Monday, December 22, 2008


"There was a silly damn bird called a phoenix back before Christ, every few hundred years he built a pyre and burnt himself up. He must have been first cousin to Man. But every time he burnt himself up he sprang out of the ashes, he got himself born all over again." Farenheit 451.

When the Colonels usurped power in Greece and subverted the 'democratic' system in 1967, they used as their emblem, the phoenix rising from the ashes, as if to symbolise the regenesis of the nation from the smouldering embers of Communism and internecine strife. The phoenix had hitherto been featured in the flags of Alexandros Ypsilantis and of many other captains during the Greek Revolution, symbolizing Greece's rebirth, and was chosen by Ioannis Kapodistrias as the first Coat of Arms of the Greek State, between 1828-1832. In addition, the first modern Greek currency bore the name of phoenix. Despite being replaced by a royal Coat of Arms, it remained a popular symbol, and was used again in the 1930s by the Second Hellenic Republic.
As a symbol expressing Hellenism, the phoenix perished in the both ashes of the Athens Polytechnic, during the student uprising against the Junta in 1974 and of course, the ashes of Cyprus, after the Junta's inept subversion of democracy on that island was used as a pretext for invasion. The Polytechnic uprising, which though revealing of the Junta's moral bankruptcy, did nothing to actively remove it and was in fact, suppressed.
Phoenix is an ancient Greek word for red. which also associates it with the Sun. The ancient Greeks believed that the phoenix lived in a cool well in Arabia and that it traveled to Heliopolis, the city of the Sun to die and be reborn. Its song was so beautiful that the Sun god would stop on his chariot to listen to its chant. Red is also the colour of revolution and of fire, a motif expertly explored in Ray Bradbury's seminal Farenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper catches fire,) where the pattern of an over complacent and abusive society's destruction yielding a fresh new start was compared to the Phoenix's mythological pattern of consumption by flame, then resurrection out of ashes. As such, the red flag, symbolizing the burning down of the old order in order that the new be reborn, was flown over the Paris Commune of 1871, at a rally in Chicago on May Day 1886, which resulted in the execution of some of the Haymarket Eight and of course, featured strongly in that most tempestuous conflagration of the old imperial order: the Russian Revolution.
In many ways, the students that barricaded themselves in the Athens Polytechnic in 1974, saw themselves as ideological successors to those red flag waving students that participated in the Paris May 1968 riots. They fervently believed in tearing down the old order of conservative morality (religion, patriotism, respect for authority)and replacing it with the liberal morality (equality, human rights) that dominates European (if not necessarily Greek) society today. Of course many of these idealistic youth were later to join the ranks of those self-interested, born-to -rule conservatives that they affected to despise. Others, alienated by a struggle that seemed to bear no fruit other than a feelgood adrenalin rush resigned themselves to conformity and others still, namely the 17 November and other fringe groups, maintained their anger and their rage against the state, as ideological descendants of the first Greek anarchists, Diogenes the Cynic and Zeno of Kition, while also espousing the violent doctrines of Nechaev and Chernyshevsky.
The anniversary of the Polytechnic "Uprising" (Defiance or Resistance would be better words to describe it), is always marked by violence and vandalism. The final suppression of US instigated fascism in Greece had as its unfortunate result, the creation of a hysterical political climate where violence and vandalism had to be tolerated and law and order compromised, lest governments be considered fascist and oppressive. Thus, the sight of well-fed, middle class youths marauding down the streets of Athens smashing or burning everything in their path instead of being in school, while claiming to demand "better education," or "rights," or "social justice" is farcical. Despite their vociferously expressed political sentiments, few if any of these scions of the petite bourgeoisie have ever volunteered to do charity work, assist people with disabilities or investigate the problems of Greek agriculturalists or groups that are victims of discrimination, such as gypsies. Theirs is a social activism based on fear and frustration: that they will not be able to live up to their parents' aspirations and secure for themselves, the piece of the pie that they feel that their social class entitles them to. While lamenting the corruption of a system that operates on who one knows and who one can bribe in order to navigate the labyrinthine and tortuous corridors of state bureaucracy, they are the ones who perpetuate it, since, despite their attestations, they are willing to feed it and adhere to its tenets, in order to secure their own personal gain, in the form of a future.
As such, the conflagration that has recently engulfed Greece, as a result against the irresponsible (though the coroner has found, probably accidental) killing of a teenage boy, in which hordes of vandals have rampaged down the streets of Greece's cities, willfully destroying private property, including some historic neo-classical buildings in Athens, cannot be seen as a form of social protest. The fact that Greek police have not been able to quell the violence and that as a rule, Greek police have for years maintained modus vivendi with the violent fringe, tolerating behaviour that in most western countries would be considered criminal, belies any assertion that Greek police are particularly brutal or repressive. As events have shown, apart from the odd harassment and beating of defenceless asylum-seekers and illegal immigrants, Greek police are largely inept and/or incompetent in the maintenance of public order.
