Saturday, September 29, 2012


Of all the obscure and yet impossibly implausible Greeks that have graced the pages of history, perhaps the most alluring is, Constance Hierax, or Phaulkon, literally ‘the Falcon’ who expeditiously ascended through the ranks of King Narai's court to become the Prime Minister of Siam, the precursor kingdom to modern day Thailand. Consistently vilified throughout history by scholars and contemporary authors, with such eccentric characterizations as adventurer, trader, pirate, caviler, smuggler and a rogue, who set forth to manipulate others solely to parlay political and economic supremacy, it is only upon careful examination and assessment of the primary sources, that a picture emerges of a self-educated linguist and entrepreneur who turned diplomat when he was abruptly thrust into the political area. A pawn of the establishment, he was manipulated by "interlopers" or private traders and an astute king, who was desperately trying to keep his nation's autonomy by pitting foreign usurpers against one another, while enacting measures to insure the strength and longevity of his country from neighboring states. Constance Phaulkon may not have been the first outsider to obtain a position of prominence in Siam in his era, but he was able to achieve a position of prominence that was to be coveted but never duplicated. At the pinnacle of his power, he was in control of a nation. Power came with a price, loneliness and isolation, from those whom he suppressed in the political arena.

The obscure Constantine Hierax was born in Cephalonia in 1647, in a family possessed of impeccable pedigree. His father was the son of the governor of Cephalonia, and his mother's forebears governed the island under the Republic of Venice. Family lineage notwithstanding, in 1660 at age thirteen, with no formal training he left home in search of a better life, taking up with an English master where he completed several voyages prior to migrating from the Mediterranean to England.

In England he soon became immersed in the heady politics of Restoration England, studying the English language and enlisting in Prince Rupert's fleet against the Dutch. Subsequently, he sailed to India under another master who changed his name from Hierax to "Falcon," the English equivalent. Feeling a strong attachment to the Far East, upon his return to England he decided to return and make his fortune as a trader. Consequently, he signed on as an assistant gunner on the Hopewell, bound for Batam in 1669 in order to obtain passage back to The East Indies. Arriving in Batam he enlisted his services with the British East India Company where he was assigned as a junior clerk. Here he picked up yet another language, Malay, in addition to Siamese, English, Greek, Latin and Portuguese.

Phaulkon's first big break came on 29 May 1678 at a birthday party for King Charles II of England. A gunner, while loading a cannon, accidentally set fire to the gunpowder that spread to the well-stocked powder magazine nearby. When everyone fled, he alone entered the magazine, removing the open cask of gunpowder, thereby saving the magazine and the factory. For his heroism, he was given a reward of one thousand crowns. Having never before set his eyes on such a princely sum, he saw this as an opportunity to make his fortune. He resigned his post with the East India Company in Batam and invested in a modest vessel and cargo that he intended to sell in Aceh.

It was at this point, that his fortunes decidedly changed.

The city of Singora had rebelled against Siamese rule and, Phaulkon, decided to make a profit by supplying the rebels in that town with arms and provisions.. However, during the voyage a storm broke out and his boat was broken into pieces by the violent sea off the cost of Ligor. This unfortunate experience was observed by some locals, and the Siamese authorities were quickly notified. The Governor caught wind of what was going on and interrogated Phaulkon and his crew. Phaulkon, who had by this time mastered the Siamese language, replied to the governor in his mother tongue. He surprised the governor and was able to talk his way out of receiving any punishment by stating he was working for the East India Company and was bringing supplies to various towns in Siam when the ship was wrecked. To avoid further suspicion from the Siamese that he was trading outside the Company and carrying contraband goods, Phaulkon offered his services to the Barcalon or foreign minister, in 1680, to serve as an interpreter between himself and the English.

Acquitting himself in his position admirably, he soon earned the trust of the king. After the death of the king’s chief counselor, the Iranian Aqa Muhammad, the king foiled an attempt by the Iranian’s at his court to dethrone him and replace him with his brother. Fearing the Iranians, the king turned to Phaulkon to fill the void in his administration. However, by degree of momentum, raised him in the space of eight years to the highest credit and authority. He was put at the head of the finances of the Kingdom, and also the direction of the King's household. Almost all public affairs of the most important concern were determined by his advice, and whoever had anything to solicit was required to apply to him.

