Monday, November 24, 2008


"O κόσμος φκιάνουν εκκλησιές, φκιάνουν και μοναστήρια,φκιάνουν και πετρογέφυρα για να περνάει ο κόσμος"

If you could take humanity's indomitable will and determination to bridge the chasm between infinite possibilities and destiny and fossilize it, the end result would surely be the stone bridges of Epirus. One comes upon them unsuspectedly, perched across the spans of a primeival land, gnarled and twisted by the ravages of time, disconsolantly echoing the merciless footsteps of the history that has passed over it. Carved out of the very living rock that they purport to defy, these are works created throughout the ages by the hands of man which blend harmoniously with those created by nature itself: majestic landscapes, craggy mountains and gorges, the meeting place of rivers, breathtaking coastlines looking out onto the horizon.
Overcoming lacunae in the benevolence of nature (and Greeks have generally never thought of nature as benevolent), by building bridges was a task of Herculean proportions, requiring special know-how and skills such as knowledge of the characteristics of the obstacle to be surmounted, expertise with respect to the building materials, engineering expertise, dexterity and the utilization of technological innovations. Romans were certainly the greatest bridge-builders in antiquity and the first to set-up a technical corps, consisting of engineers and experienced workmen who supervised and coordinated, throughout the Empire, the building of bridges. As well, they also founded technical schools, though admittedly staffed by Greek "expert" slaves, who recorded the first instruction manuals and technical descriptions, as can be found in the work “Architecture” of Vitruvius. The stone bridges found in Epirus, are descendents of these Roman bridges. They arise, impossibly, in the most precipitous of peaks and arch themselves, hunch-backed, across the void.
It no wonder that the craggy, inaccessible and torturous landscape of Epirus has produced the most skilled bridge-builders. The technicians and stone-masons, in the villages of Tzoumerka were particularly skilled. As itinerant craftsmen, they would set of in search of work after Easter, usually on St. George’s day and returned in the midst of Autumn. The troop leader was the foreman while the second in command was known as “kalfas.” The kalfas was in charge of the troop, which consisted of builders, clay-men, marble carvers, stone hewers (known as “pelekanoi”) and many others, amongst them many boys – known as apprentices (“tsirakia”), whio carried the materials from dawn to dusk. These craftsmen also devised their own idiom – the “craftsman’s tongue” – “mastorika” – in an attempt to safeguard their art and interests. Although they were highly regarded by the Turks, who granted them special privileges for their free movement in the occupied territories and honuored many of them by offering them positions of authority in the Empire, their only defence against double-crossing was the desertion of the work-site, which remained undone and no other troop took up its completion until the master settled the score with the previous troop. In this way, hump-backed stone bridges through themselves over ravines all over the Balkans. Indeed, the famous bridge at Mostar in Bosnia, whose destruction during the dissolution of Yugoslavia became such a pertinent symbol of internecine strife, was constructed by Epirot stonemasons.
Perhaps the most iconic of all Greek stone bridges, is the fabled bridge of Arta, over the river Aracthos, which has featured so bleakly in Greek demotic poetry. The bridge became famous from the eponymous legendary folk-song, which is at the core about human sacrifice. From the ballad, a number of Greek proverbs and customary expressions arose, associated with interminable delays. For example, I tend to refer in exasperation to the perennial roadworks in Buckley Street, East Keilor, as «Το γιοφύρι της Άρτας», even though they span nothing more than the trickle that purports to be Steele Creek, because, in the words of the song: "All day they build it and in the evening it collapses."
According to chronicler of Epirus, Panayiotis Aravantinos, the bridge was constructed during Ancient Roman times. However, according to some traditions it was built when Arta became capital of the Despotate of Epirus, possibly under Michael II Ducas (1230-1271). Other alleged construction dates vary from 1602 to 1606. Seraphim, the Metropolitan of Arta, has noted that the bridge was built, according to some tradition, by an Artan grocer.
According to the folk song, every day 1300 builders, 60 apprentices, and 35 masons, under the leadership of the Head Builder, tried to build a bridge the foundations of which would collapse each morning:
"Forty-five master builders and sixty apprenticesWere laying the foundations for a bridge over the river of Arta. They would toil at it all day, and at night it would collapse again.The master builders lament and the apprentices weep: "Alas for our exertions, woe to our labours,For us to toil all day while at night it collapses!"
