Monday, March 30, 2009


“Our strength lies in our intensive attacks and our barbarity… After all, who today remembers the genocide of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler

I defy the Liberal Senator Alan Ferguson to look Chris Mingos in the eye and tell him that his mother did not see the women of her village, one by one, through themselves into a well in a futile and tragic attempt to evade their slaughter by Turkish irregulars. I would like Ferguson to tell Chris Mingos that crimes so unspeakable that she could only cry when she would think of them, were not visited upon his mother. I would like him to look me in the face and tell me that my grandfather did not witness the slaughter of children at Akbuköy in Aydin. I dare him to look my father-in-law in the face and tell him that his father did not flee the Hakkari mountains as a result of the continuous slaughter of its native Assyrian population. I challenge him to tell me that my grandfather, Chris Mingos’ mother and the rest of the survivors of the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia is to use his own words an attempt to: “try to re-write history,” or that they form part of a larger corpus: “with the Armenians, with the Pontian Greeks and with a range of other people who currently are trying to put today's moral judgment on events that took place 100 years ago.” Note how the genocide-denying Senator refers to the Assyrian victims as “other peoples.” It is apparent that he is extremely well informed.
The denial of genocide, or attempts to minimise, make light of or in any way trivialise incidences of racial tension and/or conflict are not elements that one would expect to see in mature western democracies. In many European countries, denial of crimes of genocide is seen as a punishable offence because to doubt the slaughter of innocent people, murdered solely because of their ethnic, religious or political affiliations is seen as tantamount to condoning the crime as well.
Senator Ferguson did not have to commit genocide-denial in Federal Parliament on 18 March 2009. He was merely “moved to speak,” on “the 40th anniversary of the formal Agreement between the Government of the Common­wealth of Australia and the Government of the Repub­lic of Turkey concerning the Residence and Employ­ment of Turkish Citizens in Australia.” His stated aim was: “to celebrate and commend the achievements of the Turk­ish community here in the Commonwealth of Australia that has been created as a result of this agreement in the 40 years since its implementation.”
However, he did not. Instead, he admitted that the Turkish ambassador visited him complaining about “a speech that was made by the Hon. Michael Atkinson, the Attorney-General, Minister for Justice and Minister for Multicultural Af­fairs in the Labor government in South Australia. I had not thought that I would be surprised by anything that the South Australian Attorney-General said in relation to the Turkish community, particularly as most state parliaments do not have a role in foreign affairs in the same way that the federal parliament does.” This is where Ferguson makes a mistake and betrays his primary motivation. The Hon. Michael Atkinson’s speech had nothing to do with the Turkish community. In it, he made reference to: “The nationalist Turks led by Mustafa Kemal's forces and their frenzied followers began to persecute [Pontian Greeks] through beatings, murder, forced marches and labour, theft of their properties and livelihood, rape, torture and deportations.” One can understand why the Turkish ambassador, a person who Ferguson admits to being his “personal friend,” may be enraged. Despite Ferguson’s commendation of: “the Republic of Turkey's commitment to democracy, to the rule of law, and-particularly in the region in which it lives-to secularism, which is some­thing that is quite unique in that part of the world,” the Turkish ambassador represents a country that until recently denied the existence of and persecuted its Kurdish minority, unlawfully expropriates land from Christian ecclesiastical foundations, bullies its smaller neighbours with spurious land and sea claims and threats of military intervention, invades and occupies other countries, and imprisons and threatens people who share different views about the its official version of its past and society. In 2005, in ‘secular, democratic, rule of law Turkey’, a new penal code was introduced, including an Article 301, which states: "A person who, being a Turk, explicitly insults the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months to three years." Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Prize winning author, was retroactively charged with violating this law in the interview he had given four months earlier. In October, after the prosecution had begun, Pamuk reiterated his views in a speech given during an award ceremony in Germany: "I repeat, I said loud and clear that one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in Turkey." Altuğ Taner Akçam, a leading Turkish academic who uses Ottoman documents to prove that the Armenian genocide took place, fears for his life and is often in hiding. Furthermore, Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Armenia and Georgia are all states in Turkey’s immediate periphery that are even more secular and certainly more democratic. But it is far beyond us to provide Ferguson with lessons in geography.
It is arguable that Ferguson knows nothing of this. I doubt that his Turkish mate would have told him, when he appears to have incited him to use the anniversary to take a cheap swipe on behalf of Turkey at genocide victim’s expense. Instead, on the 18th, he launched into a mellifluous, histrionic and irrelevant attempt to use Gallipoli, a Greek town that was ethnically cleansed by the Ottomans in order for it to be fortified to resist an Allied attack on Constantinople, “as a guest of the Turkish government,” in order to justify his genocide denial. Ferguson in particular, expresses much emotion at the fact that the commander of the forces that mowed down the ANZAC troops, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, asked the mothers of the fallen Anzac soldiers to wipe away their tears as he would look after their son’s corpses for them. Ferguson is obviously oblivious to modern scholarship which posits that the genocide of the Christians of Anatolia was probably linked to the Gallipoli landings. Professor Robert Manne states: “The two events not only coincided in territory and in time, but there is quite a lot of evidence that the genocide was pushed on because of the Dardanelle campaign of the Anglo-French forces in which the Australians were involved. So despite the fact that the things happened at the same time and in the same place more or less, and they were even kind of connected with a causal link…when the Dardanelles were first bombed by the Anglo-French in March 1915, that was the final moment of reckoning, and that the Turkish regime, which was run by two or three Young Turks were the dominant figures, they set upon and decided on asystematic extermination of the Armenians, saying that at this moment of crisis, where Constantinople might fall, we can't afford to have a subversive minority within our country."
