Monday, June 30, 2008


The mountains of Cheimarra are so steep, so precipitous, so jagged and haphazard as they arise almost from the edge of the Adriatic sea, that it is by sheer charity of the gods that they are shrouded in the lushest and most verdant veil of vegetation one has ever seen, if only to mask from mankind the knowledge that there are such things as absolutes.
We reach them as dawn clutches at them with its rosy-red fingers, driving down from Tiranë in an rickety jeep that threatens to spew forth nuts, bolts and questionable Bulgarian tractor parts onto a road so pot-holed as to not have looked out of place on the surface of the moon. “Italian roads,” my driver explains. “They built them here when they annexed Albania in the thirties and they still haven’t been repaired.” ”Yes, I know,” I reply. “That’s what you tell me every time. You really do need to get some funding down here.” “I suppose their idea of road repairs is to fill up the pot-holes with us,” he ripostes and then breaks out into a mournful (and extremely long) epic song about the time when Captain Spiromilios landed in Cheimarra with his band of Cretan volunteers by boat and wrested it from the Ottomans. It is noteworthy not only for its complexity, but by the fact that the driver cannot roll his r’s in Greek fashion, owing to the fact that he was born in Northern Albania, where his family was exiled in a work camp - an area where r’s are definitely left unrolled, for lack of time. Consequently the song sounds as if it is being sung by Elmer Fudd, a smash hit for the Looney Tunes. By the time it is over, we have rounded the last mountain, acquired a decent sized migraine and are careering into Cheimarra at questionable speeds. For some inexplicable reason, every time I travel to Albania, I end up getting driven to Cheimarra by its mayor, Vasilis Bolanos. Quiet, observant, with a keen twinkle in his eyes, the colour of the Adriatic just metres from his home, he truly is a remarkable man.
To be mayor in Cheimarra, known in Albanian as Himarë, is not such an easy task, especially when you happen to be Greek and to loudly proclaim this to all and sundry. To publicly announce that Cheimarra is inhabited in its majority by ethnic Greeks, to raise the Greek flag over the town on Greek national day, to preside over the municipal life of a town whose walls are plastered with graffiti that reads: «Θέλωμε Ελληνικά σχολειά,» is to invite trouble. And trouble is always never far away.
Cheimarra is, in my estimation, one of the most beautiful places in the world, because it is able to harmonise earth, sky and sea in perfect proportions. It also happens to be the favourite holiday spot for Albanian bureaucrats and businessmen, and it is for this reason that vast expanses of coastal property, that belonged to Greek farmers and was confiscated by the Albanian communist regime and collectivized, is not being returned to its rightful owners but rather, is being sold to wealthy holiday makers and resort developers. There is probably some sort of spite involved in this as well. Just after the Second World War, when the ‘Albanian Worker’s Party’ seized control of the country, the Cheimarriotes were the only people brave enough to refuse to accept their rule over them. They pointed out to them that they had enjoyed autonomy under the Ottomans, with their own flag and administration, that they voted to join Greece in 1912, that for 400 years no one had disputed their control of their lands and that as far as they concerned, they were not Albanians and would not recognise any Albanian government that purported to rule over them. For this reason, communist rule over the seven villages of Cheimarra was particularly oppressive, even for paranoid Enver Hoxha standards. For starters, Cheimarra was not included in the so-called minority zone in which the Greek language was at least tolerated, albeit in a truncated form. Instead, it was considered an integral part of Albania where all vestiges of Greek culture and language were to be ruthlessly extirpated and the indomitable spirit of the independent Cheimarriots was to be broken. The relics of this are all too present. The otherwise pristine beach in Cheimarra is littered with concrete bunkers, placed there by Hoxha, in case of invasion. Ironically enough, the construction and installation of these useless and futile eyesores was the responsibility of Alfred Moisiu, now the outgoing president of ‘democratic’ Albania. The fields of the region, especially further up the mountains are also dotted by other example’s of a sinister legacy. On an excursion up one of the mountains to visit one of the last surviving teachers during the Hoxha regime, Vasilis Bolanos bent down and picked up what looked like a rust speahead on a long iron shaft, from the ground. “See this? It’s a stake. The fields around here are full of them. Apparently they thought that the Greeks would send their parachutists over here by the thousands and they hoped they would impale themselves on them. Do you know how many times we have been injured by these cursed things?” These are wounds that will just not go away, which is fitting for a region which, according to ancient mythology, marked the entrance to Hades.
