Monday, February 23, 2009


"No music is vulgar, unless it is played in a way that makes it so." Herbert von Karajan

I remember the first time I saw Stanley Kubricks science-fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most notably, it was my first introduction to Johann Strauss’s ‘Blue Danube Waltz,’ where Kubrick animated the sequence to match the prerecorded music, the opposite of the usual practice for soundtracks then. The popular effect of this unconventional use of the music was such that the music became more identified for subsequent generations with space stations, primitive men, alien artifacts and such, than with the original waltz.
Kubrick used Herbert von Karajn’s recording of the Waltz and was so impressed with it that some years later, Kubrick again used Karajan's recordings, this time Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in the movie classic: “The Shining.” Further, the finale we hear at the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, is Karajan's famous 1963 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth..
So what? I hear you ask. So what, if his obituary in The New York Times described him as "probably the world's best-known conductor and one of the most powerful figures in classical music,” or if he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic for thirty-five years, or indeed, if he is the top-selling classical music recording artist of all time, with an estimated 200 million records sold? Firstly, he was was infinitely more stylish than the daggy 1980’s anachronistic classical peddler Andre Rieu, and secondly, he was of Greek origin. I know this, because I had a heated argument with my violin teacher when I was in grade five about him. On the basis that Karajan sounds perilously close to Karagiannis, I deduced that he must be Greek and from my mother’s village, there being in residence there, a family of homonymous name. My teacher refused to accept this, as she had fixed views upon the ability of Southern Europeans to enjoy or acquire profficiency in classical music
Herbert Ritter von Karajan born in 1908 was the son of an upper-bourgeois Salzburg family. He was decended of a Vlach family from Macedonia. His great-great-grandfather, Georg Johannes Karajanis, was born in Kozani and emigrated to Vienna in 1767, eventually moving to Chemnitz, in Saxony. He and his brother participated in the establishment of Saxony's cloth industry, and both were ennobled for their services by Frederick Augustus III in 1792, this permitting them to add, thus the prefix "von" to the family name.
Karajan was a child prodigy at the piano. From 1916 to 1926, he studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where he was encouraged to study conducting by his teacher, who noticed his amazing talent and ability. In 1929, he conducted Salome at the Festspielhaus in Salzburg, and from 1929 to 1934, Karajan served as first Kapellmeister at the Stadttheater in Ulm. In 1933, Karajan made his conducting debut at the Salzburg Festival with the Walpurgisnacht Scene in Max Reinhardt's production of Faust. The following year, and again in Salzburg, Karajan led the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time, and from 1934 to 1941, Karajan conducted opera and symphony concerts at the Aachen opera house.
Karajan joined the Nazi Party in Salzburg on 8 April 1933; his membership number was 1.607.525. In June the Nazi Party was outlawed by the Austrian government. However, Karajan's membership was valid until 1939. In this year the former Austrian members were verified by the general office of the Nazi Party. Karajan's membership was declared invalid, but his accession to the party was retroactively determined to have been on 1 May 1933 in Ulm.
In 1935, Karajan's career was given a significant boost when he was appointed Germany's youngest Generalmusikdirektor and was a guest conductor in various European capitals. He enjoyed a major success in the Berlin State Opera with Tristan und Isolde and in 1938, his performance of the opera was hailed by a Berlin critic as Das Wunder Karajan (The Karajan miracle), claiming that his "success with Wagner's demanding work Tristan und Isolde sets himself alongside Furtwängler and de Sabata, the greatest opera conductors in Germany at the present time.” On 26 July 1938, he married his first wife, operetta singer Elmy Holgerloef. They would divorce in 1942.
Despite his popularity, Adolf Hitler, a dictator with pretensions to artistic taste, did not appreciate Karajan's performance of Die Meistersinger on 2 June 1939, according to Winifred Wagner, a descendant of the famous composer because Karajan, who was conducting without a score, lost his way, the singers halted and the curtain was rung down in confusion. According to Wagner, Hitler decided that Karajan was not ever to conduct at the annual Bayreuth festival. However, as a favourite Nazi number 2, of Hermann Göring he would continue his work as conductor of the the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, where he would accompany about 150 opera performances in total.
