Saturday, August 07, 2010


If blame is to be ascribed to anyone, it is to Aesop. Not only was he, if the Aesop Romance is to be believed: "of loathsome aspect...potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity." But furthermore, being a Phrygian slave, he was not even Greek. Aesop is traditionally held responsible for his collection of fables. His arguably most famous fable, “The Fox and the Grapes,” whereby a fox, upon realising that the grapes it hungers after are unattainable, calls them sour, illustrates the concept of cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person tries to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously. Dissonance is reduced by altering one of the belief or desire states (as in the fox's disparagement of the grapes it desires), even if it leads to irrational behaviour. Interestingly enough, the term used for the unattainable fruit in the fable is όμφαξ, having both the literal meaning of an unripe grape and the metaphorical usage of a girl not yet ripe for marriage but that need not but disconcert us a little for the purposes of this diatribe.
So the un-Greek Aesop is the inventor of the concept of sour grapes and it is perhaps poetic justice that he reputedly met his death when an eagle, mistaking his bald pate for a rock, dropped a turtle on it. This notwithstanding, cognitive dissonance has been with us as a people for a considerable period of time, especially when it comes to matters of national pride and in particular, our propensity to claim ownership over concepts or terms we have invented.
Hot off the block of successfully securing for the Greek people, the appellation “feta” in order to describe simply the most mouth watering cheese ever to have been created, Greek patriots are mystified as to why the rest of the world seems not to be able to appreciate the fact that “Macedonia is Greek,” despite their numerous protests over the years. Inhabitants of the islands of Lesbos, have even gone a step further, issuing court proceedings, against the Lesbian and Gay Community of Greece, stating that they are unhappy that gay women have "usurped" a term that locals claim should have only geographical connotations. "We are very upset that, worldwide, women who like women have appropriated the name of our island," one of the litigants commented. Needless to say, the lesbians, (from Lesbos) lost the case. Now this is indeed a dramatic case of sour grapes. Instead of being grateful for the droves of lesbian tourists that make annual pilgrimages to Eressos, the birthplace of the poet Sappho, and the ensuing tourist dollars, they bring in their wake, the native lesbian ingrates seek to deny persons of that sexual persuasion their right to an identity on the basis of geography.
Cognitive dissonance abounds in our latest bout of sour grapes. Apparently, UNESCO (whose logo looks eerily like the Parthenon) have declared that Karagöz, known to us as Karagiozis, forms a part of Turkish cultural heritage and not Greek. This has not only caused indignation among some sectors of the Greek population, who profess the Hellenism of our black eyed cultural hero, but has also inspired some bizarre commentary.
Some Greek journalists in particular have had the temerity to rejoice at Karagiozis “appropriation” by Turkey. They state that this loveable, anarchical and complex figure who has entertained the Greek people for generations is better off with the Turks because he is supposedly lazy, dishonest, devious, cruel and misogynistic. Implied in this racist critique is that our people do not have these characteristics and that these characteristics are somehow “foreign.” It would be fascinating to see how this would be the case, given the chord Karagiozis has struck with the Greek people and Turkish professor Ocal Oğuz assertion that “the culture of Karagöz is given more value in Greece than in Turkey. For this reason, the entire world thinks that Karagöz is Greek. In order to make Karagöz live on we need to take ownership of him, and transfer this [tradition] along to future generations.”
Let Aesopian disparagers of Karagiozi on the basis that he is a foreign import and super-patriots alike abate from wringing the grapes of their wrath. The only reason why the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry took action was as a response to news reports last year alleging that the Greeks had applied to the European Union to patent the traditional shadow puppets. The ministry created a file on the characters and established a committee of professors, representatives of civil society organizations and puppet masters to provide evidence and documentation regarding Karagöz. Turkey applied to UNESCO with the file, which was conferred over by a subcommittee including delegates from Turkey, Estonia, Mexico, North Korea, the UAE and Kenya. Debating over the issue, the committee decided that the characters were indeed Turkish. Following this initial stage, UNESCO's upper committee opened an application time window, during which time Turkey prepared the necessary application materials to patent the characters. Greece made no claim or application during this period, clearing any roadblocks to the official declaration of Karagöz as Turkish.
So is Karagiozi made Turkish as a result of our own Karagiozi-like duplicity, followed by sloth and inactivity? While there are significant differences both in content and format between Karagöz and Karagiozi plays that could give rise to an argument that Karagiozi is Greek, whereas his inspirer is Turkish, there can be no doubt that the origin of our beloved folk-hero is Turkish. Why should this bother us? Similarly, why should we get into a dither whenever the “ethnic origins” of commodities such as shadow-puppets or coffee are held to be ‘Turkish? What does our inability to accept the significant influence that Turkish culture has had upon our own over the years, and our attempts to gloss over such influences and claim them as Greek say about the way we see Turkish people, as well as ourselves?
Aesop and his modern day descendants would be well served to be mindful of the prophet Ezekiel, who repeated the proverb: “Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and their children's teeth are set on edge.”For my part, in light of the above, the securing of the great diva Paola for Hellenism is more urgent than ever. Her name after all, is decidedly unhellenic and if we do not claim her now against the insidious, competing masses of latin people everywhere, she may be lost to us for ever.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 7 August 2010