This is because the mythology surrounding the Polytechnic protests has introduced a harmful anarchic element to Greek society: resistance to all forms of authority. It is one thing to pride ourselves on our supposedly innate love of freedom and refusal to be cowed or suppressed by force - of which the Polytechnic protests was the last large manifestation . It is quite another to interpret the heightened, almost hysterical sense of Greek individualism as a license to flout all laws or regulations that have been put in place as a result of the democratic process, ie. the will of the people. Returning from Greece, we are invariably both attracted and repelled by the arbitrary way in which Greeks refuse to wear seat-belts, pay fines, sit in orderly queues or engage in ingenious «κομπίνες» in order to negotiate their way around the obstacles of life. This immature disrespect for the law, which stems from the highest echelons, who also find ways to flout the laws they themselves are supposedly elected to uphold but who in reality, are seen as keys by their constituents, for their circumvention, upon payment of the requisite price. In this way, the police are seen as enemies, for their task is to enforce that which is most abhorrent to modern Greeks - conformity with the law. As a result, the Greek state itself, is rendered unviable.
Another unfortunate legacy of the Polytechnic protest is the illogical manner by which student life is overly politicised. In Greece, junior school students elect class presidents on political party lines. Using the Paris 1968 riots where lecturers led their students out of class in protest, and the Polytechnic protests as precedents, Greek school students, often incited by their teachers, go on strike for the most ridiculous of reasons. The «κατάληψη,» that sorry rite of passage whereby public schools are occupied by indolent students, thus disrupting their education have earned the odium of the entire western world, while it masquerades as political activism. I remember speaking to a student "leader" of a «κατάληψη» in Samos, some years ago. The reason for his occupation of his school (just before exam time)? The fact that his school did not have heaters. "Did you try writing a letter or wearing a jumper," I asked. His response was this: "I'm not going to pander to the fascist system. That would be undemocratic." Rubbish. While it is trite that situations like this could be avoided if the Greek government properly applied funds for the maintenance and development of schools, the rubbish strewn and heavily graffitied walls of Greek university campuses, with political and anarchist symbols, speaks of a sub-culture not of informed protest but of mindless and futile 'wrecking,' to use the Soviet terminology. Students must be made to understand that while they are free to have an opinion and to express it, the facilities provided for them out of the taxes of citizens, are to be utilised for them to acquire knowledge and not to waste their youth by destroying public property. The teaching of basic respect for all members of the community and the realisation that their elders and their peers in employment do not travail in order to support their own self-assumed Clockwork Orange lifestyle is a condition precedent to the emergence of Greece as a cohesive, modern society.
In a society that is more liberal than it has ever been and the distribution of wealth has remained more or less unchanged, the spate of violence that has plagued Greece as a result of the police killing must not be justified as legitimate social protest, especially given the incidence of widespread looting of private property and small businesses. Greece neither oppresses its citizens, nor denies them rights. If anything, there are more avenues for protest and civil disturbance in that country than in most developed democracies of the world.
Greeks around the world have taken issue at the manner in which the riots have been reported by foreign news agencies. One particular quip, that the riots are occurring in "Athens, supposedly the home of democracy," should sting, nut not because it is entirely unwarranted. For too long democracy in Modern Greece has meant rule by the elite, supported by their cronies, while potential dissenters are permitted or rather directed to blow of steam and/or influence and manipulate political events by periodic and contained bouts of violence. This time, the violence has gotten out of hand and exposed Greek society for what it is: a dysfunctional conglomeration of infantile egoists and politically immature citizens.
Greek citizens did not obtain their liberty or rights through wanton acts of violence at the slightest of pretexts. The Greek revolution was underlain by an ideology of liberal enlightenment developed by profound thinkers and underwritten by powerful financiers. It was a co-operative effort of all sections of society aimed at re-building a viable, cohesive state in accordance with western values. Modern Greece is a member of NATO and the European Union. As such, it purports to espouse the values guiding these entities and aspires to take its place among the great nations of the world. Yet it cannot hold itself out to be a proponent of the rule of law and democracy when it allows its citizens to run amok and cause harm to each other. For this reason, and in the face of the howls and curses of the ashen lunatic fringe, the perpetrators of these disgusting crimes against Greek citizens must be brought to account and be punished. A properly functioning democracy has no need of a violent steam valve. In that way, citizens will all be made to feel responsible towards each other and can set upon the task of making themselves and the State more accountable. Abigail van Buren may have quipped that: "People who fight with fire usually end up with ashes," but I prefer this, by Miguel Cervantes, if only the Greeks could take a good, long, hard look at themselves: "The phoenix hope, can wing her way through the desert skies and still defying fortune's spite, revive from the ashes and rise." It is time we reject ashes for good, and embrace the regenerative qualities of our immortal bird.


