Monday, July 27, 2009


There are parts of Nia Vardalos’ new film “My Life in Ruins,” that are remotely interesting. For the most part however, this film seems to be short-sighted, peddling ethnicity for cheap laughs, and even more disquieting, exhibiting hints of an orientalist approach to Greek culture. If anything, the film’s worth is never better summarised that in the sobriquet Vardalos has given to the lead male character: “Poupi Kaka.” And yes, apparently resorting to scatology in order to resolve deep seated angst about identity seems to be permissible as well as effective.
The two main motifs of the film are not without intrinsic value. On the one hand, you have the Greek-American trying to adjust, not only to a ‘foreign’ pace of life in Greece but also an almost ‘foreign’ philosophy, despite the fact that she is, in a sense Greek. However, with slight, welcome relapses, the way this is done verges onto the sloppy, tokenistic and chauvinistic. Vardalos’ placement of the main character, Georgia in Greece after a major life crisis is acceptable. How many Greek-Americans/Australians or other diasporans have sought refuge in the comforting magic promise of Greece, whether this is to forget an old and hurtful relationship, or to begin a career/life anew? Further, conditioned by Anglo-Saxonic social norms, the Greeks of Greece often appear at first glance loud, obtuse, aggressive and rude to us and their pace of life seems frustrating, conditioned by complex social relationships, vested interest and regulatory chaos. Obversely, Greek-Americas/Australians are often seen as cold, uncommunicative and awkward by their metropolitan counterparts.
An examination of the way in which Greek diasporans relate to Greek society and a contrast and comparison of acquired as well as imagined cultural traits would have been fascinating, though, one would venture to say, such an endeavour would most probably been lost upon a non-Greek audience. As it stands however, Vardalos’ Georgia is untenable. She is a quiet and awkward Greek, is a sea of weird, ugly, aggressive or sleazy counterparts. As such, and because she doesn’t speak foreign-accented English she is best placed to bridge not only the gap between idealised ancient Greece and inexplicably crazy (for the film at least) Modern Greece but also the cultural chasm between her boorish and philistine tourists and Greeks.
The way Vardalos goes about bridging this gap is clumsy and contrived. A frustrated Georgia rails and rants simplistically at how everyone in Greece has time for a coffee, elevators and buses do not work and no one seems to care. Granted, the apparent prevalence of chaos in Modern Greece, to western eyes is a legitimate motif for exploration. Sadly, Vardalos renders this as nothing more than the whinings of a culturally dislocated and frustrated bourgeois princess. Apparently a sole Greek-American is the solitary custodian of the cultural conscience of an entire civilization while her native counterparts are only interested in being loud, money-hungry, dishonest and sleazy, with a propensity towards sexual harassment. The scene where a hotel manager stereotypically refuses to assist her because he is too busy watching Anthony Quinn dance the Zorba, and later demands sexual favours in exchange for postage stamps is as ridiculous as it is insulting to Greece.
The manner in which native Greeks are represented smacks of racism and Orientalism. Extending Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou’s paradigm in their ground-breaking study: “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000” further, it becomes evident that the ruling Anglo-Saxon hegemony seeks to legitimise its cultural and temporal rule over the globe by becoming the arbiter of how smaller, tributary cultures define themselves. Consequently, when we choose to present ourselves to the ruling discourse, we need to do so in a manner that panders to their sense of superiority. That is, if our ethnicity is to have any relevance to the Hollywood audience, we need to demean ourselves. It is therefore futile to point out that Greece is not just the place where “everyone has time for a coffee,” where “now, we dance,” or where people try to steal or con their way in or out of situations. Nor is it a land whose male population is readily divided into greasy and sleazy charlatans or drop-dead gorgeous hunks. Neither is it a land whose female population is comprised of big haired, wide mouthed, tremendously large-bosomed matrons who don’t respect others’ privacy or a slimmer version of Nia Vardalos. As for the topos and the landscape of Greece, that also must pander to the discourse set by the hegemony. Acceptable Greece is a land of beaches and the haunting ruins that the West has determined form the basis of its civilization. This is inadvertedly touched upon by Vardalos having the perceptive if somewhat crusty tourist played by Richard Dreyfuss, assume the guise of the all-wise, all-knowing oracle at Delphi. It is not the village or the back-streets of Athens. We need to be quaint, silly and stupid in order for Hollywood audiences to deal with us on a level that will ensure that they shall enjoy the experience. It is thus futile to point out or portray the fact that apart from people like Poupi Kaka and his nephew Doudi Kaka (for this denigration alone Nia Vardalos should be ashamed of herself), our people have a) successfully resisted and survived a brutal Axis occupation, b) given forth such greats as Maria Callas, Mikis Theodorakis and Nobel prize winner Giorgos Seferis, c) is a haven of peace and democracy in the Balkans.
