Monday, June 29, 2009


“If you ever get caught in the net of life, no one can untangle you. Find its end on your own, if you are lucky and begin again..” Rebetiko Song

The Rainbow begins where the homeland of Rebetika ends. It has been ordained so. For it was upon Mt Ararat, the easternmost extremity of Anatolia, that the Ark rested and the promise was made, that humanity would never be destroyed.
The Rainbow is more things besides. It is the prismatic separation of elements, that when reconstituted, forms pure light. In this particular Rainbow then, the constituent parts of illumination are love, desire, displacement, sorrow and survival, compassion, empathy, solidarity, forgiveness and reconciliation, through the music of the Women of Rebetika.
For the homeland of Rebetika is also the traditional land of the Great Mother Goddess, Cybele, the Love Goddess, Anahit and the nurturing but ultimately dark and chthonic Hecate. It is in the early hymns of their praise, song by their female devotees that we could probably try at least, to tentatively trace the origins of Rebetika.
Between 1915-1923, the Christians of Anatolia were subjected to a deliberate, state-sponsored campaign of dislocation and extermination. It is in this sustained period of genocide, that Rebetika truly come into their own, as a method of expressing the harrowing experiences of violence, horror, immense loss and alienation felt by the survivors, forced to eke out an existence away from their homes and culture, in ‘foreign’ lands. Even more poignantly, Rebetika communicated to the listener a very specific state of mind, similar to the one elicited by the bitter-sweet strains of the American Blues, a Gypsy Violin or a Flamingo Guitar; one that grants a rare and insightful glimpse, not only of the manifest content of a single composition but more importantly, a considerably larger (albeit deeply disturbing) social and psychological context as well.
Whatever has been written about the history of genocide has been based mainly on the experiences of men. Yet women's experiences with genocide have often differed from those of men in terms of participation, forms of victimization, consequences but most importantly, methods of healing. Some women found expressing their ordeal such a horrific task that they never spoke of it. Others were so frightened that they refused to speak their mother tongue all their lives, for fear of identification. Then there were those brave women who sought to come to terms with their loss by embracing it, setting it to music and consoling an entire generation. These were the Women of Rebetika, iconoclasts and challengers of preconceived social norms. They were the “derbederisses,” a Greek term that has come to denote a liberated women but which is ultimately derived from a Turkish word for fugitive. This sematic shift of itself, represents a triumph of the spirit.
In keeping with the multi-ethnic world in which they lived and were finally extirpated from, not all these rebetisses were Greek. Within the provocative world of the early urban Greek ‘Café Amans,’ where flamboyant characters sang about desperate love, life and death, and the seedy side of life, there were a surprising number of celebrated Greek Jewish female vocalists. Included among them was Roza Eskenazi, one of the most renowned Greek singers of all time, and Stella Haskil, who sang together with legendary performers such as Vasilis Tsitsanis. Across the Atlantic, Jewish women, notably Amalia Baka and Victoria Hazan, found center stage in the immigrant Greek nightclubs of major urban centres, as well as within the American ethnic recording industry.
The development of Rebetiko spanned one of the most turbulent periods in Greek history an era that included Nazi occupation and civil war. Sometimes called the "Greek blues," rebetiko is as much the music of defiance, as it is of survival. From the outset, it was an indigenous musical tradition inimically opposed to the artificially contrived, Bavarian inspired " Cafe Chantant " music. This was the sound most associated with the Western-influenced Greek Upper Class and it represented the Western European musical influence in Greece. Considering eastern-derived music as uncivilized and in an amazing feat of self-orientalism that would have even its propounder, Edward Said, scratching his head, naturally subversive, government censors studied rebetika lyrics carefully, looking for political references. Songwriters and performers, meanwhile, did their best to outwit the censors and the government. Some artists lived daring, unconventional lives. Roza Eskenazi managed to run a successful restaurant during the German occupation, despite the fact that she was Jewish and Sotiria Bellou, made no secret of her preference for women, took an active role in the Greek resistance and indulged in a passion for gambling. Others, such as Ioanna Yeorgakopolou, managed to raise families. All contributed to what has become one of Greece's most admired contributions to world culture.
