Monday, March 29, 2010


In the epic movie “Lawrence of Arabia”. problems for the Arab Council, now decimated, are insurmountable, upon its occupation of Damascus. The Turkish hospital is overflowing with wounded, and there is no water. A British medical officer, Howard Marion Crawford finds the situation "outrageous," calls Arab-garbed Lawrence a "filthy little wog" and slaps him in the face. Previously, in the film, Lawrence’s Arab sidekick is evicted from the officer’s mess in Cairo, after an epic desert ride from Aqaba, as there are “no wogs allowed.” The word ‘wog’ of course denotes a bug that carries a disease and its application by Anglo-Saxons firstly to Middle Easterners, and then to Southern Europeans, leaves no doubt in the imagination as to the esteem in which persons of these races are held.
The latest bout of “Greek-bashing” in Europe and America, whereby Greeks are characterised by the Western media as shifty, uncivilised and troublesome, people at whom, if one would believe Focus magazine, classical statues would do well to poke their middle fingers at, is nothing more than yet another manifestation of a sociological tendency to create negative stereotypes in times of crisis. Instead of critiquing or criticising the actions of specific individuals, a whole people is summarily condemned. And yet, historically, the stereotyping of entire peoples has proved inordinately dangerous.
The acronym “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), employed by Western journalists and commentators in order to denote the various peoples of the southern Mediterranean and their economies is thus not just another slur. Instead, it is the most modern example of a tendency to cast doubt upon the humanity of one’s fellow man, in which members of a dominant ethnic group reduce members of another ethnic group to the level of animals, who thus, by inference, should be treated in a similarly fashion. Modern Greeks, smarting under their newly found porcine appellation should console themselves with the knowledge that at least pigs are mammals and as such, cousins to humans. We, on the other hand, have been considered practically protozoan, for years. These types of attitudes have been well-entrenched within Anglo-Saxon consciousness ever since 1863, when Dr James Hunt asserted, at a meeting in Newcastle of the British Association for the Advancement of Science by asserting that the ‘Negro’ was a separate species of human being, half way between the ape and the ‘European man.’ In Hunt’s view the ‘Negro’ became ‘more humanized when in his natural subordination to the European,’ but he regretfully concluded that ‘European civilization was not suited to the Negros’ requirements or character.’ This type of world view, that holds that the swarthier one is, the less “white” and thus European one is, is still with us today. In much of the south of the USA, latinos are considered to be “non-white.”
It has taken the righteous protests of such esteemed individuals as the Portuguese finance minister for august institutions such as the Financial Times and Barclays Bank to desist from using bestial slurs, yet nonetheless, they appear to be enduring. Yet those who would persist in their employment of such pejorative terms do so at their own peril. For in doing so, they neglect to recall the fact that similar disparaging expressions have been used systematically in the past, in order to desensitise public opinion, to dull feelings of guilt or compassion and in the ensuing dehumanisation, facilitate persecution and even genocide.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda for example, was incited by similar forms of dehumanisation. Tutsis were equated by Hutu radio commentators as “inyenzi” cockroaches, disease carrying pests that had to be destroyed. Leni Reifenstahl’s 1935 film “Triumph des Willens” (Triumph of the Will,) where rats are depicted fleeing the sewers of Nuremberg in anticipation of Hitler’s arrival in that city, leaves little to the imagination as to who the said vermin are meant to represent. The symbolism is not lost when one considers that it was a pesticide, Zyklon B, that was used to exterminate most of the Jews that were incarcerated in Nazi Death Camps during the Second World War. Prior to that, the German people were bombarded for years with propaganda that had as its sole aim, the dehumanisation of the Jewish people, through their equation with pestilence. Julius Streicher’s disgusting paper Der Stürmer, whereupon Jews were portrayed as sexual predators is a case in point. As Goebbels, the master propagandist himself had said: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly- it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Once this had taken place, it is relatively easy for others not to have been overly perturbed about killing ‘pests,’ which is of necessity for the good of society, in order to recycle their hair or their body fat.
It is highly unlikely that the Teutonic races are secretly plotting an onslaught against the porcine southerners, intent upon stripping them of their rind and hamstringing them in order to bring home the bacon. Nonetheless, names, like mud, stick, which provides the rationale for the Greek expression: «Καλύτερα να σου βγει το μάτι παρά το όνομα.» Studies of crowd violence highlight a distinction between two forms of pejorative expression: that which denies or calls into question the masculinity of the ‘enemy’ and that which denies his humanity. The former is held to lead to ritualistic violence, while the latter leads to actual violence. The tragic consequences of verbal ‘bestialisation’ have lead anthropologist such as Montagu and Matson, in their groundbreaking ‘The Dehumanisation of Man’ to consider such dehumanization “the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse.”
The other day, I was at the bank, organising a transfer of funds to Greece. The bank employee, a portly middle-aged man, with a French accent immediately quipped upon receiving my request: “Oh, you are saving the Greek economy are you? You’re going to have to, since all your mates have embezzled all that money.” My immediate instinct was to punch him. Having regained my composure, I asked: “Is this the type of conversation, as your marketing material claims, that will have me consider as I walk away from here: “That was an unbanklike conversation with a person in the bank?” Having established an ascendancy of nervousness, I then proceeded to apply Montagu and Matson by stripping pieces of masculinity from the French, taking into account the failure of the Maginot Line, the collaborationist regime of Vichy, the existence of Gabriel Gate, and the French failure to beat the British in the scramble for Africa. Deviating from this path, I did a little dehumanisation of my own, presenting the French as evil tyrants bent on world domination, as evidenced by Napoleon, the battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Algerian War of Liberation and Jean Claude Van Damme, if only by linguistic association. By the end of my tirade, whereupon my would-be assailant had turned purple by my assertion that the only decent Frenchman was Pepe le Peu, we called a truce by turning on the Germans, who are to be blamed for everything, starting from the theft of Greece’s gold reserves and concluding with excruciating renditions of the song ‘99 Luftballoons.’
Harmless or satirical stereotypes notwithstanding, it is of concern that civilised people descend to the level of making dehumanising, racist statements, when this tendency has caused so much horror and suffering in our not so decent past. When we do not approach others as individuals but as representatives of a stereotype, when one ethnic group is presented as the embodiment of nobility and virtue and the other as the epitome of guile and immorality, then we leave the door wide open for all sorts race crime and violence. Southern Europeans are not ‘pigs,’ nor are Greeks inherently dishonest, though next week we will take a glance at the thoroughly disquieting published opinions about us by other local communities here in Melbourne. The parlous state of southern Europe’s finances has to do with a global crisis, not the racial characteristics of Mediterranean people. After all, it was the Semitic peoples who ‘invented’ economics. Our northern Nordic cousins, pumped up by the vibrancy of youth are relative latecomers to the games we have played for thousands of years prior to their arrival.
The negative opinion people have of other’s ethnicities coupled with a sense of their own racial superiority is a dangerous thing. In the Britons’ case, it caused them to dismiss Indian demands for independence as an example of “the jackass taking on the lion.” In our case, it has led to all sorts of abuses as bullies who know better pushing us around – including such heinous instances as Britain beguiling us to enter the Second World War with the promise of illusory troop support, for no other reason than to unsettle Turkey enough to make her enter the war.
It was Adolf Hitler who held that “Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.” Let us hope that the racist fifth horseman of the Apocalypse stumbles upon his own stupidity and cowardice, unable to surmount the righteous obstacles of logic, dignity and common humanity. Let us keep dehumanising bestialisation where it belongs: in the menagerie of human idiocy.