Finally a bird with a human voice informed the Head Builder that in order for the bridge to remain standing, he must sacrifice his wife. As his wife is being killed, being built in the foundations of the construction, she utters curses that conclude with blessings:
"Alas for our fate, woe to our destiny!We were three sisters, and all three star-crossed.One of us worked on the Danube, the other on the Euphrates, And I, the youngest, on the river of Arta. May the bridge ever shake, as carnations shake,And may those who cross it ever fall down, as leaves fall from trees.""Girl, take that back, make it a different curse, Because you have your only dear brother, lest he happen to pass by."
And so she took it back and uttered a different curse: "When the wild mountains shake, then may the bridge shake,And when the wild birds fall from the sky, then may those who cross it fall.For I have a brother abroad, lest he happen to pass by."

What is particularly fascinating about this macabre song, is that relatively unknown fact that it has spawned a sister song. For there exists, upon the upper reaches of the Euphrates River in North Iraq, a similar stone bridge with a surprisingly similar song attached to it. According to the Aramaic ballad, which is still sung today, the Head Builder was advised by a bird that in order for his bridge to stand, he would have to sacrifice the first thing that came to him at midday. The Head Builder vowed to do this, knowing that usually at midday, his wife, preceded by his dog, would come to the river to bring him his lunch. However, on the particularly unhappy day that the song unfolds, the wife ran to the bridge first in an attempt to please her husband and was promptly immured in it. Since our demotic song refers to the immured sister in the Euphrates, one can draw the conclusion that the sway of Epirotic bridge-builders reached as far as the Middle East. The idea that a major edifice can not be built without a human sacrifice ("building in" of a person) was also common in the folklore of other Balkan peoples such as Bulgarians and Romanians (Epirot craftsmen also built bridges over the Danube in these countries). A master-builder being forced to sacrifice his wife in this way is a common theme in their folk songs with a recurring plot element is the masterbuilders' decision to sacrifice the woman who comes first to the building site to bring them food. All but one break their promise and tell their wives to come late, and it is the wife of the only honest one that is sacrificed.
The first time I gazed upon the hum-backed stone leviathan wearily rising from the waters of the Aracthos, I fancied that instead of the groans of the entombed Head Builder's wife, I could hear the groans of an entire people, entombed into a destiny and a way of life that it cannot ever possibly escape. The bridge of Arta, leads nowhere. No one crosses it anymore. Instead, it is bypassed by a highway, at whose side busses pull over, in order for tourists to take photographs to which they can point and claim that they have "done the bridge at Arta". In short, this imposing structure, for whose construction an ultimate price was paid, is, after so much effort expended, irrelevant to the purpose for which it was originally constructed. Experts in building matters mention that the lime used in bridges such as that of Arta takes up to seven years to congeal. It is said that bridge-builders prayed for the river not to flood during these first seven years of its construction in order not to draw the bridge away. Traditionally a supplication was held to be addressed by the lime to the stone: “Hold me stone for seven years and I will hold you forever.” This was supposed to mirror the commonly held belief that the first seven years in a marriage are the difficult ones, until a “bridge” between the partners is built. However, once the lime congeals, destiny is set in stone and can never be escaped.
One thing we tend to "do" rather well is futility and this is unsurprising given that one of our ancestors was the inmate of Tartarus, Sisiphus, compelled for eternity to carry a boulder uphill, only to have it roll down to the bottom when he had almost completed his task, rendering his efforts to nought. The merciless bridge of Arta, which rendered all human aspirations into rubble and demanded the blood of life as the price for permanence, is but another rolling boulder in the long list of Sisyphean pursuits that characterise the avalanche that comprises our terrestrial experience. In that, it resembles another of its counterparts, the bridge on the River Kwai, constructed as the movie would have it, by a British colonel who, after settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
What shall be the fate of the edifices our founding fathers sacrificed their spare time in order to construct? Will we, just like our fore-fathers, be compelled to build and re-build shattered structures until such time as our endeavours come to nothing? Does immortality require us to be cryogenically "built in" to whatever we construct so that it can moulder on throughout the ages - unchanged but irrelevant? Maybe the moral of the bridge at Arta, whispered among the crashing of the waters around its supports, is that there are some voids that we should never aspire to fulfil - that there is hubris in permanency after all. But then again is not the tragedy of the condition humane, its fleeting essence in a time-bound world? If so, then perhaps the bridge at Arta is an existential fossil, and the stone-masons of Epirus, the precursors of Camus. Let us keep building then, for in the words of the great l'étranger himself: "He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool."


