Saturday, October 30, 2010


"What can you say about the Apodimoi? They hear the word Greece and burst into tears. Instead of us weeping for living inside Greece, those wankers weep for living away ."
Harry Klynn.

In the haunting poem , "O γυρισμός του ξενιτεμένου" (The return of the Migrant,) George Seferis movingly describes the confusion and anguish experienced by a person returning to his home after having spent time abroad, in the form of dialogue between him and one of his friends. The friend asks him: "Old friend, what are you looking for? You have returned after so many years of nurturing your own visions, under foreign skies, far from your own place?" The returning migrant then relates his confusion in noticing that the dimensions of everything have changed: they seem smaller, different and what is more, they appear to be sinking into the ground. Just before his oldest friend in subsumed into the ground himself, he offers the following advice: "Consider old friend, in time you will get used to this. Your nostalgia has created a non-existent land, with laws that have nothing to do with the earth and its peoples." The response of the migrant, is not to admit that the mystical place of his homecoming, nurtured over many years of pain does not exist. Rather, it is to allude to the fact that he is probably in the wrong place and that here his dreams run the risk of being run down: "I can't hear anything anymore. Even my last friend has sunk. It is strange how everything is foreshortened every so often. Here, thousands of scythed chariots pass and reap."
It is not surprising that a homeland like Greece can evoke such passionate longings among those that have left it. Homesickness is after all a universal affliction. What is surprising is that it exists among persons that have never had Greece as their homeland and indeed in many cases, have never even seen Greece. For some reason, the conglomeration of elements and events that coalesce around a consciousness of identity seem to sustain and differentiate people of Greek background from the society and the people that live around them and this has been the case from the foundation of the first Greek colonies around the Mediterranean, (though in that instance, these colonies, being autonomous and in the large part not subject to the rule of other nations, were 'Greece' forming part of the Hellenic world) to the present day.
Preservation of links, whether physical, or emotional, with the Ur-heimat, is not always a pursuit of self-indulgence. Historically, it is a pursuit that has been fraught with danger for many of those partaking in it. I remember meeting a school-teacher in Cheimarra, Northern Epirus, who spent years being harassed by the Communist regime because of her courageous decision to teach her students in Greek (this was at a time when according to the regime, there were no Greeks in Cheimarra), and even more bravely, given that after 1967, Albania called itself the first Atheist state and unleashed a wave of persecution against all forms and manifestations of religion, she openly proclaimed her belief in the Orthodox faith. Many of her colleagues, who did the same, endured twenty year sentences in gruelling labour camps. I was most moved also to listen to her story of how she would organise clandestine 25 March celebrations, banned not only for their nationalist but also 'imperialist' connotations.
In Russia, those Greeks who have chosen to cling to their traditions, rather than becoming Russified endured persecution and harassment during the Stalinist era, culminating in the mass deportation of Pontian Greeks from their traditional homeland around the Black Sea region and their relocation to Central Asia. Even there, the Greeks managed to cling to their traditions and maintain a love for their indentity. They established schools, clubs, theatrical groups and even sent each other cards at Easter featuring the Parthenon. In the surviving ephemera they produced, one can see the Ur-heimat they constructed for themselves - a place where ancient glory abounds, people are rational and cultured and where one will not be considered a foreigner anymore. As an aside it would be interesting to see how the perceptions of a host culture about one's culture influence the way one sees one's own culture (for example Russians tend to hold Greek culture in high esteem and thus there is real incentive there for Greeks to see value in retaining it, whereas Anglo-Saxon culture tends to be disparaging about Modern Greek culture, creating a complex among some descendants of migrants) and this is something that bears further examination.
Considering the manner in which such Greeks have clung to their culture despite privations, and most often than not, totally alone and unaided by the Greek state, one would think that it is incumbent upon the Greek State and/or better of Greek communities in the diaspora to protect, assist them and ensure easy access to the Greek metropolis. However, this is not always the case. Two years ago, I stood witness to the harassment of Vasilis Bolanos, the heroic mayor of Cheimarra, who has endured imprisonment for his assertion of the Greek identity of his town, by ignorant Greek border guards who would not allow him into Greece. That was an administrative and genuine mistake on their part. What was not a mistake was the contemptuous and aggressive manner in which he was treated, because they considered him, as a foreigner and thus inferior - at least until their superior was called, whereupon they magically transformed into fawning and obsequious peons.