Within Rebetiko itself, the role as well as the understanding and construction of women evolved. In “Mes tou Zambikou,” a song sung by Eshkenazi, a women goes to a hash den, looking for a smoke. She is referred not as a hanoumaki, but as a “meraklou,” ie, a bon vivant, a connoisseur and a devotee of good living. As such, the meraklou is admired and accepted by the ‘manges’ as one of their own. In one of Markos Vamvakaris, songs, the girls of Piraeus are even willing to transgress social norms by cross-dressing, in order to ‘hang out’ with the manges. The picture he paints of the freewheeling girls of the port city is affectionate and playful. The free spirited Rebetissa gradually appears less and less after the Second World War. However, her presence within Greek society created an enduring appreciation of the fictive streetwise lady. Indeed, as a symbol.paradigm in popular culture, she has come a long way from perhaps her first mention in a rebetiko recorded in Constantinople in 1915, about Elli, a beautiful, sexually liberated girl who denies her family for her lover and who wants “sugar and hashish flour/ to make sweets to send to Lefteri.”
Purists today might occasionally be heard to inquire, who could possibly probe the depths of the Rebetic soul in the way of a Sotiria Bellou. Or who could even attempt to communicate the same expressions of Greek Existential Angst with the same "matter of fact" subtleties, that made Ioanna Yeorgakopoulou such a Rebetic vocal powerhouse. The answer quite simply, is none. Even the genuine Rebetisses who are still actively performing such as Poly Panou or an Anna Chrysafi, have had to develop a style and stage presentation, that has evolved considerably beyond what they may have done in the past. So what. Did vocalists in the U.S.A stop singing the Blues because of the demise of the legendary Bessie Smith? Did the French put their Cabaret to bed because Edith Piaf is no longer with us? The answer is evident. If they had, Bluest Bessie would probably have turned an even deeper shade of Blue and the good Madam Piaf, would finally have had something to regret.
“Women of Rebetika”, a concert to be held at the Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday, 5 July 2009 at 7:00pm, and featuring the dulcet and yet irrepressibly dynamic virtuosity of San Magiemenes, (the band, not the Central American enclave), comprised of Christella Demetriou (vocal and bouzouki), Eleftheria Kourlia (vocal and guitar), Sophie Moulakaki (vocal, accordion), Claudia Rossini (vocal, violin) Irene Vela (bouzouki and laouto) and our very own déesse de la chanson Anthea Sidiropoulos, seeks to pay tribute to these indomitable Women, indeed, all Women who grieve, yet must survive and do so in triumphant, awe-inspiring style. For there is no end to their suffering in this world, whether it be in the aftermath of the brutal conflicts of previous generations, or more recently those in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or Iraq. Within the fabric of our multi-cultural community, many of these heinous experiences are interwoven. Our narrative should embrace them, understand them and heal them. After all, this passion and spirit of survival exemplified by the Women of Rebetika parallels the similar plight of many emerging and refugee background communities who have settled in Melbourne, having lost their beloved homeland and who have fled persecution.
The two hour concert will feature a selection of classic Greek favourites from the Rebetika (Greek Blues) era as well as some original compositions and the use of traditional instruments including the bouzouki, laouto, violin, accordion and the small, leprechaun-like baglama.
If there is a pot of gold at the end of the Anatolian Rainbow, perhaps it is indicated in the legacy of Rebetika, a genre that transcends time and cultural boundaries. Considering that the term itself derives from the Slavic “Rebenok,” meaning youngster, it is undoubtedly, the music of renewal and hope. For even in exile, and in the aftermath of pain, time and fortitude will lend us the means to traverse the Rainbow. The “Women of Rebetika,” a timely tribute to those of our unsung Song Goddesses who embody a whole way of life, shows us the way:

"Outside the gates of Paradise, someone grew two plants/In time the plants grew, and the angels went wild." Zambetas.

First published in NKEE on 29 June 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” William Arthur Ward.

When I was quite young, I particularly relished a cloth bound, musty edition of Greek myths and legends. That edition was devoid of illustrations and I was thus compelled to supply them out of my own meagre and youthful imagination. When I got to the story of Jason and the Argonauts, I was expressly inspired by the Golden Fleece, which for reasons best known only to my self, I would call the «Χρυσόμαλλο Τέρας,» rather than «Δέρας,» which is the traditional appellation.