First published in NKEE on 22 December 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008


«Οι εξετάσεις τελειώσανε, θα κλείσει το σχολείο, και κάτω από το καζάνι θα κρύψω το βιβλίο.»

The above is a ditty my grandmother would sing to us on the first day of school holidays. The wisdom of leaving a book under a kazani, where it could get wet, scorched or creased was something that I always secretly questioned. What if, desolate in the depths of a grandmother-enforced literary drought of school holidays, you furtively made it to the kazani only to find out that you couldn’t lift it, or even worse, that having achieved that superhuman task, that your treasured Greek books were no longer extant?
Greek school is over for my hapless grade three and four students at St Dimitrios Greek School in Ascot Vale and I would sincerely doubt that they would have ever heard the word kazani, though I plan to introduce it, and its declensions in the syllabus next year. Even moreso mystifying, is the singular fact that rather than greeting the end of the Greek school year with peals of joyful laughter signifying the commencement of the much coveted period sleeping in on Saturdays and the abeyance of the last-minute Friday night mad-rush to complete otherwise forgotten Greek school homework, these students are actually ambivalent about facing the prospect of two whole months of Summer without passing through the mission brown portals of our 1980’s brown brick Greek school.
Over the course of this year, my first purporting to be a “teacher,” these poor children have been subjected to an inordinate amount of homework. They have also been in trouble for not being attentive or misbehaving. Nonetheless, week after week, they came, alternately bright and fresh, or grumpy and sleepy, depending on the week’s events. In a climate where as the year progresses, class sizes tend to drop due to sporting or other commitments, I was thankful that my class size remained constant.
This was a battle in itself and the weapons in my arsenal were my perverse propensity to deliver lessons in the accents of Borat, Jackie Chan, Pepe le Peu, Arnold Swartzenegger and the Donkey from Shrek. Add to that the occasional exhibition of medieval Greek books, ancient Greek pottery and ancient Greek coins (to illustrate the reign of Alexander the Great and the Byzantine Emperors), centuries old icons from Russia and Mount Athos, topped with the forcible execution of orthografia accompanied by the not so dulcet tones of my bashing out rembetika tunes on the baglama/ tzoura/ violin/ Chinese fiddle, in order to make Greek culture not so remote, but tangible and real.
The Greek experience must, in Australian Greek schools, be extraordinary and it must delve into history and tradition. This is because as I found out, the vast majority of students are not only learning the Greek language as a second language but also Greek culture as a secondary one. Not being possessed, for whatever reason, from the home, with the requisite cultural references that are necessary for any student to understand not only vocabulary but also the ideology and ways of thought that are a necessary corollary to language learning, Greek-Australian students must be exposed to a wide array of cultural experiences if they are not only to learn the language but also count themselves as kin among those who speak it.
This is difficult in the extreme, in a pluralistic society. On the first day of Greek school, a worried father asked me in quivering tones not to be too harsh on his son and daughter, and not to be upset if they didn’t always complete their work because their mother is Italian and he could not always supervise their homework as he had to travel often for work. This notwithstanding, both Nikos, fourth from the left in the photograph, wearing the crown, and Katia, the grinning angel next to him, were constantly prepared, diligent and eager to learn. Towards the end of the year, their father, with tears in his eyes marveled at how, during a recent business trip, he had come home to discover that his children had not only completed their heavy load of Greek school homework, but also, that it was correct. This was nothing compared to the proud surprise he received last week at the school concert, when Nikos’ name was called in order for him to receive a cash prize as top student. It is not easy for Nikos’ itinerant father to transport his children to and from Greek school and there is no one to assist the children when he is away. Yet he persists upon sending his children to school and it is our responsibility to make his sacrifice and the sacrifices of all parents in today’s unbearably demanding and life-leeching society, bear fruit.
Next to Katia is another angel, Madeleine, also a recipient of a cash prize. Like Nikos and Katia, Madeleine’s experience of things Greek is filtered by the Chilean component of her family. I harboured a soft spot for her in my heart all year, not only because she attends my alma mater, but also because although she had sporting commitments every Saturday, she would insist upon being conveyed to Greek school immediately afterwards. She would arrive, invariably late, her face wreathed in smiles and her homework completed to perfection. On the odd occasion, I would detect an alien hand in her work – some polytonic diacritical marks that betrayed the intervention of a student of yesteryear, though I would always let this pass. Interaction with grandparents while doing homework not only cements concepts and vocabulary into one’s head but also permits bonding within a truly Greek literary setting – an invaluable and rare experience. Furthermore, she has a beautiful singing voice, and was my consolation during my quixotic attempts to teach some rudimentary Byzantine chant.