First published in NKEE on 24 November 2008

Monday, November 10, 2008


I absolutely despise Greek film events. To them I ascribe full culpability for they and they alone are responsible for shattering one of the most hallowed illusions of my life. Prior to their inception, and given that my first corporeal experience of Greece took place at a relatively lat stage, my visual understanding of the Hellenic topos was of a grainy black and white-scape where people wore suits, used excessive amounts of brill cream and were invariably polite, in clipped Athenian accents. This world was peopled by gruff, balding but ultimately kindly old men, sporting amazingly rich eye-plumage, (Papagiannopoulos), thin, lanky, gawky but devilishly clever young men (Iliopoulos), stylish , new-age-but-trying-to-hide-it patriarchs (Konstantaras), androgynous, sensitive, cultured and ultimately flawed losers (Moustakas) and of course, invariably, a bald spinning top, rushing around from place to place, chattering away at a velocity that would rival the speed of light (Veggos). Greek women had blonde hair and spoke in lilting girlish voices. They always found their true loves within ten minutes of the unfolding of the screenplay and remained faithful to them despite all difficulties and mishaps, usually arising out of their chosen one's inferior social or economic status. Apart from having a tendency towards the hysterical and the propensity to break out into song at any given moment, these girls were the embodiment of perfection.
Even when in the eighties, I discovered that there were Greeks who were skeletally thin, wore tight jeans, sported long hair and rode motorcycles, I retained an admiration for a fabled land where teenagers could roam around at will, having good natured fun playing pranks, to the exasperation of their elders. Further, this was how the important word «σούζα,» along with many others, was introduced into my vocabulary. Having seen a Stathis Psaltis film on a Friday night, we would rage around the corridors of our Greek school the following day, attempting to re-enact virtual wheelies and parroting the latest received-jargon, along with the latest hand-gestures, such as the back-hand «μούντζα,» to the exasperation of our teachers. In short, film-Greece was fun.
Personally, I blame Theo Angelopoulos for the ensuing fall from grace. In particular, I recall an excruciating half hour, viewing "Voyage to Cythera" on SBS with my grandmother, watching a ship silently pull away from a harbour. A telling motif of separation, detachment and despondency all wrapped up in late-twentieth century Balkan angst? I think not. I just think that Angelopoulos just couldn't afford Psaltis and had to do with the dour Katrakis instead.
Actually, no, the French are to blame, not Angelopoulos. For had not the French decided to reward Angelopoulos at the Cannes Film Festival for his brooding, bleak and plotless work, other Greek film-makers would not have chosen to emulate him in the quest for accolades and kudos. Hellenic film haute-couture, in my view, is all about dialogue. We sit comfortably among the most garrulous of peoples in the world and to be compelled to bear witness to films, weighted down with an "atmosphere" of lead, where barely a word is spoken, is an abomination.
My first Greek Film Festival film, back when it was held at the State Film Centre, was memorable for two reasons. The first was because on my way there, I saw the very first possum I had ever seen, roaming around the streets of the city and I considered this to be symbolic of the cross cultural experience that would ensue. The second was because I ended up viewing entitled: "The Cow's Orgasm." I can’t exactly recall what it was about. All I remember, after overcoming my initial revulsion at such an inelegant title, was my musing over whether cows were in fact capable of orgasm and if so, how this could affect the quality of milk produced. In the midst of all this, the bonds of two rural teenagers were broken after sexual experimentation and their romantic myths destroyed. This was highly disconcerting. Greek teenage girls aren’t supposed to have sex. They are supposed to sing, happy songs as they bake bread and draw water from the well, waiting for a happy go-lucky lad to sweep them off their feet as he expertly drives past on his motorbike. I was troubled, but reconciled myself to the fact that this movie probably had a social commentary that I was not erudite enough to follow.
The next movie I saw, the "Lost Treasure of Hursit Pasha," was supposed to be an action comedy. It wasn't. There was no snake-hating Indiana Jones to shoot the Nazi's and discover the treasure. Instead, I was presented with a bewildering maze of corruption and bureaucracy. The jokes were black and off beat and I was amazed at the way the protagonists contrived to bamboozle, lie and cheat each other in their own futile quest for self-aggrandisement. By this time, I was angry. This was not a Hellenic film. Having referred to my well-thumbed grade six Greek history book, I knew that Hellenes were people who worked together, selflessly, for the greater glory of Greece. Something was wrong. Happy sailors, dancing ballet-choreographed zeimbekika on the sea-front were nowhere to be seen. There were no happy endings. I would leave each film feeling not a little disconcerted and discomforted. They were all so bleak, so hopeless and dark. Where was the land of sun and happiness that was supposed to lie, just over the rainbow?