There is widespread agreement that Herbert von Karajan had a special gift for extracting beautiful sounds from an orchestra. Opinion varies concerning the greater aesthetic ends to which his skill was applied. The American critic Harvey Sachs criticized the Karajan approach as follows:“Karajan seemed to have opted instead for an all-purpose, highly refined, lacquered, calculatedly voluptuous sound that could be applied, with the stylistic modifications he deemed appropriate, to Bach and Puccini, Mozart and Mahler, Beethoven and Wagner, Schumann and Stravinsky... many of his performances had a prefabricated, artificial quality that those of Toscanini, Furtwängler, and others never had... most of Karajan's records are exaggeratedly polished, a sort of sonic counterpart to the films and photographs of Leni Riefenstahl.”So was he an Andre Rieu precursor after all? Possibly. Of his recording of Tristan und Isolde, a canonical Romantic work, crtics wrote "Karajan's is a sensual performance of Wagner's masterpiece, caressingly beautiful and with superbly refined playing from the Berlin Philharmonic" However, about Karajan's recording of Haydn's "Paris" symphonies, the same critics wrote, "big-band Haydn with a vengeance ... It goes without saying that the quality of the orchestral playing is superb. However, these are heavy-handed accounts, closer to Imperial Berlin than to Paris ... the Minuets are very slow indeed ... These performances are too charmless and wanting in grace to be whole-heartedly recommended.” Obviously, they were just jealous.
On 22 October 1942, at the height of the war, Karajan married his second wife, Anna Maria Sauest,, the daughter of a well-known sewing machine magnate, and who, having a Jewish grandfather, was considered Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish). By 1944, Karajan was, by his own account, losing favor with the Nazi leaders, but he still conducted concerts in wartime Berlin. In the closing stages of the war, Karajan relocated his family to Italy. After the war, Karajan gave his first post-war concert, in Vienna with the Vienna Philharmonic, but he was banned from further conducting activities by the Soviet occupation authorities because of his Nazi party membership.
Indeed, Karajan's membership in the Nazi Party and increasingly prominent career in Germany from 1933 to 1945 cast him in an uncomplimentary light after the war. While Karajan's defenders[have argued that he joined the Nazis only to advance his own career, critics have pointed out that other prominent conductors, such as Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Arturo Toscanini, fled from fascist Europe at the time. However, British music critic Richard Osborne argues that among the many well-known conductors who worked in Germany throughout the war years, Karajan was in fact one of the youngest and least advanced in his career. Some have argued that careerism could not have been Karajan's sole motivation, since he first joined the Nazi Party in 1933 in Salzburg, Austria, five years before the Anschluss. In The Cultural Cold War, published in Britain as Who Paid the Piper?, Frances Stonor Saunders noted that Karajan "had been a party member since 1933, and opened his concerts with the Nazi favourite 'Horst Wessel Lied.'" However, he had a history of avoiding political or nationalistic gestures at performances wherever possible.This notwithstanding, Jewish musicians such as Isaac Stern, Arthur Rubinstein, and Itzhak Perlman refused to play in concerts with Karajan because of his Nazi past. Richard Tucker also pulled out from a 1956 recording of Il Trovatore when he learned that Karajan would be conducting, and threatened to do the same on the Maria Callas recording of Aida, until Karajan was replaced. Some have questioned whether Karajan was committed to the Nazi cause given his wife’s Jewish origin. Evidence suggests that he received several threats to his career as a result of the engagement, and had attempted to resign from the Nazi Party when questioned about it. Other Commentators have suggested that music, and access to making music, over-rode everything for Karajan, and that may have led to him making amoral decisions such as Nazi membership in order to get what he wanted with regard to music. Karajan was discharged by the Austrian denazification examining board in 1946, and resumed his conducting career shortly thereafter. He appointed musical director for life of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 Apart from doing much to make classical music accessible to the masses with his flamboyant style, Karajan played an important role in the development of the original compact disc digital audio format. He championed this new consumer playback technology, lent his prestige to it, and appeared at the first press conference announcing the format. The maximum playing time of CD prototypes was sixty minutes, but the final specification enlarged the disc size and extended the capacity to seventy-four minutes. There is a story that this was due to Karajan's insistence that the format have sufficient capacity to contain Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a single disc. In 1980, von Karajan conducted the first recording ever to be commercially released on CD: Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie. The recording is often acclaimed as one of the greatest of this work.Some critics, particularly British critic Norman Lebrecht, condemned Karajanfor some of his more mercenary tendencies. During his tenure as director of publicly-funded performing organizations such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Salzburg Festival, he started paying guest stars exorbitantly, as well as ratcheting up his own remuneration:
“Once he possessed orchestras he could have them produce discs, taking the vulture's share of royalties for himself and rerecording favorite pieces for every new technology: digital LPs, CD, videotape, laserdisc. In addition to making it difficult for other conductors to record with his orchestras, von Karajan also drove up the prices that he would be paid and thus other conductors wanted.” Were Karajan a company, the ACCCC would have had a field day. Nonetheless, in his capacity to popularise a genre of music widely held to be elitist, Karajan well deserves kudos. One of my pipedreams, as a teenager, was to , by means fantastical and underhanded, to have great Greeks abroad feature on the coins of the states in which they lived or produced masterpieces. Proving that pipe-dreams do not just end up in smoke when lit, Herbert von Karajan was recently selected as a main motif for a high value collectors' coin: the 100th Birthday of Herbert von Karajan commemorative coin. The nine-sided silver coin, in the reverse, shows Karajan in one of his typically dynamic poses while conducting. In the background is the score of Beethoven's Ninth.Elitist, complex and brilliant all at the same time, we leave you know with a parting shot from the great Greek maestro himself, with a quote, that suitably altered, could echo the opinions of many on their Greek identity: "Someone once said to me, 'You are surely not founding an elitist system?'--that's a word that seems very unfashionable these days. I said, 'No, my system is not elitist; it is super-elitist.' All I say is, if someone cannot play in rhythm and has not music within him, we cannot admit him." Take that fifth grade violin teacher.


