Tuesday, August 26, 2008


"I don't know why you use a French word like détente when there's a good English phrase for it - cold war." Golda Meir.

If you take a piece of meat from the freezer, thaw it to the extent where it recedes at your prodding and then proceed to replace it in the freezer, chances are that the said meat will spoil. "Spoiled" is perhaps the most apt description of the current state of the relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. From a state of chill, during the Communist era, relations between these two leviathans thawed considerably during the Yeltsin era, when Russia was poised upon the brink of collapse, only to decidedly freeze again upon Russia's re-consolidation as a Putinoid superpower. Now, with the Russian occupation of Georgia, we see that the whole relationship has gone totally off.
That there has been a deeply ingrained prejudice against Russia within the Anglo Saxonic world ever since the Crimean War, is beyond doubt. Indeed the word jingoism, signifying an extreme patriotism in the form of an aggressive foreign policy, derives from a music hall ditty pertaining to English fears of Russian expansionism: "We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, We've got the ships, We've got the men, We've got the money too, 'We've fought the Bear before, and while we are Britons true, The Russians shall not have Constantinople." It is worthwhile mentioning here, that this stance prolonged the Ottoman occupation of Balkan lands, causing untold misery to its Christian subjects. Suspicion of Russia looms large in British literature during later Victorian times, when both countries were at odds with each other in the scramble for the acquisition of territories and the subjugation of peoples in Central Asia. Rudyard Kipling's novel "Kim," juxtaposes the life of a young Irish boy against the bloody cutthroat paranoiac spy-world of British and Russian agents vying for influence in Afghanistan (a case of dejavu?). Here in Melbourne, a world away from the tribulations of European politics, artillery was installed at the entrance to Port Philip Bay, in the late ninetennth century, in order to forestall a Russian invasion that never came. Anti-Russian sentiment was in fact, so ingrained within the British psyche, that during World War I, when the Russian Empire was an ally, rumours were circulating about a purported Russian invasion of Scotland.
In many respects, the United States picked up where Britain left off. During the fifty or so years of the Cold War, both the US and Russia expended billions in creating their own spheres of interest, obtaining the homage of client states and amassing vast arsenals in order to deter the other party from muscling in on its territory. As a result of the various interpretations by both sides as to the exact delineation of their perceived spheres of interest, conflicts such as the Greek Civil War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil War in Angola, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan were incited, which cost the lives of millions.
The collapse of the U.S.S.R and the triumph of capitalism as an ideology, which led Francis Fukuyama to enthusiastically gush over what he saw as the "end of history," has not put an end to traditional Anglo-Saxon fear of Russia. While there may no longer be "Reds under the bed," one never quite knows when "the Russians are coming." The old great Game is resuscitated by NATO's expansion and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. US client states are carved out in Kosovo and Georgia - spheres traditionally in the Russian "interest." And all this, because it is common knowledge that Russia is a menace that must be contained.
The latest crisis in South Ossetia, is but a mere manifestation of the re-emergence of a Cold War among parties who are perpetually vying for dominance. That South Ossetia is the stag where this wider drama of world domination is being played out is also fitting, because it has formed part of the backdrop of the very first Cold War ever invented.
Indeed, Greeks invented the Cold War. Our Cold War, lasting from the time of the Persian invasion of Greece in 499BC to the defeat of the Persians by Heraclius in Jerusalem in 629 AD, was one of the longest wars ever fought, though through most of that time, it was punctuated by periods of frigid peace, in which both states used propaganda and other means to undermine each other. You know the story. Darius, Shah of Persia, obsessed with world domination, invaded Greece. He was repulsed by the Greeks, who after years of fighting and engaging with the Persians simultaneously, formed, under Philip of Macedon, a league with which to crush the Persians for ever. Though Alexander and his generals were able to conquer the Persians, thus making the East safe for Hellenic civilization, their Hellenistic successors were unable to contain the rise of first the Parthian and then the Sassanid Persian kingdoms. For centuries thereafter, the conflict between the "Greeks" whether in the guise of the Epigonoi, their Roman successors or the Byzantine Empire and the Persians, would be one of geography, given that the border between the two remained remarkably stable at the Euphrates River in Iraq. Like their Cold War successors, the two warring states, when not engaged in open conflict, would amass and foment revolts or wars in client states, such as Armenia, which was divided between the two juggernauts in the manner of North Korea, or northern Arabia, which was divided into the pro-Byzantine Ghassanid and pro-Persian Lakhimid kingdoms.