Although at the zenith of his power in 1685 he was in complete control of the country, he refused to accept official positions, rightly fearing to create more enemies than he already had. He placed nonentities in government posts and held all the power in his hands. The Abbe De Choisy in his memoirs states; "Mr. Constance, though neither Phra Klang, nor prime minister possessed all their functions..."

In the mid 1680's, King Narai had Phaulkon turn to the French in the hope of using them to counteract the Dutch influence in Siam. Initially the idea had merit since the Dutch and the French were enemies in Europe. The credit for opening up the relations between Siam and France did not go to Phaulkon, but to the French Catholic missionaries whose main aim was to propagate Roman Catholicism in Annam, Tonkin, and China. Narai sent two embassies to France with the hopes of securing their "friendship." The first embassy was shipwrecked, and the second embassy was entrusted with the duty of inviting France to send an embassy to Siam with the idea of concluding a treaty of friendship. Louis XIV sent an embassy to Siam in hopes of converting Narai to Christianity.

While the French embassy itself was written off as a failure, it represented a great success for Phaulkon and Siam. For his master, he had obtained the coveted alliance with France, without surrendering anything more than vague offers for the missionaries which were never published.

Phaulkon's closeness to the king naturally earned him the envy of some members of the royal court, which would eventually prove to be his undoing. When King Narai became terminally ill, a rumor spread that Phaulkon wanted to use the designated heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet and actually become ruler himself. As unlikely as this was, it provided an excuse for Pra Phetracha, the foster brother of Narai, aided by the Durch enemies of Phaulkon to stage a coup d'état, the 1688 Siamese revolution. Without the king's knowledge, both Phaulkon and his followers as well as the royal heir were arrested and executed on June 5, 1688 in Lopburi. When King Narai learned what had happened, he was furious - but was too weak to take any action. Narai died several days later, virtually a prisoner in his own palace. Phetracha then proclaimed himself the new king of Siam and began a xenophobic regime which expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom.

Despite being a man of outstanding qualities, Phaulkon is considered as a failure in conventional historiography. Orientalising historians emphasize his Greek background, possessing “all of their negative behavior traits and vices,” as one stated, despite having limited contact with Greece after the age of thirteen, save for a few letters from his mother and bottles of Greek wine which he lavishly entertained.

Yet the truth is much different. Phaulkon ably ran the kingdom for his master and was able to deftly skit past the imperialistic ambitions of the European powers. Siam during his time was enlightened, tolerant, pluralistic and independent.

Phaulkon’s legacy can be felt in the carrers of the Europeans who also raise to positions of power in Asia. In Japan, Will Adams, hero of the famous novel Shogun by James Clavell, also received an official title coupled with the corresponding influence but without ever reaching the height of power as Phaulkon. The Portuguese adventurer Philip de Brito was the first to trace the route toward absolute power in Burma, who after winning over the king of Arakan, betrayed him. None however, have been as reviled and then forgotten, as the Falcon, Constantine Hierax.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 29 September 2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012


“The power of things inheres in the memories they gather up inside them, and also in the vicissitudes of our imagination, and our memory--of this there is no doubt.”

Orhan Pamuk.

Where do old photographs go when the people they depict and those who remember them are no longer extant? Are they as perishable as the memories they supposedly encapsulate or do they become the memory itself? In the “Museum of Innocence,” Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk examines the concept of memory and its objectification by relating an account of the obsessive love that Kemal, a wealthy businessman, bears for Füsun, a lower class shop girl. Oblivious to his own selfishness, Kemal first refuses to give up his fiancée to be with the love of his life, and then becomes an obsessive collector of the artifacts of his life with her. This is a relationship that is both lengthy and increasingly bizarre as Kemal objectifies Füsun and becomes a collector intent on satisfying his emotional obsession with his object of desire rather carrying on a healthy human relationship with his beloved. At the close of the novel, Kemal is founding a museum wherein the artifacts he collected that relate to his beloved will be exhibited.