First published in NKEE on 23 February 2009

Monday, February 16, 2009


I was brought up in a paradise created by exiles from Paradise. That paradise was bounded by an ancient wooden fence. Without it was Australia, a land where everyone spoke English or fascinatingly foreign forms of Greek. Within, was a snapshot of 1950's Samos, a garden world separated into continents made navigable by long wooden planks. This was a virgin world in which everything one planted grew and it was also a young world, where time was calculated by the ages of trees planted just decades before when this world was created by the protoplasts, in commemoration of the one they had been turned out from. Everything within had a purpose and served to produce sustenance for all, from the apricot tree planted when my father was just a boy, to the two grape vines (on e for grapes, the other for vine leaves used to make dolmadakia,) the brilliant deep purple plums we called «μπουρνέλλες» and the multitude of other fruit and vegetables. All these were of course, forbidden fruit. While my cousin and I were permitted to wander in the garden, we were enjoined never to pick or eat of the fruit contained therein. For that fruit was the Fruit of the Creators and only They could decide when that fruit could be picked and when it could be eaten. Thus backyard cricket, where the ball was a small hard lemon and the bat a tomato stake, which would invariably propel gobs of citrus into the beanstalks, was severely proscribed.
The needs of paradise regulated my grandparents' day. They would rise in the morning, go out into the garden and come in for breakfast. Then they would venture out again, with us in tow, to put in place ingenious watering systems with naught but a few old milk bottles and bits of shredded rag tied around bits of hose. Then, inside again for lunch and some midday television, only to re-venture out in the afternoon. Television was banned in the afternoon because as we were breathlessly told, it would be too hot and could explode. Older relatives would come to visit and they would be shown to the garden with the same hushed tones of aw and respect that others would be shown to the σαλόνι. We would sit on milk crates under the orange tree and eat fresh seasonal fruit, gazing up at a sky filtered by trees that reassured one that all was right with the world. Those relatives would scour the immediate horizon hungrily, comparing the size of the cucumbers to their own, making notes about the soil and resolving to plant their potatoes in groups of three from now on. My grandfather's sister's parallel paradise, though not as accomplished as her brother's gave forth surprisingly morphed tomatoes with testicular protrusions, causing all of my ancient aunts to chuckle kn9owlingly to themselves, as well as the largest pumpkin I have ever seen. It took all of my strength to lift it and when I managed to do so, I collapsed underneath it. In that gargantuan world of wonder, you were only as good as your garden and people who did not have a garden, or did not quite now how to cultivate one were alien. As a teenager, I was perplexed at my grandmother's injunction that I was to be a scholar and thus, was axiomatically barred from assisting her in the garden. «Εσύ θα μάθεις γράμματα» she would say, as if eating from the Tree of Knowledge would truly cause one to lose their innocence. Yet this was a world that had already lost its innocence, in the trauma of metastasis. Sitting under the grapevine one day, one of my uncles reminisced about his own loss of innocence: "I remember the first time I planted a persimmon tree. I had never seen one before and didn't know what it was. So I planted the seed in the ground upside down." In Greek, the persimmon is the λωτός, the fruit favoured by the Homeric Lotophagae of Libya, causing them to forget who they were and whence they had come. My father has two such trees in his garden, one that is soft and oozes out into your hands, the other variety being hard, and able to be eaten as an apple.
As my grandmother grew ever more frail, I would help her in the garden more and more, though she could never accept that help as anything more than gratuitous. In her eyes, having grown up and attending university, this was a world to which I no longer belonged. When she died, her home was sold. The new owners restored the Queen Anne house brilliantly. Yet they also cut down the apricot and the laurel tree and completely extirpated the garden we had grown in. We are all exiles now, from a Paradise that does not even offer the promise of return. My grandmother, perhaps, was right in trying to expel me sooner, rather than later. At night, I shut my eyes and explore every corner of that garden. Some of my toys, lost at the age of five among the zucchini flowers, are still there, as is all the skin I shed there until the age of twenty.