One could argue that hysterical accusations of orientalism are refuted in the tokenistic and stereotypical manner in which Vardalos portrays the western tourists that her character is charged with showing around Athens. The two Australians in particular, are depicted as beer-swilling, incomprehensible rhyming-slang speaking, benign buffoons that seem to have been lifted straight out of a Crocodile Dundee Movie. The Americans, are portrayed as uncultivated but ultimately good-hearted folk, the Spaniard women as sexy man-eaters while the British family is depicted as uptight and sexually repressed, with their incorrigible daughter only learning to smile and loosen up after she becomes the recipient of Doudi Kaka’s amorous advances, in which she parallel’s Vardalos’ Georgia. These troglodytic tourists’ appreciation of Greece as a land of souvenirs in beaches is only transformed slightly into a schematic understanding of the glory of ancient Greek ruins (foundation of western civilization remember?) when it is reduced to the simple formula of the wind rustling through the columns of the Parthenon (columns, virgins, Freud would have a field day,) and only in step with Vardalos/Georgia’s own sexual awakening.
That Greece is a land of sexual awakenings is beyond question and is signified by the droves of young diasporans flocking there every summer for their annual migration, to breed and return to colder climes. However, Vardalos/Georgia’s Greek love tryst, though trite and prosaic is actually quite revealing. This awkward, uneasy, self-conscious, but intelligent girl, who has her career as an academic in tatters and huge hang-ups about her Greek identity and herself, has these magically resolved upon being the reluctant recipient of sage advice from a recently widowed elderly father figure (Dreyfuss) and of, well let us face it, a decent bout of sex by Mr Poupi Kaka, who is transformed from an impossibly hairy South American guerrilla-like being into a Greek Adonis who oozes sexiness and eclipses all other Greek males that have ever existed. As a result of her consummation, she emerges, well-adjusted, confident, and able to hold her own. Further, her frenetic sex with Mr Poupi empowers her to reject her nerdy academic job in Michigan and to remain in Greece as a tour guide, because suddenly, her mating with a top specimen has facilitated her relating to people. The wonders of sex indeed! One would be disappointed to see Greek-diasporan women portrayed in such a flighty, anti-feminist and ultimately derogatory fashion. Objectively, this does not make much of a story either.
Nia Vardalos has said that she is a proud Greek-Canadian-American on many occasions and there is no reason to impugn her statement. Nia Vardalos also knows what sells, not only to an Anglo audience but a diasporan one. The vast majority of the audience in my cinema was comprised of diasporans, mostly women. They were the ones that gasped loudest at the sight of Mr Poupi Kaka’s impossibly perfect pectoral and abdominal muscles. They were also the ones that laughed loudest at the racist jokes that portrayed Greeks in the most negative fashions. For some reason, we love to hate ourselves, or rather the people who we represent the place where our parents came from, ever so slightly, and take pleasure in seeing them denigrated. I for one do not. Its time that our compatriot film makers are encouraged not to resort to cheap and tacky racist taunts and scatology when portraying their own kind, in the search for some non-existent approval by the dominant group. We have a diverse, fascinating and engrossing 4,000 year tragicomic existence from which a multitude of motifs and themes can be mined. If our film-makers cannot make use of that then possibly they should review their understanding of Hellenism before attempting to portray it. We leave you for this week with a few memorable quotes from an otherwise eminently forgettable movie: "How many of you, like me, have come here to fondle as many nude statues as possible? This is comedy. The Greeks invented it, like moustaches on women." Oh, grow up.