In my mind’s eye, perched precariously upon the branches of a tree in murky Colchis, just above the reaches of a fearsome Mingrelian dragon, was a fleece of such exquisite beauty, flowing in concentric ringlets of absolute symmetry, in a symphony of lanic perfection that it could only belong to one man: Kyriakos Amanatides. Kyriakos’ hair is beautiful. In truth, he has the most beautiful hair of anyone in Greek community, nay, even Melbourne. As a matter of fact, I have not seen such an amazing fleece upon the pate of anyone else in the world, save that of a Sinai monk, and his is much diminished, for he is bald. Contrariwise, age may have wearied Kyriakos but his coiffure remains the personification of all the hopes and aspirations of mankind to perfection.
My earliest memory of Kyriakos is inextricably linked with hair. As a child, I was taken to hear him give one of his lectures. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, viewing his hair, a veritable flock of goats bounding down the slopes of Gilead, as the Song of Songs would have it, and listening to his calm, precise and yet soothing words land softly as eiderdown upon my eardrums, only to bounce off again, unheeded and unabsorbed. Returning home that night, I made a solemn pronouncement to my parents. “When I grow up, I want to be an Amanatides.”
Decades later, Kyriakos Amanatides continues to be a source of inspiration to the entire Greek community and it is thus fitting that he was honoured by the Greek Consul-General Christos Salamanis recently for his contribution to the cultural life and education of the Hellenes. As I observed on the day, a person of the stature of Kyriakos Amanatides has no need of honours or distinctions. Rather it is we who resound in his honour when we bestow acclamation upon him, because we are magnified as a collective, by having such a great man live among us, and condescend to lead by his example.
Kyriakos’ is the classic case of the fortunate person who is able to transform his passions and beliefs into his career. Born in Ano Rodonia in 1936, he migrated to Melbourne in 1958 after realizing that he had not the resources, to further his studies in his homeland. In his adopted country Australia, he became a Bachelor of Arts and Letters, with post-graduate studies in Modern Greek Literature. He went on to teach Modern Greek at various High Schools, the University of Melbourne and Monash University. His role in educating and inspiring a generation of Greek-Australians, and instilling in them a love of our literary heritage, a commodity hitherto not readily available in the common discourse, has been pivotal. Just the other day, the indefatigable academic Dina Dounis remarked that she owed her understanding and love of Greek literature, primarily to the sterling efforts of that remarkable man.
Not content with just dry academic achievements, Kyriakos Amanatides was determined that his activities should also have some social utility. From almost the outset of his sojourn in this country, he commenced what has turned out to be a most remarkable and voluminous literary output, both in poetry in prose. His early poems in the newspapers of the time attracted the attention of another gifted writer. Thus commenced an amazing literary and life partnership between Kyriakos and his wife, the poet Dina, one which has seen them become a community institution in the cultural sphere. It was primarily due to his efforts that the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne was founded, in order to showcase and encourage the production of Greek Australian literature. His founding and editorship of the League’s journal, “Antipodes,” has seen it become the premium expression and repository of all that is historically significant in Greek-Australian literature. It would be remiss of me not to add that I am among those who are the recipients of his sage advice. While still at university and attending a conference in Sydney, I asked him, full of post - teen angst: “I have some poems that I’m considering publishing in book form. What do you think?” As is commonly known to those who know and love him, Kyriakos Amanatides’ advice is delivered slowly, concisely and with the devastatingly logical casuistry of a dogmatic theologian. It is delivered in measured tones, with an assessment of both the pros and cons of the argument, and then, only with the slightest of hints towards the outcome advised. In my case he intoned: “If you are doing it for the money, I couldn’t advise it as a profitable venture. Poetry is a difficult pursuit. If you are doing it for the passion of it, wait until you have matured as poet and then re-consider it.” It was a sound piece of advice that I didn’t take. Back in 2003 when I published my first poetry collection, “Kipos Esokleistos,” the said collection was first presented to the public through a literary radio program on 3XY hosted by Kyriakos and Dina Amanatides. It is an attitude of protection and friendship that they have adopted towards all Greek-Australian writers. Indeed, through their radio program “Literary Echoes,” which was of a two year duration, Kyriakos and Dina presented the works of some 55 Greek-Australians. That is to say nothing of the countless lectures and book presentations he has given over the years.