My father had no such qualms when it came to his garden. This garden was not a paradise. It was inextricably interwoven with the nature of the family itself. All of us would spend our weekends and holidays working in it, bringing it to shape, submitting to the pricks of rosebushes and the obstinacy of the clay soil. This too is a young garden, planted by a man whose life is a labyrinth of infinite possibilities. Unlike my grandfather, my father has constantly re-invented his garden, chopping down the fig tree he planted with his father, only to replace it with an almond tree, also cut down because the local cockatoos would attack it in droves when the almonds were coming into fruition and now replaced by an avocado tree that produces anaemic but surprisingly tasty avocadoes. My father's elder first cousin maintains that his first words were: «Θέλω τσάπα,» but I do not believe her. I have planted the two small olive trees on the nature strip but I have also uprooted the pomegranate tree in the front yard one extremely cold winter's day and still mourn the loss of the backyard apple tree. If my father should decide one day to remove the trees and plants I have planted and/or cared for, I am quite positive that I will vanish from the face of the earth. Even now, when I visit, I note the improvements he has made with only grudging acceptance. I was not there when these plants were introduced and we owe each other nothing.
My maternal grandmother in Athens is also a keen gardener though she is getting on in years and struggles to maintain her perfectly positioned flowers. The soil on Mount Penteli is a grainy red of a type I have never seen before and the earthworms are more confident, lolling lazily when unearthed, rather than thrashing about like their southern counterparts. One winter, having nothing else to do, given that my grandmothers' house is relatively remote, the nearest neighbours being streets away, I offered to dig up the soil and prepare it for spring. Having brought with me no clothes from Australia suitable for this purpose, my grandmother provided me with one of her old purple tracksuits and a pair of wooden patikia. "Stop being so self-conscious," she reassured me, as she saw the frown of incredulity cross my brow. "There is no one around to see you." I had dug my way through half the garden, a transvestite in clogs, when one of my grandmother's neighbours entered through the gate. She looked me up and down and in a commanding voice, reserved I suspect, for her Albanian domestics, she asked: "Is your mistress inside, boy?" Summing up my powers for my best impression of an Albanian accent I lisped: "Yeth. She'th inthide." I continued to dig, as she ventured inside the house, then put up my spade and hoe, had a shower and emerged into the kitchen clean, heterosexual and presentable. "Let me introduce my Australian grandson to you," my grandmother offered. The look on her neighbour's face was priceless.
In my travels I have discussed crop cultivation with Abbott Chrysostomos of the monastery of St Gerasimos in Jericho. His garden is a labour of love. It provides the local Palestinian population with work and a focus in life in the midst of the violence and misery that surrounds them. It also feeds them. I have also pruned fruit trees for Bishop Panteleimon of Theoupolis in Thessaloniki. His garden includes a small church he has built with his own hands and from his exacting pedantry; I learnt the secret of perfect tree shaping. Sitting by the banks of the Nile one day, I was treated to an impromptu lecture by an archaeological student on the Ancient Egyptians as pioneers of the cut-flower industry. Apparently the Ptolemaic Greeks brought this industry to t he brink of ruin by cultivating the wrong type of flowers in the wrong place. Actually, it is curious that although the Egyptians and Romans both gardened with vigor, the ancient Greeks did not own significant private gardens. They did put gardens around temples and they adorned walkways and roads with statues, but the ornate and pleasure gardens that demonstrated wealth in the other communities is seemingly absent. However, the works of Homer contain many references to gardens. He writes of sacred groves, palace plots and of flower and vegetable gardens. The palace gardens within their city walls were essentially courtyards but may have contained a few plants grown in pots. By the Classical Age though, gardens seem to have been the preserve of the wealthy. Cimon of Athens is said to have torn down the fence to his orchard, to permit the poorer Athenians access to his fruit. Byzantine gardens are said to have evolved from Roman and Persian gardens, and it is difficult to view the connection between the considerably un-garden friendly modern Greeks with the garden-mad first generation Greek-Australians.