The democratic Albanian government continues to deny the existence of the Greek character of Cheimarra. This is strange considering that its mayor is also the leader of the Union for Human Rights Party, a party that champions the rights of Albania’s minorities. This is as close to an ‘ethnic’ party as one can get in Albania. While the Albanians are free to organise political parties on the basis of race in Kosovo and FYROM, they deny this to their own minorities. Vasilis Bolanos thus receives his votes because his constituents believe that he can advance the rights of the Greek minority in his region. Despite this, the Albanian government will not permit the operation of Greek language schools in the region. This does not seem to make any difference to the mayor. He takes me to a newly whitewashed, state of the art building covered with the drawings of children. “That is our Greek school,” he states proudly. We sit in the playground, while the aged Greek school teacher recounts the difficulties of teaching Greek during the communist regime. Party cadres would take the children aside and ask them if they were being taught Greek, or whether their teacher was teaching them about God. What they did not reckon with was the response: “Yes of course.” Brutal beatings and a sojourn in a work camp ensued. We sat silently watching a herd of goats cross a bridge, walk down the road and climb the steps of the school-house. “Yes,” Vasilis Bolanos broke the silence. “We have the most well-educated goats in all of Northern Epirus.”
Being a politician in Cheimarra is not easy. Election time in Cheimarra usually consists of the Albanian government busing in busloads of ruffians, to intimidate the local inhabitants and steal the ballot boxes. In 2001, a young Greek man was stabbed in the street by some of these ruffians. Early this year, a seventy-five year old elderly gentleman, also going by the surname of Bolanos, was stabbed to death in a random attack by an Albanian, outside his home. His only crime was that he was Greek and that he was related to the mayor of the town.
Currently, Vasilis Bolanos is in jail. The reason for this has as much to do with his ardour as with his incredible naivete. For anywhere you go in Albania, you find the European flag flying next to the Albanian one, leading one to believe that Albania is on track for entry into the European Union or that in the least, it subscribes to its guiding principles. It was for this reason that Vasilis Bolanos removed the road-signs in Cheimarra last December. All countries in Europe except Albania have signed a Council of Europe agreement that calls for bilingual road signs in areas where ethnic groups in a country are concentrated. Vasilis Bolanos considered that since Cheimarra was predominantly Greek in ethnic composition, it should have bilingual road signs. Big mistake. Even in the recognised minority villages, closer to the border, bilingual road signs were only introduced in 2006, in the wake of Greek President Karolos Papoulias’ visit to Northern Epiros, and even then, these road signs were placed on the main road from the border and serve as little more than window dressing for a regime that is definitely not enlightened when it comes to its policy on ethnic minority rights.
Albania has been promising since 1991 to sign the agreement but has yet to do it. The Albanian government’s own State Committee on Minorities has repeatedly urged Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha to sign the agreement, to know avail. Interestingly enough, Berisha was president of Albania in 1994 when he ordered the arrest of five leaders of Omonia, the Greek political party, on false charges of espionage. They were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms but were released after 10 months as a result of an international outcry against this injustice. Berisha’s relentless efforts to persecute the Omonia leaders on patently false charges ultimately undermined his international standing, especially in Washington, and he fell from power in 1997. He moderated his stance, declaring that Albania’s minorities were an asset for the country, and his party won the 2005 elections, returning him to power.
Vasilis Bolanos’ brave gesture of defiance was interpreted by an unrepentant and hypocritical Sali Berisha government for what it is: a proclamation that Cheimarra is not the homogenous Albanian town that the authorities would have they would believe it is and that it is the repository of 3,000 years of Greek history. These things take a while to sink in. For though the road signs were removed in December last year, Vasilis Bolanos was only indicted on 28 May 2008. The fact that he was indicted just AFTER his elderly relative was stabbed to death probably indicates that the said indictment was specifically timed so as to intimidate him not to protest too loudly about the continued abuse of the Greek minority by the Albanian authorities.
In Cheimarra, we have a complete mirror image of our own community. Ours is a young community, possessed of formal rights, material comforts and freedoms. Too often however, this is taken for granted. Enrollments in Greek schools are decreasing year by year and too often it appears that our passion for our culture is dormant. In Cheimarra, Greek cannot be taken for granted and its inhabitants struggle daily against immense odds, just to remain who they are.
Just the other day, while walking along Lonsdale Street, I looked up at a road sign, which was headed by the Greek meander pattern. An insignificant gesture to some, but in distant Cheimarra, a sign-post on the road to paradise….