At the Greek Consulates’ function in honour of Kyriakos, education stalwart Tassos Douvartzides spoke movingly about the influence Kyriakos has had over his life as a mentor and friend. It was under his guidance that he was encouraged to study and his continued supervision and care of Tassos that ensured that he completed those studies. Tassos spoke in reverent tones about him, artfully juxtaposing a photograph of him as a javelin-thrower in his youth, taken from an angle that makes him look tall and comparing it to his short physical stature. The point was clear: Kyriakos Amanatides looms large as a figure in our community. As Tassos was careful to point out, more letters sent by community organisations to each other and the Greek government have been selflessly and anonymously penned by the self-effacing Kyriakos than anyone else. He has been a faithful servant of various Pontian organizations and has laboured hard, both in his public lectures and his articles to raise awareness and seek recognition of the Pontian Genocide. He has also served the Committee for Celebration Greek National Day, the Victorian Association of Multicultural Writers and the Australian Institute of Greek Language and Culture. As secretary of the Committee in Support of the Greeks of Northern Epirus, a position he still maintains, he has provided invaluable services in making the plight of the Northern Epirots known, especially during the Hoxha regime, when information was scarce and the manner of pursuing support for them delicate, owing to the Cold War. Kyriakos Amanatides could thus be said to be basically responsible for articulating the policy of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia on that issue.
It is fitting that in 2007, Kyriakos Amanatides was given an award for excellence in Multicultural Affairs by the State. I was given the same award on the same day and it was because I received it in the shadow of such worthier, giants of men that I felt, and wrote in this very column-space of the countless contributions of people such as Kyriakos, who deserve recognition.
One of Kyriakos’ most enduring contributions to us would invariable have to be his articles in Neos Kosmos, which have rightfully rendered him the social conscience of an entire generation. Meticulously researched and argued, on a plethora of topics, they also constitute for me, the yardstick and treasure trove of Greek vocabulary, syntax and delicate phrasing and I eagerly mine them every week for their goodies. His latest book, «Επίκαιρα και Επίμαχα,» or “Current and Controversial,” containing gleanings of a vast resource of such articles published in Neos Kosmos over the years and launched on 14 June, constitutes a fabulous manner in which to ensure the enduring relevance of a truly great man of letters. It has been said of teachers that they are much like candles, in that they are consumed, just as they illuminate. In this, just as in many other things, Kyriakos Amanatides defies convention. For he will continue to illuminate us long into the future, and his name and legacy (and that gorgeous mane of hair) will never be consumed in the obscurity of oblivion.


First published in NKEE on 15 June 2009

Monday, June 08, 2009


It can only happen during one of those sultry summer nights in Piraeus, when the full moon is an aspirin dissolving in the placid waters of the Saronic Gulf and the slightest hint of a headache is making itself manifest because you have eaten too many fish, drunk too much cheap wine and life once more assumes the form of a corridor of infinite possibilities. My friends, attributing my halting tongue to an inability to locate and extract the requisite words to give rise to my admittedly blank thoughts rather than general sloth and a blood alcohol level that would make a Sunbury teenager cringe, ventured to suggest that I put those amoebic thoughts to song.
“Did you know,” a particularly pneumatic and nubile friend gushed entrancingly, “there is a Greek song to cover every single situation in the world? Even if you can’t think of something to say, there is always a song lyric to do it for you.” I lifted my leaden head and tried in vain to focus upon her eyes, which were round and wonderful, as if she had just been let into the secret that Father Christmas actually exists. (He does by the way. He is a GOCMV committee member, but that’s another story.) “Rubbish,” I slurred. “Absolute poppycock.” (My translation of poppycock is μπούρδες, because παπαρουνοκόκκοροι, though more poppycockish sounding, has not yet been introduced into common parlance.) “Give me a song that says, I love you and want you to have my babies,” I demanded.