Here in Melbourne, artifacts attesting to times long forgotten lie, largely forgotten in various unsuspected places. For example, in the file of one of my clients, I once found the cheque book and minute memoranda of one of our more ancient and largely defunct pre-war community organizations. A cursory glance of such records, inscribed in beautiful copperplate handwriting, do much to illuminate a particularly obscure period in our early communal history.

A particularly avid collector of such artifacts is the indefatigable proprietor of the renowned Greek restaurant Philhellene and astounder of the native populace by the poise of his mustachios, John Rerakis. The walls of his restaurant are wallpapered with old and rare photographs, gravures and other visual media that allude to times past, not only in Greece but also in Melbourne itself and which provide the patron with a fascinating crash course in contemporary Greek culture.

One of the pictures that adorn his walls is the one featured in this diatribe. It is a picture that John Rerakis was given by stalwart Greek dance teacher Olga Black. It truly is a masterpiece, with light and shadow accentuating the youthfulness, optimism and vitality of its subjects, yet at first glance it appears to be what it is: an old photo of some traditionally clad Greek dancers, something to look up from your meal of “lago stifado,” to appreciate for a few moments, only to re-commence immersing yourself in the ecstasies of the aforementioned dish. Yet for unsuspecting patrons, a chance glance at such photographs, have the capacity to prove life-changing.

Enter Menelaos Stamatopoulos, who, looking up absent-mindedly from his Philhellenic plate of comestibles a few weeks ago, was shocked to arrive at the realization that the smiling and dapper young gent pictured second from the right was a youthful portrayal of his now eighty seven year old progenitor, Odysseus. Moved beyond belief and astounded that he had never seen this photograph of his father before, he arranged a small surprise for him, inviting him to dinner at the restaurant and seating him directly underneath the photograph. When the venerable, hearty but hale octogenarian cast eyes on the photograph and beheld himself in his prime, resplendent in full foustanella, fashionably fastened at the waist, he wept.

A few weeks later, I am seated opposite both Menelaos and Odysseus at Philhellene restaurant. With trembling hands, Odysseus lovingly opens an envelope and fingers the black and white photographs that spill out from it. They too, are photographs of a suave and debonair Odysseus, resplendent in full regalia, ensconced among other suitably attired gents and demoiselles, posed in various dancing attitudes. The play of light and shadow causes their outline to be juxtaposed crisply against the background, granting them a nineteen forties movie star aura of glamour. The reason for the fortuitous capturing of these moments in such a skillful manner can be discerned by flipping to the reverse of the photographs. There we see stamped indelibly in purple ink: “Property of the Herald.”

“These photographs were taken in 1953,” Odysseus explains. “I had just arrived in Melbourne and was feeling lonely, so I joined the Olympic Dance Group, a way of meeting new people. Of the girls that you see in the photos, at least two are Australian. Back in those days, some of the Australian girls who had married Greek men would learn to dance and perform with us. Other Australian girls had no connection with Greece other than an interest in the country after the War.”

This statement, it seemed to me, tended to do much to restore balance to a somewhat one-sided community myth that would have the pre-nineteen sixties broader Australian social context look disparagingly upon migrants and especially their culture to the extent where openly being Greek was socially impermissible. The stereotype of Greek men marrying Australian women who were invariably opposed to manifestations of Greek culture and thus excluded their menfolk from the community also seemed to be in part, contradicted. Such bias apparently did not exist among the smiling young Australian ladies of the photograph who seem less embarrassed to don Greek traditional costume then some of their Greek-Australian counterparts some six decades later.

Further belying the myth that Australia was largely not interested in the migrant cultural experience prior to the advent of the official policy of multiculturalism, is the fact that the series of photographs have been taken by mainstream Australian print media. Odysseus takes great pains to point out that the bulk of the performances undertaken by the young dance group were for Australian audiences, with the group even performing publicly at festivals organized to welcome the advent of the 1954 Olympic Games to Melbourne. It appears that, possibly because of the novelty value, that exhibitions of Greek culture, such as they were, and possibly owing to their novelty and the sympathy Greece elicited in the hearts of many Australian returned servicemen at the time, were much more integrated within the mainstream and captured more interest than many do now, our primary focus being our own entertainment.