Much like our modern Cold War, a good deal of ideology was used to mask realpolitik and muscle. Early on in the conflict, the Persians were portrayed by the Greeks as effete barbarians who had to be destroyed if Greece was to survive. Similarly, after the Parthians overthrew the Hellenized Arsacid dynasty that worshipped Greek gods and adopted Greek customs, they portrayed their expansion as necessary if Persia was to retain its national character and not be subsumed in the quagmire of effete Greekness. As time passed, the ideological positions crystallized. Persia was the devout land of those who worshipped Ahura Mazda, god of Justice and venerated his prophet, Zoroaster. Across the Euphrates lay the devout land of those who worshipped Jesus Christ, as the Son of God. Just as the Russians and the Americans attempted to undermine each other by encouraging pro-capitalist or communist movements and disseminating polemical propaganda in the areas under each other's sway, so too did Persia take dispossessed Greek pagan scholars under its wing after the forcible closure of Plato's Academy in Athens, and set them up across the border in Ctesiphon. Though Christians were considered evil and subject to heinous persecution within Persia, the Shah also harboured and encouraged heretics, such as the Nestorians, who could be sent across the border to stir the populace up against the Roman "Orthodox" position on faith. In this war of words as well as worlds, symbols were just as important as the Stars and Stripes and the Hammer and Sickle. In 614, upon his capture of Jerusalem, Shah Khosrau promptly removed the True Cross, to Nineveh, in a gesture calculated to show the ascendancy of Ahura Mazda over the Christian God. In retaliation, Byzantine Emperor Heraclius cast Khosrau as an enemy of God and his re-capture of the Cross on 14 September 628 after the battle of Nineveh is one of the most significant dates in the Orthodox and Greek calendar, serving to prove as it were, the divine righteousness of the Byzantine cause.
That the conflict between Greece and Persia was as 'global' in scope as our Cold War ca be evidenced by the 572AD war in the Caucasus, which was fought exactly in the region where the current crisis is transpiring. Byzantium encouraged Armenia and Iberia (Georgia) to revolt against the Persians, following clashes involving Byzantine and Persian proxies in Yemen and the Syrian desert, and Byzantine negotiations for an alliance with the Turks (still in Central Asia) against Persia. In retaliation, the Persians blazed a trail of destruction throughout Georgia and Azerbaijan, only to have the Byzantines subvert the son of the Shah, Khosrau into rebellion against him. As a result of the ensuing conflict, ranging from Iraq, to Syria to Ossetia, Byzantium gained half of Persian Armenia and Georgia, at least for a few decades.
As a direct consequence of these endless wars direct and indirect, comes the Christianisation of the Ossetians, an Iranian and thus Persian-related tribe that settled in the Caucasus and accepted the Byzantine way of life - a Cold War victory for us. As an aside, it should be noted that one of the earliest records of the Ossetian language is found in the Theogony of Byzantinre grammarian John Tzetzes. He records a Cold-War propaganda poem in Ossetian most likely composed by pro-Persians, that deals with priests performing cunnilingus upon respectable Ossetian ladies. It is crass and only interesting insofar as he utilises the same words as are commonly used today in his Greek translation, to denote female genitalia.
What was the consequence of the first, thousand year Cold War? It left both Empires weak and unable to withstand the onslaught of the newly converted Islamic armies from Arabia. Given that these armies managed to obliterate the Zoroastrian religion from Iran, while ours survived, technically, we may consider ourselves the victors. We certainly did survive almost a thousand years longer than our Persian adversaries, but the point is moot. The Byzantine- Persian Wars have been characterized as "futile" and both too "depressing and tedious to contemplate". Cassius Dio noted their "never-ending cycle of armed confrontations" and observed that "it is shown by the facts themselves that conquest has been a source of constant wars and great expense to us. For it yields very little and uses up vast sums; and now that we have reached out to peoples who are neighbours of the Medes and the Parthians rather than of ourselves, we are always, one might say, fighting the battles of those peoples." As Frye states: "One has the impression that the blood spilled in the warfare between the two states brought as little real gain to one side or the other as the few meters of land gained at terrible cost in the trench warfare of the First World War."
The frightening thing about the resuscitation of the modern Cold War is that as opposed to its predecessor and even its originator, it is totally devoid of ideology. There is no clash of civilizations, beliefs or ways of life here, as before. Nor is it a battle for democracy. For how else would one explain the inconsistency between Russia's championing of the separatist South Ossetians with their crushing of the separatist Chechens? How else could one reconcile the US's championing of a sovereign Kosovo, all the while insisting that South Ossetia is an integral part of Georgia? Whereas in years past, both powers played a masterful charade as they attempt once more to encircle and disengage with each other, now they make no attempt to disguise their ultimate aim: the acquisition of dominance and power. And where there is no masking ideology to assuage our resolution that the linear progression of the human destiny is one of progress, what consolation is to be offered to humanity?
