Saturday, September 25, 2010


Thanks in no small part to the Great Gough and the Munificent Malcolm (Fraser, that is, not the modern-day Turnbull variety,) we of ethnic extraction, have come to consider Multiculturalism to be a God-given right. When we of ethnic extraction consider Multiculturalism, we tend to perceive it, not just as a doctrine that holds all ethnicities in Australia to be of equal status and whose language and customs are to be tolerated and respected but that somehow, as an injunction that it is incumbent upon the Nation to actively seek to promote these diverse cultures and make them flourish. Within that paradigm, some cultures, of course, are more equal than others, this depending on the seniority of their sojourn and acculturation in these climes along with their perceived historical stature world-wide. It is for this reason that certain minorities are wont to complain that they are victims of favouritism, when governments seem not to support their viewpoints, especially on events primarily concerning their countries of origin. They scratch their heads in wonderment and ask themselves how this could be, given their people’s contribution to this country, numerical superiority and contribution to worldwide civilization.
The extent to which we consider Multiculturalism a right can be evidenced by a recent letter to a Greek newspaper by a gentleman who argued that all Australians should be compelled to study Greek, because not only is Greek an important community language but also it will be of great benefit to Australians for diverse reasons. There seems to be, at least in our community, the belief, fostered by multiculturalism, that we are an important social group that can be courted, placated and mollified by the government. We are OWED such treatment simply by the nature of our diversity. To a large part, this belief has been fostered by those politically active members of our community, who in the seventies and eighties, fought strenuously to gain the mainstream’s respect for minority cultures and who as a result of their immense achievements, (which include government funded language programs, support for festivals and other community literary and cultural endeavours, as well as interpretation and translation services,) propagated the belief ingrained in our community’s consciousness, that the government somehow is obliged to protect and maintain our ethnic identity in Australia.
Legally at least, it has no such obligation. Multiculturalism as a concept, is nowhere enshrined within our Constitution and as such exists, where it does so, as a creature of statute. When it is considered that legislation can be readily amended by a majority of members of parliament, the ‘right’ to Multiculturalism seems not to be as secure as originally thought.
Given the above, the measures taken by successive Australian Federal and State governments to promote and foster Multiculturalism, from its inception, ought to provoke awe and wonder, regardless of whether they are considered to be hard won rights by migrants who had to initially tackle bigotry and who substantively, if not formally, were often treated as second class citizens in the new country, owing to their ethnic backgrounds and language skills. For example, a quick poll of certain socially active members of the Greek community of my acquaintance reveals that while they expect, nay demand that our government fund Greek language programs in schools and extend these, they seem to have no such parallel expectation of the Greek government, vis a vis its significant Albanian minority. In fact, while multiculturalism in Australia is seen by them to enhance the social fabric of this country, in Greece, the same concept is considered a penultimate step to the dissolution of the Greek nation.
The recent announcement that the Federal Government has removed the word ‘Multiculturalism’ from the title of the parliamentary secretary assisting the Minister for Immigration, coupled with the Opposition’s scrapping of their shadow secretary on the grounds that while Australia is a multicultural society, we should all be focusing on national unity has sent shivers down the spines of many members of our community who fear that multiculturalism is now under threat. Already there is talk of mass mobilization in order to send a message to our leaders that such an act is unacceptable.
However, there are several things that we need to note. Firstly, despite the rhetoric and crowing of our achievements, these are but temporary, can be revoked at any time and signify, that we cannot take multiculturalism for granted. The privileges we have obtained for ourselves were so obtained within a certain political and cultural context that no longer exists. They have a use by date.
This means that while we should be grateful for any government assistance that enhances our cultural identity, we cannot rely upon any government for what in effect, amounts to the perpetuation of our community. We as a community, must develop our own mechanisms and infrastructure that will ensure our survival as a distinct ethnolinguistic entity within the broader fabric of Australian society. The preservation of our language and culture is our responsibility and while we applaud and are grateful for government contributions in this regard, it would be the height of delusion to believe that this is for them, a matter of priority, or to tie our fates to the fickle fortunes of politics and policy. However well-meaning, why should we think that a government is best placed to determine our requirements as an ethnic group? How do we protect ourselves in instances where politics dictates different agendas? Our community must learn to stand above these as an autonomous though fully integrated entity.