This summer, one of the hottest ever, I have spent much of my time, in my own garden which is still very much a work in progress. It resembles my parent's garden in so far as there is a heavy emphasis on roses but there are certain paternal commands I cannot obey. Reviewing my garden one morning, my father pointed to a tall tree. "That tree will cause you grief," he advised. "It will shed its branches and make mess. Cut it down." I can't. It is the apple tree and all the trees that I have ever loved that have been cut down. The only way that managed to console myself over the necessary lopping I did of the strange conifers that grew along my back fence line was by noting that their sap smelled of excrement and the fact that they had to make way for more productive plants such as an olive, orange and lemon tree. Having once considered our gardens to be recreations of a rural paradise lost, as I cast my despairing eyes over rose bushes and agapanthus wilted and withered by the oven-forced wind, I remember the time I walked out onto my grandfather's 'ancestral' land. As I gazed at the olive trees planted on a hill overlooking a village that seems to be slowly sinking into itself under the weight of the forgetfulness of those who have left it, an Australian friend asked: "Do you want a moment alone?" "No, I replied," stepping back onto the road. "This place has nothing to do with me." Our gardens therefore are recreations of what we have never had, organic manifestations of tentative as well as broken dreams, and insecurities. We can have no separate existence without them.


First published in NKEE on 16 February 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009


"It is through a separated form of himself that the being comes into play in his effects of life and death, and it might be said that it is with the help of this doubling of the other, or of oneself, that is realised the conjunction from which proceeds the renewal of beings in reproduction."
Jacques Lacan - What is a picture?

The tragedy of apartheid finds expression in many forms, one of the most painful of which was the life story of an 81-year-old man who died ten years ago in a mental institution outside Krugersdorp after spending much of his life on South Africa's death row.
Dimitri Tsafendas arguably changed the course of post-war South African history more than any other individual when, in a brief moment of frenzy, he stabbed to death the "architect of apartheid", prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, in the Cape Town parliament in 1966. Verwoerd, grand wizard of white supremacy, died from a punctured lung and heart. The news electrifies the nation's black and white communities. If Kennedy's assassination, which occurred three years earlier spawned whole libraries of speculation, the Verwoerd case was quickly sealed. Dimitri Tsafendas was a ''mad Greek'' who followed instructions from a giant tapeworm. An insane act by an insane man. Case closed. Even Nelson Mandela dismissed Tsafendas as an ''obscure white messenger.'' He was found unfit to stand trial for the murder by reason of insanity, the judge president of the Cape, Mr Justice Beyers, observing at the time: "I can as little try a man who has not at least the makings of a rational mind as I could try a dog or an inert implement. He is a meaningless creature!"
Tsafendas was committed as a "state president's patient". This normally means detention in a secure mental institution. But the government of the day, judging that Tsafendas had not paid enough for his actions, chose instead to exploit a loophole in the law making it possible to hold him on death row. There he spent nearly a quarter of a century, subjected to the terrible sounds and sights of weekly state executions and apparently used as a human punch-bag by sadistic warders. He was finally moved out of prison to Sterkfontein mental asylum after the arrival of black majority rule and the end of apartheid in 1994.
During his incarceration, he was befriended at Sterkfontein by a South African film producer, Liza Key. A schoolgirl at the time of Verwoerd's death, Ms Key held popular assumptions about the assassination - believing, along with most South Africans, that the prime minister had been killed by a white parliamentary messenger of Greek nationality who had no political motivation, but believed that he was acting on the orders of a giant tapeworm infesting his stomach.
Researching his life for a documentary, Key was startled to find a very different story. She was not much helped in this by Tsafendas himself, who - whatever his state of mind at the time of the assassination - had seemingly had his sanity seriously disturbed by his experiences on death row.
But, digging into state records and interviewing family, officials and others involved in the events surrounding the assassination, she found that Tsafendas had been both politically sophisticated - at one time having been a paid-up member of the Communist party - and a classic victim of the racial prejudices that Verwoerd exploited to try to entrench white rule on the subcontinent. Similarly, in ''The Assassin,'' the first biography of Tsafendas, Henk Van Woerden rescued this ''mad Greek'' from obscurity, whiteness and insanity. Van Woerden, a Dutch writer who spent his youth in South Africa, interviewed Tsafendas in the mental institution where he died in 1999. From these interviews, through creative sleuthing and from files in South Africa's state archives, Van Woerden was able to piece together a politics and a history for a man permitted neither.
It emerges that Tsafendas, lived as an illegitimate from conception to coffin. His Crete-born father, Michaelis, emigrated to Portuguese East Africa, later Mozambique, where he kept a mixed-race maid, Amelia Williams, who was also his concubine. When Williams gave birth to Tsafendas, the child threatened to become a scandal. Michaelis dismissed the mother and she disappeared. His father sent the boy to Alexandria, Egypt, to be reared by a grandmother. When she grew frail Dimitri returned to his father. Victimised at school for his mixed blood (he was given the nickname "blackie"), Tsafendas was not to learn of his origins until he turned eighteen. They explained a lot: his rejection by his father and Greek stepmother; family-condoned sexual abuse; the racial tauntings he endured when sent away to a white South African boarding school. Unable to cope with his environment or himself, Tsafendas left Mozambique to wander the world as a merchant seaman.