If we are to be drawn into yet another paranoid fracas of subterfuge and suspicion, then appropriate lessons should be drawn from those Cold Wars that came before it. And before the icy winds of hostility send further shivers up the spine of decency, let us pray that the frozen hearts of the frigid powermongers, wherever they are, thaw, or at best, view the futility of their actions face to face and suitably vanquished, cool it and just chill out.


First published in NKEE on 26 August 2008

Monday, August 18, 2008


“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

It is in many ways fitting, that China should host the Olympic Games straight after Greece, for if Greece is the eternal rock upon which the prefabricated structure of Western Civilization stands, China certainly is the compass that has determined the orientation of Far Eastern Civilization, over the course of thousands of years. Just like the Athens Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Beijing Ceremony was a marvellous, breath-taking exposition of aeons of deep-rooted culture and tradition, as authentic and as venerable as our own. The two countries may be geographically poles apart. Superficially, their modes of thought and social composition may be the antithesis of each other, and yet, paradoxically enough, for civilisations that developed more or less independently of each other, they appear to have much in common. Both for example, have made lasting contributions to philosophy, science and much more besides.
In the history of ancient China, there are moments when it is absolutely incredible how the same things transpired contemporaneously in Greece and in China. The first of the Greek philosophers, Thales, lived about the sixth century, just about the time that Confucius was in China. Heraclitus, one of the early Greek philosophers, also of the early sixth century, based his philosophy on the “Logos” – the first principle of knowledge – the structure or pattern of the world, the unity of world process which sustains it as a process. This unity lies beneath the surface, for it is a unity of diverse and conflicting opposites in whose strife the Logos maintains the equilibrium of the universe at every moment. Although Heraclitus taught that “all things change and nothing remains at rest,” he knew the Logos itself to be stable, as the measured pattern of flow.
At about the same time, in China, there lived the philosopher Lao Tzu (Old Master.) He too wrote of the same universal pattern or ordering principle that Heraclitus styled the Logos. “I do not know its name,” he said, “but characterize it as the Way (Tao)” – the path, or pattern of Heaven, the Course that all things follow. It is the Way that creates and it is the Way that nourishes, develops and protects creation, balancing the strife of opposites by itself not contending.
Of course, six centuries after Heraclitus and Lao Tzu, there lived on the Greek island of Patmos an old hermit named John. While exiled in a cave on Patmos, he dictated the following revelation to his disciple Prochorus: “In the beginning, there was the Logos, And the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God…” While the ancient Greeks and Chinese grappled with metaphysics in similar fashion, the Christians extended their ideas further, by maintaining that the Logos – the Creator, Sustainer, Pattern and Ordering Principle of nature – “was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Even more fascinating is that the first Christian missionaries to China, Nestorian monks, in the second century AD, imbued with knowledge of both Greek and Chinese philosophy, translated St John’s Gospel, knowing that “Tao” meant to the Chinese what “Logos” meant to the Greeks, thus: “In the beginning was the Tao.”
If one is to delve, the similarities do not end there. The Hellenistic and ultimately Byzantine conception of the God-king or at least of the Emperor as representative of God on earth have their counterparts in the veneration of the Chinese Emperor as the Son of Heaven in a strictly hierarchical society. Ranging from the superficial – for example the use of the pentatonic scale in ancient Greek and Chinese traditional music (and indeed, many of the songs of Epirus sound positively Chinese), the use of the same geometrical decorative motifs such as the «κλειδί της πόλεως» design, to the downright uncanny, ie. the same veneration for the written word in the contemporaneous production of poetry, historical chronicles and a mania for recording everything, the obsession with science and invention: of steam powered engines, water screws, Antikythera mechanisms and war machines of Archimedes and others his ilk, the intricacies of silk making, stolen from the Chinese by the Byzantines, the Chinese invention of paper, movable type printing, gunpowder and the compass. The Greeks and the Chinese are the founders of Western and Eastern medicine respectively, display the same penchant for reasoned, harmonious philosophies of architecture and remarkably, are possessed of languages that have changed very little over the course of thousands of years, giving rise to a profound respect and constant reference to historical precedent.