The causal link between the two events is further cemented when one considers that just twenty days after the Gallipoli landing, on 14 May 1914, Talaat Pasha, a member of the ruling Young Turk triumvirate ordered the forcible evacuation of all Greek settlements on the Dardenelles as far as Kyssos and the re-settlement of the region with Muslim refugees from the Balkans: “For political reasons it is urgently necessary that the Greek inhabitants of the coast of Asia Minor are forced to abandon their villages… If they refuse to move… please give oral instructions to Muslim brothers how to force the Greeks to remove themselves ‘voluntarily’ by any means possible. In that case, don’t forget to obtain confirmations from them that they are abandoning their homes of their own free will.” And what about the thousands of Greek troops and support staff who assisted and nursed Australian soldiers on the island of Lemnos and elsewhere? Apparently their contribution is too humanitarian in nature to satisfy Ferguson’s idolatry of “noble” enemies.
Ferguson in his ineptitude makes another historical blunder. He states that at the time of the genocide, Turkey was “fighting for its survival against an invasion from Greece.” Rubbish. There is enough evidence to show that the genocide was directed against ALL the native Christian peoples of Anatolia and that it commenced long before Greece was requested to police the sanjak of Smyrna by the Allies in 1919. Further the Greek army never set foot in Pontos. The defenceless Pontians were slaughtered just for interfering with the Young Turk’s and their successor’s conception of a uni-racial state.
Ferguson must be a very brave man to so blatantly and artlessly exhibit his ignorance of the period in question. He is also brave for his frank revelation of the manner in which he views the place of historical events pertaining to Australian ethnic minorities. Of Michael Atkinson’s spirited speech he states: “It was obviously made in the context of being at a Greek function where it was suitable for him to make these remarks.” The inference here appears to be obvious, is it legitimate and suitable for an Australian politician to curry favour with target ethnic minorities by pandering to their own view of history in order to gain their vote? Is this how Ferguson sees multiculturalism? And in his ridiculous, offensive and thoroughly sickening to victims and descendants of the victims, denial of the Christian genocide, is he merely adhering to what appears to be his own jaded view of the use of ethnic groups in his electorate? Further more, does his distorted and inept view of this event reflect Liberal Party policy?
Playing ethnic politics is a dirty game that threatens to shatter social harmony quite a good deal more easily than referring to or interperting historical events. The fact of the matter is that in Australia, communities of diverse backgrounds have proven that they can co-exist peacefully in fruitful collaboration and ties of friendship because of our joint commitment to multicultural Australia. No cynical, irresponsible or misguided attempt to score points or votes off the backs of any arbitrarily chosen ethnic group should ever be permitted to bear the bitter fruit of discord.
It is meet that Greek consular officials greet this clumsy attempt by the Turkish diplomatic corps and their misguided friends to taunt and humiliate genocide victims and their families with the silence of contempt that they deserve. We however, should not be so silent. We do not hate Turkey. Many thousands of members of the Greek community derive their descent from the geographical area covered by its borders. We cannot hate our place of origin though we may despise and deplore crimes about humanity and coarse, brutal, thoroughly stupid attempts to cover these up and denigration of their victims. Ferguson should, assuming that he wants to, be advised of the folly of exposing his schematic view of history and appearing to be the pawn of a culpable state.
Perhaps Ferguson, whose name and nefarious deed in Parliament on the 18th of March should never be forgotten by all those who seek justice, tolerance, social cohesion and re-conciliation, condemns himself with his own words, when he says: “…those of us to­day find it very difficult to pass judgment--we should not be passing judgment when we do not know the full facts.” To him then, these words of Gideon Hausner: “No one can demand that you be neutral toward the crime of genocide. If there is a judge in the whole world who can be neutral toward this crime, that judge is not fit to sit in judgment.” Shame….

First published in NKEE on Monday 30 March 2009

Monday, March 23, 2009


“There are more bad musicians that there is bad music.” Isaac Stern

If it is not for the fact that I was born some two thousand years after Horace, one would be forgiven for thinking that his quip: “The musician who always plays on the same string is laughed at,” was a broadside fired exclusively in my direction. Nicholas Koutsaliotis, accountant and successful restaurateur of the establishment “Nyx,” by day and ambidextrous bouzouki-player extraordinaire by night is perhaps a little more subtle. Whenever we play together, he looks at me quizzically during a break and asks: “Deano, are you sure that you’ve tuned up that violin?” Stalwart of the quality Greek music scene Achilles Yiangoullis is even more subtle: “Why don’t you try playing this in this way?” he ventures. My riposte, comes from Duke Ellington: “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” You can’t argue with the Duke.
Music is of course, an inescapable part of one’s life owing to its all pervasiveness. It oozes out of car stereos, mobile phones, PC’s and ipods at such a rate that it saturates the ear-drum, causing us to consider the most mindless lyrics a hit. Consider this English rendering of the hit song from Despina Vandi’s chartblaster 2001 hit «Γεια»: “How much, I miss you/How much I want you/Turn back/because I tell you/I can’t do without you/I’ll be lost without you/aaaaaah.” Now consider instead this heart-rendering Rumi-like verse: “Bring me a cup of wine,/And keep me company./For me this night, will be the last./Oh life, you drip poison,/I’ve had enough of you,/And the golden palaces you promised,/Are all fake,” and you will know why 1) there can be no comparison in nobility of sentiment and 2) why at the age of six I fell in love with Rebetika.