First published in NKEE on 30 June 2008

Monday, June 23, 2008


Two are the paraleipomena of the Diatribe entitled “Protopogrom,” published on 9 June 2008 herein. Readers may recall that that Diatribe concerned itself with the hate rally held outside State Parliament by members of the community who identify as having an affinity with FYROM. It purported to ascertain why State Parliamentarians would attend such a violent exhibition of racial intolerance and published a letter by the Pan-Macedonian Federation to the State member for Keilor, Mr George Seitz, outlining some of the darker aspects of the rally he attended.
The first paraleipomenon of that Diatribe is that inadvertently, (the Greeks would traditionally ascribe it to the ‘daemon’ of the press), the very next diatribe bore exactly the same title as the previous one, though it had absolutely nothing to do with its subject matter. Rather than entitle this Diatribe “Protopogrom III: The Diatribe strikes back,” it was considered expedient to point out this, and other matters arising from the minutes.
The second paraleipomenon is that I was most pleased to receive, on 16 June 2008, a response from Mr George Seitz, dated 13 June 2008, to the letter exhibited in ‘Protopogrom.’ If anything, it shows that Mr George Seitz takes ‘community’ fallout’ with the gravity that it is due. His letter, omitting formal and irrelevant parts, read as follows:
“Perusal of your letter and the relevant documents have taken me some time, hence I apologise for the delay in responding.
I must reiterate that I did not take part in the rally or the March as portrayed by some. I was simply representing the Labor Party at the podium, delivering a very neutral speech that was pre-formulated for me.
In fact, the images you forwarded to me were not condoned by the organisers of the rally nor did they have any official participation within the rally. Upon commencement of the march, organisers were alarmed, thus immediate instructions were dictated to dismiss and remove any unauthorised paraphernalia and inflammatory statements.
Since, I have made enquiries with the organisers of the rally and expressed my displeasure. They have assured me that the pictures supplied by you were not condoned or approved by the organisers of the rally nor did they support those sentiments. Their sincere apologies have been extended to the Greek community as there was no intent to insight (sic) any racial hatred or religious discrimination in the Greek community.
Therefore, on behalf of the organisers of the rally, I sincerely apologise to you and the Greek community.
Under no circumstances was racial demeanour of the Greek flag intended.
I fully support all nationalities and strongly believe that all communities in this Country have a right to exist and express their views publicly in this democracy.”
Over the years, I have thrived on my good relationship with the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia, and hope this friendship will continue for future years.”
Mr George Seitz’s response is appreciated. It should be considered for what it is: An effort to reassure the Greek community that he is in no way hostile toward it. This is exemplified by the last paragraph, where he pays respect to the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia. The recognition he affords this organisation is significant, considering the aspirations denoted by its title.
The first substantive paragraph is particularly revealing. Mr Seitz points out that he did not ‘take part in the Rally,’ but was simply representing the Labor Party and presenting a speech that neither condemned nor condoned the position of the rally organizers. This serves to confirm the contention of the Diatribe: ‘Protopogrom,’ where the opinion was advanced that politicians, unless inspired by strong conviction have no need to be convinced of the ‘truth’ or compelled to ‘take sides,’ on ethnic minority issues - this being our Jesuitical approach to the issue so far. Indeed, in a post-modern world, where subjectivity is the norm and objectivity a utopian fallacy, it would suicide for a disinterested politician to do other than make a token appearance at a function, to let the ethnic community in question know that it is respected and valued - though not necessarily taken heed of in all matters. This post-modern approach to ethnic communities is further reinforced by the penultimate paragraph of George Seitz’s letter. In it, he reiterates his support for “all nationalities,” along with this “strong belief” that all Australian citizens should be able to express their views publicly. In other words, he is distancing himself from the rally organisers and their position on a contentious issue.
On the same token however, he does not provide his written commitment to the current policy of the Australian government vis a vis the naming dispute between Greece and FYROM, as was requested of him by the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia in its letter, most probably because such matters of foreign policy exceed his ambit as a state parliamentarian and because he just does not wish to be drawn into the debate. Up until this point, Mr George Seitz’s response is cogent, sensible and respectful.
However, having taken great pains to distance himself from the ‘warring parties,’ Mr George Seitz goes on to do something completely baffling: he inadvertently becomes a spokesperson and apologist for the organizers of the hate rally. Consider the third paragraph of his letter. In it, Mr Seitz maintains that the instances of hatred and racism captured by the camera (approximately six were provided to him and were displayed with the Diatribe: “Protopogrom”), were unofficial and disendorsed by the organisers of the rally. He maintains that bearers of such sentiments were dispersed. The first question that springs to mind is why Mr Seitz feels compelled to justify the conduct of the organisers of the hate rally, when sentences ago, he took pains to point out that he did not ‘participate’ in the rally. Secondly, should not the Organising Committee itself by justifying its conduct to the Australian public, rather than hiding behind Mr Seitz? Thirdly, while we accept that Mr Seitz is entitled to rely upon the advice of those of whom he has made enquiries in good faith, we would contend that photographs do not lie. The photograph of hate rally attendees holding an irredentist banner laying claim to Thessaloniki and displaying maps of FYROM covering northern Greece was taken on Bourke Street, during and not before the march.