I remember some years ago, being approached by someone with the crackpot theory that the Greeks were the fathers of the Chinese people. This theory was based on the fact that the southern Chinese province of Yúnnán, sounds a lot like Yunan, the Persian word denoting Ionians and ultimately Greeks. Quaint though it is, it is completely inaccurate, as the name of the Chinese province actually means: “south of the clouds.” This notwithstanding, and the possible ancient tenuous trade links with the western, Turkic provinces of the Chinese Empire, it is truly amazing how many words appear to be common to both languages, sharing the same meaning. The existence of these words in absence of the close proximity required for borrowing is as astounding as the parallel development of much of Greek and Chinese cultures, proving Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who opined, “Those that know nothing of foreign languages, know nothing of their own,” totally correct.
The word “hygeia” – health for example, is partially homophonous to the Chinese word “yu” – which means to heal, to recover, or become well. Stretching things further, the Chinese word, "gu" means a small amount. This word also refers to the thigh bone, with its prior meaning being a "branch" or "part". The Chinese word "liao" means water. Thus, the term "guliao" means "a little water". The similarity between the Chinese "guliao" and the Greek "goulia" is evident.
Today, the Chinese word, "yi" which comes from the compound word, "hou yi" means "descendent" and "son". The Greek word for son is the similar sounding: "yios". Intriguingly, one word in Chinese for "fox" is "laopo". This sounds like the Greek word "alopix" or “alepou.” The Chinese word, lao, means old woman and po, means the first wife (of many wives presumably). In Greek, one can traditionally refer to an old woman as a fox alluding to her wisdom.
The word "pouggi" refers to a purse with money. Long ago, Greeks often hid money in bedspreads and under mattresses as a way of protecting their assets from thieves. Significantly, the word "pugai" in Chinese means bedspreads (pu=spread and gai=cover).
My favourite of these putative borrowed words would have to be “babeizi,” which means “eight life times,” indicating a long period of time. The word is found together with lao=old (laobabeizi) meaning then “old-fashioned, outdated”, because old people supposedly are held to have rusty ideas. The Greek word “babesis” is linked by some to the Chinese “babeizi” and explained as an old man that has a lot of knowledge and experience and can always find his way out, like Odysseus. Of course, this disregards the Albanian origin of the word, which has its root in the word besa, meaning honour, but is an ingenious attempt at derivation nonetheless.
And since we mention Albanians, try these polylingual derivations for size: Today, Albania, is referred to as "Aibainiya" in Chinese. Poignantly, in modern Chinese, "bai" means "snow white". In the ancient Chinese however, "ai" means "snow white." This could refer to dramatic Greek descriptions of the snow white mountains of Albania which bring to mind the trials faced by Greek soldiers during World War II upon such mountains.
Not convinced? The Chinese word, "bai", ("white") offers another fascinating far-fetched meaning. The Chinese word for white spirits (like ouzo) is "bai jiu". Many wines are referred to, in Chinese, as "san- bai" which means exactly: "white three-fold". Notably, as these particular wines produce such heavy foam, one might venture to assert that the type of wine known for its heavy foam is champagne, which sort of sounds like “san-bai” if you’ve drunk a few bottles of the really bad stuff.
In the quest for redeption and the re-acquisition of some credulity, here is one that is at least plausible. The Greek surnames “Meggousoglou” Meggos, Meggoulas, Meggidis, Meggisides are derived from Asia Minor. Menggu in Chinese means Mongolia, and considering the far-reaching sway of the Mongol Khans, (from Mongolia to Hungary,) and the original homeland of the Turkish people on the Chinese periphery, this is clearly a far travelling loan word.
Let us now rip any shred of plausibility we may have ever possessed. "Ren lei" is a Chinese word which means "human being, or mankind". "Lei ren" however, signifies an anthropoid, chimpanzee, gangster, and monkey. Could this correlate with the Greek word "lera" which means dirt, or an individual of ill-breeding?
Before you cry for mercy, here is a last one: Today, we live in a world in which the notion of a "show" plays a major part whereby through a television show, a spectacle etc. Originally, however, could this word have come from the Chinese word "zhou" which means circle and/or week--namely, something that turns around like the roulette in the casino? Then surely the word "zhou" is derived from the Greek words tzogos, tzogadoros, referring to gamblers and gambling. And indeed the prevalence of elderly Greek and Chinese Australians at Crown Casino on any given day may well give rise to further borrowings in the future.
Given that Alexander the Great, or at least descendants of his army were reputed to have traversed as far as China, we could assume that the story of Alexander’s the Great horse, Bucephalus, is well-known throughout the East. The most salient trait of this nag was the fact that he feared his own shadow. In Chinese, "xia" means "to scare". In ancient Chinese, "xia" most likely means shadow. Similarly, in Greek, the words "skia" and "skiazomai" mean shadow and also the verb, to be afraid. Notably, there appear not to be any corollary Slavonic borrowings.