The nineties definitely were a dark time in Greek history, a time where emerging from the Cold War, having nothing to show for its fidelity to an ideology and an alliance that had caused so much damage to the Greek soul and poised upon the brink of globalisation, Greece lost its innocence. Looking back, the films of this period are remarkable in the way they capture the contemporary zeitgeist of the Greeks. Fear, futility and sarcasm are now, in Greek film discourse, as confronting as an Athenian taxi-driver who has been told that he is taking you to your destination by a circuitous route. While tempered of late, by lyricism and nostalgic humour in the case of "A Touch of Spice," excellent cinematography, raw passion and brilliant dialogue in the case of "Brides," or the zany and absolutely fun "Sirens of the Aegean," Greek films remain just as open, honest, multi-faceted and confronting, as to the themes, motifs and concerns of the society they seek to reflect. As such, they are, compared with the sanitization of Hollywood genres, a breath of fresh air and of vital importance to all those who seek to comprehend what makes modern Greece (and modern Greeks tick).
It is in this voyage of discovery and interpretation that the true value of the Greek Film Festival, a Greek Orthodox Communtiy of Melbourne and Victoria endeavour, lies. This year, between 13-15 November 2008, four titles are presented, purporting to be a snapshot of contemporary Greek cinema from the collection of the Greek Film Centre. They are absorbing and compelling viewing.
"Valse Sentimentale" (2007), directed by Constantina Voulgari, is a romantic story the like of which you have probably never have seen before. The protagonists are two conflicted individuals: a self-destructive, individualistic male and a depressed female. They began to orbit each other tentatively. While it takes a little while for them to truly connect, the process is definitely not smooth sailing. While they appear to be drawn to each other, they often repel each other. The man's behaviour is especially psychopathic. There is a need for ownership that conflicts with the desire to be left alone. Given their psychological weaknesses, they need each other but seem unwilling to accept mutual dependence. Their masterly interaction resembles two magnets that need to be aligned properly. I found the film eminently watchable and never felt the need to consider what each scene was a metaphor for. The cringe factor, on account of cutting instruments slicing skin, is minimal. Incidentally, the male protagonist has by far the most memorable line: "Suicide should be part of the Human Rights Manifesto." I'll jump to that.
"Soul Kicking" («Η Ψυχή στο Στόμα» 2006), directed by Yiannis Economides, purports to be Greco-Noir. It is more than that. It is punishing and thought-provoking, transmitting the melancholy and the depreciation of the western suburbs of Athens. The film was depressing but so true. Takis is sad, Takis rarely speaks, Takis accepts other people's hate and anger. His wife is cheating on him. He never sees his daughter. Takis has paranoiac colleagues and a sadistic boss. His friend and his creditors yell at him. And what does he get? Nothing. Nothing but humiliation and inconsideration. They say that in every family there is a tragedy, but in tragedies there is always the solution. Is the resolution of this film the way out? Takis (and we) are so alone…
"Women's Conspiracies" («Γυναικείες Συνομωσίες» 2007), directed by Vasilis Vafeas, has as its central premise the conviction, held within Greek literature since Aristophanes penned "Lysistrata" that women have the potential power to overturn the natural order of things at whim. When an ordinary 50 year old man loses his job, he is plunged into a mid-life crisis. Via the alter ego of the protagonist, we are taken on a roller coaster ride that veers sometimes towards comedy of the absurd and a meta-comment about the fragility of everyday life and the torturous results of having one's mundane equilibrium, while on other occasions, it descends into an exploration of eye-candy and the way female sexuality is understood or constructed by Greek males. Stalwart actor from the golden years of Greek cinema, Kostas Voutsas' sterling performance is reason enough to subject oneself to this film.
In "Cool" («Ψυχραιμία» 2007), directed by Nikos Perakis, who also directed "Sirens of the Aegean," a group of friends are driving towards the Venizelos airport, without knowing that their stories are part of one, bigger and involving their parents' story. Corruption, politics, media, drugs, the prison and health system and the social standards of contemporary Modern Greek life in the 21st century are exposed in a powerful way. The next generation is about to take some far reaching decisions. Perakis shows how crucial and 'difficult' social issues can be approached with wit and in a productively provocative way. Given that Modern Greek society (as can be evidenced by nineties films) seems to be unable to finalize its struggle for an identity, lacking the (sometimes externally imposed) heroism of the generations of the first half of the 20th century, Perakis highlights how the generations leading Greece into the end of the 20th century seem to have identified with a "balkanised" trio of values: money, media-fame and easy pleasure.
The enduring value of this seminal movie then, is Perakis' resolution of our cultural impasse by hinting at the possibility that the emerging generations are able to build a different and alternative future to the one that the previous generation has left. In brilliant Greek style, this becomes possible in the very heart of the rotting modern Greek ruling social group.
