been, if only people had been kinder, if times had not been tough. And then again, an insulating layer of spinach. Lower your voice and speak in riddles. The children must not know what we are talking about.
The last fyllo is the fyllo of stern resolve and resolution, for this is the fyllo that is the public face of the pita and it must be confident, hard and give away as little as possible. It is only to the perceptive few that know the secret of the layers, that the ingredients of the pita speak, unfolding the passion of their mysteries. The uppermost fyllo is that which is offered to all with love and in the hope of comfort that comes not from forgetting but from the sure knowledge that accretion is the panacea if not of all ills, then of all expectation, a disease in itself. As time passes, so does the pita. Now that my great-grandmother is one hundred and two and no longer has the strength she once had, there is a void in my mother’s pita that will never be filled. The other day, my mother called me with a sense of triumph in order to announce that after a hiatus of a few months, she was embarking upon the most noble enterprise of pita construction. I expressed my enthusiasm by quoting what I thought to be a joke suitable for the occasion: “Q. Why do Pontians make long, rectangular Vassilopita? A. So that they can fit their lyra in it.” When I arrived at my mother’s house later that afternoon, I was curtly informed that all the pita had been consumed. There are some things that you just can’t joke about with my people, it seems.


First published in NKEE on 7 April 2008