Diatribe takes you leave this week, saluting a noble and ancient people and marvelling at how Hellenic concepts such as those of fair competition, excellence and peace as exemplified in the Olympic Games have conquered the globe, inspiring even the most seemingly distant of peoples. One day, even our languages may become as fused as our traditions. David Bowen, perhaps offers the most insightful commentary in this regard, when he quips: “Americans who travel abroad for the first time are shocked to discover that despite all the progress that has been made over the past 30 years, many foreign people, still speak foreign languages.”


First published in NKEE on 18 August 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008


"The four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics." Christopher Hitchens.

I first learned that the fundamental orifice can be utilised for things other than the excretion of various matter consumed, by my classmates, who assured me that my compatriots were renown for inventing such practices. In fact, apart from the obligatory Greek expletives that form a compulsory part of all Melbourne schoolchildren's vocabulary, at my school, everyone also seemed to know the words "από πίσω," and would readily utter these, especially when victorious at sport. I hasten to add that I attended a boy's school, and this may account for some of my fellow student's unhealthy fascination with such matters.
The predilection for buggery allegedly possessed by my compatriots was puzzling. Though, granted, it was common knowledge that the Greek people had invented EVERYTHING and thus by logical inference could well have also invented anal sex, this was something we had not been taught at Greek school. Quite the contrary and in sotto voce inferences, our history teacher let it be understood that in fact it was our Ottoman neighbours who introduced or rather inflicted upon the hapless youths of our people, the peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nominandum, as St Thomas Aquinas would put it. While not denying its prevalence during the Ottoman Era, it should be noted that the Ottoman Sultan was, for hundreds of years, the Caliph, or successor to Muhammad. Liwat, or the sin of Lot's people, was at that time, as now, officially prohibited by most Islamic sects. There are parts of the Quran which talk about smiting on Sodom and Gomorrah, and this is thought to be a reference to unnatural sex, and so there are hadith and Islamic laws which prohibit it. For example, Khuzaymah Ibn Thaabit reports Muhammad as saying: "Allah is not too shy to tell you the truth: Do not have sex with your wives in the anus," and Abu Hurayrah records the same prophet as saying: “The one who has intercourse with his wife in her back passage has disavowed himself of that which was revealed to Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).” If it is true then, that we deserve to lend our ethnonym to such expressions as "Greek style" or "Greek love," then it is not to the Ottomans that we should ascribe blame. Alone of the Abrahamic religions, it is Judaism that seems to be the most permissive in this regard. While Leviticus states: "Do not lie with a man the lyings of a woman; it is abhorrent," causing rabbinical scholars to interpret this as a prohibition of homosexual sex, the Mishnah Torah traditionally permits it in the heterosexual context, though in a manner that raises issues with regard to gender equality: "A man’s wife is permitted to him. Therefore a man may do whatever he wishes with his wife. He may have intercourse with her at any time he wishes and kiss her on whatever limb of her body he wants. He may have natural or unnatural sex, as long as he does not bring forth seed in vain."
Interestingly enough, the word buggery arises out of the religious conflicts of Byzantium. It was coined as an insult used to describe the rumoured same-sex sexual practices of the heretics from a sect originating in Bulgaria, where its followers were called bogomils; when they spread out of the country they were called buggres (ie. Bulgars).
However, it is to ancient Greece that we must turn, if we are to indeed to teasingly trace the origins of anal sex. Though it invariably existed, homosexual anal sex was far from a universally accepted practice in Ancient Greece. On the contrary, it was the target of jokes in surviving comedies; Aristophanes mockingly alludes to the practice, claiming that "Most citizens are europroktoi (wide-arsed) now." While pedagogic pederasty was an essential element in the education of male youths, these relationships, at least in Athens and Sparta, were expected to steer clear of penetrative sex of any kind. There are very few works of pottery or other art that display anal sex between older men and boys, let alone with adult men. Most such works depict fondling or intercrural sex, which was not condemned for violating and feminizing the boys. Other sources make it clear that the practice was criticized as shameful, and seen as a form of hubris.