Accounts of his travels, pulled together by state investigators in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, provide a tantalisingly incomplete picture. Before gripping his assassin's knife, this racial and familial outcast seems to have been little more than an international tramp, bouncing not so much from city to city as from asylum to asylum, only to pop up on occasion as a man of some substance but with a mysterious background. He was deported from or refused entry into the United States, Britain, Canada, Israel, Rhodesia, Portugal and Spain. South Africa denied him entry eight times; Greece and Portugal refused him passports. Eight countries detained Tsafendas in mental institutions or prisons. The man became a cosmopolitan untouchable, with a knowledge of Greek, English, Portuguese, Shangaan (a local African language), Spanish, Arabic, German, Italian, Hebrew, Turkish and Afrikaans too.
He returned to South Africa in 1964, and somehow - despite his mixed parentage, status as an illegal immigrant and history of mental instability - secured a post in the whites-only parliament as a messenger, exploiting his privileged position to stab the prime minister to death. Van Woerden's the ''The Assassin'' takes shape as a book about two immigrants and two rival visions of madness. Verwoerd the South African Prime Minister, born in the Netherlands, was an outsider who sought to define in blood the limits of true belonging. How do we disentangle his obsession with racial purity from his immigrant paranoia?
By the time he assassinated Verwoerd, Tsafendas was an unbalanced man. But he'd been raging publicly for years against apartheid's chief architect. Tsafendas yearned, he told acquaintances, for a ''rainbow nation.'' He abhorred the laws that forbade sex across the colour bar. A few weeks before stabbing Verwoerd, Tsafendas had filed to be reclassified from white to coloured, hoping to live legally with the mixed-race woman he loved. ''Which of the two,'' Van Woerden asks, ''was more truly crazy: Verwoerd or Tsafendas?''
Although there were attempts by police, during interrogation, to suggest to him that he believed a tapeworm had "ordered" him to carry out the killing, he never seems to have made the claim himself. Alexander Moumbaris visited him as he languished in prison: "For four years he had been tortured seven times a day... I met him in 1972, he was in the next cell at the Pretoria prison known as "Maximum" or "Berverly Hills". This is where the hangings took place. He was detained as the "State President's patient", which meant complete isolation. I don't believe that he was really insane. Rather, he let himself be considered insane to save his life. But at a moment of confidence, when the guards were at some distance, he told me in Greek with a little smile of pride and triumph: "I got their tough guy". During the great demonstrations that rocked South Africa during the 1976 Soweto uprising, Tsafendas was used, if only briefly, as a rallying point for aggrieved and oppressed black students. They took to the streets chanting: "Tsafendas Inyanga Yezizwe." (Tsafendas healer of the nation.) However, he once more languished back into obscurity, his plight having slipped the notice of the new ANC dominated government.
Moumbaris continues: "I saw Tsafendas again in 1996,by which time he was an old man. He was still behing bars, and I imagine this is where he stayed until the end. When I saw him with my wife, we talked in French, Greek, English and Arabic. Heseemed lucid and not at all insane.When we saw him, we asked him whether he wanted anything. He answered "I want my freedom!" I regret not having done anything for him to get out of there. He deserved a better fate than the one he got."
Notably, the events of Tsafendas' life are explored in a play by Anton Robert Krueger entitled: "Living in Strange Lands - The testimony of Dimitri Tsafendas." It is remarkable not only for its exploration of Tsafendas' character and motivation, but also how his conception of his Greek identity, being one that demands total adherence to prerequisites, was the fatal flaw that led to his ultimate tragedy. "So anyway, I thought I was Greek but one day I was over at Mrts Takalou's house and I saw a guitar on the floor.and was drain to it. And then I here Mrs Tsakalous screaming in my ear: "Leave it alone. You're just like that mulatto mother of yours! Stupid!" As he confesses in the play, in a manner that would strike a chord with many Australian born Greeks: "I've sometimes looked like a different race in a different part of my life, in different parts of the world. .. Now neither the whites nor the blacks want anything to do to me, because I'm not in their group. I'm not one of "their people," you know? It's this bloody group nonsense. Why must it always be about group? Why, why does it matter?"