Secondly, it would be interesting to see who the members of the community are who seek to mass-mobilize in order to thwart the latest perceived ‘slight.’ Will they be those of the integrated second generation, most of whom have experienced their Greek-language education in community schools, speak perfect English and have limited need for multicultural facilities, or will they be members of the first generation, who have enjoyed the benefits of seventies and eighties multiculturalism and believe that the Greek community’s needs have crystallised from that time and shall remain the same into the future?
If anything, further than laying the groundwork for a community that can exist, if it has to, without official sanction or aid, the Greek community, as a politically active community that has had to struggle for legitimacy and acceptance from the time of the Perth anti-Greek riots during the First World War, to the present, our contribution to Multiculturalism could lie in acting as advocate for other, recently arrived minority groups that have not received the benefits of previous more enlightened multicultural policies and who may not in the future, receive the support that we have, historically, enjoyed as prime movers in the foundation of the doctrine. They could learn much from our experience. Of course, this would entail all of us recognising that cultural and religious groups that have in the past decade have been widely portrayed in the West as inimical to western democracy have a place within it and it would be interesting to note in years to come, whether there is indeed a racial and religious component to the demise of multiculturalism, along with its natural erosion as a result of the assimilation of latter generations.
Multiculturalism is not doomed. It is just considered of marginal importance in a country that has learned to absorb its migrants and expects from them ultimately, that they should outwardly conform to an Anglo-Saxon value structure. It is within that pyramid of hierarchy, that our own cultural quirks are tolerated, as long as they do not conflict with those of the dominant group that has permitted us to settle here and it will even promote these quirks to reward us for our conformity. Yet respect, is a totally different concept from toleration. I for one, was influenced in the manner of my voting at the recent federal elections by my observation that one particular political party seemed to have deliberately from their voting instructions, languages other than English. Did they not want the vote of non-English speakers or did they come to a realisation that the ethnic vote, as a bloc, is a thing of the past? However one views it, the battle for Multiculturalism seems only to have begun.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 25 September 2010

Saturday, September 18, 2010


The first Quran I ever owned was while I was in my teens: an interlinear edition, with English transliteration sitting below the swirling lines of Arabic above and below, an ‘interpretation’ in English (never a translation, as it is held that the meanings of the divinely revealed book could never adequately be rendered in another language.) It was difficult to read, though I persisted, because I had been told that just as one cannot understand the references and turns of phrase of modern Greek literature without first having read the Bible, so too would it be impossible to understand the references and imagery of Arabic and Persian literature, without having read the Quran.
Specific aged acquaintances objected to my possession of the book. According to them, that book personified the evil that had been unleashed upon the world by infernal powers, caused our people untold suffering and continued to be a source of conflict and violence in the world today. The opinion of one of these, a witness and survivor of the ethnic and religious persecution of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, I respected and thought deeply about. That of another, who claimed that her copy of the Bible was contaminated with communist interpolations that gave Jesus a Jewish lineage, I discounted right away.
My second Quran was given to me when I was in Turkey, by two Pakistani gents who offered me their hospitality. Having eaten, they uncovered a Quran, lovingly swathed in a velvet cloth, so as to be protected from profane hands, and for five gruelling hours, they proceeded, seated either side of me, to explain why the Christians were wrong, deluded and mislead by a holy book that was corrupted and, in turn why the Quran perfectly expressed God’s revelation for mankind. It was a harrowing experience and I felt not a bit threatened by the fervour of my two hosts, who demanded to know, at regular intervals, whether I agreed with them and did not stop with their preaching until morning. Possibly to reward me with their endurance, they gave me their Quran as a parting present the next day.
My third Quran was obtained in Albania. I was visiting a hodja at a Bektashi tekke, (a mystical Islamic order, deemed heretical by Sunni Islam and incorporating, at least in Albania, many Christian practices). I expressed interest in the revival of religion in the country in general, after the imposition of forty years of compulsory atheism by Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime, and in particular the reconstruction of churches and mosques throughout the countryside. “Most of these new mosques are built through Saudi Arabian funds,” he sighed wistfully. “They are importing Sunni Islam into a region that has never known it. They have also flooded the country with copies of the Quran, like this one.” He handed me a small, well-printed book, from a vast pile in a storeroom. “What they don’t realise is that this country is still very poor and we have more need of food and infrastructure than anything else. In the winter, many Muslim families burn these for fuel.”