In later Roman age Greek poetry, anal sex became a common topos, represented as taking place with "eligible" youths: those who had attained the proper age but had not yet become adults. Seducing children into the practice was considered very shameful for the adult, and having such relations with a male who was no longer adolescent was considered more shameful for the young male than for the one mounting him. However, Greek courtesans, or hetaerae are said to have frequently practiced heterosexual anal intercourse as a means of preventing pregnancy. The acceptability of anal sex thus varied with the time-period and the location, as Ancient Greece spanned a long time and stretched over three continents and two major seas. It is the amount of documentary evidence and the literary attention devoted to anal sex that appears to have caused others to attribute anal sex to us, despite it being a universal phenomenon. Though, for a male citizen to take the passive or receptive role in anal intercourse was a matter of condemnation in Rome, free men however, frequently took the active role with a young slave, known as a catamite. Despite this, and although Roman men often availed themselves of their own slaves or others in this way, the Romans thought of anal sex as something specifically "Greek," quite possibly because most of their slaves were Greek. If we received bad press, the fault must ultimately lie with the Romans.
Why the need for this lengthy foray into such a trivial act? Simply because the simplest of acts can be utilised for deep, dark and nefarious purposes. The recent request by a Melbourne barrister representing the alleged rapist of a victim Greek descent, to disqualify all members of the jury also of Greek descent on the grounds that he had heard that "Greeks like anal sex," is instructive, because it reveals how thousands of years of prejudice can manifest themselves within a multicultural society. Further it is truly astonishing that in a society that prides itself on its politically correct re-orientation, citizens can be excluded from performing such civic duties as jury duty based upon their race and gross generalisations about their sexual proclivities. This speaks volumes for the dire need for urgent reform within an archaic and cumbersome legal system. If we adopt the interpretation offered in Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou's ever relevant study: "From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," we would note that such a racist exclusion is symptomatic of the ontopathology of the predominant ruling group in this country, in seeking to legitimise its conquest and rule over Australia at the expense of its original inhabitants, by acting as arbiter over other nationalities it has chosen to include but not assimilate within its constructed society. In that sociopathic world, generalisations can still be made about ethnic groups, just as they were made in the early twentieth century, when ethnic minorities, the Greek one among them, were considered suspect and were subject to internment or at best, surveillance and censorship. Further, in that world, rights can still be abrogated on the basis of perceived racial characteristics.
What is more revealing however, is our own reaction to the racial slur. For indeed it cuts deep, not only because it is racist but because of the nature of the allegation itself. To make the generalisation that all Greeks love eating souvlaki is racist and stupid but not particular offensive. However, the reference to anal sex is deeply felt as offensive because it touches upon the Judeo-Christian gloss upon the prejudice inherent in most of us, that the said practice is somehow inherently wicked or sinful and that it alludes to sexual activities between males - somehow diminishing our own perception of our masculinity - as a people. Playground examples are instructive. I can remember countless occasions both at high school and at university, where my Greek classmates and I had launched into lengthy diatribes extolling the accomplishments of the ancient Greeks only to be stopped dead in our tracks by the following quip: "Yeah, but you guys take it from behind." This, possibly more than anything else offers a rationale as to why this slur upon a universal practice is applied particularly to us. No other nation is as manifestly proud of its achievements as we are. Further, these achievements, reinterpreted, form a large part of the basis of modern, liberal Anglo-Saxon culture. This in turn, conflicts with Anglo-Saxon myths of racial superiority. There is a tacit need to subvert the aspirations of those who would assert an equal or superior status. Thus, the accusation that we as a people indulge in and enjoy this practice cuts to the quick, because it is an accusation that is designed to denigrate not only our outward characteristics but our very nature, the implication being that we enjoy the act because we are unnatural - as a way of showing that we are naturally inferior by inclination. It is an irrational, homophobic put-down. Had the barrister in question objected to the inclusion of gay jurors on the assumption that all gays like anal sex and are thus in no fit state to judge a rape case, there would have been an uproar.
In our case there is not such an outcry for two reasons: the first is because as arbiters of race relations in this country, the dominant racial group, (and the ancillary institutions it puts in place,) as sovereign, assumes for itself the right to define 'subject' ethnicities and their characteristics. Secondly, as a "subservient" community, to adopt the terminology of Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou, we are loathe (and possibly incapable, owing to the fragmented nature of our community,) to display our displeasure at the offhand application of racial slurs and bigoted, outmoded references to sexual proclivities, in any effective fashion, lest we be deemed to be "subversive." As a result of this lack of advocacy on our behalf, we lie passively, awaiting the next distasteful intrusion.
The κωλόπαιδο of a barrister and his ilk should reassess the import of their actions before we tell them where to stick it. As for us, perhaps it is time we quit contemplating our fundamental orifice, divest ourselves of our anal retentiveness and consider ways in which to address the challenges of this quirky but nonetheless difficult, new epoch.


