Saturday, November 27, 2010


The skewering and ritual roasting of Orthodox cleric and Greek freedom fighter Athanasios Diakos, simply because he would not convert to Islam is a fact and yet it seems as unreal as other stories of torture – the placing of red hot helmets on Saint Kalliopi’s head, or the scraping away of flesh and the boiling in hot oil that comprise the travails of the saints in the martyrologion of the Orthodox Church. Incidentally, though Athanasios Diakos died for his faith, he has not been made a saint and it would be interesting to find the reason why.
Such tortures appear remote and fairy-tale like because they belong to the re-modern age of darkness and barbarity. In this, the age of enlightenment and emancipation, not only persecution, but also martyrdom are considered to be uncivilized. Yet consider this: Between 2003-2010, a two month old infant was kidnapped, beheaded, roasted and returned to its parents on a bed of rice, a fourteen year old adolescent was decapitated because he was a "dirty Christian sinner," and another fourteen year old boy was crucified in his own village because he was a Christian.
This heinous state of affairs, reminiscent of the persecution suffered by the Greeks under the Ottomans during the four hundred years of their subjugation, has arisen in Iraq after its “liberation” by the US led alliance and is visited each day upon its native Christian population. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of native Assyrian Christians has plummeted from estimates of one and a half million to only five hundred thousand. It is not difficult to discern the reason for their flight. They are terrorized, murdered, raped, harassed, threatened and abused by Arab co-citizens who believe that non-Arab Christians are not humans, have no place in ‘Islamic’ Iraq and can therefore be treated with the utmost brutality.
The toppling of the repressive Baath regime has merely highlighted the west’s inability to transform a totalitarian state into a pluralistic, tolerant democracy, where all religious and ethnic groups may live in peace. Instead, the western invasion has served to underline an Islamic ideology that sees no place for its native population of Christians. Indeed, two weeks ago, Al Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq issued a statement saying that all Christians are now legitimate targets.
Since June 2004 at least seventy churches have been bombed, and large numbers of young Christian women have been abducted and raped, causing some of them to commit suicide.
Female Christian students have been targeted in Basra and Mosul for not wearing veils. Most disturbingly, some had nitric acid squirted on their faces. Elders of a Christian village in Mosul have been warned not to send females to universities. The Mahdi Army, the military wing of one of the main power blocs in Iraq's new Government has circulated a letter warning all Christian women to veil themselves in Iraq.
If this was not enough, Al-Qaeda has recently moved into an Assyrian neighborhood and has begun collecting the poll tax the Greeks know as haratsi, which was paid to the Ottomans as a condition of Christians being allowed to retain their religion, and demanding that females be sent to the mosque to be married off to Muslims. In the meantime, 95% of liquor stores have been attacked, defaced or bombed. 500 shops in the market of Dora a suburb once inhabited mostly by Assyrian Christians were burned in one night.
Then came the most horrific act of inhumanity of them all, terrorists stormed into a Baghdad church, yelling “kill the pigs.” The ensuing massacre left fifty two people dead. Al Qaeda, who claimed responsibility for the slaughter issued a statement whereupon its stance towards Iraq’s native Christian population was made unequivocal.
“Upon guidance issued by the Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq in support for our downtrodden Muslim sisters that are held captive in the Muslim land of Egypt and after accurate planning and selection, an angry group of righteous jihadists attacked a filthy den of polytheism. This den has been frequently used by the Christians of Iraq to fight Islam and support those who are fighting it. With the grace of God, the group was able to hold captive all those in the den and take over all its entrances.”
A week later, twelve bombs were detonated at six different locations in Baghdad targeting Christians. Another six people are now dead.
It is clear that neither the inept government of fractious Iraq or its western occupiers have any vested interest in safeguarding the religious or ethnic rights of its aboriginal inhabitants. This being so, all parties participating in the occupation of Iraq are morally responsible for the genocide now being undertaken against Assyrian Christians.