Further, we express incredulity at the veracity of sentiments expressed by the hate rally organizers to Mr Seitz. The courageous and well-intentioned Mr Seitz, upon receiving the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia’s letter to him, raised it and expressed his ‘displeasure,’ to the organizers. We appreciate his diligence and contentious approach in this regard. However, Mr Seitz will forgive us, if we do not believe, as he does, that the organisers of the hate rally had no idea that expressions of racial intolerance towards the Greek community would have made themselves manifest at the rally. Such racist behaviour heavily peppers all protests of this ilk, to the extent where one could be mistaken for assuming that ‘Greek-bashing’ is a cultural tradition. We can forgive and appreciate Mr Seitz’s selfless gesture of peace-making and reconciliation, but surely expressions such as “Fascist Greeks,” “Solun will be the capital of Macedonia again,” and the display of the symbol of Holocaust perpetrators belies the rally organisers’ affectations of goodwill - as expressed to Mr Seitz. Indeed, how can Mr Seitz claim that under no circumstances was the “racial demeanour of the Greek flag intended” (here we assume he refers to the defacement of the cross on the Greek flag by a swastika)? Why should he be made to feel that he has to make such a claim? Why do the Rally Organisers not have the respect and courage to relieve Mr Seitz of the odious task of acting as their apologist? And really. How can you organise a rally in which attendees purposefully carry Greek flags defaced by the swastika and have the cheek to claim (for we have Mr Seitz’s word that they do), that nothing was intended by it? Contrast the hate rally to the Greek community’s rally of November last year. At the latter rally, the Organising Committee, headed by the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia emphatically stated that absolutely no instances of racial intolerance would be tolerated. As a result, there was not even ONE manifestation of racism. In the light of this, perhaps Mr Seitz can forgive us our incredulity, not at his words, but at those who were ticked off by him and who attempted to excuse their conduct to him.
I am deeply sorry for the position in which Mr George Seitz has been placed. In his efforts to mediate between the two communities and implore each side to give the other the benefit of the doubt (for that is, I suspect, the ultimate purpose of his letter), he has involuntarily placed himself in a precarious position, perched as he is, upon the precipice of the particularities of ethnic politics. For I believe it is inordinately demeaning for Mr George Seitz to sincerely apologise to us, on behalf of the organizers of the rally. Why should Mr Seitz apologise for the display of swastikas, of maps depicting FYROM’s borders extending to encompass Greek territory, banners proclaiming the desire to take over Thessaloniki, the display of guns, etc…? Did he not point out, just paragraphs earlier, that he merely attended the rally as a representative of the Labor Party? As was pointed out to Mr Seitz in the original letter sent to him by the Pan-Macedonian Federation, we were certain that he did not support the extreme and hateful racially intolerant behaviour displayed by those attending the protopogrom. It takes big man to acknowledge his mistakes and apologise. However, Mr Seitz has apologized for things that were not of his doing and for which he should not take any blame. That is simply not fair on him. Nor should it be fair for the public to consider that a precedent has now been set whereby well-intentioned politicians will now be exploited as apologists for the antics of various community groups. That is why it must be maintained and understood that a contrite Mr Seitz is seeking in his letter only to disendorse violence and uphold the traditionally peaceful, Australian manner of conducting public debates. He deserves our sympathy and utmost respect, as a beleaguered mariner, undeservedly navigating the treacherous shoals of disputes not of his making.
The same cannot be said of the cowardly and I think, unrepentant hate rally organising committee. I am willing to stand corrected, but save for Mr George Seitz’s apology to the Greek community on ITS BEHALF, I do not believe it has taken any steps whatsoever to justify its conduct and make the appropriate apologies to the victims of the racial vilification that took place at their function. For of what use is an ‘apology’ transmitted by a third party? If we assume for a moment that there was no intention to offend or vilify the Greek people in organizing the rally, surely its outcome, comprising of vilification galore, should have sufficiently moved a horrified committee to make the appropriate clarifications and apologies? In doing so, they would have found us to be sympathetic and understanding. Yet this has not been done. There is no direct apology, no direct disendorsement of instances of hatred against Greeks. What the rally organisers and their community should remember, is that the issue at hand is a naming dispute. It is not a clash of civilisations or cultures (how can it be, when save for the language, our traditional cultures are almost identical?) and certainly not a race war. It is a debate about ideas. And in a debate, we conduct ourselves like gentlemen and when we fall foul of the rules, we acknowledge our mistakes, apologise in person, without hiding behind third parties, no matter how honourable and move on.