Truth be told, I inherited my taste in music wholesale from my father. The tapes he would listen to while driving are the sound-track to my childhood and even to this day, when I (thankfully rarely) hear Marinella’s song: «Άνοιξε πέτρα για να μπω,» I remember being driven home from school by my father after having committed a particularly awful transgression and listening to it, while being conveyed to what I determined would be, my final doom. My father’s original Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkle records (still in mint condition I might add), are the reason why dysfunctional sentiments such as “I’d rather be a hammer than a snail” and “I’m being chased by a moonshadow, who is trying to kill me,” began to appear in my grade three prose. This notwithstanding, it was Greek music that captured my soul from the outset and I still have my grade one drawing of seagulls, executed with blue crayon upon butcher’s paper. Underneath, I have written the caption in shaky, unsteady infantile script: «Ντάρι νταρι, ντάρι ντάρι, στο γυαλό πετούν οι γλάροι.» Looking back I marvel at the fact that I got the words right, for along with old Papaioannou and Tsitsanis records, I have inherited from my father the propensity to muck up song lyrics. I remember being scolded in grade three by a Greek school teacher hardly able to keep a straight face for singing my particular version of the great Manos Loizos’ potent song «Καλημέρα Ήλιε» as: «Θα κατουρήσουμε τον Ήλιο, σίγουρα ναι.»I still think it is more anarchic than the original and to this day, I do not know the proper lyrics.
When I was eight, my parents determined that I should have a musical education and I set about the task of being taught to play the violin. The difficulty of this endeavour was compounded by the fact that I did not have an ear for music but nonetheless, through shoulder aching hours of practice and a few excruciating Australian Music Examination Board exams, I became somewhat proficient in the playing of classical music. This notwithstanding, at every class concert, I would break out into a pentozali, or a kalamatiano painstakingly acquired by heart from a rare book of Greek music in western notation procured by my father, a) because it was the only music that I really spoke to me, b) because the fast rhythms would play havoc with young boys’ ability to sit quietly in one corner and invariably cause classroom mayhem and c) because I harboured a considered and profound dislike for my violin teacher. Needless to say after two seasons of impromptu Greek subversive music, the playing of Greek music at class concerts was banned, my attempts at performing Hellenic music also being heavily circumscribed.
Chinese traditional music was the next genre I chose to explore, purely as the instrument I was chosen to play, the erhu, or Mongolian fiddle is as subtle, lithe and lissome and I am clumsy and obvious. Chinese music shares much in its fundamentals with Epirot and Ancient Greek musical theory, based as it is on the pentatonic scale. Further, its reedy tone lends itself much better to the playing of Greek island music than the violin and the number of times I would incorporate the theme from «ή μηχανικός θα γίνω ή στην άμμο θα απομείνω,» into my impromptu solos, notably at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, is considerable.
I had stopped playing music for about a decade when I was approached by Neos Kosmos former editor Argyris Argyropoulos to turn my mind to some Rebetika. While I was at university, my uncle had bought me a cd by “Apodimi Compania,” which I felt was breath-takingly heavenly, only because I felt I could identify with it –all the songs that is, except: Από κάτω από τις ντομάτες, my father being particularly possessive of his tomato vines, under which certainly no hanky panky was allowed.. Since that time, star violin player Hector Cosmas and Argyropoulos were my idols and I very nearly mastered about half of the songs on the playlist. Week after week I would be drawn to the Retreat and then the Bendigo Hotel to be enraptured by their virtuoso performance and I can declare that the first time I met Argyris, I was weak at the knees.
My first attempts to “jam” with Rebetiki were of marginal success. Meeting at Argyris’ home, we would play a song or two, devour his exquisitely cooked mezedes, drain him of a year’s supply of home made tsipouro and then submit to a coerced exploration of modern culture, youtube being the preferred medium, coupled with a lecture on the traditional way to fertilise lemon trees after heavy drinking. When I would wake up the next day, head sore but body cleansed, I could not remember what I had learned to play the night before.
Nonetheless, in Rebetiki, comprised of Argyris Argyropoulos, its spiritual leader, the irrepressible Takis Dimitriu, the inexhaustible Achilleas Yiangoullis and the devastatingly brilliant and omnipresent Tony Iliou, I found a group of artists totally devoted not to re-hashing old songs (for it truly is the case with some other “rebetika” groups that you will invariably know which song they are playing at any given time that you arrive at their gig because they play the same songs in the same order week after week), but exploring the genre, immersing themselves in the lives of the great rembetes, seeking reasons and motivations for their work, preserving their techniques and then using them as a jumping off point for the development of their own. A conversation with the members of Rebetiki can involve anything from a diatribe into why four stringed bouzoukis are an abomination (Argyropoulos), a side-splittingly amusing but probably apocryphal anecdote about the life of Zambetas; he is said to have commented about an aspiring singer’s talent: «Από φωνή, [insert Greek coarse word for female genitalia], από [insert Greek coarse word for female genitalia] όμως, φωνάρα" (unattributed), a running commentary on current events and the Greek community (Iliou and Dimitriu), anecdotes about the performances of famous Greek musicians and compulsorily, a Borat impersonation.
The manner in which Rebetiki chooses their repertoire is also unique. Before Argyris relocated to Greece, Tony Iliou would suggest songs to him, and he would reply, in Little Britain-like fashion: “Argyris says….no.” We would end up playing not what the audience necessarily wanted to hear, but songs that best captured the mood of the performers. For Rebetiki does not play for its listeners. It plays at them and engages in a dialectic with them. This is after all, the music of give and take, There is no room for mindless receptivity here.