As I gazed at the photograph and listened to the venerable Odysseus relate fascinating stories of his life, I marveled at the swiftness of the passage of time. The young man, full of promise, optimism and raw sexual energy is now a mellow yet sprightly grandfather. Many of the smiling youths of the photograph are no longer with us and when the last of them go, one of the fading reminders of their brief sojourn on this earth will be a photograph on the wall of a restaurant, interesting, evocative but largely incomprehensible to those who have not yet embraced oblivion.

As Odysseus talks, I notice that the street-facing window of his restaurant, John Rerakis has strategically placed some old suitcases that have an unknown lady’s name painted on them and then that singular word «ΠΑΤΡΙΣ,» that evokes so many memories and causes an outpouring of emotion from first generation migrants, upon its utterance. “I bought it at a local second hand shop,” Rerakis explains, with the relish of a connoisseur. Then his voice plunges and becomes somber. “A wooden stefanothiki came with it and it was part of a deceased estate. Just imagine. This old lady kept the suitcases she arrived in Australia with and of course, the stefana with which she was married. And they ended up in an op-shop. I display the suitcases so that Greek and other patrons alike always are reminded where we came from.

A half remembered early childhood sitting on old wooden milk-crates and surrounded by rusty farming implements from the fifties, old photographs, printed tickets to dances long ago forgotten and being told stories of our family’s life on the farm in Bulla in the thirties suffice to convince me that it is not enough for us to attempt to understand and draw our identity solely from the motherland, ossifying an idealized interpretation of its traditions into a liturgy of aspirant cultural continuity. A whole way of life, the time of Innocence, of the valiant first generation struggling to acculturate and settle in Australia, is disappearing before our very eyes, its values considered quaint and irrelevant and its accoutrements, hoarded lovingly in the polished drawers of nineteen sixties furniture, being discarded in the trash or adorning the shelves of op-shops around Melbourne.

As we lose this value insight into our past, its labyrinthine permutations as exemplified by Odysseus Stamatopoulos’ experiences, we lose a veritable part of our souls. John Rerakis valiant anthropological endeavours to preserve the material evidence of our past should act as a clarion call to our entire community. It is high time that a Museum of our own Innocence is established, there to house the multitude of ephemera and memorabilia that testify to the vibrancy and cohesiveness of our community during its most golden period. A festival program, tattered and replete with advertisements for 1980’s business long since closed down, old props from school plays, report cards from Greek schools, all these things form as much a part of our cultural heritage as the Parthenon. And in pride of place over the foyer there should hang, the photo of Odysseus and his merry crew of dancers – a reminder to the visitor of our innate optimism, permitting one to ponder just how far we have departed from our perceived communal path and whether the future roads will take us.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 September 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012


“Istanbul was Constantinople

Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night.”

Sundry ‘Ellinarades’ in our community of late protest the fact that the pernicious West persists in its pestilential propensity to employ the appellation Greek and Greece when referring to things supposedly ‘Hellenic,’ deriving from ‘Hellas.’ In the unlikely event that such ‘Ellinarades,’ are cognizant of Near Eastern usages they would be perhaps aggrieved to learn that for our near neighbours, we are the Yunan, that is Ionians, and definitely not Hellenes. While some, like the diatribist, derive a malicious pleasure in knowing that my people are so multi-faceted that they defy description and thus must be identified in all of their manifold manifestations and attributes separately, for the narrow Ellinarades, their pomps and minions somehow believe that for the rest of the world-wide populace not to call us Hellenes somehow translates as a diminution of our inherent greatness.