These must-see films will be screened between 13-15 November 2008 at the Palace Cinema Como. Call 9827 7533 for bookings, or visit and remember as a parting shot, these words by George Lucas: "the secret to film is that it is an illusion," coupled with these by: Francois Truffaut: "film-lovers are sick people." Happy viewing.
First published in NKEE on 10 November 2008


"When I have tried and failed, I shall have failed," Sophocles, Antigone

Gloating over a fallen corpse is decidedly unhellenic. If anything, the precedent set by our august ancestors is to weep over the corpse of our enemies and to honour them with a decent burial, as Achilles did, with Priam, over the corpse of Hector and Alexander the Great did with the corpse of Darius III. Ancient literary sources, especially the Iliad, emphasize the necessity of a proper burial and refer to the omission of burial rites as an insult to human dignity. Contrariwise, to defile, scorn or dishonour a corpse is a recipe for disaster, as King Creon of Thebes found out when he refused to have Oedipus' rebellious son Polynices a burial but instead, ordered (under penalty of death) that Polynices' corpse be left to rot on the battlefield as punishment for his treason. This act of hybris was the catalyst for a chain of events that caused the extirpation, by suicide of his wife and son.
The Underworld is definitely not a tourist attraction. In the Odyssey, Homer describes it as being deep beneath the earth, where Hades, the brother of Zeus and Poseidon, and his wife, Persephone, reigned over countless drifting crowds of shadowy figures—the "shades" of all those who had died. It was not a happy place. Indeed, the ghost of the great hero Achilles told Odysseus that he would rather be a poor serf on earth than lord of all the dead in the Underworld. Nonetheless, entry into this dismal world was necessary. Homeric belief suggests that the Greeks saw death as a time when the psyche left the body to enter Hades. This psyche could be seen, but was untouchable. Beginning in Classical times there came to be the concepts of punishment after death or a state of blessedness. The soul responsible for a person’s personality and moral decisions received the eternal punishment or bliss for the choices of the human form. The burial rituals perhaps spawned from this belief that the soul must be guided into the afterlife. If the body was not given a proper burial according to Greek ritual, the soul would remain trapped between the worlds of the living and the underworld.
One would venture to say that there are two ways in which one could dishonour a corpse. The first, and most consistent method would to continue to execrate it, its associates and doings in the same manner as one had during its life. For example, if you were one of the enemies of EKEME, the now deceased centre for National Centre for Hellenic Studies at LaTrobe, who frequently lambasted it in the press, questioned its director's motives, the regulation of its finances and its activities, you could presumably remain consistent with this course of action and desecrate its corpse by maintaining your barrage of invective, post mortem. On the other hand, you could vocally lament the demise of the institution, wail over its body and visibly scratch your head, wondering aloud whence the ark of Greek culture shall now come, all the while fiendishly delighting in the fact that yet another spectacularly tall poppy has come crashing down.
Both forms of desecration have become publicly apparent as forensic Hellenists sift through the rubble of the aforementioned institution and attempt to determine what went wrong. As a community, we tend to delight or at best become absorbed with the misfortune of some of its more prominent members and institutions. EKEME's demise is thus vocally expressed by many as being just divine punishment for hubris - that hubris taking the form of perceived arrogance over the success of creating a fully funded tertiary institution to promote Hellenism. There are cackles of vengeful laughter by those who could not bear to see it holding functions at Parliament House or receiving accolades by the Greek government. At the same, being a community that values "front", "face" or "form" rather than substance, we are concerned that following the demise of the RMIT Greek Centre, EKEME's demise means that we are left with no other like institution which we can utilise to fill the "educational-cultural" slot. When we consider that some ten years ago, there were Modern Greek courses in at least five tertiary institutions in Victoria, this loss becomes ever so more apparent. Older members of the community, who would remember the mobilization and activism (which derived from all facets of the Greek community) surrounding the institution of a Modern Greek program at the University of Melbourne would, in the aftermath of EKEME's demise, secretly shudder and consider that somewhere along the line, we have all failed - not the directors of EKEME, or its funders, or indeed the co-ordinators of other Modern Greek programmes - but all of us. And it is this secret consciousness of guilt that makes gloating even more so titillating.
EKEME did not ever receive full community support. It was widely perceived as an institution that existed to provide a living for its employees and directors. But then again, beyond the usual lip service paid to the necessity of maintaining institutions that teach Modern Greek as intrinsic to our community's survival, our community has not invested nearly enough time and money as it could have, (after their founding that is) to ensure these institutions' relevance and survival.