My own insufficiency has been doing the opposite of augmenting Rebetiki’s performance at the Pontian Community in Brunswick on Friday nights, for the past year. I do this purely for selfish reasons. Pontian goat, baked in the oven is to die for
(so maybe Koutsaliotis is right. Did not George Crabbe say: “Feed the musician and he is out of tune?”) and there is no greater release from a week of worldly worry than to pick up the violin and lose oneself in a sea of competently performed and culturally significant music. All the rembetika have their stories and so do those who play them. These stories will unfold and unravel as steel inevitably unwinds itself from the cat-gut around which it as been wound, dissolving under the acid of the musicians fingertips, or the bile cooking in one’s insides. Stories revealed and shared in the context of performing are revelations of one’s soul and cannot be treated with anything other than hushed reverence. Then Sotiris Traianopoulos, clarinet player extra-ordinnaire will pass around his flask of tsipouro, having taken Argyris place as lifter and purveyor of spirits, and the mundaneness of reality will fly from us like well, a flitty, flying thing. In the womb of music creation, anything is possible. One night, I brought along my erhu along. After paying for about fifteen minutes, one of the pontians in the audience approached me remarking: «Παίζεις πολύ καλά.»
«Ευχαριστώ,» I replied.
«Και μιλάς καλά ελληνικά,» he continued.
«Και πάλι ευχαριστώ.»
«Πώς γίνεται εσύ, ένας Κινέζος να μιλάς τόσο καλά Ελληνικά;» he enquired. Look at him incredulously, I responded: «Ε, με λίγη προσπάθεια, όλα γίνονται.»
I have been on a road trip with Rebetiki, though I daresay that I joined the bandwagon too late, when the propensity for risqué-ity has seen better days. It is surprising how important food and drink becomes to you after you turn thirty and its desire renders you staid and too content to seek other adventures. Nonetheless, I can say that I have purported to be seen to play with what are arguably the greatest musical artists ever to have passed through the Greek community, through their own tolerance and condescension. Throughout the time we have spent together, we have taken in many sights, sounds and smells though not all of them have lived up to our sensory expectations. For the modern Greek aesthetic is sometimes more akin to a γιαπί and the working a cement mixer than, let’s say, the expressionist architectural icons of Mendelsohn. Yet there the boys are week after week, embarking once more upon their exploration of musical labyrinths of infinite paths. And there am I,, week after week, deluding myself that I too can be a musician. It is then that the song: «Από το βράδυ ως το πρωί, με πρέζα είμαι στη ζωή,» rings true, for music is our opium, opening perceptions for the boys and clouding mine. Until next week then, musicians duet better.

First published in NKEE on 23 March 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


“Most of the time, their efforts pass unnoticed and unrewarded by the Greek government and the impotent and navel gazing Greek community, whose own practice of contemplating itself until it disappears up its own fundamental orifice constitutes it for the most part, incapable of rendering these passionate apostle of Hellenism, most of them belonging to the second generation, any worthwhile assistance.”
When I penned this paragraph last year in a Diatribe, it caused quite a deal of discomfort among sections of the first generation of our community. The venerable educator and academic Christos Fifis, in an interview on 3ZZZ, asked me whether the paragraph could not be considered to be an insult to the first generation of migrants. My response was that I was referring to the Greek community as a whole. Why was he equating the words “Greek community,” with the first generation? What did this equation reveal about the first generation’s understanding of the composition of that community? In order to dispel any misunderstanding, I went on to explain that I had the highest regard for the achievements of the first generation and that I felt that there was no way that the second generation, (which lacks drive, cohesion and dedication vis a vis its role within the Greek community – which, I would think, comprises of ALL Greek generations), could ever supersede or even match these. Nonetheless, various first generation members of the community continued to be extremely hurt by my comments and they voiced their bitter disappointment to me. I have, and continue to apologise for the injury caused to their sensitivities. In stating that adequate structures do not exist within our community to assist those of its second generation members who are promoting the “cause” of Hellenism alone, I did not mean to accuse the first generation.
Notwithstanding the orifice-ridden method in which I chose to describe our predicament, one would not be blamed for thinking these days that we truly are facing a Götterdämmerung of Wagnerian proportions. The creators of our particular virtual world , no longer hearty and hale and weary of seeking glory on the battle field, quite often now just go through the motions, awaiting their entry into the bliss of Walhalla. Some of these old, battle-hardened and crusty warriors, are still so entrenched upon their mission to seek glory, that they forget where the battle actually is situated and swing their broadswords violently this way and that, causing injury to their own comrades. And where, one asks, are the younger warriors who should be standing by, ready to pick up discarded shields and hone rusty swords? More often than not, for reasons too numerous to mention, they have turned their backs on Asgard and are content to while away the hours in Midgard, until such time as Ragnarök is come, and the Jotun are released upon them in all their fury. And it is for this reason that our old warriors are so apprehensive. When they depart, who will be left behind to safeguard their legacy?
We will, that is if we want to be and we must be, if our community will have any hope of surviving into the future as a cohesive whole. The past decade has seen the loss of Modern Greek language teaching units from almost all of the tertiary institutions in this state, with the recent demise of EKEME seeming to be the tombstone upon the grave of Greek language education here. At that time I wrote: “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... 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."
From the depths of impotent despair however, comes hope and renewal. In Kostis Palamasian fashion: “And not being able to find a step lower to descend, you will find, oh joy, your original, great wings,” a group of second and third generation Greek students at Monash university have resolved that they themselves are able to determine their cultural future and that they have a responsibility towards their community and themselves to ensure that their compatriots have the option of studying Modern Greek at Monash University.
A prime mover in the whole affair is Simon Angelopoulos, member of the Monash University Hellenic Students Society, active NUGAS member and committed Hellene. “I could not have done it without the other members of the Society,” he explains. “We got together and decided that no one was going to do anything about Modern Greek at Monash. We needed to form a grass-roots campaign in order to get Greek reinstated. If you consider the demographic of the Monash campuses and the high proportion of Greek students, it seemed ridiculous that Modern Greek was no longer being offered. We felt we had to do something.”