Not for these passionate patriots the clarification that according to Homer, who used the terms Danaans and Achaians (the Hittites, with whom we definitely did not hit it off referred to us as the Ahiyawans and the Egyptians remembered the Denyen as one of the sea-peoples who attacked them during the reign of Rameses III) as collective nouns to denote the Greeks, the Hellenes were merely a tribe inhabiting the environs of Thessalian Phthia, having migrated there from Epirus. Not for them the singular fact that as the Graecoi were a Boeotian tribe that founded the colony of Cumae and that as these were the first Greeks the Romans came in contact with, to preserve this name not only cements the historic context of contact between the east and west, but is also a more venerable appellation, given that Graecoi carries with it connotations of old age. Having sufficiently outraged them by such casuistry, said incensed Ellinarades would not be minded to tarry long enough to be told that considering that as the Ionians covered much of the coast of Asia Minor and were the first group of Greeks to meet the Persians and suffer at their hands, they have as good a claim as any, to lend their name to the race. Nor will such Ellinarades understand why for centuries, we preferred to call ourselves after our conquerors, Romioi and of course, why when we wish in Greek to refer to the very essence of being possessed of such an identity, we employ the term “Romiosyne.”

Ellinarades would perhaps, be consoled by the fact that the Chinese are one of the few peoples who call us by our preferred appellation, where allowing for pronunciation difficulties, our country is known as Xílā, pronounced Shila ie. Hellas. The historical context aside, one is mystified by the unilateralism of our Ellinarades’ approach to the sensitive topic of our collective cognomen, given that as Greeks/Hellenes/Romioi/Yunanlar, we rarely call other nations or their cities by the name they call themselves. Thus, the Γερμανοί are not referred to as the Ντόιτς, their capital city is referred to as Βερολίνο and not Μπερλίν and even the hapless Chinese who have been so kind as to call us by the name we wish to call ourselves, are not recipients of grateful reciprocity, for we Greeks do not call their land Τσόγκουο, but instead Κίνα. Similarly, Albania is not called Σκιπέρια, Armenia is not called Χαγιαστάν, nor Hungary, Μαγκιαρορζιάγκ. The reason for this is simple. Names of countries or people convey to us, not only information about them, but also about how they relate to us and our own culture.

Ellinarades who insist upon others using Greek titles to describe geographical and cultural entities would never dream of calling Constantinople Istanbul or Izmir, Smyrna. This is because, regardless of the fact that these cities lie in the Republic of Turkey, they have formed culturally and for a long time politically, an inseparable part of the Greek world. Though Istanbul is actually a corruption of the Greek term «Εις την Πόλιν,» it is culturally unacceptable for a Greek to use this term as it connotes a de-Hellenization of what was the cultural capital of the Greek world for one and a half thousand years.

While it would appear axiomatic that each culture would employ its own terms to denote regions of significance to it, regardless as to where they lie, this does not appear to be the case when it comes to Greece and Turkey. Recently, the Greek border police restricted entry into Greece, to three members of a Turkish delegation accompanying the vice-president of the Turkish Republic upon an official visit. The reason cited was that on their passports, their birthplaces, which were all situated in Greece, were recorded with their Turkish names, rather than their official Greek ones. Thus MP for Adrianople (oops, I should say Edirne shouldn’t I?) Mehmet Muezinoglu, was restricted entry as his birthplace was recorded as Gümülcine, rather than Komotini, while his wife was restricted entry for the reason that while her passport did record her birthplace as Komotini, it referred to Greece as Yunanistan. Finally, the acedemic Doctor Halit Eren who states on his webpage that he was born in Gümülcine (Komotini, Greece), was denied entry as the village of his birth was recorded as Kizilağaç, (meaning Red Tree) rather than Ragada, its offical Greek name.

All this seems rather petty and stupid until it is pointed out that there exists a bilateral treaty between Greece and Turkey, whereby these countries undertake not to employ their own terms when referring to regions within each country but rather those recognised internationally and officially by each sovereign country in question. It remains to be seen whether Constatinopolitan Greeks, Imvriots or Tenedians now resident in Greece, would have their birthplace registered as «Ιστανμπούλ, Γκοκτσεαντά,» or «Μποζτζαντά» in their passports and if they didn’t, whether they would be denied entry into Turkey. It would be hurtful and mindless if they were, as this would deny the core of their identity.

Some have argued that the persistent breaching of the bilateral treaty by Turkey, through its insistence on using Turkish names for Thracian villages in which a large Muslim minority currently resides, is in bad faith, and deeper, fouler and nefarious purposes are at play here. Whatever the intention, it is an incontrovertible fact that Muslims have resided in the Greek lands of Thrace for over four hundred years, just as Greek people have inhabited the lands of modern Turkey for over three thousand years and that it is as natural to expect these people to refer to the regions in which they have been born or derive their origins with their own particular names, as it is for Victorians to call their capital city Melbourne, rather than one designated by its original inhabitants, the Kulin nation, as long as the Kulin nation’s right to refer to their land as they will, is respected.