To read any book deemed holy by people is to embark upon a roller coaster ride of emotion, thrill, and perplexity. Holy books inspire people to goodness, maintain and sustain them in times of trouble and are a pilgrim’s staff of support upon the weary path of life. Misused however, they can inspire hatred, intolerance, violence and misery, simply because in claiming to be the entire truth, they are by their very nature, exclusive of others who do not or cannot share or recognise the validity of their contents. Regardless, to deface, abuse or burn such books or other religious symbols is a heinous act, insulting the innermost core of a person’s belief and causing lasting hatred.
For example, in May 2008, hundreds of New Testaments were burned in Or Yehuda, Israel after having been collected by the Deputy Mayor who described the material as "Messianic propaganda" and claimed the books were burned by 3 Yeshiva students. In May 2009 a Russian orthodox church in Northern Israel was showered with stones thrown by students, injuring many of the congregation. A frequent complaint of Christian clergy in Israel is being spat at by Jews, often students. Even Christian ceremonial processions have been alleged to have been spat at, with one incident near the Holy Sepulchre causing a fracas which led to the destruction of the Armenian Archbishop's 17th-century cross. Such acts of disrespect, limited though they may be, have the capacity to cause lasting inter-denominational rifts.
Similarly, the recent defacement of the Assyrian Genocide monument in Sydney with the Islamic star and crescent, accompanied by slogans such as “F-k you Assyrian dogs,” may imply in the minds of many, regardless of whether this is erroneous or not, that the religion symbolised by the Star and Crescent condones the massacre of people on the basis of their race and religion.
The latest example of religious intolerance – the proposed and then cancelled ‘Burn the Quran’ day, by the Dove World Outreach Centre is a senseless as it is intolerant, contradicting the peaceful connotations indicated by the ‘dove,’ and certainly flouting the basic Christian beliefs that this organisation purports to hold. Furthermore, rather than highlighting the horror of the attack on the Twin Towers, all such an act, and even its very proposition, is to inflame anti-Christian feeling in the Middle East. This in turn, would cause further persecution of and acts of intolerance towards the already beleaguered Christian communities of the region, a minority that the ‘Christian’ West, seems not to care about at all and which are subject to harassment and restrictions in almost all Muslim countries. Further, how the burning of the holiest book of Islam, will achieve any rapprochement or common ground between the West and the Middle East, or serve to defuse the works of fanatics is difficult to discern. Rather, it should be viewed as a populist attempt to appeal to those lowest facets of the human character – bigotry and hatred – that it purports to condemn. Had the Dove World Outreach Centre truly wished to raise awareness of problems within Islam, they could have done so through civilized debate.
Ultimately, the success of a mature, pluralistic society can be measured in the manner in which it cajole extreme fringe groups to respect the rights and sensitivities of others. The fact that after pressure and protest, “Burn the Quran” day was abandoned is a mark of a healthy society in which wiser heads can prevail. It is this – the overwhelming outcry by churches and other groups against disrespecting Islam, that Muslims should pay attention to and not the ravings of the bigoted.
In his 1821 play Almansor, Heinrich Heine commented: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also,” and the events of the twentieth and twenty-first century have certainly proved him right. There is much to be enjoyed, rejoiced in and also to ponder in the books that form the basis for humanity’s belief in the supernatural. The Quran, whether one believes or understands its teachings and claims or not, is one of the most important and widely read works of literature and it should be respected, as well as subjected to critical analysis. After all, books do not kill people. People do. Until next week, mind those paper cuts.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 18 September 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010


As a child, I would be woken up every morning by the sounds of the SBS Greek news bulletin music filtering down from the kitchen into my bedroom and gently lodging themselves in my ears. Roused so mellifluously, while eating breakfast, I would listen to Kostas Nikolopoulos delivering the news in a sonorous and precise tone, straining my ear for unknown snippets of vocabulary, such as ειδήσεις and αναλυτικά. Back then, Greece was a land that could only be reached by telephone or cheaply produced eighties movies hired from the local Greek video shop and the words emanating from the radio would conjure up images of a far away realm in which important sounding things took place, such as εκλογές and most mysterious of all, ανασχηματισμοί. The smooth and soothing undertones of Alekos Ntounontoulakis' voice introduced me to a world beyond my relative's kitchens, where other people spoke Greek and organised functions, right here in Australia, while the enthralling Rena Frangioudaki would transport me, with the dulcet semitones of a true virtuoso, in her children's programme to a fantastical Greek fairytale land of myth and magic. Listening to the radio, I not only gained a sense of how the Greek language should properly be spoken, but also, who I was, how I related to others around me, as well as to that distant land, shrouded in obscurity and understood only through hearsay, that I had never seen.