A few weeks ago, having had enough and severely disturbed by the recent church massacre, the Assyrian communities of Melbourne held an impressive rally in front the State Library, which was also attended by representatives of various Greek community organizations. The protesters, most of them refugees themselves, chanted peace slogans in English, Assyrian and Arabic and were heartened by the fact that some Muslims attended as well. They held aloft pictures of children killed by Islamic terrorists, and described, tearfully, what it felt like to walk out of one’s door not knowing whether one would see their loved one’s again. There are few Assyrian families in Melbourne who have not experienced such loss first-hand.
The demands of the protesters were quite reasonable:
1. The establishment of an international commission investigating crimes against Iraq’s Assyrian people.
2. That Australia urges the Iraqi government to implement specific measures designed to protect Iraq’s Assyrian people in areas in which they reside.
3. Self-determination for all Assyrians in their ancestral homeland in the Nineveh Plains where they may enjoy their own security forces, manage their own affairs, run their own schools, and freely practice their religion within a self-administrative unit structure in accordance with Iraq’s constitution.
4. That the Australian government meets its moral obligation as a participant in the war on Iraq and look compassionately upon visa applications from Assyrian people under
Australia’s humanitarian immigration program.
Nonetheless, the true significance of the protest was only felt, towards the end, which concluded with the chanting of Church prayers for the dead, when an elderly gentleman walked up to me and said: “Where are the Australians? No one has walked off the street to ask us what we are doing or why we are protesting. The west does not care about us at all.” I was reminded of our own annual Justice for Cyprus march, whose attendees dwindle every year. We march along empty streets, the black-clad ladies who have lost husbands and brothers and for whom the protest has any true significance weep and them we go home, having achieved nothing. For this is what modern democracy means – a guarantee that we can express our innermost thoughts, but no ancillary right that anyone will hear them or, in any event care.
At least the Melbourne Assyrian community is united in its resolve to campaign for the affording of basic rights for their people and we, who have historically suffered similar persecution in the past from the same quarters, can only sympathise with them. What irks the most however, is that a few months ago, when a young Greek man was tortured and murdered in Albania, simply for being Greek, our corpulent, sprawling community, barely bat an eyelid in its indolence. Food for thought.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 November 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010


No this week's diatribe is not a paean to JLo's well appointed posterior and we apologise for disappointing the reader from the outset. Instead it deals with one Lucius Apuleius, a Greek born in the colony of Madaura, in the interior of Morocco in the second century AD. Lucius was a decent barrister of his time yet again, and it is possibly from tis that his obsession with things Asinine stemmed, as any one who has hear d a barrister bleating his case at Court could testify. Lucius studied law at Carthage Universoty and then Platonic philosophy at Athens. While at Athens, a seedy life of woring and drinking left him destitute and being assisted by his kind friend Thyasus, he experienced some kind of religious revelation and was initiated into the mysteries of the Egyptian goddess Isis. After this, he went to Rome where he studied Latin oratory and made a success at the Bar. Later, he travelled widely through Asia Minor and Egypt, studying philosophy and religion. Falling ill at Oea on the Libyan coast, he was nursed back to health by a friend who urged him to marry his widow mother. Soon after the marriage, when the mother fell sick and died, leaving Lucius with a fortune, the rest of the family charged him with having poisoned her and gained her affections by magic. Lucius' successful and very amusing speech in his defence, A Discourse on Magic, survives. I should like to have been present in court to hear him sum up part of his argument with the ludicrously dry: "I have now stated gentlemen, why in my opinion there is nothing at all common between magicians and fish." Most of all however, Lucius has survived historical erosion through the writing of his book "The Golden Ass" an uproariously funny romp about the bawdy misadventures of a youth in Greece who through dabbling with magic, turns into an ass. Bawdy to the extreme and yet scintillating and action packed. Lucius is the master of the double-take. The audience applauds but finds that is had applauded too soon; the