First published in NKEE on 29 March 2010

Monday, March 22, 2010


"Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else," Mark Twain.

The word βιβλίο, or book in Greek is most likely derived from the Phoenician port of Byblos, from where Egyptian papyrus was exported to Greece. According to Herodotus, the Phoenicians brought writing and papyrus to us around the tenth century. Tome, τόμος, which originally meant a slice or piece, became to denote a roll of papyrus and is now used to denote a particularly think book. Book on the other hand, comes from Old English "boc" which comes from a Germanic root that is cognate to beech. Similarly in Slavic languages 'bukva', meaning letter, is also cognate to beech. It is thus conjectured that the earliest Indo-European writings may have been carved on beech wood.
The organic nature of the book and its inevitable biodegradeability lend to the human condition an immortality that is constantly under threat or crisis. It is only the works of the ancients that were written down and survived that comprise the canon of Greek literature from which we have endeavoured to reconstruct a glorious past. These works, happen to be in their majority, works of philosophy, science, and Aristophanes and Menander excepted, sobre literature. Given that most of our books survived the ravages of time through Syriac translations for the Arabs, whose caliphs, concerned with the spread of their religion and dominion were not always of the most humorous bent, one could assume that these potentates chose to preserve only those works that they considered beneficial to the development of their realm. 'Irrelevant,' or 'useless' material would have been ignored, and because it was not copied, lost. It could therefore be that a staggering ninety five percent of the Greek literary canon is actually comprised of crude and smutty jokes and romance novels that have been sadly lost to us through an absence of reproduction. If so, this makes us mortally sad, espcially since this would most likely make us secure in the prediction that hundreds of years from now, the Greek people will still be reading Homer, Cavafy, a little bit of Freddy Germanos and absolutely no Kalimniou. Further, it would cause us to reassess a good many things about our identity, and no doubt, explain much.
Old books have always fascinated me. To hold the creased, musty pages in one's hand, opening the book only half-way so as to not damage the spine is to place one's finger upon the pulse of the history of every single other person who has turned the pages in the years before. My first old book was an αλφαβητάριον belonging to my father. This contained pictures of a land and time that was not altogether lost back then, and I devoured such phrases of eloquence as «πι πι το παπί,» learning in the process that in Greece, all fathers have moustaches, grandmothers sit by the fire and tell stories as they spin wool and roast chestnuts and young boys fly kites upon the summit of hills on a mysterious day known as Clean Monday. "How high did you fly your kite pappou on Clean Monday?" I asked my grandfather one day as I was reading from the book. The response was a deep baritone rumbling that left it quite clear that he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
Nonetheless, my family was used to me making outlandish comments based on what I had read. The reading of Persian fairy tales while attempting to negotiate my grandmother's musty Greek religious books at the same time that the Karate Kid was all the rage had me dressing in a Chinese robe, Persian book under one arm, announcing to all and sundry that I was a Persian priest. Despite it being in a fairly advanced state of deterioration even back then, I still have that book and can remember the story of Nokhodi, the pea-man, by heart. I also have still managed to retain my copy of Papadiamanti's collected stories abridged for children, despite the fact, as was the case with many Greek books back in the day, that the pages have come completely away from the spine and the imagery contained in those stories, including murders and ghosts, provided enough fodder for almost all of my childhood nightmares.