First published in NKEE on 11 August 2008

Monday, August 04, 2008


The problem with purporting to write for a newspaper is that invariably, a consensus arises among the populace at large, that one is possessed of an opinion on subjects, all and sundry. This Tuesday last, for example, I was approached by a reader, who after deconstructing the diatribe of the day before, posited the inevitable question: “So did you read that article in the Age about the proposed law reforms?” I gazed at him with a visage best likened to that of a stunned a codfish that has been unceremoniously scooped out of its watery abode, divested of its scales with a serrated implement and about to be entombed within the infernal depths of an electrical oven. Regaining my composure, I replied: “No. I don’t actually read any other newspapers than Neos Kosmos.” Equally stunned, though in a marlin “I can’t believe I fell for that hook, line and sinker’ kind of way, my inquisitor riposted: “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I wasn’t. Neos Kosmos truly is the only form of print media I rely upon for information. In actual fact, it acts as the catalyst for my acquisition of other news from various sources in what turns out to be a news odyssey of epic proportions. It goes something like this: On Mondays and Fridays, I set off for my hour-long quest to get to work. On the way, in order to alleviate boredom, I listen to the news on Radio National, and have done so, ever since former Neos Kosmos English Edition doyen Dimitris Tsahuridis once quipped: “My friend, we are serious pretenders, you and I - and only listen to Radio National.” Satiating myself upon the parochiality of the daily bulletin, and in close proximity to my office, I duck into the newsagents and acquire the coveted newsprint, slamming exact change upon the counter and dashing out once more, in order to recover my illegally parked vehicle. Arriving at the office, I peer briefly at its contents and then fold it away, waiting for the inevitable phone call. Sure enough, an hour or two later, my internal equilibrium will be disrupted by my mother, whose first question always is: “Anything interesting in the paper?” As I provide a brief summary of the main points of interest, I cast my mind to that bizarre weekend show on Ant1, «Στούντιο με Θέα» where Spiros Haritatos basically spends and entire programme reading out the headlines of the Athenian daily rags. I am convinced that he does so as part of an intricate attempt to artfully satisfy and also simultaneously evade his matriarchal progenitor’s craving for news.
Demographic trends are reversed in my family. Whereas the usual course of action is for Neos Kosmos to be acquired by the first generation and bequeathed to the second, I make a bi-weekly pilgrimage to the family home, in order to deliver the Neos Kosmos, fresh and unsullied, to my parents. By the time I have walked through the front door and proceeded half-way down the hallway, my sister has relieved me of Neos Kosmos, my father has divested me of the entertainment section and my mother is poring over the headlines, emitting exclamations from time to time. Having rendered them at their most vulnerable, I seize the chance to obtain sovereignty of the television remote control. By the time I leave, collecting the tattered remains of Neos Kosmos and removing them with me, my sister will have developed strong opinions about the progress of the A-League, which, owing to the prevalence of velar plosives in her speech pattern is somehow pronounced Gay-League, my father will have found at least three items of interest in the classifieds and my mother will have a) learned of the demise of at least two acquaintances, b) identified two upcoming community functions that she will like to attend and c) engaged in an in depth analytical debate with me as to the various opinion pieces appearing therein. I, in the meantime, will have gorged myself upon Ant1 news, ERT news and the latest implausible happenings in yet another tasteless Greek drama series. Emerging from this font of Hellenic media cleansed and duly informed, I remove myself to my own abode, there to digest the paper at length and consider its opinion pieces, especially those by Kostas Nikolopoulos, which display greater freedom, originality and freshness of thought than what can be found in its English counterparts.
My understanding of the concept of a newspaper has been fashioned by Neos Kosmos, for it was the first newspaper I ever came in contact with. My grandfather who read with difficulty, would carefully extricate the television program guide from the rest of the paper, fold it lovingly and place it under the coffee table in his living room. Why he did so, for decades, when he understood not a word of English and thus was unable to follow the television programmes is something that I have never been able to fathom. Nonetheless, I will never forget the day that, seeking to find out what I was missing out on television, for my grandmother had ordered it turned off, lest in ‘overheat,’ I picked up the television guide and read that «Σήσαμη Στρητ» was playing on Channel 2. Oh those glorious days of transliteration, before the English alphabet was incorporated into our own. From then on, whenever I would visit my grandparents, I would intently study and memorise the television guide, gradually migrating to the ‘proper’ paper, which I could read, but not understand. So bound up with the concept of my grandparents was the concept of ‘newspaper’ that when I asked my father to purchase a copy for home he replied: “What for? Just read παππού’s copy.”