First published in NKEE on 23 June 2008

Monday, June 16, 2008


A moustachioed, fez-wearing man is galloping across a plain, to the right. The camera focuses upon his face. Turning to his companions, he points off the screen and shouts: «Από εδώ!» They all turn their horses and gallop off. Next scene: a voluptuous girl dressed in Pontian traditional attire is walking slowly through the fields with a semi-hypnotic, ecstatic smile on her face. Pan back to Fez-man, galloping this time in the opposite direction. He points across the horizon to his companions once more. «Από εκεί!» he shouts and the host gallops off the screen once more. Meanwhile, the hallucinogenic Pontian damsel traipses across the Swiss meadow until she comes to the foot of an olive tree. A wizened old man sitting at the base of the tree holds his kemenche and starts to bow it, producing a Pontian tik. The girl, contracting in the throes of ecstasy, throws up her arms and begins to dance. Pan back to Fez-man who is still galloping across the plain. Pointing once more to the horizon, he shouts: «Από δώ!» and his band of merry men ride off into the next scene.
This lame, “Sound of Music’ scenario, was a Greek attempt at making a movie about the Pontian genocide and it impressed Australian-born Pontic doyen Peter Stefanidis not a bit. In fact, as secretary of the Pontian Federation of Australia and committed to perpetuating and maintaining Pontian culture in the antipodes, he was incensed enough by Greece’s paltry efforts to resolve upon a bold undertaking: to make his own film that would portray some of the more human aspects of the Pontian Genocide.
It is no small wonder that of all the diatribes that get posted upon the Diatribe website, the one that receives the most hits, is the one entitled “Pontos: The Movie,” and which purports to be a review of Stefanidis’ short film. In fact, not a week goes past that I do not receive an email from a reader, requesting more information about the film and its gifted creator. Most of these enquiries come from overseas, primarily from Russia, though I did once receive a bizarre email from a reader in France, written in Karamanlidika – Turkish, in Greek characters.
If teaching yourself film-making and making your own film about a topic that has eluded the inspiration of the greatest of Greek film-makers is not audacious enough, try this for size: Stefanidis’ short film, “Pontos,” a masterpiece of redemption and reconciliation has just been shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, to critical acclaim. Considering that most prospective entrants to the Festival are rejected, this surely is no mean feat and speaks volumes not only as to his enormous talent as a film-maker, but also as to the boundless breadth of his artistic vision. Indeed, his presence at Cannes just last month is also of vast historical importance to our community, as it marks the first appearance of a Greek-Australian film-maker upon the Cannes scene. Further, his appearance is manifested through an artistic creation that is purely Hellenic in its inspiration, though tempered by his antipodean experience.
Stefanidis’ latest achievement, in having his masterpiece screened at Cannes, is significant for another reason. Up until now, the Genocide discourse has been primarily an endo-hellenic one. Both in Greece and in Australia, campaigns to raise awareness of the Pontian genocide have concerned themselves with preaching to the converted within the comfort zone of the largely disinterested community, (and this in turn has had the lamentable effect of various warring Pontian organizations abrogating the Genocide as a means of sparring with each other), save for Jenny Mikakos’ spirited speech in State Parliament and the ill-fated Return to Anatolia conference, which though initially promising, has, through the machinations of its self-appointed chairperson, seen the successive alienation of the Pontian, Armenian and Assyrian communities from what was supposed to be a joint, communal endeavour. In the single act of making and showing a film, Stefanidis has globalised a message, not of antagonism, ethnic hatred or revenge, but of suffering, triumph in the face of adversity, hope and regeneration. He has done so without demonizing or alienating anyone and in such a broad and culturally pluralistic a manner, that arguably, could not in any way have been mastered by Greeks living within Greece.
For as Fanis Malkidis, lecturer at the Aristoteleian University of Thrace and renowned Genocide scholar noted during his recent visit to Melbourne, after being barred from addressing the Return to Anatolia Conference by its chairperson, it is of enormous significance that a Greek from outside Greece, has placed an ostensibly “Greek” issue upon the global proscenium, while simultaneously carving out for it, an international context. He argues passionately for the role Greeks abroad can play in promoting Greek issues and creating sympathy for Greece. According to his views, Greeks abroad are often able to perceive the whole Greek package in its wider context, divorced and untrammeled from the petty indignities of the everyday struggle for existence in the motherland. Being thus able to view the bigger “picture,” they are in a unique position to repackage it in a manner palatable to an audience not as well acquainted with it and thus ensure its easy digestion and assimilation.
Endeavours such as those of Stefanidis, which, owing to broad and easily accessible form of media in which they manifest themselves, should thus be given the full support of the Greek government. Essentially, Stefanidis and the countless other nameless apodimoi devotees of Greek culture who spend countless hours trawling through the internet for information, write letters to politicians, ring talk-back radio, write letters to newspapers or give lengthy lectures to their non-Greek friends on diverse Greek-related subjects, are doing the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ job with much greater agility and panache than the ‘career diplomats’ could ever do themselves, simply because by living here, they have a better knowledge of their target audience and the methods that need to be employed in order to effectively pass on various messages. Most of the time, their efforts pass unnoticed and unrewarded by the Greek government and the impotent and navel gazing Greek community, whose own practice of contemplating itself until it disappears up its own fundamental orifice constitutes it for the most part, incapable of rendering these passionate apostle of Hellenism, most of them belonging to the second generation, any worthwhile assistance.
It was thus heart-warming to see that the Council of Greeks abroad most generously offered to put up the cost of Stefanidis’ travel to Cannes, in order to get his message out into the celluloidsphere. This is more than the Pontian communities of Melbourne have done for one of its brightest sons. Indeed, enmeshed in the throes of internecine strife, most of their leaders, especially those purporting to guide the organization that he once served with great distinction, into the future, attempt to malign him and his good works at every opportunity. Of course it comes as no surprise that their children are conspicuously absent from the cause they say they are promoting. Also unsurprising is the lack of first generation interest in Stefanidis’ historic achievement. The letters in the Greek competent of this publication continue to discuss such weighty issues as mediocre poetry, community redevelopment pipe-dreams and the perpetual spewing forth of really bad karma. It is thus with great satisfaction that I recall my advice to Stefanidis, years ago, upon him giving an inspiring speech to the Pontian youth about how they could involve themselves in their organizations more, and asking me how one could avoid the pitfalls of hatred, jealousy and indifference while traversing the minefield that is Greek community endeavour. “Carve yourself a niche where no one can touch you,” I told him “Do something that is so noble and high that it will cause you to rise above their petty criticisms, plots and schemes and render them unable to even come close to you.” At least that is what I think I said.
Stefanidis has done this and more. He has placed himself in an unassailable position vis a vis the stagnant Greek community by refusing to enter into its dialectic. Instead, he is carving his own, with a medium so awesome as to only be engaged in by the most dexterous. The Greek community and the Greek dialectic in general, which predictably enough will be the first to capitalize upon his successes and genius, without of course ever providing any practical assistance will have much growing up to do before it could ever attain the requisite maturity with which to assail his position.
Cannes was a surreal experience for Stefanidis. In many ways it demythologized much of the glitz and glamour of film-making. He was able to witness at first hand, some of the darker and more exploitative aspects of the whole scene, including the way producers, directors and executives pressed themselves upon nubile, would-be young film-makers, in order to extract sexual favours. He noticed how some members of the guild jealously guarded their secrets from each other, lest another benefit from their experience. Most importantly, he discovered that Cannes is a dump in which it is impossible to obtain a decent bite to eat and that in order not have one’s stomach abandon one on strike, the only solution is to seek refuge in the culinary paradise of Lyons.
Peter Stefanidis also discovered that integrity, selflessness and dedication to a cause may also pay dividends. For in the make-believe world of Cannes, he was granted the unique privilege of explaining his motivation and techniques to some of the most important members of the industry, from which he has garnered a wealth of advice. Furthermore, he has had tantalizing nibbles from various European production companies, who are encouraging him to develop his short film into a movie length feature, for their consideration – truly a sound measure of the extent of the potential of this remarkable artist and are lesson to those who would despair of our own self-imposed, narrow horizons.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Peter Stefanidis. Not only because his indomitable love for his people and their history has caused him to push the boundaries of the Greek discourse into the global context, so that finally the Pontian genocide may obtain the publicity that it deserves, but also because his determination serves as a lesson to the small-minded, weak-hearted and despondent among us, who cannot see beyond the confines of the walls of the ghetto we have constructed for ourselves. The lesson is that we can still work miracles and that even when we cannot, we have nurtured a generation among whom there are visionaries that will set us free. Just how much we will nurture them so that they will feel comfortable enough to identify with us and stand by our side, is ultimately, up to us.