The first book I ever saw that was Somewhere along the line, I conceived a passion for "really old" books. My first was a venerable tome of Byzantine music in a monastery in Crete. Viewing the graceful, flowing strokes of notation, and just having recently read that Crete had in centuries past, been conquered and overrun by Arabs, who were in turn dislodged by the Byzantine Emperor, I asked the monk: "Is this Arabic?" The monk's eyes opened wide in righteous indignation. "Arabic?" he spluttered. "That, my boy, is Greek. No foreigner has ever corrupted the culture of this island. Never forget it." My second encounter with an "old book" took place when I disclosing my passion to a family friend. She directed me to a pile of books in her living room which she said belonged to her grandfather and were one hundred years old. The pages, heavy with the smell of damp were largely stuck together and the title «Ερωτοτροπίες» was barely legible. Nonetheless, it was an "old book" published in 1901, at a time when the parts of Greece from which my family originates were still under Ottoman Rule. For the rest of that afternoon, which I consider to be a turning point in my life, I remained ensconced in an arm chair, reading about sexual techniques, for the book was in fact a sex manual, in katharevousa. To read about such earthy pursuits as proficiency in the carnal arts in such a rarefied and exhalted language as katharevousa, could, I would conjecture, be most closely likened to having Kevin Rudd join in on union banter at a building site. A mental block shrouds the context of the book for all time in my mind, for the reading of a book that belonged to another, establishes a bond with that person, much like the Syriac scribes of old would inscribe the name of the person from whom they had received interpretations and knowledge of the text. In this case, imagining my friend's grandfather scouring the book's pages for knowledge exceeded the capacity of my imagination. Years later, in a calf bound 1553 edition of the Iliad I was able to acquire, I found scrawled along the margins in unsteady Greek, a rudimentary love poem. To possess an Iliad that would have inspired in a young student almost five centuries before us, pretensions of professing classical love in a lyric form is most enthralling. In a most moving moment, a few years ago, I bought a book of Greek poetry from a surburban second hand bookshop, that belonged to the late lamented and much beloved poet, Stathis Raftopoulos.
One of the major problem with Greek books, old or new is the dearth of footnotes. Outrageous, or even tantalising snippets of information can be found, of the most remarkeable things. For example, I found out about the opportunist Samian Ioan Heraclid, who conned his way into becoming ruler of Moldavia and first officially Protestant monarch in Europe through a dusty, forgotten book of Samian history in the Samian House in Brunswick. Similarly, I have picked up slight, unsubstantiated references about a certain Samian explorer known as Iannis Georgiou, who apparently explored Patagonia during the 1850's and exercised great influence upon the native tribes of the region in another obscure, apparently self-published treatise on the history of Samos, as well as on the presence of a certain Greek doctor at the destruction of William Hick's relieving army in Sudan by the forces of the Mahdi, which culminated in the massacre of Gordon in Khartoum. Most recently, in a self-published account of the history of the Berlin Wall I picked up in a basement in Athens, I was most fascinated to read an unfootnoted account of a certain George Raptis, was a Stasi agent who betrayed the existence of escape tunnels out of East Berlin to his employers.
I always wanted to write, sometimes because I felt had something to say and at other times, because I did not want people to know exactly what I had to say among the profusion of words on the page. I experimented with writing stories on different shades of paper to see whether this would alter the meaning, constructed sentences that decreased or increased in syllables and imagined, much as Borges did, the existence of libraries that would house ever single possible story ever written or that could ever be written. Most of all, I wanted to write in Greek in order to show that this language was not just the preserve of the first generation, that it was not a tool of the prevailing foundation migration myths but a legitimate Australian literary language in its own right. When I received my first book from the printers and held it in my hands I thus felt some sort of vindication - that is until I opened it up and noticed the errors that had escaped the notice of the compositor. Our community books even while mouldering in private and public libraries unread, with be the last enduring testament of our cultural endeavours.
George Bernard Shaw quipped that one gets nothing more out of books than one puts in to them. In my case, these are notes scribbled on the margins, receipts, tram tickets of days gone by and a whole lot of other memorabilia that point to first contacts - the first time I read a Cavafy poem on the tram, or a small piece of paper tucked into a law book representing a poem I wrote while driving to work. But the best thing about our books, is that they, like all the good Greek traditions is, that they will, with any luck, be passed on to delight others. Hopefully this will mean something, for as the old adage says, we go to our books as Narcissus went to the fountain, see ourselves therein and are enamoured.