Unlike many tail-chasing Greek endeavours that are doomed to failure because their primary motivation is to be seen to be doing something rather than addressing the needs of the target demographic, the committed Monash students prepared their groundwork very carefully. Quoth Simon: “I had a list prepared of members and other people that may be interested. Working down the lost, over the course of the next few months, I called people, letting them know that we were working towards reinstating Modern Greek as a subject at Monash. Most people reacted positively. However most stated that they had studied Modern Greek right up until Year 12 and did not see the need to embark upon tertiary studies that would conflict with and/or deprive them of the time to study the subjects intrinsic to their vocation. Slowly, we developed a critical mass of interested people and after many months, we were ready to approach the University.”
Unlike many community endeavours which focus upon quick results and even more rapid kudos, it took two and a half or so years of painstaking work for these committed students to convince the Monash authorities that enough interest existed for the revival of Modern Greek. Simon and the members of his committee should understandably be most proud of the results of their labour. Granted, the number of students undertaking the subject is but a class (twenty or so), but they have shown that when it is committed and dedicated to a task, the second generation too is capable of remarkable achievements. They have single-handedly arrested a terminal decline. They stand, not only as an example to the first generation, as to their potential, properly-handled, but more importantly, to the latter generations. Simon and the MUHSS’s achievement should empower and embolden the second generation to fight to secure those things pertinent to their sense of their identity that they will require for the future. As the old adage goes: “Do it yourself, because nobody else will do it yourself.” The tentative reinstatement of Modern Greek at Monash is a historic moment in our community. It marks the emancipation (albeit decades delayed) of the second generation of Greek-Australians. Now that we have proven that we are just as genuine arbiters of our own identity, it is incumbent upon us to think strategically and act responsibly and collectively in order to maintain and preserve a community structure relevant and tailored to our needs. For there is little utility in foisting this heavy burden upon a previous generation that has already done so much. It is up to us now, to step into their shoes. Unlike them, our task will be two-fold – not only to create a community that can embrace our children, whose cultural needs will be much different to our own, but also to preserve and maintain the legacy of those who came before us and created us, amidst the void.
When I asked Simon whether he was not merely engaged upon the Sisyphian task of rolling a boulder uphill only to have it crash back down to the bottom upon his reaching the summit, he replied: “Look, each group needs to look after itself. We saw an opportunity to restore Modern Greek and we would have been derelict in our duty towards our members and our peers if we did not exploit it. After all, we are a Hellenic society. That is what we are supposed to be doing. It’s not just about social nights and clubs.” Hear, hear.
Simon Angelopoulos is at pains to point out that nothing could have been achieved without the initiative and hard work of the indefatigable, thinking Greek’s goddess and academic, Dr Evangelia Ananoustou-Laoutidou, of the Monash Classical Studies Program, whose name has graced the pages of Diatribe before. She was able to harness the students’ energy, guide it and point it at the target at hand with devastating effect, which is kind of like the way she writes prose, even (impossibly!) ensuring the collaboration of the Greek government, through the Melbourne Consulate. Just other day, I sent her a copy of my latest book. Her response, encapsulates in so many ways, the zeitgeist of our times:
“Many thanks for sending your book, Apteros Nike. I hope the title does not allude to any hidden messages re the Monash efforts to introduce Modern Greek! We live vain lives anyway, so why not entertain ourselves with another vain vision of victory? A vvv in short???” Ah, you are as wise as you are resplendent, oh Solominic one. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” the old Judaic king once sighed. But once in a while, is it not good to rest our posteriors well and truly on our laurels and breathe in the smell of victory. Until next week then: Study Modern Greek!


First published in NKEE on 16 March 2009

Monday, March 09, 2009


“Time is punishment enough.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero, that otherwise obsequious, Nero-pandering Latin git once opined that: “Liberty is rendered more precious by the recollection of servitude.” A person, who has had their liberty denied to them, will most likely, not take it for granted and prize it among all other things. Conversely, faced with the prospect of having new-found liberty taken away again, a person would be inclined to do almost anything to preserve it, including adhering to regulations and strictures that could be considered oppressive and tantamount to an equivalent deprivation of freedom.
The more humane Aeschylus chose to focus not on the punitive aspect of the deprivation of liberty, but its tantalising and often unfulfilled promise of redemption: “I know how men in exile live on dreams of hope.” Given the time away to think, reflect and regret, one presumably emerges from their incubation, reborn; resolved and ready to make a new start, regardless of whether, in Cavafian style, the shades of the past life are doomed to haunt one’s steps like a city that cannot be shaken off.
There are two types of prisoners. Those who are guilty and those who are not. In Shawshank prison, everyone was not guilty but in many respects, our entire existence is at least mythically, ideologically and religiously, inextricably enmeshed within the loom of guilt and incarceration. The first, innocent protoplasts were ensconced by their Creator within a garden bordered by a high wall, for that is what the word Paradise signifies in Persian. Within this confined space, they were immortal, replete with grace and perfect, as long as they did not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Having thus transgressed into a world that was prohibited to them, they were exiled from Paradise, angels with flaming swords being set at its gates to bar them entry. Thus the wider world became their prison and the protoplasts initially led a sorrowful existence, grieving for the enclosed space they had lost and to which they could never return, owing to their guilt.