First published in NKEE on 27 July 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009


“Thence we came and hence we shall return,” goes the old adage and yet this and many others like it are defied by the fates of the diasporic Hellenes. Consider mute Olbia, Panticapaeum, Cherson and Odessus, colonies founded by diasporic Greeks in the Crimea. The ensuing glory Bosporan Kingdom, one of the richest and most powerful of the ancient world should be juxtaposed against its sorry and devastated state when the region was seized by Potemkin from the Ottomans in 1782. Potemkin found the region denuded of its Greek inhabitants and in homage to their memory, set about refounding towns in which Greeks could settle, such as Sevastopol. Today, after wars, social upheaval and the passage of time the Crimea is again largely de-hellenized.
It is trite that population and cultural movement is not a static phenomenon. It bears noticing though, that of all the historic movements of the Greek diaspora outside the motherland, however this is defined, none have achieved a viable permanency as Greek entities. Massalia, now known as Marseille, is a case in point and its gradual de-hellenization is exemplified in its coinage. Silver coins, sporting an olive-wreath wearing Artemis on the reverse and a lion on the obverse were gradually copied by the Celts as Marseilles’ culture became more and more diverse, until such time as the city’s coinage ended up sporting some abstract and unintelligible designs that truly bear witness to the effect of cultures intermingling within a multicultural melting pot.
This notwithstanding, most of my youth was spent in a psychological Hellenic enclave. We spoke Greek at home, partook of the deliberations and news exchange that is a prerequisite of membership of the ‘virtual’ village transplanted from the mother country and associated with other Greeks – mostly from our own region. On weekends, we would attend Greek dance after Greek dance in brotherhood buildings. Brotherhoods were formed simply because while their members acknowledged that they were generically Greek, they found it easier to relate and thus associate with people from their own region. These dances would be held in rapid succession because the said brotherhood buildings needed to be paid off so that they would remain: “for our children.” The assumption was always that the next generation would retain the social structure, language, ideology, attitudes and customs understood by the first generation as being tantamount to Hellenism, even though they could not always agree on what these were. I will never forget one particularly brave individual holding a placard at an Antipodes Festival a decade ago proclaiming: «Ε, τσοπάνηδες! Μπύρα και τσόπια: Δεν είναι αυτός ο πολιτισμός μας,» and parading up and down Lonsdale Street. This individual’s public accusation of the first generation, who see themselves as the arbiters and prophets of what is Hellenic, as being inauthentic in their emphasis upon the consumption of meat and alcohol (a supposedly “Aussie” and non-Greek pastime), is of intrinsic historical significance.
Our religion too was ‘Greek,’ rather than Orthodox and ecumenical because the first generation had learned at school that the Greek Orthodox Church was the bastion of Hellenic civilization. Recently, I read an interview given by a missionary to the editors of a religious magazine in Greece. Having concluded three years as a theologian in Sydney, he made a farewell speech in which he expressed the desire for the creation of Aboriginal converts to Orthodoxy and Aboriginal priests. He was and still is shocked by the parish priest’s response: “You shouldn’t have said that. Our church exists solely for Greeks.” The priest’s reaction is not unpredictable. As a minority group struggling to maintain cohesion, the first generation would and has employed as many means possible to keep us together, as they have to separate us into warring factions – again, another particularly Greek trait. Come the late eighties, and Nick Giannopoulos would introduce further novel innovations into one’s identity. We could no longer define ourselves as genuine article, first edition Greeks. Instead, we were collectively, ‘wogs,’ – that is heirs to a tradition and culture that we sometimes found oppressive, sometimes onerous but which permeated the way we spoke, dressed and acted. Being a wog was cool because we could distance ourselves from our parents with their archaizing and inconsistent conception of identity. At the same time, by adopting a few rudiments of their culture, we absolved ourselves of the need to adopt it wholesale and could thus occupy a facile middle position between a marginal minority enclave and an integrated group within broader society. Further, we found that we had so much in common with members of other ethnic groups also struggling with a first generation-imposed cultural hegemony, who we could also term ‘wogs.’ We were now English-speaking ethnics united by the oppression of a mother culture too difficult to espouse within the monolingual demands of an Anglo-Saxon world. Nonetheless, the first generation continues to persist in the perpetuation of social and community structures that do not acknowledge the vast cultural and linguistic chasm that exists between the generations, quite possibly in the vain hope that future generations will ‘come around.’