First published in NKEE on 16 June 2008

Monday, June 09, 2008


“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Shakespeare

The right to protest forms an integral part of the democratic system. It is also a very important tenet of Judaism. For example ,the Talmud prescribes that: “Who can protest an injustice but does not, is an accomplice to the act.” The recent rally by members of the FYROMian community was not a protest though. Instead, it was a manifestation of hatred Greek-towards Greece and Greek-Australians that was so blatant and unapologetic, as to have caused great disquiet. Never before has Melbourne’s civic life been disrupted by such instances of racial intolerance. The boorish and despicable displays of racism, which included implied threats of violence against Greeks, coupled with the presence of state politicians at this vicious proto-pogrom and some coverage as a novelty by the mainstream media, have caused Greek-Australians to scratch their heads and ask: “Why didn’t we get so much public attention?” and “Why didn’t politicians come to our rally.”
The first question can easily be answered. We were well behaved. The tens of thousands of Greeks who converged upon Parliament House last October to show support for the Australian government’s co-operative stance over the naming dispute between Greece and FYROM did so in an orderly and respectful fashion, abjuring any form of racial slurs at the expense of the FYROMian community and with a great respect for the principles of ethnic and cultural cohesion and diversity. As such, our rally was just another peaceful ‘ethnic event,’ of marginal importance to the mainstream. The FYROMian community’s rally was rowdy and hate-driven. Such things are newsworthy, as they serve to reinforce, sometimes deservedly, certain stereotypes about ‘ethnics’ and how they can’t leave their troubles ‘at home.’
The second question, as to why politicians attended the FYROMIAN proto-pogrom is characteristic of a community that, owing to the insularity that has ensued by its magnitude, displays only a slight comprehension of the context in which it exists. It also magnifies the way that our misconceptions have caused us to focus on aspects of the Macedonian issue that are, except to the parties concerned irrelevant. For example, we believe that history proves our contention and that we are ‘right.’ As such, our Zoroastrian consciousness cannot understand why, in the face of the ‘truth,’ politicians would deny that truth and by their presence at an opposing function, support a ‘lie.’ After all, are we not a bigger group.
George Seitz, the state member for Keilor, is a case in point. At a recent Cyprus youth forum, he took me aside and outlined a few ideas he had about strengthening the Greek position on Cyprus. As a result of that, and his presence at the forum, it was held by those attending that “he is a friend of the Greeks.” George Seitz also attended the recent protopogrom. As such, many members of the Greek-Australian community are currently confused by the “missed signals” he is purportedly sending. Is he friend or foe? The answer of course is, that like the vast majority of parliamentarians, he is neither. Conceivably, he couldn’t care less whether FYROM is named Macedonia, Narnia or Western Bulgaria. Instead, he is merely doing what any other astute politician would do: trying to keep his constituents happy.
Doing so however, comes at a cost, especially when one is invited to attend a rally that is ostensibly a protest over the Australian government’s policy with regard to the naming dispute, and which turns out to be a racist proto-pogrom. For starters, one runs the risk of being branded with the same brush. With that in mind, on behalf of the Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia, I wrote a letter to Mr Seitz, endeavouring to point out some of the pitfalls of his misconceived presence at Hatefest 08. Omitting formal and irrelevant parts, it read as follows:

“On 24 May 2008, members of the so-called “Macedonian” community converged upon State Parliament House, ostensibly to protest against the Australian Government not recognising the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as “Republic of Macedonia.”
You attended this rally.
While we fully support the right of every citizen to protest over issues that concern them, we are incensed by the rally of 24 May 2008, which appeared more to be a racist and violent ‘hate rally’ against Greek-Australians and Greece.
Under the pretext of peaceful protest, attendees at the rally displayed racially intolerant behaviour that threatens to upset the ethnic cohesion of Victorian society. In a deliberate attempt to provoke the religious feelings of Greek-Australians, they defaced the Greek flag by replacing the cross with a red swastika. They also carried banners with slogans that vilified the Greek people, such as: “Fascist Greeks.”
We note that this seems to imitate recent manifestations of anti-Hellenism taking place within the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, where a similar defacement of the Greek flag took place. 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 area now comprised by FYROM 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 had this to say about the defancement of the Greek flag: “The defacing of the national symbol…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.”
Your attendance at this rally has given rise to the belief with the Greek community that you support the defacement of greek national symbols with the swastika and endorse such anti-Greek racist behaviour. While we are sure that this is not the case, your confirmation of this, espcially for the purposes of the press, would be most reasurring.
Under the guise of ‘peaceful protest’ the attendees at the rally also made inappropriate irredentist claims against Greek territory. Protesters carried a banner proclaiming “Solun (a Slavonic term for Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece) will be the capital of Macedonia again,” while other banners proclaimed “We will never retreat from Macedonian lands.” Particularly concerning was the widespread display of maps portraying a vastly expanded Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, including lands that belong to the countries of Albania, Bulgaria and Greece.
Again, your attendance at the rally has given rise to the belief that you support the violation of the territorial integrity of Greece. Please reassure us that this is not so.
Surely in a mature multicultural society, diversity in all its forms must be respected. Sadly, it appears that notions of mutual respect and harmony were lost on the attendees of the rally, some of whom openly displayed guns and knives. Are we to assume that they were advertising that they have the means to further their irredentist and racist aims? Notably, few if any banners carried by the protesters made any reference to Australian Government policy. This rally appears to have been purely designed to incite ethnic conflict and to express hatred against Greek-Australians. Indeed, the display of weapons, manifestations of hate and making of threats against Albanian, Bulgarian and Greek territory have caused great fear and disquiet among these ethnic communities.
The Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia emphatically states that such violent, racist and irredentist behaviour as displayed by the attendees of the 24 May 2008 hate rally has no place in our society and is completely un-Australian. We voice our concern at the aggressive manner in which Australians whose origins derive from FYROM concern themselves with matters that have little to do with Australia but which threaten to provoke ethnic conflict and upset the equilibrium of our community. As such, we cannot but express our disappointment at your attendance at this contentious rally.
The Pan-Macedonian Federation of Australia applauds the Australian government’s decision not to recognised FYROM as “the Republic of Macedonia,” mindful of the fact that the term Macedonia denotes a geographic area, not an ethnic term. It is the home and cultural metropolis of a multitude of peoples and it cannot be usurped by one nation and denied to others, on the basis of race. Please let us have your written commitment to the current policy of the Australian government.”
To date, no reply has been received to this letter. However we are quite certain that George Seitz does not endorse any manifestations of hatred towards Greeks, that he considers the defacement of the cross by a swastika as offensive as all other right-thinking people do, and considers territorial designs upon Greek territory and the display of weapons at “peaceful protests,” to be nothing more than the deluded bravado and rage of a frustrated, insecure and impotent minority. Given that his presence at the protopogrom could send the message to other minorities with an axe to grind that such heinous behaviour is acceptable in the public domain, we are sure that George Seitz profoundly regrets attending it. Perhaps his Greek-Australian constituents (of which there are not a few), may seek further clarifications from him in this regard, closer to the next state election.
The lesson to be drawn from all this is twofold. The first is that the token presence of a politician, at a rally especially at state level, does not equal a point scored for the opposition. It should merely be viewed as what it is: a member trying to placate his constituents. George Seitz’s presence at the proto-pogrom is embarrassing and problematic for him, rather than beneficial to his ‘hosts.’ Secondly, it is futile focusing all our energies upon trying to convince disinterested parliamentarians of the ‘truth.’ Instead, we should be speaking to them in a language that they will understand: conceiving ways to outline why it would be advantageous to uphold the already self-evident ‘truth.’ By no means must we be used as pawns in a wider political game as deluded masses to be cajoled and placated in order to serve a higher purpose. And what is of greatest pride, is that in accordance with out own humanitarian tradition, we do not, as our detractors do, vilify and abuse others on the basis of race. Instead, we restrict ourselves to the issue at hand, campaign for it passionately but respectfully, knowing full well the import of the words of Elie Weisel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Until next week, Што правиш овде?