Whether viewed as a modern day Harmodius and Aristogeiton, doing away with the tyranny of the Peisistratids, or just a Tsafendas' pathetic and ultimately tragic life offers a brilliant chronicle of what it means to be unwanted from birth. Tsafendas lived unsupported by the paper identities (passports, visas, work permits, birth certificates) that sustain most of us invisibly. To explore his story is to embark upon a transforming journey through the illegal immigrant's plight, the cost of race thinking and the way the label ''mad'' is used to suppress stories too dangerous or unbearable to hear. Soren Kierkegaard, in his Two Ages, opined: "A person experiencing passion forgets the externality of the object of his passion." As such, Tsafendas will always remain, a heart-wrenching symbol of eloquent humanity and understated rage.

First published in NKEE on 9 February 2009

Monday, February 02, 2009


I remember that squalid room, with paint flecks falling disaffectedly from the walls onto the twenty or so slumbering figures covered with blankets, huddled together for warmth on the freezing concrete floor below. One of their number, had come upstairs only moments before, begging me to help him fix the heater, an antiquated nineteen sixties contraption with exposed wiring. His friends, refugees who had smuggled themselves across the Iranian and Iraqi border into Turkey, after a long and arduous march through rivers and mountain passes, were freezing in that Constantinopolitan winter. They needed something to eat and warmth, for at dawn the next day, the Pakistani people smugglers would arrive to escort the bedraggled and exhausted young men from Kesan, across the forested and watery Thracian hinterland, across the border into Greece. After that they were on their own.
One of their number, Bassim, an engineering student, had completed the crossing twice before. “I don’t mind the Greek police,” he explained. “When you get caught they thump you around for a bit and then they put you in a cell and give you something to eat before they expel you. If you get caught on this side, the Turkish police beat you up, give you nothing to eat and take all your money.” I couldn’t fix the heater.
Wandering around Çemberlitaş, the column of Constantine a few days later, I chanced upon two of the young men I had seen in the room that night. One was sporting a black eye, the other a broken nose. They waved at me not to approach them. The crossing had been tried and they had been found wanting. Now, penniless, exhausted and aching, they had returned to base, fearful of being apprehended and deported but equally resolved to find another way to get to Greece and safety, if only they could find a way to pay the people smugglers.
My father in law was penniless by the time he arrived in Greece, in the aftermath of the Gulf War. This was because as the Kurdish people-smugglers proceeded further up the border, they would stop and demand more money, threatening to leave his family stranded. The first of the three times he attempted to cross to Greece, he was apprehended near Kavala, because one of the people smugglers attracted attention by lighting a fire. While being reassured by a police officer that his family would be given the opportunity to claim refugee status, he was screamed at, threatened and ultimately, his family, comprising his wife, young son and sixteen year old daughter were grouped together with about twenty Pakistani males and expelled across the border. The third time, the family embarked on a boat that was to take them to Samos, the Greek island that receives the most illegal refugees, owing to its proximity to Turkey. However, the boat was blown off course in a storm and sank just off Kos, the family being fished out of the water as they were drowning. In Kos, they were interned (though the prison door was left open so that they could occupy themselves by watching the locals come and go down the street and converse with them, before finally being sent to Athens to apply for a visa to come to Australia. My father in law waxes lyrical about the generosity of the local Greeks. He admits however, that no facilities existed to process or house the multitudes of refugees arriving on Greek shores.
The deputy governor of Samos, Mr Stelios Thanos who visited Melbourne recently, agrees that the problem of accommodating asylum seekers, refugees and all those who come under the general and derogatory term: «λαθρομετανάστες», especially in Samos, is one that is increasingly getting out of hand. This is especially so since the United Nations refugee agency has recently advised European Union countries to stop sending asylum seekers to Greece until further notice, a step that amounts to a condemnation of Greece's treatment of people fleeing conflict and persecution.
In particular, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has issued a statement saying that essential procedural safeguards for asylum seekers were not guaranteed in Greece. "They also often lack the most basic entitlements, such as interpreters and legal aid, to ensure that their claims receive adequate scrutiny from the asylum authorities.". As a result, "asylum seekers continue to face undue hardships in having their claims heard and adequately adjudicated."
Indeed, the UN agency and human rights organizations have been concerned for some time about the treatment of refugees in Greece, where migration routes carry both economic migrants and asylum seekers from Iraq and Somalia into the EU. In April last year, the European Commission sued Greece in the European Court of Justice over its asylum processes, and in December, various media outlets detailed abuses of refugee rights in Greece. The UN refugee agency described Greece's recognition rate for refugees as "disturbingly low." The overall protection rate for refugees of all nationalities in 2006 was 1 percent in Greece, compared with 45 percent in Italy and 19 percent in Spain. In Britain the rate was 24 percent and in Sweden, 50 percent, according to agency figures.