Recent events transpiring within the Greek community are a case in point. A Greek organization in the Western suburbs has recently seen members of its youth elected to its committee of management. As part of their campaign to modernize and make their organization relevant, the committee has decided to put up its clubhouse, an aging, semi built, inconvenient and costly structure, up for sale. Their aim is to purchase a smaller, more central premises that will absolve them of the need to hold dance after dance in order to pay it off and permit them to host other activities that will convey regional culture and a sense of community to the latter generations. Unsurprisingly, the sale is strenuously opposed my aging members of the organization. As one remarked to me: “If they are frightened of paying it off, they should hold more dances and fundraisers until they do.” Another former president, responsible for the selection of the vast site, commented more revealingly: “This premises is ideal. We were to build a school, a theatre, a soccer ground and various receptions. We never did. But why should they sell it? We all agree it should be sold. But when we want to sell. Not when they want to.” Sum total: We must preserve and milk our sacred cows even after their udders are dry. Stay tuned for fireworks.
Juxtapose this against another function I attended recently, in which after two English language speakers, I spoke in Greek for two minutes, to an audience comprised mainly of Greek-Australians in their fifties. In the midst of my talk, I heard a member of the audience audibly whisper: “We don’t understand what the hell he is saying.” Switching back and forth between the two languages in order to make myself understood, I marveled at how the concept of the ‘second generation’ has now broadened to include those of middle age.’ Upon the conclusion of my speech, I was congratulated for my ‘good Greek’ (as if speaking your own language should be considered an achievement), by an elderly gentleman who said he was from Turkey (Constantinople) and who informed me in English that the Constantinopolitans spoke the best Greek of all. I answered all of his questions in Greek and yet not once would he switch from his broken, barely intelligible English to a more comfortable medium. Immediately afterwards I was approached by a grandmother who waxed lyrical about the fact that her grandson who was given a bouzouki for Christmas gushed: “Look at me grandma, I have a bouzouki! I’m a real Greek!.” The grandmother’s real pride over her grandson’s tokenistic approach to an identity that is manifestly foreign for him really brought home for an enclave-dweller such as myself, the total bankruptcy of the internecine squabbles of the first generation, safely ensconced behind their community constructs. After all it is easier to fight over the lean pickings of pretensions to rapidly diminishing power than to develop the foresight that will ensure that the non-Greek speaking generations will have more than just a tokenistic, kitsch souvenir, Nia Vardalos approach to their identity. A starting point could perhaps be that the complacency accompanying non-proficiency in the Greek language is socially unacceptable, with strategies implemented for the arrest of the current situation. It does not lie in waiting for self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ to emerge from the elite like the Messiah to lead us to the promised land of perpetual Hellenism or from engaging in dozens of fruitless talkfests. After all, talking is what we do best. Nor does it lie in parroting fallacious and intellectually stupid sacred cows such as ‘holistic,’ ‘united’ or ‘organised’ action, given that our community is more fragmented, diverse and composite than we would like to think. Further, it does not lie in our existing regional organisations that, in their insistence upon identity by region, inhibit the formation of a Greek identity and lack the sophistication to realize that in a post-modern age, people demand the right to construct their own identity. The future lies in a broadly based, grass-roots attempt to inspire members of the community to seek their own roots and define their identity for themselves through easy access to elements of Greek culture through direct access to Greece, cultural exchange and the re-establishment of the community as a friendly construct of solidarity, not of politics and self-aggrandizement. These tasks are not easy and are not for those who seek their five minutes of fame. However, they are vital. When I was writing the NUGAS column in this paper, almost a decade ago, I minuted concerns over the possibility of our becoming Poseidonians. As time moves inexorably on, I am ever more convinced that Cavafy was granted with unworldly foresight. Read his poem below and judge for yourself. He is right in all things save, I think, the melancholy. It’s time to act, now:
“The Poseidonians forgot the Greek languageafter so many centuries of mingling with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners. The only thing surviving from their ancestorswas a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths. And it was their habit toward the festival's end to tell each other about their ancient customsand once again to speak Greek namesthat only few of them still recognized. And so their festival always had a melancholy ending because they remembered that they too were Greeks, they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia; and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become,l iving and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.”