You can’t see Sofianos in the picture but he is truly remarkable. Upon learning that his English name is Darius, I set him to the task of producing a paragraph or two on the subject of his arch-nemesis, Alxander the Great. He arrived the next week, clutching a poster, upon which he had ingeniously pasted a page lifted from Wikipedia and converted into Symbol font, in order to pass as “Greek.” I gave him five marks for brilliance. Similarly, just before Easter, as I set my students about making the multiple-legged doll Kyra Sarakosti, I was bemused to find Sofianos having transformed her into a rapacious demon, replete with horns and sharp teeth, if only because this reflects my mood towards the close of the Great Fast. Having done no homework all year, Sofianos astonished me when, upon my despairing of teaching the conjugation of verbs (as most of the children have parents who do not speak Greek at home, they have no natural “feel” for what ought to “sound” correct,) he walked up to my desk, sat next to me and within ten minutes produced a page of perfectly conjugated verbs.
Third from the left, holding the Bible in kingly pose, is Phillip, possessed of a brilliant mind and an incredibly short attention span. An authority on Greek mythology, he breezed through the difficult terminology contained in our history textbook and was able to offer background gossip on all of the doings of the Olympian gods. During first semester, his father asked me why I was placing too heavy an emphasis on religion. My response, that it is impossible to teach modern Greek culture without providing the students with an insight into the religious beliefs and observances of the Greeks, seems to have been at least considered. A few Sundays ago, I had the immense pride in seeing the ever-theatrical Philip dressed in the garb of an altar boy, looking furtively around the church, folding his hands trying to assume a more angelic pose. Nikos also serves as an altar boy on Sundays, with his father looking on, profoundly moved. In this activity, one which the boys both enjoy, they are exposed to a Greek liturgical and poetic tradition of two millennia, in the company of a congregation of people which they understand forms a Greek community, of which they are part.
Standing next to Philip, looking decidedly Palestinian in his teacher-supplied keffiyeh (he was to play a shepherd in the school play and I had run out of costumes,) is Theodore, a rarity, since I think he is one of the last of the Greek-Australian students to have been born in Greece. His spoken and written Greek is perfect and he is not only the fulcrum of the class but also an enthusiastic Pontian lyra player. He is also an admirer of American gangsta culture and it was side-splittingly funny during play rehearsals to see him walk around waving his hands like a rapper, instead of tending his flock in Bethlehem and awaiting the visitation of the angels. Memorable too was the time when instead of attending to his grammar exercises, he drew a particularly gas-guzzling automobile and wrote underneath “Pimp my ride.” His homework for next week was to translate the said sentence, which he did by rendering the first word into the Greek equivalent for pimple.
The other Palestinian looking shepherd, first on the left is another Philip, who also happens to be a distant cousin. A quiet, softly spoken boy, who consistently completed his homework to a high standard, his hunger pangs were the instigators of my “you can eat in class, only if you are eating fruit” policy, provided of course that the said comestible could be named in Greek. All of a sudden, a good deal of fruit began to appear in students’ lunches, supplemented on occasion by my distributions of Greek delicacies that they may not have tasted at home, such as baklava, pita, or loukoumia and gratuitously, m and m's.
The two angels on the right of the photograph are Helen and Maria. Helen is the inventor of a new Greek letter – the bamza – a lower case omega that is tapered at the top. Apparently, this is supposed to represent the phoneme produced by the Greek sphincter upon the release of gas. She is also responsible for introducing me to such concepts as Smiggle and Captain Underpants. Helen has, apart from making marked progress in spelling and reading, introduced a revolution in iconography. As part of a lesson on the Panagia, I drew an icon of her on the board and asked the students to attempt to copy it in their books. Helen’s icon sported a Panagia wearing three quarter pants and a crop top, because, as she maintained, these are in fashion. Maria on the other hand, a model student, is immensely proud of her Cretan ancestry and attempts to bring the subject of Crete into every lesson. She was in the throes of ecstasy when we studied the Minotaur.
Given that my class is composite, my grade threes will return next year as mature, confident grade fours, keen to lord it over the new grade threes. Yet I will spend the summer devising new ways to keep it real for them with this injunction, from Marva Collins:
“Don’t try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed.” When Greek school teachers fail, the ethnos fails. But for the moment, καλή ξεκούραση.

First published in NKEE on 15 December 2008