The pre-satellite television need for a direct link with the home country was so extreme that I became, during my university years, a 24 hour Greek radio devotee. This was back in the day when community radio offered painstakingly researched and perfectly presented programs on a diverse range of issues, from cooking and gardening to current affairs, history and traditional culture. The alternative perspective on world and local events to be gleaned from such programs was refreshing and absorbing, so much so that like most of the members of the Greek community, I considered these radio announcers to be giants among pygmies, to be emulated at all costs and I did more than feign interest while present at gossip sessions as to their personal lives, that would inevitably arise at yiortes and barbecues. More seriously, I remember happy hours spent listening to my great-grandmother discuss the historical events she had learned about, while listening to the radio. Apparently, there was a man called Alexandros who ruled over half the world. This was a long time ago, before the Turks came to Ioannina. The Greek radio was also the main source of received knowledge as to the latest hits to emanate from the Greek musical stave, just before this was enveloped by the dark lord Phoebus and his monopolistic orc-hordes of American record labels, and rendered into a westernized parody of itself.
I have been intermittently dabbling with Greek radio for some ten years now. My first appearance on radio was an interview I gave on the conditions prevailing in Northern Epirus, following a visit to the region. My palms were sweaty, my stomach in knots and I took great pains to deliver answers in coherent Greek, bereft of grammatical mistakes or regional accent. Flowing from this, I was invited by a programmer to present a four-part program on the history of Northern Epirus. Over the ensuing weeks, I garnered together a wealth of information that I cut down, trimmed to size and shaped into what I thought would be of benefit to listeners. I also prepared a bibliography, so that I could show the programmer the basis behind the facts that I was going to present, and thus reassure him that everything I would say, would not be spurious. Taking a look at the pile of books I had amassed for his reference, he waved them aside with his hand dismissively, and spitting through the gap in his teeth, remarked: "Yeah, whatever. I'm sure it's all good. Just make sure you get there on time." Surprisingly, given my natural propensity to increase the rate of my spoken delivery to the point of incoherence out of nervousness, the program was quite well received. At its conclusion however, as I was answering phone calls from well-wishers, I answered a call, only to be accosted by an irate middle aged man: "Where the hell did you dig up that kologero? What happened to the soccer? When is it going to play"
My next radio stint was of a more lengthy duration. Over the course of two years, between 2003-4, I hosted a literary program sponsored by the generous and great late Theodoros Tsonis, in which I discussed famous Greek authors, emerging writers and other subjects of a cultural nature. Discussing the authors that influenced and impressed one's life to a vast audience is a great privilege and I took great delight in the search for new information and inspiration each week and to interact with an audience eager to share their own opinions on literary works. It was while presenting that program that I fell into my first community pitfall, comparing a community organization that displaced an unlikely amount of solidarity and internal harmony, with another that was currently in the courts. I believe it was the phrase «σκυλοτρώγωνται στα δικαστήρια» that enraged two listeners who supported one of the warring factions and I received my first formal complaint, upon which time I was compelled to offer apologies on air. From what I am told from time to time, one of the listeners at least, has never forgiven me.
This hiccup notwithstanding, what I found most instructive about my experience was the diverse impression created within my audience about the topics covered, something that has carried over into my next and most current radio gig is as a presenter of the Epirus hour, once weekly on Radio 3XY, ever since 2007. Over the years, of presenting the history, music and traditions of Epirus I have been labeled a fascist, a communist, an atheist, an Orthodox fundamentalist, an agent of PASOK and Nea Dimokratia, and most bizarre of all, after presenting a program about the Jews of Ioannina, a Zionist. On the flipside, community public awareness of the plight of Greeks in Northern Epirus, is on the rise.