Smiling sweetly, she complied: “Μείνε μαζί μου έγκυος, είμαι πολύ φερέγγυος.» That was her mistake. Immediately, I launched into a heated tirade as to whether anything that comes out of that cosmetic crooner, Lefteris Pantazis’ mouth actually can be deemed to be song, rather than the mating call of the greater black-backed gull. Citing the masochistic “Κάθε βράδυ κόβω φλέβες, ξενυχτάω με φραππέδες και ξηλώνω καναπέδες για να κοιμηθώ,» I proved conclusively that there are songs, and then there are SONGS. Further, I opined, what Greek song exists that covers the eventuality of one sitting upon a hedgehog? Ha! Weren’t prepared for that one were you? After all, there truly are few Greek songs that cover the proclivities of animals except for «μπήκαν, ορέ μπήκαν, τα γίδια στο μαντρί,» which a friend from Trikkala assures me has nothing to do with goat-herding and is most probably a euphemism for more sordid activities and at the time that this conversation was taking place, Karvela had not yet penned those immortal lines: «Ο σκύλος μου είναι γκέϋ.»
I stumbled my way into a taxi as my friends chorused in adieu: “Πήγαινέ με, όπου θέλεις ταξιτζή,» and settled in for the long ride to my grandmother’s house in Penteli. It was my aunt’s high pitched voice landing like an axe into my ear-drum that woke me the next day, as she sang to her daughter: “Είσαι ο, τι καλύτερο μου έχει συμβεί, στη ζωηηηηηή μου,» that slung me out of my stupor the very next day. Clutching my collapsing cranium, I shuffled to the kitchen in search of Greek coffee, while my grandmother intoned the Epirotic folksong: “Αχ δε στο’ πα χαλασιά μου, στο μήλο να μην πας, γιατί θα σε πατήσει η ρόδα, και θα ‘μαι εγώ φονιάς.» I left for Constantinople the very next day, listening to the Olympic Airways theme song: “Πάμε για άλλες πολιτείες...» Back then, the Spice Girls and Ibrahim Tatlises were all the rage in Turkey and they contribute nothing to this narrative.
My sister, growing up, had a propensity to stand in front of doorways and demand that I provide her with a password, before she would let me through. This particular propensity grew worse upon her youthful eyes having witnessed Mihali Rakintzi’s excruciating performance at the 2002 Eurovision song contest, whereupon she would stomp robotically down the corridor singing: “Hey, hey, hey, hey , hey if you want to get through the door, door, door, door, door, say the password,” the answer being of course “S.A.G.A.P.O.” We also learned from Rakintzis that: “Τον άντρα που αγάπησες, τον φωνάζουνε μπέμπα, στα παράξενα στέκια που κυκλοφορεί,» which is of immense cause for concern. Later on, having described to me a situation which she had totally misjudged and thus, had mad a mistake, my sister elicited the following response from me, in best gravel-throated, Vasilis Karas fashion: «Δεν ακούς, δεν ακούς...» I had to stop because my throat was filled with phlegm, causing me to collapse in a fit of choking.
Admittedly, even some of our hallowed folk-songs, the boast of our romiosyni can be misunderstood. The first time I heard the song: “Σε είδα να κλαδεύεις την τριανταφυλλιά και πήδηξα το φράχτη,» the accompanying images were so acute that I fell off my chair. Sometimes, when you actually stop to think about the lyrics, you realise just how banal and lazy there are, having relied upon decent music to carry them through unnoticed. The famous love song: «Σ’ αγαπώ γιατί είσαι ωραία,» sounds wonderfully romantic until you translate it as «I love you coz you are good-looking.” So much for loving me for who I am. Similarly, a few weeks ago, when I attempted to teach my Greek school class the Epirotic folk-song “Δεν μπορώ μανούλα’μ,» the translation I was asked by my students to provide to them seemed to parallel the nursery rhyme: “Miss Polly had a dolly that was sick, sick, sick, so she called for the doctor to come quick, quick quick,” save that the Doctor in our case was Nikoli and the ailment, love, a concept my students, being between 7 to 8 years old, have difficulty grasping.