real point, even funnier or more macabre than anyone expected was yet to come. One of the more amusing scenes occurs where the hero of the story attempts to seduce a slave-girl so as to learn from her the secrets of magic. The dialogue takes place over a cauldron and is as follows: "Dear Fotis, how daintily, how charmingly you stir that casserole: I love watching you wriggle your hips. And what a wonderful cook you are! The man whom you allow to poke his finger into your little casserole is the luckiest man alive. That sort of stew would tickle the most jaded palate." You get the picture. Quite apart from the jokes and boisterous moments, Lucius is a goldmine of information as to Greek life during the Roman occupation. We learn of a Festival of laughter at Hypata where townsfolk would play a trick on some hapless citizen have the entire town laugh at him, we learn of the ancient Greek's obsession with magic and adultery and along the way, Lucius interposes some gripping stories. Finally after undergoing transformations, the hero, like Lucius himself, is initiated into the mysteries of the goddess Isis. The way Isis is praised in the book is a direct parallel to hagiographical literature today, for the lives of the Saints. Ultimately, when one dispels the bawdy jests, the Golden Ass is a religious book. Yet the main religious principles that Lucius was inculcating where wholly opposed to those of the Christianity of his day. For him, men are far from equal in the sight of Heaven, its favour being reserved for the well-born and well-educated - only they can be admitted to the divine mysteries. Slaves and freedmen could never acquire the virtue or intelligence to be so initiated and Lucius' slaves are always cowardly and treacherous. To be abjectly poor, though free, he regarded as a sign not necessarily of baseness but of ill-luck and his second main religious principle was that ill-luck is contagious and people should keep away from the unlucky. Thus when Aristomenes in Lucius' opening story found his old friend Socrates in a shocking plight at Hypata, he should have tossed him a coin or too and leave him to his fate, instead of officiously dragging the wretch to the baths and scrubbing his filthy body. Socrates bad luck fastened on Aristomenes who was forced to change his name and abandon his wife and family, going into hiding. The fault which involved Lucius in all his miseries was that, though a nobleman, he had a love-affair with a slave girl. A slave girl is necessarily base; baseness is unlucky; ill-luck is contagious. He also transgressed the third main religious principle, he meddled with the supernatural, trying to persuade the girl to betray the magical secrets of her mistress who was a witch. A nobleman should not play with black magic: he should satisfy his spiritual needs by being initiated into a respectable cult along with men of his own station. The Ass, a symbol for the Greeks of ill-luck, lust, cruelty and wickedness bears many burdens as a result of his transgression yet Lucius emerges clean, pure and decidedly boring. The end of the novel is disappointing in that the new-look born again Lucius is neither funny or interesting but possibly in hindsight, maybe that was Lucius' final joke.
At any rate, the Golden Ass is a golden story and definitely well worth reading. It also has a diverse and extremely important legacy.The style of autobiographical confession of suffering in The Golden Ass influenced Saint Augustine of Hippo in the tone and style-partly in Polemic-of his Confessions. Scholars note that both Apuleius came from the M'Daourouch in Algeria, where Augustine would later study. Augustine refers to Apuleius and The Golden Ass particularly derisively in his materpiece, the City of God. A transformation of a human into an ass also appears in the character of Nick Bottom Shakespeare's, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare of course drawing liberally upon Greek history and mythology as an inspiration for his works. In 1517, Niccolo Macchiavelli attempted to write his own version of the story, in the form of a poem. It was uncompleted at the time of his death. Further, in 1883, Carlo Collodi published The Adventure of Pinocchio, which includes an episode in which the puppet protagonist is transformed into an ass.
In 1915 Franz Kafka published the novella The Metamorphosis, a quite similar name, about a young man's unexpected transformation into a cockroach. Within The Golden Ass, there are a number of interpolations of other stories, notably, that of the myth of Eros and Psyche. In 1956, the great storyteller C. S. Lewis published the allegorical novel, Till We Have faces, retelling the Cupid-Psyche myth of books four through six from the point of view of Orual, Psyche's jealous ugly sister. The novel revolves upon the threat/hope of meeting the divine face to face. Lewis's novel is widely regarded as one of his most compelling works of fiction.