First published in NKEE on 22 March 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010


What! shall such barbarian swarms/ Impose their rule upon our homes?
La Marseillaise

Peruse any travel guide from about twenty years ago and invariably you will find Greece described as a “homogenous” society, with few significant ethnic minorities. Save for the large muslim minority in Thrace, the existence of other minorities was largely regulated through population exchange: the Turks in 1923, the Bulgarians in 1927 and the Çamërian Albanians in the aftermath of the Second World War, when they abandoned their homes in the face of reprisals over their reign of terror over Epirus. It is probably for this reason that a professor of history at Athens University once remarked to me: “Greece is the land of Achilles and Homer. It is not the land of Boris and Arben. In fact, Modern Greece owes its existence in spite of the appetites of Zlatko and Arben for Greek soil.”
In one sense, this is absolutely true. The history of Greece, as understood by the Greeks, is primarily a narrative that concerns itself with the struggle of the Greeks to keep other nations out of their country, whether they be Persians, Illyrians or Romans during ancient times, Goths, Huns, Avars, assorted Slavs, Vlachs, Bulgarians, Russians, Arabs, Normans and Turks during Byzantine times, and Turks, Bulgarians, Albanians and others in Modern times. What is celebrated in the commemoration of the Revolution of 1821, is the securing of a part of the traditional Greek homeland solely for Greeks. Often this was done through ethnic cleansing, as was the case in Tripolitsa where the Muslim population was subjected to heinous atrocities and massacred. (This terrible crime is generally left out of the popular narrative or excused as ancillary to the struggle for emancipation.) The Balkan Wars commemorate the securing of parts of Northern Greece for the same reason, while OXI commemorates the national struggle to keep the Italians out of Greece.
The almost continuous struggle since the migration of the Greeks into the southern extremity of the Balkans for survival as a people, in the face of foreign invasions, has left within them, an abiding fear of foreigners and expectation that their country is a haven to be preserved against the encroachments of others. Simply put, the xenos, already a social institution in ancient times, with intricate regulations developed as to his proper place on the fringes of Greek society, has had absolutely no place as a part of the Greek ethnos in the common consciousness. In ancient Athens, metoikoi were as foreigners, permitted to live in the city of their choice, as long as they understood it did not belong to them and they displayed no desire to have a say in how it was run. Toleration of their existence was reward enough.
The inability of the Greek people to do more than tolerate foreigners within their country also derives from the fact that from the outset, they have been a nation of migrants, expecting other peoples to permit their settlement in their lands, but without assuming the reciprocal responsibility of accepting the settlement of others in the pristine homeland – which is to be preserved in its homogenous state at all costs. The mass settlement of migrants in Greece during the past twenty years has, it appears, disrupted all historical precedents. Today nearly ten percent of Greece’s population and almost 20% of the workforce, is comprised of immigrants,.Now, in between trying to deal with one of Europe’s worst economic crises and a crippling series of strikes, the Papandreou government proposes to allow the children of immigrants to apply for Greek citizenship, provided that:
(1) their parents have lived legally in Greece for at least 10 years, and

