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