Saturday, April 16, 2011


"So you are of Greek background... You don’t seem like a Greek to me...I see lots of Greeks on television – you don’t seem to be like them. Tell me about yourself....”
Some Sunday’s ago, the Antithesis Festival presented a forum on how Greek identity constructs manifest themselves within mainstream professional culture, in the opulent surrounds of the Hellenic Museum.
Antithesis is of course a Greek compound word, whose constituent parts bear further examination. Anti means opposite and thesis means position, so the Antithesis Festival assumes positions that are opposite, which is kind of intellectually kinky when one thinks about it but which should not be dwelt upon at any length here. At the commencement of the forum, I made the following opening remarks:
It was Jonathan Hall who coined the term Hellenicity, in order to describe the multiplicity of identities inherent within people who derive their cultural heritage from the land of Greece and the term - more indicatory of a state of being – is a particularly apt one, since it is safe to say that few other peoples have been so obsessed with their identity as the Greeks. As far back as Herodotus, Greeks were talking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ setting criteria to exclude others and of course denigrating them in the process – πας μη έλλην βάρβαρος- or all who are not Greeks are barbarians- being the order of the day. Along the way, Greek nations such as the Macedonians, received short shrift, their right to membership of the club being called into question during the Olympic Games and by politically motivated orators such as Demosthenes.
It should be noted in fairness that the above notwithstanding, the Greeks of old were enamoured of the pursuit of establishing genealogies for all the diverse peoples they came in contact with and thus, were, on their own admission, related to most of these. Nonetheless, our ancestors were so obsessed with creating an identity, probably because no such common identity existed. In a land riddled with warring city states, poets and historians seized on common elements such as language, religion and shared experiences such as the Persian wars, to attempt to forge an identity. This would not last long and would invariably break down.
Greeks tend to define themselves only in the face of the other – the Xenos. Thus we only see the emergence of a cohesive Greek-like identity after the Roman conquest, and only because the Romans identified all of us as Greeks. Indeed the word Greek comes from the latinised workd for Graecoi, the first Greek tribe the Latins came in contact with.
The way we define ourselves against the other is almost instinctive. Most Greeks in a non-Greek environment will take great pains to emphasise their Greekness and differentiate themselves from their peers. This process therefore has ancient roots.
Who we are supposed to be is a concept that is still being refined. Our parents think they know who they are. They learned what a Greek is at school, a compination of jingoistic rhetoric and nationalistic mythology. But even as first generation Greeks lament the fact that future generations are not maintaining their identity, they cannot agree among themselves what that identity is. The pages of Neos Kosmos are full of their anguish and confusion. Are we devout Orthodox Christians, toga wearing logical and rational philosophers, heterosexuals and devotees of the sanctity of the family, superintelligent successful educated bourgeoisie, or shifty kombinadoroi who always manage to make do on our native wit? Are we superior or inferior to the other ethnicities among whom we live? Of course we are. To allude otherwise is to sow chaos, doubt and schism generally.
Tonight’s forum: Responses from the distant edge of Greekness is particularly apt – though arse end of Greekness is probably more so, because half a century on from the wave of mass migration of Greeks to this country, there exist two Greek worlds, that of the first generation, which looks back to a rural past and the imagined world of old Greek schoolbooks in order to define itself and the second and third Australian born Generations whose idea of Greekness is received rather than lived, gleaned from sources, rather than experienced first-hand.

If we are going to view the role of Greekness among the latter generations think it is helpful therefore if we kick off tonight’s discussion by considering what it is that we understand by the term Greekness or that other excruciating word Hellenism. Is it still relevant to talk about a multiplicity of Hellenisms? What is our experience of it? Is there a need for a collective ethnic identity in a post modern world? How important is the construct of a Greek identity to Australian constructs like multiculturalism?
George Vasilacopoulos in his groundbreaking study: From Migrant to Citizen Greek migrants in white Australia postulates that the creation of ethnic definitions such as Greek community by the ruling class, with laws, grants and regulations supplied by that ruling class perpetuate and validate the violent seizure of aboriginal land by compelling subsequent minorities to legitimize the ruling classes sovereignty by abiding by their laws and defining themselves according to their definition. Is our definition of Greek-Australians therefore an Australian construct? Food for thought.”
Each of the panellists had engrossing observations to make, based on their own diverse experience. Luka “Lesson” Haralampou, rapper and slam champion explained how he employs Greek words and phrases in his lyrics, not in order to make any type of ethnic statement but purely as these words form part of his identity. As he hastened to point out, he employs Spanish and other words in the same way, because these too form part of his identity, given that they have meaning for him. In his discourse, the way was pointed towards a purely subjective identity, divorced from the requirements of stereotypes.
Katerina Kotsonis, an actress with years of experience spoke about prevailing stereotypes that exist within media about Greek people. Interestingly, she posited that when confronted with these stereotypes and having understood why such stereotypes were implausible, her employers were more likely than not to revise and reprise ‘ethnic’ characters. In the discussion afterwards, the audience wondered whether there will come a time when characters of ethnic background can simply play themselves within film or drama and not merely an “ethnic.”
Esther Anatolitis, CEO of the Melbourne Fringe Festival gave an erudite and thoroughly thought-provoking analysis of the social and family pressures that presuppose a Greek identity. Often, these elements are not nationalistic but are merely forms of social or familial repression masquerading as an element of a Greek identity. One’s lifestyle, choice of partner or choice of interests should not preclude them from having their Greek identity impugned and yet this is something that the first generation often does, as a way of enforcing desired forms of conduct upon the latter generations.
Dr Michael Christoforidis, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Melbourne explained how one’s family background (his mother lived in a Greek city, rather than a village) can exclude one from fully belonging to an identity constructed by the majority of others claiming inclusion. Intriguingly, he noted how elements of his Greek identity assisted him in negotiating Spanish social customs, upon his long sojourn in Spain, while studying there.
Alkinos Tsilimidos, international award-winning film director, writer and producer spoke of the close relationship his has with the Greek land, returning there frequently and how elements of Greece manifest themselves in his work.
All panellists had much to tell as to how Greek identity manifests itself within the ordinary course of one’s daily life in Australia. What was not touched on, given time constraints, is how that identity will be formed when the first generation is no longer extant as a point of reference. This is the reason why forums of this nature are so valuable. At this point of our historical existence as a community, we are more diverse, involved in a gamut of
multifarious interests and pursuits as ever before. If we are to retain any sense of cohesion as a community, interested parties will have to plan ahead in order to take this diversity into account.
James Oliver postulates that the term Panhellenes was first employed in times ancient to describe the commonality of central Greek tribes. Three thousand years on, we are still as diverse and different from each other as ever before. Forums such as that organized by the Antithesis Festival celebrate that diversity, while challenging the stereotypes that we create of ourselves. It is to us to determine, how best to employ that diversity to our advantage, rather than to our aposythesis.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 April 2011.