Treaties that deny each other such rights are symptomatic of immature states who cannot divest themselves of the nationalism that underpins their national myths and are employed as mere weapons, either of protection and aggression. We can therefore see Greece’s insistence upon strict adherence to the terms of the treaty as arising from the omnipresent fear of Tuekish expansionism into western Thrace, hence its hysteria upon the evidence of a breach. As a corollary, Turkish insistence is predicated upon the desire to drive it home to the Greeks that they have lost their ancestral homelands and are denied even the right to use their original names. If we were to extend the terms of this ridiculous treaty to our northern neighbours, we would be denied entry into FYROM for not referring to that state as ‘Macedonia,’ this being the official term for that country within that state.

In the meantime, the people who identify these regions are the ones who suffer heartbreak. A person’s identity should not be toyed with, and used for political purposes. An Epirot cannot and will not ever be able to refer to the capital of Northern Epirus as Gjirokastër, nor should they be compelled to use any other term than that which they know: Argyokastro. Similarly, for an Albanian to use the term Janina when referring to Ioannina, is inoffensive, as long as it is understood that irredentism has no place in the post-nationalist world. Turkey in particular has greater levels of maturity to attain. Mutual respect through an awareness and acceptance, of the past will achieve much more in terms of normalizing the dysfunctional relationship between Greece and Turkey than any ridiculous treaty ever will. Turkey needs to realize that the rebellious Greeks are here to stay. After all, as the song itself admits, there is no going back:

“So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 September 2012

Saturday, September 08, 2012


Back in the nineteen eighties, when I was young, it was not uncommon for youthful members of the first generation to congregate over the consumption of foodstuffs and extol the virtues of their race, in contrast with those of their Australian counterparts. Playing at their feet, we would learn with wonder that Australians were of inferior stock, deriving their origins from petty thieves who owed their presence in this country to penal servitude in the form of transportation for crimes committed.

Greek migrants on the other hand, were honest toilers who had never been to jail and were possessed of something known as "Αξιοπρέπεια.»

In their vast majority, Australians were not «αξιοπρεπείς.» There were tell-tale signs of this, ranging from the Aussie boss who would come to work dressed in unironed pants and shirt because his wife could not be bothered looking after him. Unlike Greeks, they left their infants unwashed, and usually scantily clad to play in the dirt and then wondered why their children were always sick. Then of course, there was that large proportion of Aussie dole bludgers who came in stark juxtaposition to the hard working Greeks who worked extra shifts in order to better their families and did not spend all of their hard earned savings on smokes and booze. Whereas Australians lived day to day and often ran out of money by the end of the week, one uncle assured me, in a darkened room, as it was a waste of electricity to turn on the lights at night, Greeks planned for the future, setting money carefully aside for their children. As a result, Greeks who had migrated to this country with nothing, paid of their home and bought others in record time, while Aussies languished with a mortgage that would not be paid off in their lifetimes.

Part of the reason why Australians were held to be so inferior to Greeks in this way, was inextricably linked to their lack of pedigree. Unlike Greeks, who could boast of a four thousand year old continuous culture in which such concepts as democracy, architecture and philosophy were developed and which presumably permeated every aspect of village life in Greece, Australians were devoid of culture and tradition. Consequently, they were devoted to such strange things such as VFL Football and their idea of a traditional «χορό» was to get together, drink themselves paralytic and dance the "Nutbush."

Inevitably, a lack of history meant that Australians would lack one particular element that was a prerequisite for greatness, that existed in large quantities within the Greek and was the binding element of its community: «Φιλότιμο.» According to the most impassioned pundits, this term could not be translated into English, for this was a concept that could not be understood by the Anglo-Saxon. Within it resided a labyrinthine collection of social norms who main aim was mutual social obligation, regulating behavior and reactions so that one could be highly regarded by their peers. Generosity, hospitality and compassion were also inextricably linked to this concept, attributes foreign to the Australian, who, regardless of how many times you would give him fresh produce from your garden, would never return the favour, and despite the countless times you helped him move in, or paint a fence or look after his children, would consider all these as counting for nothing and would pounce on you, if your trees encroached upon his property, unless they were fruit-trees, in which case, he would consider it his right to help himself and then tell you off.