(2) the child has completed at least three years of schooling in Greece.
Hitherto, citizenship by naturalization was is almost unknown in Greece. Greek law recognizes citizenship jus sanguinis, “by blood”, through at least one Greek parent. Otherwise the naturalization process is so difficult that the number of new Greek citizens from naturalization is a few hundred per year.
Previous Greek governments operated under the assumption that Greece simply did not want non-Greek citizens, and that guest workers were just that — temporary guests. The system was thus designed to keep immigrant workers on a perpetual treadmill, always either applying for a new permit, about to apply, or nervously waiting for one after the old one expired. They were, in effect metoikoi.
But this consensus is now breaking down. Part of the reason is simply the passage of time. 20 years after the first wave of immigrants arrived, there are now tens of thousands of Albanians and Bulgarians who have been in Greece nonstop for most of their adult lives. They own houses or apartments, speak fluent Greek, and are settled members of their communities. Furthermore, there are now about an estimated quarter of a milllion children of immigrants living in Greece.
If a child is born in Greece, speaks perfect Greek, wants to live in Greece, and is willing to swear loyalty to the Greek state — should that child be allowed Greek citizenship? In Australia, the general tendency among elderly Australians is to link the issue of the granting of citizenship of migrants with the doctrine of jus sanguinis – that is – recognize and grant citizenship to the children of Greek living abroad first, and then sort out everything else later. While understandable, this view also raises pertinent questions as to the idea/image of the foreigner within Modern Greece. Why should a child or grandchild of Greek immigrants, born in Australia, having limited or no knowledge of the Greek language, culture or society, be given preferential treatment and citizenship over a child who has been born in Greece, speaks perfect Greek and partakes in Greek society?
Is it racist to say that they should not because they are not Greek by blood? Israel is a country that affords to all Jews the right to emigrate to it. Like Greece, Israel is considered by its people to be a haven against persecution and a place where they can be themselves. In parallel with Greece, it has experienced great difficulties in absorbing or including its minorities within its borders especially given that the leaders of those minorities dispute Israel’s right to exist. Yet while Greece does afford persons of Greek blood the right to citizenship, it has absolutely no program for absorbing such antipodean citizens – who increasingly, are seen by their compatriots in the homeland as culturally, if not racially, foreign.
Whether Modern Greeks like it or not, foreign migrants are here to stay. And despite the myth of homogeneity, there have always been foreigners in Greece. In the 7th century, the Slavs settled in such great numbers in the Peloponnese that they caused a major demographic shift. The Arvanites, most probably ethnic Albanians of the Orthodox faith have been living in Greece for centuries and fought for the independence of Greece. Over the years, they came to consider themselves, not Albanians, but Greeks who happened to speak Albanian at home.
Arvanites have been Presidents and Prime Ministers, generals and admirals, artists and businessmen and scholars. The current Archbishop of Athens, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, is an Arvanite. Nobody gives it a moment’s thought. Being an Arvanite is a complete non-issue in Greece, just as being a Vlach does not impinge upon identifying oneself as a Greek. Indeed the Hellenistic Kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire were Greek-speaking, multi-racial entities that united various races under common ideologies, whether these be worship of the god-king or Christianity. The number of Armenian Emperors and Hellenistic Kings ruling from Constantinople over Greeks, Slavs, Armenians, Syrians, etc did in no way compromise Hellenism. So there is enough precedent to prove that Greek culture is not incompatible with mutliculturalism.
Over time, the immigrants of Greece will be absorbed and assimilated. Even if they do for a few generations, cling to the ethnic identity of their place of origin, over time, as they lose contact with it, this will become tenuous and eroded. In Australia, ethnic minorities have had no problems in retaining their traditions while adhering to Anglo-Celtic imposed social structures, laws and participating in their own culture. No great cultural change is to be expected from the granting of citizenship to the children of immigrants who in their majority are of a similar cultural background. Indeed, if Vassilacopoulos and Nicolacopoulou's ever relevant study: "From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," is correct, then the mere act of regulating the relationship between minorites and the ruling nation causes them to recognise the legitimacy of their rule over Greece.The granting of citizenship to migrants is not, as one caller to SBS radio opined, symptomatic of “George Papandreou’s secret design to ruin his country as he has been taught to hate Greece from his mother’s womb,” but rather a mature and considered way of absorbing a productive population within society and heading off the social unrest that would emerge from treating a significant sector of society as of a lower class. Yet along with the privileges come responsibilities. To be a Greek is no easy task and it should be fully expected of new Greek citizens that they should honour and serve the country that has accepted them as one of its own. Ours is a long and glorious history. The fact that persons wish to partake of this is a testament to the enduring legacy of our forefathers. Instead of being mean-spirited, let us embrace them. With our brains and their beauty, we shall rule the world.


First published in NKEE on 15 March 2010

Monday, March 08, 2010


"A man is in general better pleased when he has a good dinner upon his table, than when his wife talks Greek."