The recent cases, featured on Athens radio program "Sto Kokkino" of the disturbing way in which the Greeks of Marioupolis - a region that houses a significant Greek population in the Ukraine, are treated by the Greek State in general and their current Greek Consul is also thought provoking. In particular, a 73 year old woman who was dreaming of going to see Greece all her life, had bought a passport and a return ticket, was denied a visa for no reason whatever. "Go and apply after ninety days," was the official response to her agonised question of "Giati? Giati?" She then proceeded to tear up her passport in front of them because there was nowhere else that she wished to travel. The aggrieved lady had always wanted to see the Greece that neither her parents nor her grandparents ever had the chance to see but had always dreamed about.
Despite the fact that most latter generation apodimoi are NQR Greeks who do not speak the language, or comprehend the manifold nuances of modern hybrid Greek culture, they have a love for their Ur-heimat that it as all-encompassing and unconditional as it is unreasonable. If the Greek state is serious about harnessing the diverse skills, life-experiences and fervour of Greeks abroad, it could start, by making them feel part of the same entity, members of the heimat, rather, than treating them variously as foreigners, yokels, sources of exploitation or burdens. Facilitating access to the homeland rather than restricting it would be a logical consequence of this.
There is undoubtedly a hysteria within the Greek psyche that causes a need for differentiation, a need to both be foreign and exclude the foreigner that has not been studied adequately. If we are to be considered foreigners, not only by the denizens of our Ur-heimat, (for to all intents and purposes, the Greeks of Greece do not accept us their own people) but also by their head franchisors, then we deserve to be told. It would be refreshing to finally accept that we remain Greeks, away from Greece, not for any altruistic purposes or for the glory or benefit of the Greek state but rather, for ourselves alone.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 30 October 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010


“There is hopeful symbolism in the fact that flags do not fly in a vacuum”
Arthur C Clarke.

It is questionable whether the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is a state. Most countries around the world do not recognize it as the entity having sovereignty over the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. Currently, most of its territory has been occupied by Morocco (and Mauretania between 1975-1979) since 1975, who in defiance of agreements brokered between it and the POLISARIO, the Western Saharan independence movement, refuses to hold a referendum in the territory in order to determine the extent inhabitants’ desire for self determination. Instead, Morocco has constructed a 2,700 km long sand wall, across the country, in order to divide the portion of Western Sahara it holds, from the 20 or so per cent controlled by the Polisario, which is mostly uninhabited.
While the West generally disdains from characterizing the POLISARIO as a terrorist organization, it is generally circumspect and reticent with regards to recognizing their claims to statehood. The Obama administration in the United States, recognizes Western Sahara as part of Morocco. Australia, on the other hand has a slightly more subtle approach. While not recognizing the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, it does support the principle of self-determination for the Sahrawi people.
It is easy to sympathise with the Sahrawi Arabs, who live in an isolated and desolate corner of the world. For a quarter of a decade, they have been victims of an interminable war and suffered loss of life and livelihood as a result. It is for this reason admirable that the City of Yarra council recently flew their flag at their municipal offices, at the request of members of the community. This is a heartwarming display of solidarity towards a people who, to all intents and purposes are relatively unknown and/or are ignored by the rest of the world.
The Republic of Cyprus on the other hand, could be said to be Western Sahara’s counterpart as well as opposite. Both countries are former colonies of European powers. Both have been invaded and occupied by foreign aggressors within a year of each other and both remain divided. However, instead of being divided vertically, as in the case of the latter, the former is divided horizontally. Furthermore, rather than being isolated, Cyprus is at the crossroads of three continents, has historically been a trading and cultural entrepot and looms large in the history of the world. As well, the republic of Cyprus is considered by all countries in the world, except for Turkey, to have de jure sovereignty over the whole island. Cyprus is thus a member of the United Nations, since 2004, a member of the European Union and a member of the Commonwealth.