The agency also said that reception conditions in Greece continued to fall short of international and European standards. Greece routinely arrests all irregular migrants found on its territory and detains them for three months; last year, the agency urged Greece to close a detention centre on the island of Samos because conditions there were so egregious. For these reasons, the agency advised governments "to refrain from returning asylum seekers to Greece under the Dublin Regulation until further notice." The Dublin Regulation is an EU mechanism designed to deter multiple asylum claims by ensuring that such requests are fairly examined in the first EU country the refugee enters.
The Dublin accord, however, puts a disproportionate burden on countries that lie on the EU's external border, like Greece, Italy and Spain. Not only do they have to deal with clandestine migrants crossing their borders, they also have to accept back asylum seekers who have crossed from their territory into neighbouring EU countries.
Deputy Governor Stelios Thanos, considers the agency's criticism of Greece’s handling of refugees biased and one-sided. During his stay in Melbourne, he opined that other EU countries needed to share the burden of tackling irregular migration into the Union. He said that Greece's policy for the past four years had been completely in line with its EU obligations, and stressed the complexities related to its geographical position as the gatekeeper of the EU's southeastern flank.
"This is a very difficult role, no less at this particular time when peace is proving elusive in the Middle East," he said.
Mr Thanos stated that Greece was "in favour of revising the Dublin system so that countries with adequate infrastructure take the lead in the reception and handling of asylum requests," and urged that greater burden sharing be incorporated in the Dublin system. For him, Greece, one of the EU's smallest and poorest nations, should not be saddled with the Union's immigration responsibilities, pointing to disproportionate funding directed to countries other than Greece.
Surprisingly, according to Mr Thanos, in 2007, Greece received just €1.3 million, or $2 million, from the European Refugee Fund, compared with €10.5 million given to France, €8.1 million given to Sweden and €4.8 million to Britain. According to him, this is because at the time that funding was to be allocated, the countries in question wrote elaborate submissions detailing the problems they face in dealing with asylum seekers, something that Greece did not adequately address.
In a measure of the increasing pressure on Greek borders owing to the current situation in the Middle East, Mr Thanos said that Greece had detained 112,364 undocumented migrants in 2007, three times the number it arrested in 2004. Mr Thanos, a kindly man, who in years past was instrumental in assisting Northern Epirots and Albanians fleeing poverty in their homeland to settle in Samos and thus has firsthand knowledge of the primary needs of asylum seekers also points to another problem that deters the effective provision of assistance to those seeking refuge on Greek shores: the extreme centralization of Greek government agencies: “Everyone seems to think that with the oft-cited «αποκέντρωση» (de-centralization), plenty of funds exist in order to address local problems. However, the fact remains that our region is perennially underfunded in all respects and the resources simply do not exist in order to provide adequate care and assistance to refugees. I am forced to go from supermarket to supermarket, from business to business begging for food and clothing for these poor people. Their situation truly is dire.”
Catering for the immediate humanitarian needs of refugees is one thing. Granting them asylum in Greece is quite another. Mr Thanos, with refreshing candour, alluded to the by now bankrupt myth of a homogenous Greek society to explain why refugee status is seldom according in Greece. “It is expected that after a short while, these people will move on. And they do. Their aim is to reach a “European” county or America, where opportunities exist for them to rebuild their lives. What will they do in Greece where opportunities are limited? They are not Greek and Greece really has nothing to offer them, the poor things.”
As Mr Thanos was expounding his difficulties and outlining new and improved strategies to obtain food and shelter for asylum seekers in Samos by mobilizing the local population, I was reminded of another asylum seeker, my grandfather, who arrived in Samos as a boy, fleeing the catastrophe in Asia Minor. Indeed, given that the majority of the population of the island is comprised of descendants of such refugees, it is perhaps fitting as well as heartwarming that they provide succour to other war-afflicted fellow humans, also fleeing the east.
Despite the perennial Greek fear of the outsider at the same time that filoxenia is provided to him, Greece ought seriously to consider the swift granting of refugee status and integration of a section of these beleaguered persons within Greek society. Contrary to common, orientalistic opinion, the societies from which these people derive are eminently venerable, civilized and they have much to teach and give us all. The least they deserve is dignity and respect and that will not be achieved by the rest of supposedly “united Europe” attempting to foist the burden of accommodating refugees upon the shoulders of countries that are the least placed to adequately do so, without providing them with the requisite assistance and funds in order to do so. As Deputy Governor Stelios Thanos scrambles around Samos in search for food to feed his adopted flock, we leave you with Francis Forro’s riposte to an observation by an Australian journalist that Hungarian refugees arriving in Melbourne in the aftermath of the Hungarian uprising looked a bit scruffy: “yes, but they will make fine ancestors.”


First published in NKEE on 2 February 2009