Returning just a month a go from the Ploutarhos concert, I chanced upon a flummoxed and flurried Tammy (social conscience of the Greek community) Iliou, busily consulting her telephone. “Can you BELIEVE these lyrics?” she asked. She referred in particular, to the bizarre line: «Παρήγγειλα μια κάβα μοναξιά από μπορντό μέχρι σταχτιά και βρέθηκα τρελός σε φαρμακείο.» My take on this example of Greek jabberwocky, to the effect that it is a critique upon the Greek equivalent of the PBS did not seem to convince her. The day after, I missed an opportunity to interview the great man Ploutarhos because I refused to answer my mobile phone, a policy I inherited from former NKEE editor Argyris Argyropoulos, that has actually safeguarded my sanity. All the while though, I pondered the Pythian meaning of his lyrics and Tammy’s fascinated repulsion of them. Seeking further clarification of her stance, I emailed her my corniest song lyric, that of Pantazis’ quoted above. The response, was both laconic and telling: “Το ξέρω πως δεν μ΄αγαπάς/το ξέρω δεν σε νοιάζει/ πως η αγάπη που ζητάς/ με το φεγγάρι μοιάζει/ Τη νύχτα είσαι αστροφεγγιά/ τη μέρα καταιγίδα/ είσαι γυναίκα ερημιά/ στα μάτια σου το είδα...I can’t resist a good Pandazis song..” Now how can one top that in corniness? Nevertheless, I had to try. Summoning all the resources at my fingertips, I delved deep into my Apollonian resources and fired off what I thought would be a devastating Despina Vandi riposte: «Πόσο σε θέλω, πόσο μου λείπεις, γύρισε πίσω, γιατί σου λέω: Δεν μπορώ χωρίς εσένα, Και δε ζω γύρνα σε μένα, Θα χαθώ - θα σου πεθάνω, Αν δε σε δω...And in translation: How, much I want you, How much I miss you, Come back, As I tell you, I can't - without you, And I don't live - come back to me, I'll get lost - I'll die on you, If I don't see you.»
Tammy however, refused to be phased. Her measured and apocalyptic response was as didactic as ever: “I think we have a seminar here waiting to be developed: The angst and deprivation needed - across many levels and people, in order to (include):- decide to write the lyrics in the first place;- decide to use musical skills to compose the lyrics;- believe that the lyrics+music are actually bankable;- attract the likes of Pantazi, Ploutarho etc to vocalise;- sell the outcome;- fill stadiums abroad; and- encourage bizarre antics like the use of trays +carnations; stampedes; and en masse believing the power and depth of "Ax Koritsi mou...."
Seriously, how can one as lacking in erudition as I presume to uncover these hallowed mysteries? Nonetheless, I took a brief, tentative stab at it. Quoth I: “How dare you dispute the mating call of the Greek male "Ax Koritsi mou." Do you know how many Greek males would have failed to procreate if it was not for that song? The entire race would have been in jeopardy.At any rate, having regards to your criteria of analysis, in which the construction of any modern laiko must include a bed and a tsigaro, where does this fit in?:Σ' αρέσει να 'σαι σέξυ να με πεθαίνεις,σ' αρέσει να 'σαι σέξυ να μου κολλάς,τους χτύπους της καρδιάς μου να αρρωσταίνεις,και όταν περνάω δίπλα σου χαμογελάς…”
The indomitable Tammy provides I believe, a fitting end to this deeply disquieting foray into the manner in which Greek song lyrics pervert our public discourse:
“In closing, I'll leave you with some Elli Kokkinou class to help with Karvella's gay dog.
"Se vlepo ke patheno ne
Gia sena agori mou trelenome
Ke klinome ke gdynome
Fantazome oti sou dinome
Se vlepo ke patheno ne
Gia sena agori mou trelenome
Se skeftome ke anastatonome
Perhaps, a future diatribe?”
To Tammy then, my Eurovision song goddess and more besides, eternal thanks and may million corny Greek song-lyrics upon the altar of her temple: «Είσαι θεά, γλυκιά, σα μουσταλευριά.»