Considering then, that the republic of Cyprus has been a state since 1960, a half a century, the City of Yarra’s refusal to fly the flag of the sovereign Republic of Cyprus in commemoration of its independence, fifty years ago, at the request of the Cypriot Community of Melbourne and Victoria is mystifying. This is especially so, given that other municipal councils, such as that of Whittlesea, Nillumbik and Mornington seemed not to display any reluctance in accommodating the CCMV’s inoffensive request.
Western Sahara’s flag, is purely political, being that used by the POLISARIO armed political movement. It sports the Pan-Arab colours of black green and red first flown by the kings of the Hejaz, in the same design as that of the Palestinian flag, with an added red star and crescent to symbolize Islam. Upon independence, the black stripe on the top of the flag will be replaced by the green stripe at its base. The flag of Cyprus on the other hand, is meek, mild and peaceful, being merely the map of the island on a white background, symbolizing peace, above some crossed olive branches, symbolizing even more peace. It is a flag designed by the recently departed Turkish Cypriot painter İsmet Güney.
So why is the City of Yarra so reticent about joining it its Greek and Cypriot ratepayers’ commemoration of the independence of Cyprus? Yarra Councillor Geoff Barbour’s assertion that the council did not want to exacerbate what could be a controversial issue for the local Cypriot community and there was little information provided about the full diplomatic background to the situation is disquieting and, in light of the council’s apparent condoning of the Polisario cause without too much hesitation, appears disingenuous. After all, anyone with publicly funded access to the internet can in five minutes learn that Cyprus is a sovereign republic to which Australia has accredited a High Commissioner. One can also discover that the occupied north of Cyprus, which is run by a puppet administration known as the Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus, is recognised only by Turkey, the country that invaded Cyprus and installed that regime there. Another five minutes of the councillors’ time would permit them to learn that the 1960 independence of Cyprus was the result of the Zurich Agreement, brokered by Britain, Greece AND Turkey.
Yarra Council CEO Andi Diamond’s comment that “council receives similar requests from time to time but does not always accept those this instance, Council declined the request to fly the flag,” underlines the arbitrariness of its decision. This decision insults the significant number of ratepayers of Greek and Cypriot extraction who live, or own property in such suburbs as Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy. For many of those ratepayers, the independence of Cyprus is an important historical event and the council’s arbitrary decision not to accede to a reasonable request to fly the Cypriot flag is insensitive, deeply hurtful and makes them feel that the Council does not respect their ethnic background.
It would be interesting to know the real reasons behind the decision. It would be assumed that the good councillors may have feared pressure or a backlash from the Turkish community. This could be understandable, given the Turkish government’s recent refusal to grant visas to Australian archaeologists – an act that has been linked to the Fairfield City Council’s sanctioning of the installation of a monument commemorating the Assyrian genocide, in Sydney. If this is so, it is a most misguided decision. The independence of Cyprus is not a disputed historical fact. It is an undisputed historical occurrence of great importance to a prominent Australian community. Whether certain persons consider this historical event to be fortuitous or not is irrelevant and the Greek and Cypriot ratepayers of the City of Yarra would be most interested to understand why the flying of the flag of a stateless people is less controversial and offensive that one of a recognised nation state, of which a significant amount of ratepayers derive an ethnic and cultural affiliation. It would also be interesting to know how many of the fifteen Western Saharans resident in Australia according to the last census, are ratepayers of the City of Yarra. As an aside, it is worthwhile to note that the chair of the Australia Western Saharan Association, Georgia Vlassopoulos, is of Greek origin.
The probability of the placid and Cypriot government denying entry visas to the ratepayers of the City of Yarra in protest is quite miniscule. Yet the concept of a local statutory authority having the power to arbitrarily honour one ethnic minority over another over the most flimsy of pretexts is of great concern. Greek and Cypriot ratepayers of the City of Yarra are entitled to a full and frank explanation of the circumstances that led the City of Yarra to dishonour their national day and not to be insulted by a blanket assertion of the Council’s discretionary decision making power. Failing that, Greek and Cypriot aggrieved ratepayers should express their dismay in the one place where their voices will be heard the most – the municipal ballot box.