My understanding of the concept of a Greek community has also been fashioned by Neos Kosmos. Of course I knew that Greek people existed - the person my father purchased groceries from spoke incredibly fast Greek and once in a while we would go to Greek dances. However, it was only through the pages of Neos Kosmos that I learned of the interconnection between thousands of small micro-communities, like the one I was growing up with and how in a labyrinthine and intricate way, they all comprised what was known as the Greek community. Week after week, photographs of slightly overwhelmed, be-robed youngsters attested to the fact that a generation of people just like me was completing high-school and university. Years later the same bemused and overwhelmed youngsters would make their appearance again, this time in suitably tasteless tux or bridal gown and later still, posed in front of font, proudly holding their newly christened children, in what truly was, a Greek-Australian right of passage. These photo-people acted as role models for the expected way our lives were supposed to be played out: university degree, marriage and children. Now the occasional appearance of such photographs may seem quaint in a post-modern world, but they are still a source of pride.
Sometimes people didn’t get that far. I remember turning the pages of the newspaper one day and receiving the shock of my life when I encountered upon the smiling face of one of my Greek school classmates among those pictured in the death notices. On other occasions too, the smiling face of some young person would make cruel mockery of the sad and old faces that usually populated the death pages. We didn’t know these poor children. However, they were part of our community as revealed to us by Neos Kosmos and their loss was felt as keenly by all mothers within it, as if they were their own offspring. Similarly, earlier this year, I remember not being able to drive further than two blocks down my street because of a massive traffic jam created by Greeks from all parts of Melbourne attending the tragic funeral of two Greek boys, killed in a car crash. Most of these people, unrelated to the two boys, were brought together in a mass outpouring of compassion and support, by Neos Kosmos.
Similarly, it is worth considering how poorly attended the multitude of weekly Greek community functions would be if they were not publicized by Neos Kosmos. No one would even know that they had transpired. And how, expect by primitive word of mouth would we be made aware of which are the Greek businesses out there who need our support and patronage and indeed, just how would we know of the tireless work performed by some of our most talented and gifted community members if it were not for the fact that Neos Kosmos makes us aware of it? It is in painting a plausible micrograph of our community that Neos Kosmos is crucial. If that micrograph did not exist and we could not see all the facets of our diverse community, we really would not know if it existed, or what if any, is our place within it.
One of the reasons why I purchase Neos Kosmos is because I want to get a feeling of how the community, across the generations is thinking. To read the Greek letters page is often exasperating but invariably revealing. Sometimes the distance between immediate issues affecting the community and the inane trivia that seems to tax the minds of the first generation is quite frightening. On other occasions, their concerns, petty squabbles, scrapes and ego trips, as they are played out in the letters page can be quite instructive as to the mind set that gave form to the community we see today and enlighten us as to the motivation of those who would be its prime movers.
Understanding how our journalists see our community, Greece and Australia , as exemplified by their articles, be they Sotiris Hatzimanolis’ no nonsense incisive and often biting commentary, Babis Stavropoulos’ enlightened musings, or Vivian Morris’ glimpses into social issues is, to my mind, of intrinsic importance in comprehending the formation of a Greek-Australian identity and make valuable reading. For their perspective is like nothing that can be found in either of the Greek or Australian mainstream media and it is often of seminal importance in the construction of key issues or events. My chief delight is to explore the labyrinthine mind of Kostas Nikolopoulos, through his work, chiefly because eight out of ten times, I find myself having formed the same opinion as he on a given issues a few days prior to publication. In years to come, it is to the thoughts of these and other writers that historians will turn, when (and if) they are charged with the task of reconstructing who we were.
In my time, I have dabbled in community radio- also a great unitary medium - but find nothing more enduring than the written word as a perishable testament to immortality. And it is a singular fact that, be it because of the unique construction of the paper or the rare chemical composition of the ink utilised to print Neos Kosmos, it seems to work remarkably well, with Windex, in the streakless cleaning of household mirrors and glass surfaces. Rags of course leave streaks, and the quality of other newspapers, whether they be municipal, tabloid or having serious pretensions to culture, seem to be of dubious utility in this regard. No really, for a streakless, squeaky clean, you can’t go past Neos Kosmos and I can say that I do use it upon all the mirrors and in my house that have not yet cracked from the sight of me. Try it on your windows and sliding doors as well. You can’t go wrong. The Diatribe in particular is good for kitchen windows, that have the odd congealed food stain. Try it yourself. You will thank me for it.
First published in NKEE on 4 August 2008