Crude, bestial and boisterous, The Golden Ass is as compelling today, as when it was first written, thousands of years ago. Perhaps our Cultural organisations can institute a Golden Ass award for the production of particularly racy pieces of literature. Until next week then, a paraphrasis of the eternal question niggling at the minds of the Black Eyed Peas: "Watcha gonna do with all that Golden Ass inside them jeans?" Lucius Apuleius at least, has a few ideas.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 November 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010


«Kαι τώρα πώς εξέπεσαν, πώς έγιναν,να ζουν και να ομιλούν βαρβαρικάβγαλμένοι -ω συμφορά!- απ' τον ελληνισμό.»
There are several instances in the venerable Greek history where Greeks, through various vicissitudes or concatenations of circumstance, became cut off from their roots. Cavafy, in his prescient poem Ποσειδωνιάται, referred to the Poseidonians in Southern Italy, originally colonists from Sybaris, who over a long period of time, assimilated with their Latin neighbours and gradually had nothing to show for their Hellenism other than their names and a few archaic traditions. The town of Samo in Calabria is another example - colonized, as its name suggests, by islanders from Samos. The inhabitants of Samo may no little of the substance of their heritage but nonetheless, preserve as their founding myth, their Samian origin, even here in the Antipodes. About a decade ago, their club here in Melbourne made contact with the Samian brotherhood, as they were curious to discern the manner and circumstance of their forebears. The ensuing meeting was a happy one, though the interpolation of a thousand years of diverse history renders any attempt to find common ground based on common ancestry difficult. In contrast, the Pontians on the Black Sea retained ancient Greek dances and linguistic forms, making them seem outlandish and foreign to other Greeks, including that Peloponnesian MP who had the temerity to suggest in the 1920's that they be segregated from other Greeks through the forcible wearing of yellow arm bands.
Another example of Samo is the case of Olbia, except that its drama was played out much earlier. Olbia Pontica, (which is to be distinguished from its twin colony in Sardinia, also called Olbia), today is called Nikolayev and belongs to the Ukraine, was founded on the upper Black Sea shores by intrepid Greek settlers from Miletus in the sixth century BC. Their colony grew into a large city, with walls and impressive square towers, at first a trading post and harbour dealing mostly in fish and then as the grain trade developed and the region became the granary of Greece, the capital of an immense farming region. During the 5th century BC, when Olbia was visited by Herodotus, it minted distinctive cast bronze money in the shape of leaping dolphins, said to have originated from sacrificial tokens used in the Temple of Apollo. It has been speculated that early Greek religion, especially the Orphic Mysteries, was heavily influenced by Central Asian shamanistic practices. A large number of Orphic graffiti unearthed in Olbia seems to testify that the colony was one major point of contact - especailly with the native Scythians, an Iranian people, who inhabited the hinterland of the Crimea at that time.
The native Scythians, destabilized by the migrating Sarmatians, (Sauromatai or 'lizard-eyes' as the Greeks called tem) began to raid the city and the grain supply became erratic. Despite having being seized by the Scythians, the Greek presence in Olbia remained predominant until 63 BC when an army of Dacians and Getae captured Olbia and destroyed the city. The population fell drastically and though a brief recovery occurred under the Romans, it was stormed again by the Huns in 370. After that, the ruins were abandoned to the abrasive caress of eternity.
Olbia nonetheless, is fascinating because of the visit of Stoic philosopher Dio Chrysostom of Prousa in 95AD and this was one of the rare occasions on which we actually have recorded through a primary source, the condition of a declining Greek city. 'Borysthenitica' therefore is not only a detailed account, but an extraodinary cinema reel or home movie preserved from the Hellenistic world. Dio came to Olbia at a bad time. After the Getae had destroyed the place in 63BC much of the trade to Greece came to a standstill and most of the city was yet to be rebuilt. Olbia had not lost contact with the Greek world, but the Olbians had an aggrieved feeling that their city had lost the fame and importance it once had. And they were obsessed with remaining Hellenes. 'Those that come here' one citizen complained to Dio, 'are nominally Greeks but actually more barbarous than ourselves...but you would appear to have been sent to us by Achilles himself.."