Samuel Johnson, author of the above observation, is perhaps best qualified to make it, given that he was one of the most influential lexicographers of the English language and thus, able to appreciate the prevalence of Greek words within his weighty tome. He probably also personifies obliquely, the current prevailing attitude of the Greek community towards the study of the Greek language. With the migrant ethos centred for generations upon the acquisition of material goods sufficient to render one well comported, and that ethos having for the large part been satiated, a full-bellied Greek community is ponderous and decidedly lacking in what the first generation would term «αγωνιστικότητα.»
The past decade has seen the study of Modern Greek not only become a thing of the past in most tertiary institutions but also in a good many high schools as well. Heinrich Schleimann, excavator and pillager of Mycenae and Troy may have declared that he "did not cease to pray to God that by his grace it might one day be permitted to me to learn Greek," but his sentiments are generally reflected by relatively few students. Sure, the doyens of the disparate organisations that comprise the Greek community may histrionically lament the language loss which is a natural symptom of the inexorable process of assimilation, yet in doing so, they ignore the fact that a) they have no plan to arrest such a decline and b) even if they did, our community is so fragmented, that the implementation of such a plan would prove fractious and most likely, disrupt that fragile intercommunal harmony, which Marcus Vitruvius Pollio considered "an obscure and difficult musical science, but most difficult to those who are not acquainted with the Greek language, because it is necessary to use many Greek words to which there are none corresponding in Latin."
This is because the institutions currently responsible for the teaching of the Greek language within our community are the Education Office of the Greek Consulate, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, the GOCMV, the Greek Orthodox Community of Oakleigh, and of course various other private schools and colleges. Some of these institutions are rivals; all in actual fact compete with each other for students, possibly funding and certainly prestige. Within such a polarised educational environment, where other political factors mitigate against concerted action, it is well nigh impossible for these institutions to arrive at a consensus, let alone formulate a coherent, single Greek educational policy.
Meanwhile, as the study of the Greek language slides a degree further into what appears to be a terminal decline, conscientious members of Parliament John Pandazopoulos and Jenny Mikakos, laudably organised a recent forum on a new language education strategy for schools in Victoria. Further, MP's Steve Georganas, Maria Vamvakinou and Sophia Mirabella, along with other luminaries such as Professor Tamis, called upon the government to include Greek as one of the languages in its national schools curriculum.
The initiative of "our" MP's is both praiseworthy and also cause for concern. For the umpteenth time, they have proven how proud they are to be Greek-Australians and we are grateful to them, even at this eleventh hour, for flagging an opportunity to promote the study of Modern Greek on a governmental level. Of grave disquiet is the fact that without their intervention, our 'organised' community lacks the cohesion or structure that would enable it to campaign for a place within the national curriculum for the Greek language, in its own right. Instead, we are given mostly to empty platitudes of good intention. GOCMV Board member Theo Markos' insight into the recent forum, namely that although no specific proposals were outlined, but that it was a good opportunity for the community at large to air its concerns is disturbingly indicative of our general trend in malaise. We are very good at blowing hot air in public and have absolutely no idea how to address the linguistic quandary we are in.
What is ever more so deeply troubling is that such a decline in our fortunes should arrive during the tail end of the iron grip reign of the first generation over our community. A fractured, introspective and largely impotent array of clubs and associations, shadows of their former selves, is all that is left of that vibrant proletarian mass that built so many schools and churches and successfully campaigned for the teaching of Modern Greek in tertiary institutions, thinking that in doing so, they had ensured the linguistic continuity of future generations. We cannot blame then for what we are facing now. To do so would smack of ingratitude. Not only that but it would also be ridiculous to call upon the old stalwarts to pull the latter generations out of the mess we are in. Unfortunately, we do not live in Never- never Land, nor are we Peter Pans, permitted to perpetual swan around our own Greek fantasy realm when it suits us, in a state of perpetual youth and irresponsibility. We need to grow up and take the tough decisions for ourselves.
