Saturday, March 31, 2012


"Why is it called a march?" my nephew asked as I passed a kaltsodeta around his foot and secured it under his bestockinged knee. "Well it involves marching down St Kilda Road to the Shrine," I offered, "and most importantly, it takes place in March."
"I suppose that makes sense,"
he sighed, as I took my silver kiousteki with the relief carved image of St George and secured it carefully on his chest. He stood up, clapped a flat black Epirote cap on his head and looked in the mirror. "Hey, I'm a freedom fighter," he exclaimed.
Twenty five years ago, when the annual Greek Independence Day March commenced at Collins Street and confidently marched its way down to the replica of the Mausoleum that serves as Melbourne's war memorial, amidst the cheers and applause of tens of thousands of Greeks, and the painful grimaces of press-ganged, self-conscious school children, mortally embarrassed at being compelled to parade in public, clad in skirts, and vowing silently that they would never suffer such indignity again, it would have been inconceivable to imagine that a quarter of a century later, it would commence at the foot of the Shrine, to the muted cheers of an ever decreasing and ever ageing crowd of onlookers.
It would also be inconceivable to imagine that the participants of the March, those beneficiaries of our hardy and inspiring ancestors' bold undertaking for freedom and dignity in the face of religious and racial intolerance, could be anything other than Greek and yet non-Greeks abounded at this year's parade. Having found my fellow members of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia only minutes before, I was accosted by a frantic Chinese lady, towing her visibly distressed foustanella-clad son, possessed of similar facial features. "Is this number twenty seven? Where do I go? Where do I go?"
Unlike most of their contemporaries in age, my nephews seem to be blissfully oblivious of the fact that in dressing in a short cotton skirt and parading themselves down the expanse of St Kilda Road, that they could be exposing themselves to ridicule. And though they have had their fill of stories about the exploits of Greek revolutionary superheroes, in an age of internet and computer gaming, these fail to inspire in the way that they once may have. Further, my nephews are Assyrian and their own history is peppered with more martyrs, heroes and forlorn hopes than they could ever possibly learn about in a lifetime. Yet come March, they don clothes that they would otherwise never be seen dead in, join a group of people whose language they don't understand and march with them to honour a concept that they do understand - that of freedom.
For Australian-born Greeks, the significance of the Greek revolution can seem remote, the tales of Ottoman persecution, of slaughter and degradation gratuitous and the swashbuckling exploits of the freedom-fighters far-fetched and mythic. However, for Australian-born Assyrians, whose parents have endured exactly the same type of persecution, not in 1821 but in the nineties and the twenty first century, the quality of freedom, the necessity of safety, of the strong family, community and ethnic unit whose cohesiveness will facilitate survival no matter the heinousness of the tribulations they face - these are things that they do understand for they form part of their family and personal history. Then again, there is also the fact that when I relate to them the exploits my great-grandmother's indomitable ancestors who came from the mountain fastnesses of Souli, they squirm and giggle, especially in the particularly poignant parts in the story, such as the sacrifice of the women at Zalongo, who fell to their deaths in order to escape defilement at the hands of their enemies. As it turns out, Souli signifies something unmentionable in Assyrian and thus is a culturally incompatible example of the main point.
The above notwithstanding, those of us who treat the Independence Day March as yet another empty ritual, tired and tattered in our repetition of it year after year, and totally devoid of significance except as a way of justifying our own existence to ourselves, totally fail to see its vast significance to the world. The realisation of the Greek Revolution served as a clarion call to all oppressed peoples of the world, but especially to the Christians of the Balkans and Anatolia that they no longer had to endure their status as second class citizens, subject to the whims of people who felt (and in the Middle East often still feel), that they could treat others as refuse, on the basis of their religion, but had a right to self-determination and dignity. Even more significantly, it came at time, after the Napoleonic Wars, when the reactionary World Powers were determined to stamp out all nationalistic or other revolts in Europe. The Greek flame of freedom became a conflagration that swept through the Balkans. It also dispelled the stereotype of the Greek Christian as an impotent, obsequious, cringing raya, replacing in its stead the steely, indomitable, uncompromising and wilful free Hellene, who through by sheer force of will could surmount all obstacles and was capable of any and all sacrifices for the sake of the nation. It is this stereotype that can, better than all others give hope and provide inspiration to the dispossessed Greeks who feel impotent in the face of the crisis their country is currently experiencing. Rather than justifiably lamenting their fate, they can learn from their ancestors' example in order to achieve and complete their vision for Greece. This too accounts for the hearty applause by ageing members of the Greek community at our march. They see their offspring marching in the clothes of their ancestors and are reassured, at least for a brief moment, that the future is secure and the event they all fear is a long way off.
For that is the other thing about the Greek Revolution. It hasn't ever finished, nor will it ever do so. Our revolt was not solely about discarding the shackles of the oppressor. It was also about realising a vision of the Greeks as a nation of excellence and brilliance. This, then is an on-going concern and it is one in which we are all stakeholders, even here in the Antipodes. The proof is our continued struggle to retain our particular cultural and linguistic identity in the face of insidious odds and our inherited sense of mission that stems from the time of Saint Kosmas. Deep down, in the abysmal places our sub-consciousness knows not, we want to be Greek and brilliant. For after all, anything that is not brilliant cannot be Greek, but rather a crude imitation, what Saint Kosmas called «το ψευτο-ρωμέϊκο,» and unworthy of our sense of mission.
As we marched last week in full regalia, in honour of our ancestors, a lady turned around in front of us and looked my nephews up and down several times. Then turning to her companion she asked: "Look at these lovely Ελληνόπουλα, how proudly they march. But do you think that chap with the glasses is Greek? He looks nothing like one." The ψευτο-ρωμέϊκο is everywhere and nowhere and it is up to us to find it. No matter how few of us are left in the future, no matter our race, or the camber of the twists of our tongues, when we march in the footsteps of the 1821 Revolutionaries in Melbourne, rest assured o ancestors that the ψευτο-ρωμέϊκο is not with us, but rather with those who turned away, who abandoned the path midway and instead, embraced the shadows of oblivion. Or at least with those who picked up their kids immediately after they marched past and vacated the Shrine, leaving only a smattering to witness the speeches of the dignitaries and the signing of the National Anthems. Και του Χρόνου.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 March 2012