We leave you know with the following words of advice from Norman Thomas: “If you want a symbolic gesture, don't burn the flag; wash it.” I say keep the flag flying, pay your rates, and, if the mood takes you, affix the Cypriot flag upon your letter boxes.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 23 October 2010

Saturday, October 16, 2010


'Epos,' whence the word 'epic' comes, is most often applied to the superhuman efforts of the Greek soldiers who, commencing October 1940, checked the Italian invasion and liberated large swathes of Greek territory in Northern Epirus. Ancillary to this great epic, is that of the brave western allies, mostly British, New Zealand and Australian, who at great personal risk, remained in Greece after the German invasion, to fight the Axis powers and assist the local population.
One of the epics that tends to be forgotten is that of the Assyrian levies, a force originally formed by the British in Mesopotamia, in order to assist their control over Assyrian dominated swathes of northern Iraq, after the first world war. A parachute regiment of these levies fought with distinction in Greece and Northern Epirus, even seeing action in the beginnings of the Greek Civil War, while earlier, other companies of the levies fought with the British in the Battle of Crete.
The Assyrian parachute regiment was originally formed on the 6th January 1942 from volunteers at RAF Habbanyia in Iraq to safe guard against Axis infiltration through the Caucasus.Lectures were given to the regular Levies on the need to establish a parachute company and volunteers were called for. One thousand volunteered for the task and were put through a rigorous selection process. After two weeks of gruelling training the 1,000 volunteers were filtered down to 200. By December 1942, parachute training had commenced from Vickers Valencia's, the only Aircraft available. The Valencia was so outdated and slow that it was nicknamed the "flying Pig" by the RAF.Group Captain Newnham, an experienced parachute instructor recalls his first experience with the Levy paratroopers, in suitably colonial disdainful manner:
"It was interesting to be in the aircraft with these brown skinned descendants of the mighty Assyrian Empires which had faded into the limbo of antiquity hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. Apparently these selected specimens had lost none of their ancestor's courage, for they showed no hesitation at all in leaving the machine. Indeed I learned at a later date that throughout the entire training of the company only one man had been killed as a result of an accident and there had never been an instance of a refusal to jump or a request to be taken off parachuting".
As well as parachuting, the company was also trained in demolition and small arms, akin to a commando unit. After seeing action in Palestine and Italy, the paratroopers were commanded to join a force thatwas to attack and capture the Northern Epirotan town of Agioi Saranda on the 9 October 1944. The commandos and the partisans were to attack from the north and the Levies were to be landed by Infantry Landing and attack from the south and secure point 264, the prominent feature overlooking the town.
On the 9th at 1:30 the company paraded opposite their Landing Crafts and were issued with rum rations. Sergeant Hormis Youkhana recalls:
"The transports dropped us off on a beach. Near the town of Saranda. We stayed there the first day. On the second day my platoon was engaged in ambushes of two German motor transports. On the third day, we bordered boats and made our way to another beach two hours away, behind the German positions. Then the order came to attack. When we attacked, it was uphill all the way. Our Major warned us that we would be under mortar fire. Just as he said, on the way up we were bombarded heavily, but thankfully, no one was hurt. We advanced very fast, we were like mountain goats, we actually crossed the enemy lines. One of the men from the other platoons fell into a German trench. Two men from our platoon were killed that day.
The landing was silent and the visibility was ten yards due to bad weather, it was raining which helped to reduce the chance of being observed and also to muffle the sounds of disembarkation.Thirty minutes into the advance, a German machine gun opened up from the left flank, 1st platoon engaged the machine gun post and overran the position capturing several prisoners. To appreciate the difficulty of that task, one needs to keep in mind the Germans had four years to dig-in and strengthen their defences, and they were literally looking down on the Assyrian platoon that had to approach them from bellow".