Professor Tamis' arguments for the inclusion of Modern Greek in the National Curriculum, including the Greek language's most ancient pedigree, the fact that seminal texts of Western civilization were penned in it, that it is an official language of the European Union, that 28,000 Greek words appear in the English language, that it is the language of some 600,000 (sic) Greek-Australians and that the Greek government spends some nine million dollars to promote the study of the Greek language so Australia should match such a generous gesture, all are valid and require deep consideration. They also tacitly acknowledge something heinous for us as a community - that we are no longer capable as a community of managing the teaching of our own language. Instead, it appears that we seek refuge in the bosom of government, hoping that its acknowledgment of our language as important, will confer upon it protection, jobs and a chance of survival.
It is a futile gesture if the generations that are to come perpetuate the current trend and refuse to study Greek. For despite the rhetoric and the global and historical importance of Greek in all its forms, in Australia, Greek is and will remain a ghetto language, to be spoken only by migrants and an ever-decreasing number of their descendants. As the tongue of a small, poor and lately much-derided Balkan backwater, Modern Greek lacks the prestige that compels linguistically minded Australian pupils to study other European languages. I remember the scorn poured upon us few Greeks by Anglo-Celtic students during the Ancient Greek course at university for having the temerity to read Lysias with a Modern Greek pronunciation, instead of the Erasmian. Such (wog) things are not done in the Classics, old boy. Nor will future generations do what I did and give up a useful elective (in my case French, to which may be attributed my sorry propensity to produce appalling translations of Lady Gaga lyrics in the said language on Facebook), in order to study Greek at day school AS WELL as Saturday school. Indeed, it is the height of irony that this call upon the government to include Greek in its new national schools curriculum comes at a time when more and more parents are taking their children out of Greek schools and classes, in order to favour more important activities, such as tennis or electives that may actually assist them in their careers or at least, look good on a resume.
In reality, for the Greek community at large, the inclusion of Modern Greek within the national curriculum is, despite what our progressive and praiseworthy MPs may think, not about survival. Governments come and go and policies may change at a whim for innumerable economic and political considerations. Further, no evidence of submissions as to what form such national Greek language teaching shall take, exists. Is our primary motivation in running to the government as a community, the securing of means with which to produce functional bilinguals? Most probably not. We can't even speak our mother tongue. Or is it rather a matter of prestige - the fear that if other languages are included and not ours, we will feel less valued and important, and somehow lose face?
An about face is sorely needed when it comes to Greek education in Australia. Our existing institutions, at least in the metropoleis are more than capable of ministering to the linguistic needs of the Greek community, if only Greek-Australians stood behind them. The first generation built them and it is incumbent upon us to maintain them. Though the institution of Modern Greek in the national curriculum would be an honour and provide the means for those interested in Greek but lacking the necessary cultural background, or facilities to study it, it could never hope to convey the 4,000 historical, cultural and religious context that underpins the learning of the Greek language. Our teachers, in the context of our own schools, whether religious or secular, can provide these valuable resources. Wendys of the world, it is time to wake up, for Peter Pan shall not remain young forever. Instead of perennially whining about the first generation's lack focus (it is tired, deserves a rest, and should not be expected to campaign for facilities it can't use), let us address our own by embracing, augmenting and strengthening the educational institutions our forefathers toiled so unceasingly and selflessly to create, as well as enlisting the government's assistance. But if our efforts, will not all be Greek to the bemused subsequent generations, we shall have to compel them, through inspiration, to learn the Greek language in the schools that have been prepared for them, for no incentive or reason than that they are Greek and partakers of a 4000 year old most venerable and noble lineage, for that is reward and astonishment enough. And let them ponder of our works and deeds, as we do of our predecessors, John Ruskin's view that: "All that we call ideal in Greek or any other art, because to us it is false and visionary, was, to the makers of it, true and existent." Only let them do so in Greek.