Nonetheless some of the greatest redemptive and supernatural moments have taken place to prisoners who have incarcerated without being guilty. The prophet Daniel, who may have met Pythagoras, was miraculously preserved during his imprisonment in a lion’s den for refusing to espouse the Babylonian religion. John the Baptist came to the realisation that Christ was God on earth while in prison and in one of the most amazing prison breaks of all, an angel crept into Peter the Apostle’s prison cell in Rome, woke him up, cast of his chains and passed him unnoticed through the prison and out the city gate. Of course Christ himself suffered a harrowing, intensely horrific ordeal whilst in prison, as an example of the extreme humility and condescension of God, allowing Himself to suffer as a man. The Orthodox tradition consequently places great emphasis on and is replete with prayers and references to those imprisoned, especially unjustly as in the case of the early martyrs of the Church, but also justly, holding out for them, the prospect of repentance and the chance to start anew. The pastoral work of Greek Orthodox priests in Australia amongst prisoners is one of the least known and most fascinating components of their ministry.
Whole countries have been considered prisons. Tsarist Russia was known the “prison of the peoples,” because its reactionary regime would not countenance the various nationalistic aspirations of its subject peoples. Australia too owes its foundation to its use as a vast repository of criminals and unwanted dregs of British society. Though they would not openly admit it, Australia too acts as a prison for the first generation of Greek migrants. They have never been able to come to terms with their sojourn in this country. Over the course of their time here, they have grown used to its creature comforts but they still long for the country they left behind. They cannot leave – not only because the country they left behind does not exist anymore, but also because they have become used to the creature comforts and facilities of this place and have thus, in Shawshankian fashion, become, institutionalised. Paradoxically though, this does not ever diminish their longing.
Prisons loom large in modern Greek culture and indeed Rembetika. «Aντιλαλούν οι φυλακές» and «Πέντε Χρόνια Δικασμένος» are iconic songs of incarceration. The great man Kolokotronis himself was incarcerated by King Otto’s regime in a small hole in the citadel at Nauplion, pending an execution that was thankfully, remitted. The Colonels (or at least some of them), whose idea of constructing a National Socialist Society some three decades after the downfall of the regime that inspired them, was to imprison people in rocky Aegean outcrops, like Long Island, ended their days rotting in jail. Other politicians, who perhaps deserved to be enclosed therein have escaped such confinement.
We are claustrophobic and seekers of escape from the moment of our conception, seeking an escape from the security of the womb to that of the world biologically, (which is probably the conceptual origin of the Greek wish to pregnant mothers: «Καλή Λευτεριά» - happy liberation) and if you believe the neo-Platonists, our soul is imprisoned within our body until death, which is the ultimate escape. Prison cells are horrific places. They are stark and bare and when the door slams shut and you are deprived of your natural inclinations to roam, it is easy to see how you can be crushed. Visiting Pentridge prison after it had closed down, I was shocked at the Dickensian conditions of some of the cells. A few years later, as a first year solicitor, I had to visit a client in the holding cells of the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. The stench of deprivation of liberty was palpable. I felt the walls closing in on me, trying to expel me and yet enclose me within them at the same time. It is this feeling of claustrophobia I think that informs our senses when a prisoner ingeniously escapes from prison. No matter how notorious or hardened they may be, we are as titillated as we are terrified because we fear their condition above all. The movies “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “The Great Escape,” and of course, “The Shawshank Redeption,” are testaments to mankind’s universal fear of imprisonment and relief upon escape.
People may laugh and scoff at Palaiokostas’ recent brilliant escape from Korydallos. They may say that the Greek Penitentiary System is as inept and useless as countless other sectors of the Greek public service. They may say that his escape signals the bankruptcy of a State that can never conform to western modes of governance. I say bosh. Whatever Palaiokostas may be, he symbolizes an eternal archetype of a Greek: the person who will not be subdued or compelled to conform by the fiat of someone else’s might. Such people use their ingenuity to triumph over adversity.
It is easy to see why Palaiokostas, a convicted armed robber and kidnapper, has captured the public imagination. In his early adulthood, he is said to have locked up all the police at his local station in order to be able to rob his target freely and without hindrance. Most significantly, adding to his appeal is the fact that it is said that he has given most of the money he has stolen over the years to poor families, making him a hellenized Robin Hood.
Having been imprisoned in the famous Korydallos jail in 2006, Palaiokostas arranged for two accomplices to hire a sight-seeing helicopter from Aghios Kosmas, a coastal suburb of Athens. They hijacked the helicopter using a pistol and hand grenade, and forced the pilot to fly to the prison. When the helicopter arrived, guards believed the helicopter was a visit from prison inspectors. The helicopter flew the prisoner to a cemetery nearby, where they transferred to motorcycles and fled from there. The ingenious Palaiokostas was re-captured two years later, in August 2008 in Thessaloniki.
Just days way from his trial for his escape, on 22 February Palaiokostas managed to re-escape from Korydallos for a second time with the same sidekick as from the previous escape. Along with Alket Rizai, and Guido Dassori, he was picked up by a helicopter that flew over the courtyard of the prison. They climbed a rope ladder thrown to them by a woman passenger. Guards on the ground opened fire and the woman fired back with an automatic rifle.
Sounds like a movie no? Wait, there is more. An elderly couple found the helicopter abandoned in the Athenian suburb of Kapandriti near a highway north of Athens, with its fuel tank leaking from a bullet hole. The pilot was bound and gagged, with a hood over his head. He told police the helicopter was chartered by a couple who said they wanted to go from the town of Itea in central Greece to Athens. The couple had chartered the helicopter a number of times in the previous weeks, with the woman posing as a business woman. I vote Bruce Willis to play the role of Palaiokostas. What a brilliant, brilliant man! His profile should be on the obverse of the Hellenic Republic’s newly minted coins, to be used only, by the way, in robberies. This is truly the only way we can pay the requisite homage to this man’s remarkable achievement.