It later transpired that the German commander had seen the landing but decided, that his men could have breakfast first and be ready to fight the enemy on full stomachs. Little did he know that the Assyrians, whose abode was the mountains of Iraq where expert mountain climbers and the mountains of Agioi Saranda, presented little difficulty. Setting off at a jog they outstripped their British officers and caught the German garrison who were just finishing breakfast. After a brisk firefight, the Germans surrendered and the Levies settled down to their breakfast. Unfortunately, the Germans were not the only people taken by surprise. The Royal Navy and the RAF had not realized that the mountain was in friendly hands and attacked with naval gunfire and rockets. Khamshi Schlemon Bukko was dispatched with a patrol to contact the Commando and get them to send a message to HQ that the objective had been captured and would they please ask the Navy and the RAF to cease firing. Seeing troops coming from the direction of the enemy, the commandos opened fire. Bukko was hit but had enough strength left to call out "Stop shooting. We are British". His cry, in a Syriac accent, was greeted with derision and another burst of fire. "British are you? Not b...y likely". Eventually the commandos saw their error and ceased firing. Henceforth the Paratroop Company sardonically referred to themselves as experts in combined operations, having been shot up by the Navy, Army and RAF in a single operation.
Having liberated the town, to the jubilation of its Greek inhabitants, the company was next deployed to Greece to take action against the ELAS. Originally requested to guard prisoners, they were next assigned to clearing and occupying several blocks of houses including a church bounded by M. Botsari and Kiriakou Roads in Athens - this being the beginning of the dirt street fighting marking the 'Dekemvriana' the commencement of the Greek Civil War. In doing so, they came under fire by ELAS forces and soldiers were killed on both sides:Benyamin Shlimon, a private at the time recalls the incident:
"It was very dark, we started crossing a road, Lt Peterson was in the lead and followed by Sgt Ismail Nissan, the rest of us waited to be called to cross. As soon as Lt Peterson was halfway across, machineguns opened up from the other side, we pulled back just in time, we pushed hard with our back on a wall, but we could see Lt Peterson he was laying in the middle of the road, he had been hit and wasn't moving, we tried several times to get to him but failed every time, the enemy fire was very heavy."
After being asked to intervene in the Civil War and experiencing discrimination by the British, the Assyrian paratroopers become increasingly disillusioned. As Benyamin Shlimon comments:
"After our experiences in Athens we became very upset about our dead and wounded, we knew the widows would not receive any help from the British and our wounded would be discharged to fend for themselves. The British commando receives much better pay and if he dies his family wouldn't starve, we didn't want the same pay as them but we wanted things to be a little fair, we didn't want our widows to beg for food if we die, after all we were fighting as hard as the commandos and dying just the same, so we made our feelings felt to the British officers and they didn't like it."
It appears that the British were considerably lacking when it came to looking after their colonial troops. Parachute Sergeant Hormis Youkhana describes his experience after being wounded in Albania:
"After I was wounded in Albania I was told by the doctors that I would need two years of physical therapy to heal, but I was discharged after six months medically unfit. I couldn't get a job after that, they wouldn't even have me working in the camp kitchen."
The Assyrian levies, formed with subtle hints given by the British that participation in them would ensure the granting of an Assyrian homeland, and having played a decisive role in putting down the Nazi-aligned Rashid Ali rebellion in 1941, were eventually disbanded after the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq in 1955. Victims of weltpolitik, like many other small nations of the world, their small contribution to the liberation of Greece, ought to be remembered.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 October 2010

Saturday, October 09, 2010


Some years ago, I was asked to present a talk at a conference on the topic: "Who are the Pontians?" I thought to facilitate a closer understanding of the Greek persons who hail from the Black Sea region by illustrating the talk with slides of famous Pontians that a non-Greek audience could relate to. Having rejected such august and renown personages as Stelios ('Stelaras') Kazantzidis and his equally melodious compatriot, Panayiotis Psomiadis, the iconic mayor of Thessaloniki as being too specific in their appeal, and decided against commencing with pictures of the famous but nonetheless obscure to a modern audience kings Mithradates (who was more Persian than Greek) and Alexios Komnenos, or even saints such as Theodore of Amasya, whose statue stands atop a column in Venice, I decided upon a ruse, in order to capture my listeners. Flashed upon the screen at the commencement of my talk then, was a photograph of the leggy supermodel Heidi Klum. I contended, based upon spurious conspiracy theories garnered from various internet sites, that she was of Pontian descent, that her baptismal name was Heidoula and that she enjoyed the music of. Stelaras. As a result of my bold and completely spurious assertion, my audience resolutely refused to believe my next assertion, which was that among various emperors, conquerors, men of letters and the like, the Pontians boast among their most famous sons, an astronaut.