First published in NKEE on 20 July 2009

Monday, July 13, 2009


There was a time, when death was romantic. The Neo-classicists dreamt of their deathbed, in which they would be draped Grecian-style with sheets, surrounded by their loved ones and peers, grieving in a contrived fashion as the soon to be departed uttered profound and histrionic, last words. In the famous painting “The Death of General Wolfe,” by Benjamin West, for example, the dying general, killed while fighting the French in Canada, reposes languidly in the arms of his adjutants, as they all bend over to bid him farewell. West depicts General Wolfe as a Christ-like figure. His work resembles the painting of La Pietà, where Christ is held in the embrace of the Virgin Mary. The central message: the death of a hero-martyr is particularly sweet and the moment of his demise, is one not without its aesthetic value.
The Youtube videos of Neda Agha-Soltani’s recent tragic death are anything but romantic, or aesthetically pleasing. They depict in crushing, soul-numbing and relentless scene-by-scene reality, the pathetic demise of an innocent. There is no Grecian drapery to cloak the stark horror as the viewer witnesses this goddesses’ blood spill onto the road and count the seconds as her life ebbs away. There is no carefully composed and arranged imagery or figures to add a grace-note of symbolism or poignancy – anything that would add meaning to her death. She died amidst the confusion of a crowd of protesters, with people scurrying to and fro. Neda, a young lady, brimming with the life, youth and ambition that was an ancillary of her age, was shot dead by a plain-clothes policeman for reasons that are not particularly apparent, as she attended a rally demanding free and fair elections in Iran.
Benjamin West produced his famous paining some eleven years after the death of his subject. In Neda’s case, her death, taped on the mobile phones of bystanders in all its gory detail, was uploaded within minutes upon the Internet. The video quickly became a rallying point for the reformist opposition. Nedā coincidentallty enough is also the the Persian word for "voice", "calling" or "divine message," and she has been referred to as the "voice of Iran.”
Jelaleddin Al Rumi, who is one of the greatest Persian poets, once said that the truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell, and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth. All of a sudden, the unassuming Neda, who decided upon the spur of a moment to attend a rally, has become a martyr. After being pronounced dead at Shariati hospital, Agha-Soltan was buried at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran; she was denied a proper funeral by government authorities. The Iranian government has further issued a ban on collective prayers in mosques for Agha-Soltan in the aftermath of the incident. Soona Samsami, the executive director of the Women's Freedom Forum, who has been relaying information about the protests inside Iran to the international media, told the foreign press that Agha-Soltan's immediate family were threatened by authorities if they permitted a gathering to mourn her. As she stated, "They were threatened that if people wanted to gather there the family would be charged and punished.” It comes as no surprise that the Iranian politicians impugning the validity of the recent Iranian elections that handed incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a triumphant victory, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, called upon Iranian citizens to commemorate Neda, interestingly enough, for those who would have Iran to be a backward country, on Facebook.