First published in NKEE on 8 June 2009

Monday, June 01, 2009


"Slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them captive, and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the last Day.. Go forth, light-armed and heavy-armed, and strive with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah!" (Sura 9:5,29,41)

The Greek people have, owing to geography, an extremely close relationship with Islam over the years. Certainly, the religion arose. Geographically at least, at a confluence of the Persian and Byzantine cultures. St John of Damascus, one of the first non-Muslims to comment on the new religion, found it to be a Christian heresy and the Arabic interest in ancient Greek philosophy saw many ancient works that would have otherwise been lost, translated into Arabic and heavily commented upon. Similarly, it was a group of Greek architects and artisans, sent by way of courtesy to the Arab caliph, who were responsible for the building of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, one of the most important shrines in all of Islam.
Islam has also influenced Christian theological debates. Seeing the seemingly unstoppable muslim armies carry all before them, the Isaurian emperors of Byzantium attributed this to the muslim insistence upon aniconic worship. Iconoclasm - the destruction of images and the banning of their veneration by Christians ensued, plunging the Byzantine Empire into turmoil for a hundred years and doing much to broaden the ever-widening rift between western and eastern Christendom.
For at least a thousand years, Greek lands remained under the sway of Islamic conquerors. Apart from the often oppressive and undoubtedly discriminatory regime that held Christians to be of dhimmi status and hence, second class citizens, right up until 1923, various facets of Islam permeated Greek culture. The belief in fate, «το γραμμένο,» village expressions such as «μασαλλάχ», accompanied by the ritual wiping of one's face as if in preparation for prayer are but a few (now diminishing) vestiges of Islamic accretions upon our own culture. In places such as Ioannina, Rhodes, Kos and Konitsa, where the Islamic presence is now minimal, mosques still dominate the city-scape. It is as impossible to conceive of Ioannina divested of its two mosques as it is of a Komotini without its vibrant muslim presence. These historical markers, for better or for worse, remind us of a time when the fate of our people was intertwined with that of another.
It speaks volumes for Greek society that despite the trying time experienced by Hellenism under Islam, which in fact forms one of the founding myths of the Greek nation - its re-birth being equated with its emancipation from the shackles of Islamic theocracy, that Greece enjoys warm relations with most Islamic countries. This is no more so evident than in Israel itself, where the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is seen as a protector of the rights and welfare of the Palestinian people, regardless of religion. The saintly Archbishop of Albania, His Beatitude Anastasios, has done much to foster a cohesive society shorn of inter-religious strife by come to the aid of all those in need within the confines of his jurisdiction, including muslims. Similarly, the greatest supporter of the idea that muslim migrants and refugees in Athens should have their own place of worship is none other than the Church of Greece, which is donating its own land for this purpose. Such gestures look beyond doctrinal differences to the crux of humanitarianism: assisting others in need and making them feel welcome in one's own country.
Given this context, the recent spate of violence to hit Athens as a result of a police officer allegedly tearing a page of the Koran while conducting a routine check of the papers of four Syrian immigrants is reprehensible and appalling. About 1,500 Muslim protesters, mainly men in their 20s and 30s from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria and Somalia marched through Athens to protest against the incident, chanting "Allah is great", carrying banners reading "Hands off immigrants" and holding up copies of Islam's holy book. Violence broke out at the end of the demonstration as around 120 protesters threw projectiles at police, who tried to disperse the crowd with tear gas. The protesters pulled up pavements, smashed about a dozen shop windows and damaged cars, leaving some overturned in the middle of streets. Bus stops and traffic lights were destroyed and shocked tourists ran into hotels on the central Syndagma Square for cover. Police said 46 protesters were arrested. Seven Muslims and another seven policemen were injured and brought to hospital for treatment. About 75 cars, five stores and one bank were damaged.
No one deserves to have their religion denigrated. However, on the same token, given that the police have immediately launched an enquiry into the incident, no one has the right to destroy public property and go on a rampage at the slightest of provocations, especially "migrants" the status of whose right to remain in Greece in unclear. If this is the way that these men show their gratitude in being afforded the opportunity to remain in a secular, democratic country where diversity of opinion is respected and there are boundless opportunities, then inevitable questions must be raised as to their capacity to integrate themselves within Greek society.