First published in NKEE on 9 June 2008

Monday, June 02, 2008


Of all the Greeks that have walked the face of the planet, secure in the knowledge that they are special and possessed of a high and noble destiny, none have been so aspiring, so fascinating and ultimately so charlatanic than the Greek Jew Shabbetai Zevi, otherwise known as the Messiah. From obscure origins, he set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the foundation of Israel as a Jewish State.
Born in Smyrna in 1626 of a Romaniote Jew family hailing from Patra, in his youth, Zevi, was inclined to solitude. According to custom he married early, but he avoided intercourse with his first and second wives; both successively applied for a divorce, which he willingly granted. At twenty he began to develop unusual behavior that indicated sanctity. He would alternately sink into deep depression and isolation, and become filled with frenzied restlessness and ecstasy. According to Jewish legend, he would eat nonkosher food, speak the forbidden name of God, and commit other "holy sins.”
At twenty two, Sabbatai chose to reveal himself at Smyrna to a group of followers as the true Messianic redeemer, designated by God to overthrow the governments of the nations and to restore the kingdom of Israel. His mode of revealing his mission was the pronouncing of the Tetragrammaton in Hebrew, an act which Judaism emphatically prohibited, since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Sabbatai remained at Smyrna for several years, leading the pious life of a mystic, and giving rise to much argument in the community, the details of which are not known. The college of rabbis in Smyrna watched Sabbatai closely, and when his Messianic pretensions became too bold they put him and his followers under a ban of cherem, a type of excommunication.
About 1651 Sabbatai and his disciples were banished from Smyrna. It is not quite certain where he went from there. In 1653, he was in Constantinople, where he met a preacher, Abraham ha-Yakini who confirmed Sabbatai. Ha-Yakini is said to have forged a manuscript in archaic characters and in a style imitating the ancient apocalpyses, and which, he alleged, bore testimony to Sabbatai's Messiahship. It was entitled The Great Wisdom of Solomon, and began:
"I, Abraham, was confined in a cave for forty years, and I wondered greatly that the time of miracles did not arrive. Then was heard a voice proclaiming, 'A son will be born in the Hebrew year 5386 [English calendar year 1626] to Mordecai Zevi; and he will be called Shabbethai. He will humble the great dragon; ... he, the true Messiah, will sit upon My throne."
With this document, which he appears to have accepted as an actual revelation, Sabbatai determined to choose Thessaloniki, at that time a center of Kabbalists, as the field for his further operations. Here he boldly proclaimed himself the Messiah, gaining many adherents. In order to impress his Messiahship upon the minds of his enthusiastic friends he put on all sorts of mystical events — e.g., the celebration of his marriage as the “Son of God” The consequence was that the rabbis of Salonica banished him from the city. Finally, after long wanderings, he settled in Cairo, where he resided for about two years (1660–1662) and then re-settled in Jeruslam, where he met an enthusiastic disciple, Nathan of Gaza, who travelled the country, proclaiming his teacher as the Messiah and causing wodespread consternation.
Sabbatai, realizing that Jerusalem was not a congenial place in which to carry out his plans, left for his native city, Smyrna, while his prophet, Nathan, proclaimed that henceforth Gaza, and not Jerusalem, would be his sacred city. On his way from Jerusalem to Smyrna, Sabbatai was enthusiastically greeted in the large Jewish community of Aleppo, and at Smyrna, which he reached in the autumn of 1665, the greatest homage was paid to him. Finally, after some hesitation, he publicly declared himself as the expected Messiah on Jewish New Year in the in the synagogue, with the blowing of horns, and the multitude greeting him with: "Long live our King, our Messiah!"
The joy of his followers knew no bounds. Sabbatai, assisted by his wife, now became the sole ruler of the Smyrnan Jewish community. In this capacity he used his power to crush all opposition. For instance, he deposed the old rabbi of Smyrna, Aaron Lapapa, and appointed in his place Hayyim Beneviste. His popularity grew with incredible rapidity, as not only Jews but Christians also spread his story far and wide. His fame extended to all countries. The Jewish centres of Italy, Germany and Holland were particularly receptive to his Messianic movement. The Jews of Hamburg and Amsterdam received confirmation of the extraordinary events in Smyrna from trustworthy Christians. A distinguished German savant, Heinrich Oldenburg, wrote to Baruch Spinoza (Spinozae Epistolae No 33): "All the world here is talking of a rumour of the return of the Israelites ... to their own country. ... Should the news be confirmed, it may bring about a revolution in all things."
Fantastic reports were widely spread and believed regarding Sabbatai’s powers. There was a rumour that “In Scotland, a ship had appeared with silken sails and ropes, manned by sailors who spoke Hebrew. The flag bore the inscription 'The Twelve Tribes of Israel'." The Jews of Avignon, prepared to emigrate to the new kingdom in the spring of 1666. The readiness of the Jews of the time to believe the messianic claims of Sabbatai Zevi may be largely explained by the desperate state of European Jewry in the mid-1600s. The bloody pogroms of Bogdan Chelmytsky in the Ukraine had wiped out one third of the Jewish population and destroyed many centers of Jewish learning and communal life. There is no doubt that for most of the Jews of Europe there could never have seemed a more propitious moment for the messiah to deliver salvation than the moment at which Sabbetai Zevi made his appearance.