However, it should not come as a surprise that those members of the community who strove and fought for the erection of lofty educational institutions are now unwilling or not in a position to display the same energy in striving to arrest their terminal decline. At the time that most of these institutions were founded, these members of the community were in the 30-40 year old demographic. Thirty or so years later, why should they be called upon to defend their foundations? Should not their successors in the demographic of activism take that role upon themselves?
Apparently not. In a community where the reception of Hellenism, in most of its facets, is a passive, rather than an active process, comprising of snippets of information being interpreted, utilised by its primary partakes and passed down to latter generations, this demographic group, in its vast majority either has not the requisite knowledge of the significance of these foundations, or the passion, let alone the time and the expertise, to see them continue. Like everything else about Hellenism in this country, these are matters that are perceived to concern only the first generation. It is only because that first generation insists that Greek customs, traditions, language and education is important that these things exist. Remove the first generation and the fragile house of cards that appears to be the Greek community appears to come crashing down on itself. Thus, what is remarkable in the aftermath of EKEME's demise then, is not the existence of ineffective incredulity and gloating, but rather the manifestation of an entire adult demographic that is in its majority a) professionally trained or tertiary educated b) integrated within Australian society c) excelling in all spheres of life's total indifference to what could well likely be a landmark event in the history of our community.
Sadly, it appears that the most telling parallel to the development of our community is increasingly, the fabled bridge of Arta. According to the demotic muse, that bridge would be built during the day, only for the day's work to collapse at night. Similarly, the first generation of Greek-Australians expended the spare time of their youth in constructing various arches in their attempts to span the Greek-Australian cultural divide, in the form of schools, clubs and organisations only to see these crumble one by one into the abyss of oblivion and/or assimilation. They continue to construct these arches, though they all seem doomed, lacking an overarching superstructure of a guiding ideology that can be shared by all.
The argument that community institutions like EKEME are doomed to failure because they alienate other generations or do not represent their interests does not hold water. While the first generation set the foundations for the framework of our community, latter generations on the whole, seem to have rejected that framework, not for something more relevant, or attuned to their own needs, but rather, for absolutely nothing at all. The tragedy of the demise of EKEME thus is not the fact that it failed to capture the support or recognition of a gloaters too old and tired to be materially benefited by it, but rather that the generation that should have used this educational institution, critiqued it and demanded that it be adapted to the needs of an increasingly globalised and fragmented Australian lifestyle, or in the event that this could not be achieved, form their own similar institution, did not do so.
Gloaters are apt to gloat. They told us that x, y or z organisation was of no use and that it would fail and they are happy to see it fail because they dislike seeing a, b or c at its helm. Would they be perhaps sobered by the thought that their gloat is tantamount to a morituri te salutant by world-weary, superannuated gladiators since the corpse of their derision is but a prophecy of the demise of all they have stood for? Truly then the biblical injunction, found in the Gospel of Luke: "let the dead bury the dead," would be a particularly apt one.
Mark Anthony may have come "not to bury Caesar, but to praise him," but we find ourselves incapable of doing either of these. Unless a way is found for the living to bury the dead and to build upon their foundations rather than obliterate their tombstones, the unhappy spectre of failure will continue to haunt us, unable to find passage across the Styx into Hades and rest, and it will inhabit everything that we do.
For those possessed of ears, hear this, from Sophocles' Teiresias and let us be roused to action, before it is too late: "A corpse for a corpse the price, and flesh for flesh, one of your own begotten. The sun shall not run his course for many days before you pay. You plunged a child of light into the dark; entombed the living with the dead; the dead dismissed unmourned, denied a grave- a corpse unhallowed and defeated of his destiny below. Where neither you nor gods must meddle, you have thrust your thumbs. Do not be surprised that heaven- yes, and hell- have set the Furies loose to lie in wait for you, Ready with the punishments you engineered for others. "
First published in NKEE on 10 November 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008


Every year, on certain evenings towards the end of November, my late grandmother's eyes would glaze over as she would unconsciously clutch her belly. "It was around about this time that I gave birth to your father," she would remember. It was a very difficult and traumatic birth, notwithstanding the primitive conditions and rudimentary medical facilities of the Greek villages of that time and my grandmother suffered greatly. "I must remember to organise a mass for Panayia Vrontiani," she would continue, lost in her reverie.
Now, the monastery of Panayia Vrontiani in Samos, named thus owing to it having been built in 1566, in a magical location on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea, where it is buffeted continuously by the wind, is notable for its quaint architecture, breath-takingly intricate iconostasis and the fact that its abbot is so much of an avid fan of former King Constantine that he has converted one of the cells into a shrine to the said monarch, with its white-washed walls pasted with aged, fading and newspaper cut-outs and articles of this most unlikely of poster boys, mouldering in the damp.