It is worthwhile to note that in the vast majority of Muslim countries, save for Syrian, Lebanon and Jordan, the ability of a non-Muslim to worship freely is at best, subject to limitation and at worst, severely proscribed to the point of being illegal. In particular, Pakistani protesters should be informed of how their compatriots lob hand grenades and other projectiles over the walls of buildings in which Orthodox services are being held. At the same time that Christians in Iraq are subject to arbitrary rape, torture and murder by fanaticised criminals, with the state tacitly condoning or turning a blind eye to such heinous activities, and the property of our own Ecumenical Patriarchate is being arbitrarily seized by the "secular" Turkish government, which forbids the operation of the Theological School of Halki and proscribes the role of the Patriarch, muslims in Greece and other European countries enjoy the tolerance that is their right according to the principles of secularism and humanitarianism. In Greece, a single muslim may have his Quran unfortunately insulted by an ignorant or bigoted police officer. On the whole however, one's right to freedom of religion is invariably respected, as it should be.
Responsibilities come as a corollary to rights. Muslim migrants, most of whom enter Greece illegally, who are quick to go on a destructive rampage at the flimsiest and slightest of provocations, destroying their hosts' public and private property, do more damage to their cause than good. At the same time that they violently rage against a single isolated and reprehensible act of bigotry, they display their intolerance and utter disregard for the goodwill of the people that have welcomed them into their homes and granted them opportunities that would be denied to them, if their positions were reversed, in their countries of origin. Most importantly, given the insidious nature of the dialectic between western secularism and Islam, such behaviour gives rise to the very conception that moderate muslims around the world are so keen to dispel: that Islam is a religion of violence and intolerance.
Sura 9.123 of the Quran states: "O you who believe! Fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you." Indeed, all religions relegate certain positions and fates to those who do not subscribe to their tenets. Take Sura 22.9 for instance: "As for the unbelievers for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods." Whatever our conception of the spiritual state of our fellow humans however, it is incumbent upon all of us to co-exist peacefully. This does not mean that we must shy away from constructive debate about the beliefs and practices that differentiate us as people, but it does mean that we ought to approach each other first as humans worthy of respect and only then consider other constructs that adhere to our personae. The immature vandals that went on a rampage in Athens, supposedly in defence of Islam, have shown that they are incapable of such respect. Indeed, they appear to have just been looking for an excuse to go berserk. As such, they have no place in Greek society and they must be deported.
Sura 47.4 may state that: "When you meet the unbelievers, strike off their heads; then when you have made wide slaughter among them, carefully tie up the remaining captives." However, no serious moderate muslim will entertain the idea of indulging in extreme and criminal acts in response to every perceived slight. Fanatics must learn that there are ways of expressing disapprobation and protest in a civilised and regulated manner. If they are incapable of conducting themselves according to the norms of their host country, then one would venture to ask why they do not seek solace in a country that subscribes to their twisted ideals. After all, to exploit one's goodwill, friendship and resources and then threaten them and damage their property is tantamount to theft, let alone gross ingratitude. This minute cross-section of the otherwise law-abiding muslim migrant community in Greece should not be permitted to jeopardise religious tolerance in a traditionally sympathetic country.
A tit for tat approach to resolving this issue will only fan the flames of bigotry and misunderstanding further. However, it would possibly be expedient for western countries such as Greece to inform the countries of origin of their migrants of their expectation that the same rights of freedom of worship and expression as are afforded by them to their surplus citizens, should be also be afforded within their place of origin.
Greece's unique insights into the Middle East and its lengthy co-habitation and accommodation with Islamic countries lend it a pivotal role as mediator and facilitator in Middle Eastern affairs. Nonetheless, its enlightened and tolerant stand towards its migrant population should not be compromised either by bigotry by its organs of state, or the destructive fanaticism of the tiny minority of its ungrateful and irresponsible guests. Aleister Crowler may well have crowed that: "The supreme satisfaction is to be able to despise one's neighbour and this fact goes far to account for religious tolerance." It is evidently consoling to reflect that the people next door are headed for hell. For my part, my heart goes out to that Middle Eastern Theanthropos who commanded: "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." For herein, lies the way forward.

First published in NKEE on 1 June 2009