As I watched Neda die, I remembered the thousands of other young people who have been slain while protesting of various causes. I will never forget my shaken and distraught Chine teacher the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre telling us how he had wished that he had died with the students. I recalled grainy black and white pictures of students’ dead bodies in the crushing of the Hungarian Uprising and the Prague Spring. I remembered stories my uncle told me about the students in the Athens Polytechnic the day the Junta’s tanks smashed its gates and rolled in and the protests of the Lithuanians in 1989 that were bloodily put down by ‘reformer’ Gorbechev. Further, I recalled what I knew of an event that was eerily reminiscent of the present situation, Black Friday. This is the name given to 8 September 1978, when the repressive Shah of Iran’s security forces shot protestors in Zhaleh Square in Tehran. The deaths of these young protestors and the reaction to them has been described as a pivotal event in the Iranian Revolution when any "hope for compromise" between the protest movement and the Shah's regime was extinguished. So what was the outcome of the courageous slef-sacrifice of these fighters for democracy? This: “Do not interrupt the activities. You all have to obey the Islamic Republic. And if you don’t, you all will vanish.” (Ayatollah Khomeni 19 September 1979). The revolution that had such high hopes of placing Iran, a country with a much older and just as developed civilization as our own upon the road to parliamentrary democracy, fell upon the stumbling block of the Shia version of the Islamic revival that opposed Westernization, saw Ayatollah Khomeini as following in the footsteps of the beloved Shi'a Imam Husayn ibn Ali, and the Shah in those of Husayn's foe, the hated tyrant Yazid. The successors of the Black Friday ‘student-martyrs,’ who rallied against repression and would place their handprints dipped in their own blood as a final, futile act of protest upon street signs and posters, would be addressed in the following manner by the leader of the revolution in whose cause they had died, just the following year: “Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against Islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy, and such things.”
Neda’s death, therefore, signifies in frightening poignancy, just how futility has come full circle. The same gruesome and senseless deaths are occassioned by the same agents of repression, who owe their accession to power upon their promise to end the repression that they have adopted. Neda, now safely dead, is that frightening thing, an empty, lifeless corpse to be animated and used as a mouthpiece by all those who derive benefit from exploiting her pointless demise. Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran produced a photograph of Neda from his jacket pocket, as well as photographs of his family, at a press conference in Washington, on 22 June, and stating: "I have added [Neda] to the list of my daughters. She is now forever in my pocket."
Pahlavi criticized the Iranian government's crackdown on protesters and added, "No one will benefit from closing his or her eyes to knives and cables cutting into faces and mouths of our young and old, or from bullets piercing our beloved 'Neda' whose only sin was the quest for freedom — no one but tyrants and their thugs." And yet, ironically, this is exactly what the Black Friday protesters had said about his father’s regime.
On 24 June 24, Reuters reported that supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi stated they would release thousands of balloons with the message "Neda you will always remain in our hearts" imprinted on them but this is to be expected, given the political situation and the desire to score points against the tyrannical thoecratic government. It should be noted however, that those same politicians who now rally the people against the mullahs have been associated with them and their government for years. However, perhaps the most cynical comments come from Iran’s arch-enemy, the US. On 23 June, Barak Obama, stated that "[we] have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets." Duh. Talk about stating the obvious. Obama later said that he had watched the video of her killing, describing it as "heartbreaking", while adding "I think that anybody who sees it knows there’s something fundamentally unjust about that.”
Therein however, lies the tragedy. We can all agree that Neda’s death is tragic. However what exactly has she died for? All those who pay tribute to her have a controlling interest in her country. Will her death bring about democracy? Most probably not. If anything, Neda’s death bears brutal testimony to a single horrible truth: that repressive regimes that think nothing of taking away human life will continue to exist, legitimizing their brutality by mythologizing the memory of the brutality previously inflicted upon them. And people will die, in droves or alone and in bewilderment, continuously at their hands for while in repressed countries a protests is a symbol of hope, in democratic countries, it is merely a forum by which aggrieved citizens can let off steam, to the general indifference of their peers and their governments. What Neda deserves is not to be made a martyr of, but rather, to be allowed to rest in peace. For as the Iranians say: “The best memory is that which forgets nothing, but injuries. Write kindness in marble and write injuries in the dust.” In this brave new world where the guiding ideology is power, let us not look upon the marble edifices of our lifes, and find them unengraved.


First published in NKEE on 13 July 2009

Monday, July 06, 2009


“Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” Ralph Waldo Emmerson.