The mercy and intercession of Panayia Vrontiani, according to my grandmother, at any rate, is also the primary cause of my father's safe delivery into the world and my grandmother's survival. As she languished in her excruciating labour pains, with the midwife shaking her head hopelessly and muttering something about "complications" and "God's mercy," my grandfather ran into the room, and whispered in my grandmother's ear: "There's something that has been weighing heavily on my mind that I must tell you. I've made a «τάμα» to Panayia Vrontiani that I haven't fulfilled. And I'm sure she is punishing us now." Through gritted teeth and with a face contorted in pain, my grandmother gasped: "Perhaps you should fulfil it now."
Ten years earlier, my grandfather, a soldier, was lying behind a rock, in the snow, on the precipitous crags of the Pindus ranges. All about him was shrouded in the darkness of smoke, as bullets flew and bombs exploded around him following undiscernible trajectories. Here, in the merciless tectonic folds of the mountain, it was impossible to distinguish between friend and foe. He was freezing, hungry, infested with fleas and thoroughly confused and he had to make his way, along a path, to a detachment of soldiers further up the mountain. As a bomb whizzed above him and landed right along the path that he had to take, sending up clods of earth as it cratered into a moonscape and shrapnel careering in all directions, my grandfather stood up, crossed himself and vowed: "Panagia Vrontiani, if you get me out of this alive, I promise to have a mass said for you every year." Taking hold of his rifle, he stepped onto the path. A terrific explosion flashed before him and he felt as if his head had turned into molten lava and had merged with the living rock around him. He fell to the ground. The bullet that had hit my grandfather, pierced his tin helmet, barely grazed his scalp and exited as forcefully as it had entered. My grandfather stared dumbfounded at his helmet for a while and then, regaining his composure, scurried up the slope to rejoin his companions, forgetting all about his vow.
It follows axiomatically then, that I can attribute my existence to the Italian Invasion of Greece. If the Italians had not invaded, my grandfather would never have made the vow to Panayia Vrontiani. If he had not remembered and fulfilled that vow on the night of my father's birth, then my progenitor and by consequence, my own hypostasis, would never have come in to being.
My grandfather rarely spoke about the war. He certainly never related the above incident to me. Not for him the grand strategies, the Realpolitik, the zeitgeist of ideologies that led to global conflagration. All these were but a footnote upon the page of a peaceful though frugal, rural existence. According to him, war could be best described as a combination of cold, an infestation of fleas and bone-numbing weariness. Endless marches in the mud, with one’s boots being sucked up from ones feet by the hungry, glacial quagmire were to be stoically endured, because in a mindset that has endured among the Greek people since the Persian Wars, subjugation and the deprivation of liberty could simply not be countenanced.
Thus, it is not the “OXI” of the plucky Metaxas or the superb generalship of the leaders of the Greek army that are the architects of the remarkable “Epic of 1940.” Rather, this is one of the few epics in history that celebrate not the prime movers but instead, the steadfastness of the common man and woman – especially those resolute women of Pindus who, in the absence of mules and pack horses, bore the entire munitions store of the Greek army on their backs.
It was this absolute love of liberty as the most precious of all treasures that caused the the people of Greece spontaneously to stream into the street, singing Greek patriotic songs and shouting anti-Italian slogans, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, men and women, in all parts of Greece to head to the Army's offices to enlist for the war. Uncharacteristically, the whole nation was united in the face of aggression. Even the imprisoned leader of Greece's banned Communist Party, Nikolaos Zachariadis, issued an open letter advocating resistance, although in two further letters he accused Metaxas of waging an "imperialistic" war and called upon Greek soldiers to desert their ranks and overthrow the regime.
The ensuing war was bitterly fought, harrowing and taxing for all. The Italians attacked on the morning of 28 October 1940, even before Metaxas’ resouynding “OXI,” pushing back the Greek screening forces. The "Ciamuria" Corps, augmented by Albanian collaborators, attacked towards Kalpaki, while οn its right the Littoral Group advanced along the coast and was able to secure a bridgehead over the Kalamas River. The Italians faced difficulties because of the harshness of the terrain, with their tanks, unable to cope with the hilly terrain or the muddy tracks that served as roads.