The adherents of Sabbatai, probably with his consent, even planned to abolish to a great extent much of Jewish ritual, because, according to a minority opinion in the Talmud, in the Messianic time most of them were to lose their obligatory character. The first step toward the disintegration of traditional Judaism was the changing of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, to a day of feasting and rejoicing. Samuel Primo, who entered Sabbatai's service as secretary at the time when the latter left Jerusalem for Smyrna, directed in the name of the Messiah the following circular to the whole of Israel:
"The first-begotten Son of God, Shabbethai Tebi, Messiah and Redeemer of the people of Israel, to all the sons of Israel, Peace! Since ye have been deemed worthy to behold the great day and the fulfilment of God's word by the Prophets, your lament and sorrow must be changed into joy, and your fasting into merriment; for ye shall weep no more. Rejoice… because I have appeared."
This message produced wild excitement and dissension in the communities, as many of the leaders, who had hitherto regarded the movement sympathetically, were shocked at these radical innovations. Solomon Algazi, a prominent Talmudist of Smyrna, and other members of the rabbinate, who opposed the abolition of the fast, narrowly escaped with their lives.
At the beginning of 1666, Sabbatai again left Smyrna for Constantinople because of a hope that a miracle would happen in the Turkish capital to fulfill the prophecy of Nathan of Gaza that Sabbatai would place the Sultan's crown on his own head. As soon as he reached the landing-place, however, he was arrested at the command of the grand vizier Ahmen Köprülü, and cast into prison in chains.
Sabbatai's imprisonment had no discouraging effect either on him or on his followers. On the contrary, the lenient treatment which he secured by means of bribes served rather to strengthen them in their Messianic delusions. In the meantime, all sorts of fabulous reports concerning the miraculous deeds which "the Messiah" was performing in the Turkish capital were spread by Nathan and Primo among the Jews of Smyrna and in many other communities, and the expectations of the Jews were raised to a still higher pitch.
In some parts of Europe Jews began to unroof their houses and prepare for a new "exodus". In almost every synagogue, Sabbatai's initials were posted, and prayers for him were inserted in the following form: "Bless our Lord and King, the holy and righteous Sabbatai Zevi, the Messiah of the God of Jacob." In Hamburg the council introduced this custom of praying for Sabbatai not only the Sabbath, but also on Monday and Thursday, and unbelievers were compelled to remain in the synagogue and join in the prayer. Sabbatai's picture was printed together with that of King David in most of the prayer-books, as well as his kabbalistic formulas and penances.
These and similar innovations caused great dissension in various communities. In Moravia the excitement reached such a pitch that the government had to intervene, while in Morocco, the emir ordered a persecution of the Jews. It was at this stage that some of his disciples informed on him to the authorities, accusing him of seeking to overthrow the Sultan. At the command of Sultan Mehmed, Sabbatai was taken to Adrianople, where the sultan's physician, a former Jew, advised him to convert to Islam. Sabbatai realized the danger of the situation and adopted the physician's advice. On the following day, being brought before the sultan, he cast off his Jewish garb and put a Turkish turban on his head, and thus his conversion to Islam was accomplished. The sultan appointed him as his doorkeeper with a high salary. His wife and a number of Sabbatai's followers also went over to Islam. To complete his acceptance of Islam, Sabbatai was ordered to take an additional wife. Some days after his conversion he wrote to Smyrna: "God has made me an Ishmaelite; He commanded, and it was done. The ninth day of my regeneration."
Sabbatai's conversion was devastating for his followers. In addition to the misery and disappointment from within, Muslims and Christians jeered at and scorned the credulous Jews. In spite of Sabbatai's apostasy, many of his adherents still tenaciously clung to him, claiming that his conversion was a part of the Messianic scheme. This belief was further upheld and strengthened by false prophets like Nathan and Primo, who were interested in maintaining the movement. In many communities Shabbatai’s birthday was still observed as feast-days in spite of bans and excommunications.
At times Sabbatai would assume the role of a pious Muslim and revile Judaism, at others he would enter into relations with Jews as one of their own faith. In March 1668 he again announced that he had been filled with the "Holy Spirit" at Passover, and had received a "revelation." He, or one of his followers, published a mystical work addressed to the Jews in which it was claimed that Sabbatai was the true Messiah, in spite of his conversion, his object being to bring over thousands of Muslims to Judaism. To the sultan, however, he said that his activity among the Jews was to bring them over to Islam. He therefore received permission to associate with his former co-religionists, and even to preach in their synagogues. He thus succeeded in bringing over a number of Muslims to his kabbalistic views, and in converting many Jews to Islam, thus forming a Judaeo-Turkish sect whose followers implicitly believed in him.
Gradually the Turks tired of Sabbatai's schemes. He was deprived of his salary, and banished from Adrianople to Constantinople. In a village near the latter city he was one day discovered singing psalms in a tent with Jews, whereupon the grand vizier ordered his banishment to Ulcinj in Montenegro, where he died in solitude in 1676.
Although rather little is known about them, various groups called Donmeh (Turkish for "apostate") continue to follow Sabbatai Zevi today, mostly in Turkey. Estimates of the numbers vary. Many sources claim that there are less than 100,000 and many of them claim hundreds of thousands of adherents. Though he manifestly was not the Messiah, Sabbatai did much to place the creation of a Jewish state on the political agenda of Europe, delude the masses, and earn the title of one of the most remarkeable Hellenes ever to have existed. As such, he requires a vastly more prominent place in our ethno-specific pantheon. Until next week, l’hitraot.


First published in NKEE on 2 June 2008