Often, during the musical breaks in the program, I am called by lonely elderly people who just want to talk. Their calls may be sparked off by the simplest of things - a song they have not heard since their youth, the description of a historical event they learned about in school or the recitation of a poem. One of the most frequent callers, Barba Panayiotis, resides in a nursing home and is fascinated to learn that I remember him chanting in my local church in his distinctive, nasal voice. He calls, begging to recite a poem, or to relate one of his own experiences that has tenuous links to the topic at hand. It is calls such as these that remind one that for many lonely, incapacitated or isolated, forgotten people in our community, the radio is not only a source of information or entertainment, but the sole window they have left to them, to look out onto the rest of the world. Most of the callers however, are merely enquiring as to when the next match from Greece will be broadcast, or when they can dedicate a song from Roula to Soula, με πολλή αγάπη πάντα.
Diatribe, also offers an opportunity for radio manifestations, most notably on 3ZZZ, where from time to time, the diatribist is asked by Christos Fifis to manifest himself on air in order to discuss the inordinately few articles that present any interest, and quite often to defend or explain the spurious statements contained therein. Over the years, this has caused the diatribist to become cautious and not a little paranoid and it is indeed hard to make oneself heard on the microphone, when one is constantly looking over one's shoulder. Nonetheless, sharing one's thoughts on the radio and learning that these thoughts provoke amuse or inspire others is a unique boon that makes one realise just how much of our community is held together by community media.
Steve Allen may have opined that "radio is the theatre of the mind; television is the theatre of the mindless, but if anyone could eroticize lonely cold evenings in from of the microphone, it is surely is Marilyn Monroe when languidly stating: "It is not true I had nothing on, I had the radio on." Καλή Ακρόαση.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 11 September 2010

Saturday, September 04, 2010


The terrible 9/11 terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Centre stigmatised an entire generation. One of their unforeseen consequences was the loss of the historic Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which stood across Liberty Street from the World Trade Centre’s South Tower. The only non-World Trade Centre building to be destroyed by the attacks, it was a church of special significance for the Greeks of America.
A four-story building in the shadows of lower Manhattan, the building that came to house the church was built around 1832. In 1916, Greek immigrants established the parish of Saint Nicholas and in 1922 started to hold worship services at the Liberty Street location. The church building was only 6.7 m wide, 17 m long, and 11 m tall and was easily dwarfed by the 110 storey Twin Towers, which were completed in 1972 and 1973. Despite its small size and unusual location, the church had before the attacks a dedicated congregation of about 70 families led by Father John Romas. On Wednesdays, the building was opened to the public and many people, including office workers from the towers and non-Greek Orthodox, would enter the quiet worship space for contemplation and prayer.
Among the church's most valuable physical possessions were some of the relics of St Nicholas, St Catherine and St Sava, which had been donated to the church by Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. These relics were removed from their safe on holy days for veneration; tragically, they were never recovered after the attack.
Parish faithful have been waiting for eight years in order to rebuild the historic church as a symbol of faith, freedom, renewal and reconciliation. Unfortunately, despite negotiations with government authorities, amid debate over whether a proposed Islamic community centre should go forward near Ground Zero, government officials have recently thrown cold water on the prospect of any deal with the church.
This insensitive refusal, contradicts a litany of plans and promises that would have seen the construction of a new St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church quite close to the original location. The church was again to house a worshipping congregation. A museum was also projected to be built for the projected large influx of visitors that will come to the site.
On July 23, 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reached a deal with the leaders of the church for the Port Authority to acquire the 110 m2 lot that the church had occupied for $20 million.
The Port Authority and the church announced a deal in July 2008 under which the Port Authority would grant land and up to $20 million to help rebuild it in a new location – in addition, the authority was willing to pay up to $40 million to construct a bomb-proof platform underneath. After the initial excitement, the plan appears to have been shelved and then cancelled by the Port Authority.