On 31 October the Italian Supreme Command announced that: "Our units continue to advance into Epirus and have reached the river Kalamas at several points. Unfavourable weather conditions and action by the retreating enemy are not slowing down the advances of our troops". In reality, the Italian offensive was carried out without conviction, under a leadership uncertain and divided by personal rivalries, and was already becoming exhausted. By 1 November, the Italians had captured Konitsa and reached the Greek main line of defence. On that same day, the front line in Epirus was given priority over Africa by the Italian High Command. However, despite repeated attacks the Italians failed to break through the Greek defences until 9 November, when the attacks were suspended. Local Epirots attributed this to the intercession of St Kosmas, who, some 150 years earlier, had prophesised that an invading army would reach thus far, but no further.
A greater threat to the Greek positions was posed by the advance of the 10,800-strong "Julia" Division over the Pindus mountains towards Metsovon, which threatened to separate the Greek forces in Epirus from those in Macedonia. "Julia" achieved early success, breaking through the central sector of the Greek force. A first Greek counteroffensive was launched on 31 October, and met with little success. Having covered 25 miles of mountain terrain in icy rain "Julia" Division managed to capture Vovousa, 30 km north of Metsovon, but it had become clear that the Division lacked the manpower and the supplies to continue in the face of the arriving Greek reserves.
Ensuing Greek counterattacks resulted in the recapture of several villages, including Vovousa, by 4 November , practically encircling "Julia". During the next days the Alpini forces fought in atrocious weather conditions and under constant attacks by the Greek Cavalry Division led by Major-General Georgios Stanotas. However, on 8 November, the commander of "Julia", General Mario Girotti, was forced to order his units to begin their retreat via Mt. Smolikas towards Konitsa. This fighting retreat lasted for several days, until by 13 November the frontier area had been cleared of Italian presence, ending the "Battle of Pindus" in a complete Greek victory.
The unexpected Greek resistance caught the Italian High Command, which was expecting a 'military picnic', by surprise. The Greeks, continuously reinforced with units from all over northern Greece, launched an attack on 14 November, in the direction of Korytsa, liberating that town, to the jubilation of its Greek inhabitants.
After hard fighting, the Greek army also liberated captured Agioi Saranda, and Argyrokastron by early December, and Cheimarra on Christmas' Eve, practically occupying the entire area of Northern Epirus. A final Greek success was the forcing of the strategically important and heavily fortified Kleisoura pass, a feat still sung in the demotic songs of the Northern Epirots. However, the Greek army did not succeed in breaking through towards Berat, and their offensive towards Avlona failed. Thus, by the end of January, due to a combination of Italian finally gaining numerical superiority and their own bad logistical situation, the Greek advance was finally stopped.
In anticipation of a German attack, the British and some Greeks urged a withdrawal of the Army of Epirus, so as to spare badly needed troops and equipment for the repulsion of the Germans. However, national sentiment forbade the abandoning of so hard-won positions, overriding military logic, and retreat in the face of the 'defeated' Italians was deemed disgraceful. Therefore the bulk of the Greek Army was left deep in Albania, while the German attack approached. British General Wilson derided this reluctance as "the fetishistic doctrine that not a yard of ground should be yielded to the Italians" and so only six of the twenty one Greek divisions were left to fight the German attack.
Despite the ultimate triumph of the Axis powers in the Greek campaign, the Greek resistance to the Italian invasion greatly affected the course of the Second World War. More specifically, it has been argued that the need for a German intervention in the Balkans delayed the invasion of Russia, and caused losses, especially in aircraft and paratroopers during the airborne invasion of Crete, which affected its outcome. Adolf Hitler, in conversation with Leni Riefenstahl, would bitterly say that "if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad.” Furthermore, the need to occupy the country, suppress the partisans and defend it against Allied actions, tied down several German and Italian divisions during the course of the war.
Also important was the moral example, set in a time when only the British Empire resisted the Axis Powers, of a small country fighting off the supposedly mighty Fascist Italy, something reflected in the exuberant praise the Greek struggle received at the time. Most prominent is the quote of Winston Churchill: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
French general Charles de Gaulle was among those who praised the fierceness of the Greek resistance. In an official notice released to coincide with the Greek national celebration of the Day of Independence De Gaulle expressed his admiration for the heroic Greek resistance: “In the name of the captured yet still alive French people, France wants to send her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25th of March, 1941 finds Greece in the peak of their heroic struggle and in the top of their glory. Since the battle of Salamis, Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which today holds.”
Would the modern (supposedly soft, westernised, homogenised and globalised) Greeks be capable of such steadfast resistance? I think so. For no prospect is more futile than trying to forcibly dominate an irrascible Greek, in any age. Until next week then,: “OXI to everything!”


First published in NKEE on 3 November 2008