This was a ghost town, with ghosts in it. Dio found himself in a time warp. The Olbians were determined to impress him with their Hellenism, much as we do visitors from Greece, but it was an archaic and obsolete version of Hellenism that they clung too. In addition, they appeared to Dio to be as much Scythian as Hellenic. His definition of ethnicity had nothing to do with genetics and descent but with the clothes, customs and language. The Olbians wore Scythian clothes and the Greek they spoke was barely intelligible.
Walking through the town, Dio met a young man by the name of Callistratus on horseback and started a conversation. Callistratus seemed straight out of a museum. He was wearing 'barbarian' trousers and a cape, but on seeing Dio, he alighted from his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like other Olbians, he knew Homer by heart and was immensely proud of this, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. He boasted that he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, interest in philosophy, his beauty and because he had many lovers. Dio saw this not as a statement of sexual orientation but as a wonderful survival from a bygone age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Athenian veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual experience. The Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea, homosexuality was still in fashion.
At this stage, Dio, being a stranger and overtly 'Greek' was being swamped by other Olbians who believing that all Greeks ever did when they met each other was to discuss philosophy, begged him to discuss Plato with them. In the manner reminiscent of the 'older' Greeks, they all sat down outside the portico of the temple of Zeus to hold their debate. As the older men sat down, Dio noticed that they all wore beards, at a time when shaving had been the fashion in Greece for half a century. Dio was touched by the 'real Greekness' which he found surviving at Olbia. It appeared to him that they were more Greek than the Greeks in many respects.
Dio's picture of Olbia is one of periphery viewed from the centre. It shows how customs, fashions and artifacts travel outwards from the centre like rings on a pond until they reach the periphery and finally vanish. It is just before this moment of final disappearance that the 'central' intellectual suddenly bursts into lament: out there, they still have sound values, nurturing families, authentic folklore, which must be preserved at all costs before they are lost for ever. Sounds familiar? How many visiting Greeks have told us we are more Greek than the Greeks while laughing smugly at the statues of Alexander on our coffee tables? Better still, in the midst of our confusion over whether we should preserve or discard customs and thought patterns that derive from a rural existence that is no longer extant in its place of origin, who remembers Consul-General George Veis' 'New Alexandria' here in Melbourne of a decade ago? Enough said. Happy oblivion.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 13 November 2010

Saturday, November 06, 2010


It was most gratifying to read a recent speech by Greek Education Minister Anna Diamantopoulou, in which she highlighted the importance of the Greek language and the necessity of its preservation among second and third generation Greeks of the diaspora. She even went so far as to advocate the promotion of Modern Greek language course at a university level, which I’m sure everyone will agree, is a most novel and timely suggestion, coming as it does, at a temporal point marginally anteceding the erosion of Modern Greek studies at a tertiary level from almost all tertiary institutions in Melbourne and, one hastens to add, from a person who, in her capacity as European Commissioner, proposed the institution of English as an official language of Greece, because “learning to speak English as well as Greek will not hurt Greeks.”
Anna Diamantopoulou, while controversial, is of course, absolutely correct. After all, we diasporans have greatly benefited from learning English. And her pronouncement that Modern Greek is worth promoting in the diaspora should send shivers down the spines of the members of the Wales Street Primary School council. Despite the timely and efficacious intervention of the indefatigable parliamentarian Jenny Mikakos, who was able to secure government funding for the continuation of the Modern Greek program, the School refused to reinstate the program, to the consternation of parents and members of the community alike. To Ms Mikakos’ surprise and perplexity at a school refusing government funding, Wales Street Primary School principal advised that the decision to cancel the program was not based upon funding issues alone but also timetabling and behavioural issues caused by class disruption.
It would be instructive not only for Anna Diamantopoulou in determining how ailing Modern Greek language studies can be furthered in the diaspora, but also for our community, to know that some government schools consider the study of Modern Greek disruptive here in Victoria. At first glance, the cancellation of the Modern Greek language program from the school appears to be a great reversal – one more in a litany of decay and dissolution that has blighted the once thriving Modern Greek language learning ‘system,’ (if one can call it that,) in recent years. However, on closer inspection, the opposite may actually be the case.