First published in NKEE on 8 March 2010

Monday, March 01, 2010


I ascribe my love of the Varvakeios Market in central Athens to my unworldly fascination with meat in its original raw form. To see prime cuts of meat, resplendent with real marbling, unshorn and unsullied by the ravages of the healthy heart fascists is to return to mankind’s felicitous, primeval state. In the Varvakeios, there are none of the contrived and artificial window displays that blight boucheries in this country with pseudaesthetics that divorce cows from their constituent parts. Instead, meat is displayed as it is meant to be, hanging unapologetically raw and in vast chunks, upon hooks that provide convenient landing pads for flies. The Varvakeios, with its labyrinth of stores, proprietors calling out their wares and inobtrusive kitchens, the oinomageiria, specialising in the preparation of mouth-watering morsels of offal certainly comes close to my idea of Paradise, or at least its exonarthex. I remember having a particularly heated discussion about the relative merits of eating sturgeon caviar with a ceramic spoon as opposed to a metal one with a particularly aggressive nano-Russian that was only quelled when two steaming bowl of patsa were produced from the bowels of the kitchen. Life is too short to argue culinaria when your olfactory nerves are being assaulted in such an inexorable manner.
The Varvakeion gets its name from a school built close to the site by one of the great benefactors of the Greek nation, Ioannis Varvakis, who was determined that underprivileged children should have the opportunity to have be best education. Typically, the school was gutted during the Greek Civil War and was finally pulled down in 1956. Nonetheless, Ioannis Varvakis remains, not only a successful businessman and philanthropist, but also a freedom-fighter and founder of the Russian caviar industry, and thus, a culinary giant in his own right.
Varvakis was born on the island of Psara, as Ioannis Leontides, adopting the name Varvakis as a nom de guerre after joining the Filiki Etaireia. His mother later cloistered herself in a monastery in Khios, where she died during the Khios Genocide of 1822.
The exuberance and precocity of Varvakis was evident from his youth. By the age of seventeen, he had already become a skilful sailor and built a ship, the St. Andrew, which he later offered with his crew to the Russian forces during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. He spent his entire fortune to equip the ship and to arm it with cannons and showed extraordinary courage during the Battle of Çeşme in July 1770. As one of the first bourlotierides, he transformed his vessel into a fire ship, packing it with combustibles, setting it on fire and steering it into a large Turkish ship. The Russo-Turkish war did not give independence to Greece, as the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Kuçuk Kainarji in 1774, which granted Russia the northern part of the Black Sea and the right to intercede on behalf of the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The repression of Greeks who had supported the Russians in the aftermath of the war, caused a mass exodus of Greeks to Russia.
Totally penniless, Ioannis Varvakis decided to seek an audience with Empress Catherine the Great. Travelling to Saint Petersburg, he met with Grigori Potemkin, Russian general-field marshal, statesman,favorite of Catherine, and noted philhellene, who arranged the audience with the Empress of Russia. After waxing enthusiastically about the commercial potential of the Caspian Sea, a Sea that had only recently been wrested from Ottoman and Tartar armies, Catherine the Great proved particularly generous giving Varvakis 1,000 golden roubles as a gift and an authourisation for unlimited and duty-free fishery in the Caspian Sea and the right to choose a place to settle in Russia. He also received an official patent signed by Catherine the Great, proving that Ivan Andreevich Varvatsi (his new Russian name) was named first lieutenant of the Russian Navy on October 21, 1772.
From Saint Petersburg, Varvakis, like a Veritable Odysseus, left for Astrakhan to develop a fishery, despite the fact he had no prior experience in this field. In the northern Caspian Sea his fishery enterprise soon made him a millionaire. The boats of Varvakis caught vast quantities sturgeon, white salmon and other valuable fish. Knowing the passion of Greeks for caviar, he pioneered the exporting of caviar to Europe. Ingeniously, Varvakis invented a solution to preserve the freshness of the caviar eggs through watertight packaging. Varvakis shipped caviar from Astrakhan to Greece by camel or by boat through the Volga river. By 1788, his business employed more than 3,000 workers.
In 1810, Varvakis was granted the title of hereditary nobleman with a family coat of arms by Alexander I of Russia, who also made him Court Counsel and decorated with a diamond Order of St. Anne awarded for exceptional services and the Order of St. Vladimir. In 1812, he moved to the city of Taganrog, populated by Greek colonists who, like the Greeks of classical times, took refuge from poverty or tyranny in townships around the northern Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, a particular pet project of Potemkin’s. In 1813, Varvaki spent 600,000 rubles for construction of Greek Jerusalem Monastery in Taganrog. Such was his prestige that when Alexander I died, his funeral service was chanted in this monastery.
Upon the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Ioannis Varvakis actively assisted the cause, especially his home island of Psara. After the destruction of the island by the Turkish Fleet, he returned to Greece himself in 1824 to aid the refugees, and died on Zakynthos on 10 January 10 1825. Varvakis desired to promote education for the new Greek state, and in his will he left 1 million rubles for the building of the Varvakeion high school, designed by leading neo-classical architect Panagiotis Kalkos. Varvakis also financed the building of my place of nirvana, the Varvakeios Agora.
The descendance of Varvakis' noble name throughout the ages was continued through the female line. His first daughter, Maria Varvakis who was born in 1770, married Greek merchant Nikolay Ivanovich Komnino Since he had no sons, and willing to honor the name for the future generations, Ioannis Varvakis addressed to his patron, Catherine the Great, a request to permit his daughter Maria have a double name, that is the family name of Varvakis, her father, and that of her husband, Komnino. Catherine II granted his appeal, creating the noble family of Komnino-Varvatsi. All sons of Maria and Nikolay Komnino-Varvatsi (Ivan, Yegor, Mark, Kozma and Andrey) were granted noble titles by the Yekaterinoslav Government decree of April 25, 1821, paying tribute to achievements and contributions made by their grandfather, Ioannis Varvakis. The family was to continue the caviar trade until it became synonymous with grand Russian luxury.
The gilded salons of Holy Mother Russia are a far cry from the dingy and worn down corridors of the Varvakeios. Nonetheless, far too little homage is paid to those sensitive few who, self-effacingly aggrandize themselves while at the same time, generously providing for the kitchen tables of all. Varvakis was such a man and if we do not all partake of caviar, mindful of the alteration of its chemical composition when in contact with metal, if the streets of Athens no longer flow with largess in the form of the spawn of the sturgeon, he cannot be blamed. Noel Coward once opined that wit ought to be a glorious treat like caviar, not spread around like marmalade. Eisenhower observed that some people ate caviar when all they deserved were hot dogs. It is unknown whether this was a prophetic utterance in the light of Greece’s parlous financial situation. One thing is certain however. The way forward if there is one, lies through fish roe. Varvakis proves this. If indeed «τα κάναμε σαλάτα,» then is it not axiomatic that we convert it to one of the tarama variety?


First published in NKEE on 1 March 2010