This notwithstanding, an armed robber and kidnapper is on the loose, along with a sidekick who has been convicted of manslaughter and it is hoped that they are apprehended. Before we go clucking our tongues, huffing stuffishly that this kind of thing would never have happened in Australia, let us not forget the attempted helicopter escape from our very own Pentridge prison in 1983. The three prisoners, all held on drug-importation charges, had hired a former SAS soldier, then living in the Philippines, to lift the prisoners from the jail’s tennis court to a nearby van fitted with panels to hide them during a road trip to Sydney, where a yacht was to take them to Manila. And just in 1999, librarian Lucy Dudko hijacked a helicopter, forcing the pilot to land on the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre grounds, where they picked up John Killick, while he was being fired on by guards and cheered on by inmates. They landed in a park where Killick hijacked a taxi at gunpoint. The two were able to elude authorities for six weeks before being arrested at the Bass Hill Tourist Park. So maybe Palaiokostas took a few notes from his Aussie counterparts.
The third season of the TV series “Prison Break” features an abortive attempt to escape by helicopter from the fictional Sona prison in Panama. Rather than waste their money on scriptwriters, the producers should visit Greece and take notes on how the professionals do it. If only Palaiokostas and others like him, could Maxwell Smartian-fashion, have used their genius for good instead of evil.
Meanwhile, as the Karamanlis government totters in its prison of the politics of ineptitude, a few words of advice from Oscar Wilde: “One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is, that things are what they are and will be what they will be.” Que sera sera.

First published in NKEE on 9 March 2009

Monday, March 02, 2009


There is magical hush when the room is dimmed and the light is lit behind the curtain. Two figures, an oriental palace, and a small, run-down hovel oppose each other in a silent symmetry. The tension of anticipation is almost palpable as the music begins. Almost immediately, a grotesque, hunchbacked figure with a ridiculously long arm emerges. The audience squeals with glee and the play begins.
Karagiozi was one of those truths that I believed in before I had actually seen them. Every year, my Greek school «αναγνωστικά» would contain a Karagiozi play script. These were invariably positioned towards the back of the reader, to be read only once the requisite number of lessons had been agonised over and suffered through, as a treat and simultaneously a homage, to the Greek-Australian student’s staying power. To begin with, I imagined Karagiozi to look like one of my bald, effusive, witty and tremendously funny uncles – that is, until I saw a picture of Karagiozi in my grade three reader, whereupon I determined that he looked like one of my father’s sullen, dense and ponderously droning «συγχωριανοί.»
The Chomskian word play comprised in the Karagiozi plays I read as a child provided a fascinating introduction into the world of postmodernism, surrealism and semantics. Picture the perpetually famished Karagiozi, Harry Klynn like, walking into a bakery. After perusing the fare offered for sale for a considerable period of time and upon being enjoined to state his business, he asks the baker: “Are all these loaves yours?” The response being in the affirmative, a truly perplexed Karagiozi, in veritable - hasten to make hay will the sun shines – biblical tones wonders: “Then why don’t you eat them all?” On another occasion, his slimy sidekick, the obsequious Hatziavati, is standing outside his hovel calling for him: “Karagiozi, are you in there?” “No,” comes Karagiozi’s muffled voice from within. “But I can hear your voice,” the puzzled Hatziavatis responds. “Yes, my voice is in here but I am not,” comes the classic riposte from Karagiozis.
During the 1980s, Greek Television screened Karagiozis shows on a weekly basis. These shows had more modern and educational themes, with Karagiozis living some myths of Greek mythology or visiting the moon and other planets. This being before the widespread use of the VCR in the homeland, one of my uncles, an avid fan, would set up his video camera in front of the television and record these shows. When, upon his return to Australia we would obey the summons to watch hour after interminable hour of mundane footage, in order to find out “what Greece is like,” (here read: how the village has changed), Karagiozi would cut through a particularly non-inspiring video tour of someone’s Balkan baroque home and I would be enthralled.
My first real life Karagiozi play experience took place at the State Film centre a few years ago, when a visiting company from Greece put on a show for Greek Australian children. There it was, the long white sheet, a blank canvas upon which a scintillating drama – one of everyday life and survival would be illustrated. I clutched my ticket as the lights were turned off and the Sultan’s saray appeared in sharp focus. I paid a few dollars to witness this performance. In my mother’s day, back in the village, the price of entry was a garlic bulb and children would pillage their neighbour’s gardens in order to ensure their temporary escape from a grimy world of poverty. The performance was uproariously funny, but also sad. There were sections where Karagiozi addressed the children in the audience and their response was integral to the flow of the play. Unfortunately, the children did not understand what they were being asked and the resourceful Karagiozis had to save the day by some rapid ad-libbing.
For my part, Karagiozis represents a classic Modern Greek archetype: the downtrodden, penurious homo hellenicus, doomed by a corrupt and static social system to remain on the lowest rungs of the ladder, using all the wits he can muster to make a go of life. Nonetheless, the Karagiozi plays, Shadow theatre, with a single puppeteer creating voices for a dialogue, narrating a story, and possibly even singing while manipulating puppets, appears to come ultimately from the Indonesian “wayang kulit,” where plays and cautionary tales about gods, demons and mythological heroes are played even today. It is evident that the art travelled from there to Asia Minor; though several theories exist as to how exactly this happened. Some believe the Turks were influenced by the Gypsies who came from India, while others claim that they were influenced by the Chinese at the time when the Turks were still nomadic tribes in Central Asia. Whatever the case, shadow theatre became more widespread around the 16th century within Asia Minor. In his original form, Karagiozi’s popular appeal was his scatological language and protruding phallus. However, this is not the Karagiozi we know. Rather, he is Karagöz. He and Hacivat are supposedly modeled on two labourers whose banter entertained their co-workers and slowed down the work during the construction of a mosque in Prousa during the reign of Sultan Orhan I. They were executed for the resulting delay of the work, but became folk heroes. One version of the legend says that a contemporary of theirs, one Şeyh Küşteri, made camel-hide puppets of them and began to perform plays.