Apparently, Queen Elizabeth II can claim her descent from the Anglo-Saxon god Woden and the Japanese Emperor is said to be descended of the sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, in unbroken line beginning with the first, Jimmu, who ascended his throne in 660 BC, whereas the Russian Tsars could trace their descent to the Byzantine Emperors. Many Australians are able to trace their ancestry back to the First Fleet and even beyond that, with surprising results. Australian pop singer Holly Valance for example, turns out to be a relative of British comedian Benny Hill. Among Greeks though, the ability to trace ancestors back past a few generations is extremely limited, owing to the dearth of documentary records taken during the Ottoman period. Plato may have noted that: “There is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors and no slave that has not had a king among his,” but even then though, attempts to trace one’s lineage are not without surprises. My maternal cousins in Greece for example, share the surname Massavetas with none other than the revolutionary hero Athanasios Diakos and they are related to him. It transpires that Diakos’ family, presumably his brothers, were granted large tracts of land by the free Greek state which were over the course of a century, gradually lost, culminating in my cousins’ great-grandfather’s ill-fated decision to sell the last of the estate in order to buy two taxis, at a time when automobiles were barely known in central Greece. With the advent of the Second World War, the two taxis were requisitioned and the family reduced to penury. My paternal cousins who reside in ordinary Melbourne suburbia are descendants of Samian pirates who terrorised the Turks and even had the small island to the south of Samos, now known as Samiopoula named after them for a time. On the other hand, no one really knows where the Kalymnioi came from. What little I have been able to glean after questioning the elders of my father’s village is that they hailed from a small village in the environs of Aydin in Asia Minor called Akbuköy, something corroborated by my grandfather who fled from there to the village of Mytilinioi in Samos during the Asia Minor Catastrophe. They had a different surname, which has now been lost. It is said, implausibly, that my surname is derived from an ancestor who had a godmother who came from the island of Kalymnos. Try as I might, I have not been able to unearth any further Kalymnian connection and tantalisingly enough, while perusing a nineteenth century history of Samos last year, I found, quite by chance, people with my surname listed among those attending the conference of Samians that resulted in the island deciding to join the Greek Revolution. Further than that, I can only trace the family back to my great-grandparents, and that, through the stories told to me by my grandmother on long winter nights. Her father, was particularly long lived, dying when he was ninety-six and the day when his photograph was included in the village calendar for 1991, was a proud day for all of us. His surname, Kefalas, also graces the central square of the village because one of his ancestors, was apparently, a hero. My grandmother did not know this story, as she died before the first time I visited Samos and there is no one now who can take the story further. Other topographical evidence in the village also connects me to my ancestors. One of them of the nineteenth century, Euthymios Kalymnios, was an archimandrite in Jerusalem. This being a particularly lucrative profession for him, he was able to amass enough money to fund the construction of a school in his home village, to which, replete in himself, he chose not to grant his family name but rather, his first name: the Euthymiada School. Photographs and chance encounters can also lead one to gain an insight into one’s ancestors: viewing a nineteen thirties’ photograph of my uncharacteristically fashionably attired grandfather getting cosy with a particularly enraptured young lady and asking the relevant questions, I learned something that I hadn’t known before, that my grandfather had been engaged prior to his going away to war and that it was only upon his return, to learn that his fiancée had died, and after considerable heartbreak, that he consented to marry my grandmother. The discovery of this singular fact did more to explain the dynamics of my grandparents’ relationship than anything I had observed during the eleven years I spent with my grandfather, prior to his death. On another occasion, I was hugged by a «συγχωριανό,» of my father’s who is always overly enthused to see me. “You know why I love you so much?” he gushed. “Because you have your grandfather’s name. You probably don’t know this but I was your grandfather’s shepherd. When he left for Australia, he gave me his whole flock. Imagine, I was penniless and suddenly I was the owner of a flock. I have never forgotten it. Your grandfather was an amazing man.” According to my experience, my grandfather, was a silent man with flashes of extremely biting cynicism. During the course of my enquiries, I have pieced together tantalising clues indicating a much more complex interior along with reasons as to why this was masked so effectively.