Nonetheless, it is absolutely true. Fyodor Yurchikhin (Grammatikopoulos), was born on 3 January 1959 in Adjara, an autonomous republic of Georgia, to Pontic Greek parents Nikolai Fyodorovich Yurchikhin and Mikrula Sofoklevna Yurchikhina, both of whom now reside in Thessaloniki. After graduation from high school in Batumi in 1976, he entered the S. Ordzhonikidze Moscow Aviation Institute He finished studying in 1983, and is qualified as a mechanical engineer, specializing in airspace vehicles. In 2001, he graduated from the Moscow Service State University with a Ph.D. in economics.
After graduating from the Moscow Aviation Institute, Yurchikhin worked at the Russian Space Corporation Energia from September 1983 until August 1997. He began working as a controller in the Russian Mission Control Center, and held the positions of engineer, senior engineer, and lead engineer, eventually becoming a lead engineer for the Shuttle-Mir and NASA-Mir Space Programs. In August 1997, he was enrolled in the Energia cosmonaut detachment as a cosmonaut-candidate. From January 1998 to November 1999, he completed his basic training course. In November 1999, he was qualified as a test cosmonaut. In January 2000, he started training in the test-cosmonaut group for the International Space Station Program.
Yurchikhin was a crewmember of the International Space Station assembly mission sts-112 conducted using the Space Shuttle Atlantis. During the mission the shuttle crew conducted joint operations with Expedition 5 by delivering and installing the third piece of the station's 11-piece Intergrated Truss Structure. Three spacewalks were required to outfit and activate the new component. Yurchikhin also transferred cargo between the two vehicles and used the shuttle's thruster jets during two maneuvers to raise the station's orbit. His STS-112 mission was accomplished in 170 orbits, traveling 4.5 million miles in 10 days, 19 hours, and 58 minutes.
As a result of his amazing endeavours, in 2003, Yurchikhin was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the Order of Friendship medal, the NASA Space Flight Medal, and the title of Russian Federation Test-Cosmonaut.
In 2007, he became commander of Expedition 15 to the International Space station. His flight began on April 7, when he launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a Soyuz TMA-10 spaceship. On October 21, he returned to Earth after spending 196 days and 17 hours in space.
On May 30, 2007 Yurchikhin began his first spacewalk from the Pirs docking compartment a airlock. He and fellow cosmonaut Oleg Kotov performed a 5 hour and 25 minute spacewalk, during which they installed protective panels to shield ISS from space debris.
On June 6, 2007 a second spacewalk from the Pirs docking compartment airlock was completed. The two spacewalkers installed a section of Ethernet cable on the Zarya module, installed additional Service Module Debris Protection panels on Zvezda, and deployed a Russian scientific experiment. Yurchikhin and Kotov returned to the ISS after 5 hours and 37 minutes.
On July 23, 2007, Yurchikhin participated in his third spacewalk along with NASA astronaut Clayton Anderson. During the spacewalk, Yurchikhin and Anderson removed and jettisoned the Early Ammonia Servicer installed a television camera stanchion, reconfigured a power supply for an antenna assembly, and performed several get-ahead tasks. The spacewalk lasted 7 hours and 41 minutes.
As if this was not enough, on June 16, 2010, Yurchikhin along with NASA astronauts Douglas Wheelock and Shannon Walker lifted off aboard the Soyuz TMA-19 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, for another bout as ISS maintenance. Soon after, on July 26, Yurchikhin performed a spacewalk outside the space station. During the spacewalk he outfitted the Rassvet module's Kurs automated rendezvous system, installed cables and remove and replaced a video camera, the spacewalk lasting an arduous six hours and 42 minutes.
Cosmonautical endeavours not withstanding, Yurchikhin has made history in other fields as well, notably the initiation of the first Pontian to Pontian inter-space communication. This cosmo-historic event took place at 10:45am, on 24 June 2010, when interplanetary Pontic titan extraordinaire Peter Jasonides, received the following telephone call, reproduced in full (and in Pontian), from Yurchikhin, who was at that very moment observing Australia from space:
- Έλα Παναϊώτη.