Karagöz-Hacivat plays are especially played during Ramadan in Turkey. Almost every day, I would walk to the Byzantine Hippodrome in Constantinople to take in a performance – though these were mainly in a toned-down form intended for audiences of children.
The Turkish Karagöz is different to ours. He can be deceitful, lewd, and even violent. Other characters populate his world, just like our Karagiozis’: the drunkard Tuzsuz Deli Bekir with his wine bottle, the long-necked Uzun Efe, the opium addict Kanbur Tiryaki with his pipe, Altı Kariş Beberuhi (an eccentric dwarf), the half-wit Denyo, the spendthrift Civan, and Nigâr, a flirtatious woman. There may also be dancers and djinns, and various portrayals of non-Turks: an Arab who knows no Turkish (typically a beggar or sweet-seller), a black servant woman, an Albanian security guard, a Greek (usually a doctor), an Armenian (usually a footman or money-changer), a Jew (usually a goldsmith or scrap-dealer).
The structure of the Turkish plays is formulaic and ritualistic, structured as they are in four parts. First comes the Mukaddime, or introduction. Hacivat sings a semai, recites a prayer, and indicates that he is looking for his friend Karagöz, whom he beckons to the scene with a speech that always ends "Yar bana bir eğlence" ("Oh, for some amusement"). Karagöz enters from the opposite side. Then there is the Muhavere, repartee between Karagöz and Hacivat before the main plot unfolds and finally the Bitiş or conclusion, always a short argument between Karagöz and Hacivat, always ending with Hacivat yelling at Karagöz that he has ‘ruined’ whatever matter was at hand and has “brought the curtain down,” and Karagöz replying “May my transgressions be forgiven.”
Karagiozis seems to have come to mainland Greece, in the 19th century, during Ottoman rule. Karagiozis was hellenized in Patra in the end of 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis, who is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow theatre. Our Karagiozis is a poor hunchbacked Greek, his right hand is always depicted long, his clothes are ragged and patched, and his feet are always bare. He lives in a hovel with his wife Aglaia and his three boys, during the Ottoman era. Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and feed his family.
Students of folklore divide Karagiozis' tales in two major categories: the 'Heroics' and the 'Comedies'. The Heroics are tales based on tradition or real stories involving the times under Ottoman rule or anachronistic adaptations of other legends, and Karagiozis is presented as a helper and assistant of an important hero. In “Karagiozis and the accursed Snake,” famously performed by Karagiozopaixtis extra-ordinaire Eugenios Spatharis for example, he unforgettably takes the credit for the death of a large serpent from Alexander the Great and tries to claim a reward from the Sultan. Our Karagiozis is as formulaic as his Turkish counterpart. At the beginning, he appears in the scene with his 3 sons dancing and singing. He welcomes the audience and has a comical dialogue with his children. He then enters his cottage The Vizier or a local Ottoman lord then reports that he has a problem and needs someone to perform a deed Hatziavatis obeys and starts announcing the news (usually a singing sequence) until Karagiozis hears about it. Initially annoyed by Hatziavatis' shouting, he finds it's an opportunity to gain money (either by helping the Vizier or not) and sometimes asks Hatziavatis to aid him. Karagiozis then either attempts to help the Vizier or fool him. The regular characters appear one at a time in the scene, often with an introducing song which is standard for each of them; Karagiozis has a funny dialogue with them, mocks them, fools them, or becomes annoyed and ousts them violently. Finally, Karagiozis is either rewarded by the Vizier or his mischief is revealed and he is punished.
As a devotee of the whole genre, I purchased a do-it-yourself Karagiozi kit from a bookstore when I was in Athens and set about doing my own impromptu performances for my sister, upon my return to Australia. These were laminated cardboard figurines, not the celluloid or camel-skin transparent figures of tradition and I had immense trouble manipulating Karagiozis immense free arm, at my sister’s request. The ensuing fiasco was a cross between a Punch and Judy show and an extremely sarcastic parody of various acquaintances. For a while, I was collecting variations of figurines, noting how some puppeteers made their Karagiozis more hunchbacked, or less mustachioed than others. Immersed in my fervour, I even wrote a play entitled: “The last play of Karagiozis,” not knowing that there is a Turkish movie: Who killed Karagöz and Hacivat?” of similar theme. My play, a postmodern critique on everything that a university student could find to critique ended in the assassination of Karagiozi by the puppeteer and the destruction of the canvas. It was, I must admit, quite a poor effort. However, Karagiozis has also come to my rescue in ways unsuspected. Back in the days when I played Chinese traditional folk music, it came to pass that at a particular concert the entire orchestra came unstuck. During the deadly pause that ensured, I resolved that the audience would not know better anyway and struck up the traditional introductory kalamatiano of Karagiozi. They loved it.
In Greek daily speech, the name Karagiozis signifies a clown, or a person who is not serious. I resent this. While Karagiozis can be mischievous, a liar and an anti-hero, he is also good-natured and faithful and his name should not be taken in vain.
As we pay homage to our alter ego, we leave you this week with the fascinating fact that Conrad, the protagonist of Roger Zelazny's ...And Call Me Conrad which won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is in fact, inspired by Karagiozis. Until next week, let us all embrace life in true Karagiozi fashion, signing “E vre paidia, opa!” Now who has something to eat?
First published in NKEE on 2 March 2009