Some stories require detective work, and also, signify how chance can affect families down the generations. As a child, my maternal grandmother mysteriously ended up being cared for by a Vlach woman for a couple of years, during the course of which time my grandmother attended a Vlach school and travelled around Epirus and Western Macedonia. Even more mysteriously, she was ‘stolen’ back from the Vlach woman by my great-grandmother – suggesting circumstances that have never adequately been explained. Years later, it was this Vlach connection that brought my mothers progenitors together: in the fifties, the Greek government had the unfortunate habit of billeting soldiers in the homes of villagers and my grandmother overheard my Vlach grandfather making lewd comments to a fellow soldier in the said Romance tongue. “I hope you know I understand what you are talking about,” she warned them in Vlach. The rest, as they say is history.
It has been said that genealogy is the study of family history, while family history is the study of genealogy and everything else--including the background, location, and circumstances of people's lives. Writing in The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Val Greenwood remarks that "if you can understand the forces which shaped men's lives then you can better understand those men." He goes on to say: "to successfully research an ancestor is to determine the events in which he may have been involved, to determine whether those events would have been recorded and, if so, to determine where the records are located." This interpretation of family history fits squarely with the view that all family history is contextual, i.e., it cannot be viewed in isolation or separated from its historical framework. What is certain is that it is this knowledge, that forms the unbroken thread not only of kinship but also of mentality and attitude throughout my family. I can pinpoint exact events in our family history that will explain why the women in our family are so indomitable, why certain things should not be discussed and even trivial things like why as a general rule, we despise the colour black. Most importantly, our shared family history binds us as a collective conscience, imperceptibly sometimes, despite the centrifugal forces of our transplantation within another country and lifestyle. I am who I am, to a large part in relation to the events and attitudes that have shaped my ancestors lives and I find it fascinating to trace the psychological formation of these down to my generation. In respects innumerable to mention, the dynamics of my mother’s extended family can be attributed to events that transpired between fifty and a hundred years ago and at the apex of all this is my great-grandmother who at one hundred and three, is the oldest Epirot in Australia and considering that her mind is as sharp as a tack, an invaluable resource of family and village history.
Some families are not so lucky as to have such long-lived primary historical sources, and it is for this reason that the Epirotic Brotherhood of Tsamanda “St Nikolaos” decided to painstakingly compile a history of its families living in Australia. The Book “From Tsamanda to Melbourne,” written and researched by Philip Dimitriadis, lecturer in Literary Studies at Victoria University, is an invaluable resource of historical material whose primary motivation is to take the place of primary sources of oral history as more and more of them pass away from among us and further, as more and more of the intended recipients of that oral history no longer have the capacity to receive that history in its original language. By recording this small community’s family history, the Tsamanda Brotherhood has ensured that generations of Tsamandiotes shall be able to refer to it in order to gain an understanding of their origins. This, the gift of self-knowledge derived from the preserved knowledge of one’s ancestors is one of the greatest gifts of all. Some Greek organisations leave as their legacy, dances and discord. Tsamandas in preserving our past, grants us our future.
It is for this reason that the brilliantly enlightened Food for Thought Greek Australian Women’s Network, in collaboration with the Tsamandas Brotherhood and the Panepirotic Federation of Australia is holding the event: “Why is it Important to Document Family Histories? – Strategies used to engage second and third generations.” This function, to be held at the GOCMV building, 3rd floor, 168 Lonsdale Street on Friday, 10 July 2009 at 7:00pm, will explore the necessity of recording Greek-Australian family histories as a method of cultural and ethnic preservation, through the experiences of guest speakers Dimitrios Kostandakopoulos, Senior Research Fellow in European Studies at Bristol University, an eminent genealogist and the inspired Philip Dimitriadis. Yours truly has the immense honour of launching the tremendously significant repository of family history: “From Tsamata to Melbourne,” a veritable treasure trove of the raison d’etre for the Tsamantiotes’ transplantation in this land. Given our position at the crossroads of defining and preserving our collective identity and history, it is imperative that our family histories are not forgotten as they form as legitimate a part of broader Australian history than the experiences of all other citizens of this country. This then is truly an event not to be missed. We take your leave this week, with this gem by Bertrand Russell, to all would be genealogists: “My first advice on how not to grow old, is to choose your ancestors carefully.”


First published in NKEE on 6 July 2009