In July, George Demos, a Republican Congressional Candidate, first brought the failure to rebuild St. Nicholas Church into the American national debate, claiming that the Executive Director of the Port Authority, Chris Ward, had not made the rebuilding of St. Nicholas a top priority. Just a few weeks ago, Demos launched a petition on his website calling on the Port Authority to rebuild the church. On 23rd August, former new York Governor George Pataki joined Demos at a press conference to call on the Port Authority to reopen talk with officials from the Church.
The stalemate is generating considerable public attention due to heated protests over Park 51, a proposed Islamic community centre several blocks away that has been dubbed the "Ground Zero mosque" by critics.
"St. Nicholas has nothing to do with this mosque controversy. We believe in religious freedom, and whether the mosque should or shouldn't be there, that's a whole different dialogue," said Father Mark Arey, spokesman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. "But it's a rising tide that lifts all boats. People say the mosque has been greenlighted, but why not this church?"
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and Port Authority offer sharply conflicting accounts of where things went wrong. By late 2008, St. Nicholas and the Port Authority had reached a tentative agreement for the church to give up its 1,200-square-foot site at 155 Cedar Street in exchange for 130 Liberty Street, a bigger site half a block away.
Six months later, the Port Authority said negotiations ended because St. Nicholas demanded too much money and approval power over a vehicle security centre beneath the sites. Port Authority spokesman Stephen Sigmund said the church can return to its original location.
"In 2009, we made our final offer, which again included up to $60 million in public money, and told St. Nicholas Orthodox Church that the World Trade Centre could not be delayed over this issue," he said in a written statement. "They rejected that offer."
Father Mark, on the other hand, maintains that negotiations were in the final stages, with the church "acting in good faith," when the Port Authority suddenly stopped returning calls. Father Alex has labelled the Port Authority's claims "propaganda" and said the church has complied with all conditions. He said the government should honor agreements that date back to 2004, under former New York Governor George Pataki.
It is imperative that consensus is reached so that the historic church of St Nicholas is rebuilt. The symbolic meaning of such a gesture is high. Quite apart from its importance to the Greek American community, more than any other Christian denomination, it is Orthodox Christianity that has influenced and established a millenia-long dialogue and interaction with Islam. More Orthodox Christians reside in the Middle East, among those professing the Islamic faith, than any other Christian denomination and the Orthodox of this region have fostered a unique understanding and symbiosis with Islam, under inordinately difficult conditions, that the West would do well to study and emulate. The re-erection of this church of tolerance will send the message that Christianity and Islam can co-exist within a climate of peace and tolerance.
It is to be hoped that whatever administrative or other decisions that have hampered the rebuilding of the church up until now are not linked to the current debate about the wisdom of Barack Obama’s support for the construction of the Ground Zero mosque nearby. One can understand the disquiet by both sides: After all, some Jewish groups have expressed objections to the placement of Christian crosses at Auschwitz on the grounds that the Holocaust was a crime perpetrated by Christians against Jews. Similarly, the erection of a Christian church at the site of a massacre of Muslims by Christians (wherever and if ever such a site exists), would certainly offend many Muslims, who would find it difficult to understand, in the wake of the stench of brutality, arguments as to freedom of religion. The countless Christian churches in the Middle East historically converted into mosques as a precursor to centuries long persecution, or recently vandalised and destroyed, however, is barely considered in the debate.
Nonetheless, the re-building of St Nicholas has nothing to do with this weighty debate. The parish has been in existence for almost one hundred years and it forms an inseparable part of the warp and weft of the rich cultural tapestry that is the City of New York. Indeed, it is imperative that consensus is reached so that the historic church of St Nicholas is rebuilt speedily. The symbolic meaning of such a gesture is high. Quite apart from its importance to the Greek American community, more than any other Christian denomination, it is Orthodox Christianity that has influenced and established a millenia-long dialogue and interaction with Islam. More Orthodox Christians reside in the Middle East, among those professing the Islamic faith, than any other Christian denomination and the Orthodox of this region have fostered a unique understanding and symbiosis with Islam, under inordinately difficult conditions, that the West would do well to study and emulate. The re-erection of this church of tolerance will send the message that Christianity and Islam can co-exist within a climate of peace and tolerance. At least, let us hope so.


First published in NKEE on 4 September 2010