- Ποίος εν;
- Εγώ ο Θόδωρον είμαι. Είμαι απές στη διαστημή το πλοίον και ελέπω σας αυκά σην Αυστραλίαν. Απάν α' σην Αυστραλίαν είμαι σ' α' τώρα και ελέπω αυκά!
- Τρώω την Παναϊας Θέδωρε. Α΄τώρα επαλάλωσες΄με. Α΄τώρα θα εβγαίνω οξουκά και θα τσαϊζω. Βγάλον έναν φωτογραφία την Αυστραλίαν από εκεί απάν, και στείλον α΄τέν σ΄ο σπίτι΄μ. Θεόδωρε, να εν τ΄εμέτερον η Παναϊα με τ΄εσέν.
- Να είσαι καλά Παναϊώτη. Να είσαι καλά.

This mind-blowing conversation proves two things: Firstly, that if there is any incentive in becoming a cosmonaut, surely it lies in being able to make unlimited and expensive long distance telephone calls to all and sundry. Secondly, that this is the stuff that Pontian anecdotes are made of, viz: "What did one Pontian say to the other Pontian when in space?"
As a result of Peter Jasonides' relating the contents of the conversation, I drew him into a heated discussion as to the theological implications of his exclamation: «Τρώω την Παναϊας.» For if one is to assert that they eat the Theotokos, is this not blasphemy of the highest order - tantamount to postulating that the Theotokos is of the same nature as Christ and can be offered as communion to the faithful? Peter's response to this is that this is but one of many strange, inexplicable but thoroughly colourful Pontian phrases that pepper the dialect, in order to show enthusiasm and /or disbelief. Another, «τρώω τα κάκαλα'ς» is just as disturbing. Perhaps, in keeping with our space motif, we can introduce astronomical expressions such as «τρώω τη μαύρη τρύπα'ς» which is also disturbing, but topical.
That Yurchikhin, Pontian cosmonaut can reach the stars and then remember to phone his Pontian friends and rejoice in their mutual Pontianism is a marvellous thing. It proves that diasporan Greeks are able to succeed in diverse walks of life and can provide inspiration for multitudes.
As the diatribist dons his gravity boots and attempts to orbit around his own periphery, an observation, from the perspicacious Karl Jung: "Space flights are merely an escape, a fleeing from one's self, because it is easier to go to Mars or the moon than to penetrate one's own being."
After all, it gets lonely up there in space. Ας εμέν το Διατριβιστήν, shαιρετίας.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 October 2010

Saturday, October 02, 2010


"I kiss her photo, light the candle , prepare the incense... and let it burn .I tend to the flowers. The familiarity of ritual frames me, in my shadow of sorrow." Dina Dounis, "Visiting my mother."

When I was little, the world was young and no one died. I was destined to live with all the people I knew around me forever, in a cozy cocoon of inevitability. In that world, the past and present had melded into one and life offered the possibility of endless summers seated under orange trees, watching nonchalantly as titan progenitors worked in their own gardens of Eden, as they had done, since the dawn of Time.
I had no conception of a graveyard until my grandfather died. We buried him in a hole in the ground in an area of the cemetery, that fittingly, was new, the rows of tombstones, grey, forbidding and final, positioned respectfully some distance away. I remember at the funeral, looking at the layers of clay at the sides of the pit converging into a brooding darkness and being seized with an indefinable terror, as the coffin sank lower and lower into it. Oil and wine was poured over it and then, we all took turns covering it with soil. When we went back a few days later, it was to a mound of crumbled, eroding clay, dumped unceremoniously around a flimsy wooden cross. My grandfather was no more.
My grandfather's grave faces East, something that was of immense consolation to my grandmother, who fretted that in Australia, people had no knowledge of the fact that they should lay their loved ones towards the East, in order that they should arise at the time of the General Resurrection. In those days, before graves were lined with concrete foundations, one had to wait some months before erecting a tombstone. My father constructed a wooden border to delineate his father's grave, and a wooden box, in the shape of a church, in which to house a καντήλι and a θυμιατό. Prior to that moment, I had only ever seen such items in front of an iconostasis and I would wake up to the smell of incense and the sound of my grandmother murmuring prayers as she censed every room. When I asked her what she was saying she would smile and reply mysteriously: "These aren't things for children to know." Now I had to know, because I was charged with the task of censing my grandfather's grave and in the knowledge of it, and the fact that eventually, I would lose all my beloved progenitors, I lost my childhood forever.