Casting aside for one moment the valid demographic argument that there is a large Greek population residing in the region within which the school operates and of course, the bewilderment and hurt of aggrieved parents, it is worthwhile to consider exactly what it is that we have lost. In this case, the object of contention is a LOTE program for primary school children that extends for the lengthy period of sixty minutes a week. This makes the School’s cancellation of the program seem rather petty and gives rise to the suspicion that other, more hostile deeds and purposes are at play here.
Additionally, such a cancellation also begs the following question: Is the loss of a one hour a week class worth the agony and the efforts ands pains taken to reinstate it? It probably is in terms of prestige. It is a matter of great pride to our community to be able to boast of the inclusion of our language in mainstream teaching institutions because this somehow conveys the message that our language and culture has somehow found acceptance as an equal by the dominant social group. However, the number of programs in existence is not necessarily commensurate with solid language acquisition. One questions the utility of a program that teaches language only one a week, for one hour. Can a child, who in early primary school is more receptive to language learning than at any other time, really obtain a solid grounding in any given language if they are only exposed to it for so little a time? Is such a program committed to achieving measurable outcomes in fluency, or merely going through the motions?
Quite possibly, up until now, Greek-Australian parents of students at the school have felt that they have properly discharged their obligation vis-a-vis their offsprings’ Greek language education in a convenient manner, through the school’s Greek program. It is arguable whether this is the case. In this regard, the cancellation of the program by the School Council has probably done them, their children and us all a favour, as well as teaching us a valuable lesson.
We cannot and should not, rely upon or grant responsibility to governments or any other exogenous institution, for what remains our community’s primary obligation to itself – the perpetuation of our language and culture. Governments and ancillary institutions do not by nature share the same sensitivity as we do about this preservation, nor are they best placed to determine and guarantee appropriate standards and goals in this regard. The Wales Street cancellation teaches us that such ‘rights’ as we may think we enjoy can be abrogated at any time and it is short-sightedness in the extreme not to critically assess the quality of such rights as they are being ‘enjoyed.’ To shy away from our responsibility, is an admission of community failure.
In short, it is time we grew up and looked after our own needs, instead of expecting others to do so, and rail at our impotence and futility when they fail. After all we, not any one else are best placed to determine what we wish to preserve and how we wish to do it. Let us face it – we are the only ones who have a vested interest in so doing. Perhaps Wales Street students would benefit from attending an after-hours Greek language school, where they would not only be exposed to more hours of language learning, (always of benefit), but also to an environment of peers of like heritage, a culture and a community that can be a standard of reference for them, a pole of inclusion ensuring that they will consider themselves a part of that community for the rest of their lives and will be able to relate to each other accordingly, and not as a disparate array of persons that have nothing in common with each other, save for a shared background. In such a school, traditions, customs and values that necessarily fall by the wayside in the context of mainstream language learning, are passed on not as an object of study but in their organic context, as elements that are lived and are relevant to everyday existence – thus ensuring our perpetuation as a ethno-linguistic group in this country.
Events have undoubtedly proven that our community is in dire need of assistance in relation to Greek language learning. That assistance must come not in the form of injunctions as to how that learning can be effected but rather in the form of advice and technical support that will assist us in achieving the educational autonomy that is so vital, if our community is to survive as one that still speaks its mother tongue. The Greek consular official concerning himself with Greek education, Mr Haris Ladopoulos, open, friendly and incredibly committed, has during his time in Melbourne, made Herculean and multi-faceted efforts in this regard and it is hoped that if the Greek state is serious about backing Anna Diamantopoulou’s intention to promote Modern Greek in the diaspora, that the personnel charged with the task of doing so, share his skill, enthusiasm and dedication. We need all the help that we can get.
It is ludicrous that we should be in a position where primary school principals have the power to deem the teaching of our language disruptive compared with Italian and deny our younger members of our community the opportunity to learn their mother tongue. We do not need their interference, their rejection or their sanction in order to pass on our language. What we do need however, is a sense of responsibility and commitment to ensure that we remain in control of the means of our self-perpetuation. Our community’s future depends on it.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 6 November 2010