When we finally had the tombstone erected, it was bi-fold. On one side was my grandfather's photograph, his name, spelt incorrectly in Greek and his date of birth and death and on the other side, a blank, black piece of marble, brooding and terrifying in its nullity. "That's where my photograph will be," my grandmother would say as she would view it, having first, washed down the marble, polished it to a brilliant sheen, arranged and re-arranged the flowers from her garden with meticulous detail, crossed herself and kissed her husband's picture. "You will come here and remember me and tell me what you are doing. And make sure you don't leave anything out. I will know already."
My sister and I do remember. We wash and polish our grandparents' grave in the same manner that my grandmother did and we bring them flowers from our garden, because to place bought flowers on the grave of those who worked in Eden would constitute an inversion of the natural world. Having lit the votive lamp, censed, crossed ourselves, kissed their pictures and mumbled messages to them under our breaths, we make our way past the Southern Slav families, laying out feasts for their dead and through the maze of graves that have sprung up since their demise. Familiar names and faces, seen over years, meet our gaze from the expressionless tombstones. On one side, the face of a teenager, killed in a road accident, smiling, oblivious of the cruel abrogation of his right to potential and chance and flanking our path out of the cemetery, the numerous graves of relatives and friends who have in the years since, become citizens of the necropolis - their tombstones both denoting but also muting the vibrancy of their lives and hushing up their legacies. We watch with amusement as older ladies scurry from one grave to another, their experienced eyes assessing the magnitude of expense lavished in construction, the level of unkemptness, drawing conclusions as to the frequency of familial visits and archiving this information for the use in gossip sessions later on. We watch also with understanding, as these ladies have been born and brought up among the ruins and graveyard of an entire civilization and their natural, matter of fact acceptance of the process of death and its accoutrements, one which derives from the Orthodox tradition, in which death is merely a part of life and a window into another world, is thus unsurprising. There is none of the Western or even ancient Greek abhorrence of death, or shunning of its realms and territories within their psyche.
During my university years, I would occasionally walk across the street to Carlton cemetery and search among the old graves, for those of the founding fathers of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria. Having found them, I would marvel at their age and their remoteness from the present. If those stones could speak, it is doubtless that we would have much to learn and yet there they remain, old and mouldering, denoting a long gone presence to descendants who no longer exist and to their descendants, who have no idea of their significance.
While walking through the cemetery, viewing the eroded state of other nineteenth century tombstones, some of them architectural masterpieces of a bygone ages, when people troubled over tombstones and did not merely mass-produce them in blocks of angular marble, and which have had corners snap off, or which have almost completely sunk into the ground, one is struck with the realization, that in times to come, the crumbling inscriptions on no-longer tended graves will be the final testimony to the presence of a Greek-speaking community here. It is for this reason that the Nazis were obsessed with desecrating and destroying Jewish cemeteries and the anguish of the Jewish people, who saw their ancestors' tombstones used as building materials, throughout Europe - even in Thessaloniki can therefore be understood in this context. Our ultimate future then, is a litany of incomprehensible hieroglyphics to a people who will not even know how to read our names. Community leaders will do well to take note of that.
A while ago, a member of the community suggested that it would be of value to begin the process of photographing Greek-Australian graves and compiling a catalogue of them. Not only would this preserve the memory of persons, it would provide a valuable historical record as to our changing burial customs and attitudes towards tradition. It would, also provide an eschatological dimension to our own sense of identity and possibly cause us to view ourselves and our community differently. As a corollary, it may be time to consider the planning of a trust, charged with the task of identifying and preserving, Greek graves of historical significance, lest they be effaced from memory and our consciousness forever.
Every time my heart is heavy, or I am about to embark on a new course in my life, I am drawn to my grandparents' grave. As I light the censer and watch as the scented fumes rise high into the sky, in the directly opposite location of their corporeal manifestation, I know that nothing is gone when it can be remembered and I know who I am, as my name is there, on my grandfather's tombstone, written, in stone.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 2 October 2010