Whereas Greeks would invite Australians into their homes readily, Austalians would not. When a much coveted invitation was ever received, the Greek would be surprised at the paucity of foodstuffs offered to guests, commenting that they would be lucky to be provided with more than a beer and musing that this is for the best since Australian homes were invariably filthy and messy to boot.

The reason for this messiness had to do with the Australian female who had no sense of obligation and did not realize that a clean home and clean children were a direct reflection on herself and her family. In general, Australian females were to be avoided. They were selfish, expecting their menfolk to cook and clean, bad mothers, given that they were only interested in themselves, neglectful of their parents, who they shut up in nursing homes, shamelessly not caring a jot about «τι θα πει ο κόσμος» and of particularly loose morals, seeing nothing wrong with having sex before or during marriage with a serial number of partners. What is worse, they brought up their daughters to be equally as negligent, loose and predatory. First generation young Greek mothers at this point would cluck their tongues relating with perverse horror stories of how young good Greek girls from good families were being led astray by their Australian friends, venturing into - shock horror! - nightclubs. Furthermore, good Greek boys were being tempted by the loose morals of Australian girls into the nail in the coffin for most Greek families - a mixed marriage, something too beastly to contemplate. Thereupon they would enter into a long listing of all those undeserving families who had endured the perversity of a mixed marriage, ending the evening with a mutual vowing never to let their daughters out of the house and a quoting of the popular sayings: «'Ελληνας να'ναι και ο,τι να' ναι,» and «Παπούτσι από τον τόπο σου, κι ας είναι μπαλωμένο.»

Some thirty years later, it is remarkable how such stereotypes have been well and truly discarded in the public Greek discourse. Rather than insisting that their children adhere to the behavioural strictures of the past, the youngest of the first generation parents, who more often than not arrived here at an early age, generally justify departures from the by now musty behaviour code of true Greekness to their contemporaries, through the chanting of the expiatory mantra: «Δεν πειράζει, ας είναι τα παιδία καλά και ευτυχισμένα.» What this shows us, is not that the first generation would not dearly love their children to follow the old ways, but rather that parental discipline is not what it once was and that as they grow older, the first generation have realized that a power imbalance is about to weigh heavily on the side of their offspring. If they antagonize them too much, and interfere in their lives, causing disquiet, instead of being looked after and honoured by a loving family to the end of their days, more likely than not, they will be placed in a «γηροκομείο.» This word, is synonymous with Hell and forms the final Greek-Australian yardstick of success. Where we now accept to our children's hitherto non-traditional lifestyles, their disengagement from the affairs of the organized Greek community and their ethnically mixed families, to accept stark displays of filial impiety is to negate the concept of the family, which is still, at least in the minds of the first generation, their primary indicator of identity.

Stereotypes are enduring, even when the basis behind their formulation is long gone. Prime Minister Julia Gillard, described in various recent newspaper articles as referring to a tradesman as "just a big Greek bullshit artist," and complaining that a brick fence constructed for her by the said Greek bullshitter needed re-building in order "to try and stop it looking quite as Greek, dare one say," does not mean that our Prime Minister is necessarily a racist, despite the howls of shock and anger that have reached hysterical proportions in some sections of our community. After all, Julia Gillard's provision of two million dollars to the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria for the construction of the cultural centre, coupled with the unassuming and thoroughly comfortable manner in which she consorted with members of the Greek community at this year's Antipodes Festival surely refutes any suspicion that the PM harbours a prejudice against Greeks. More likely, in her statement, she was doing what most people of the world do, repeating a stereotype, not in order to denigrate a race, but to distance herself from a particular person.

When taken out of context the stereotypes we employ, often seem virulent and harmful. Yet in the case of the stereotypes propagated by Greek-Australians of their Aussie counterparts, it is important to note that while such stereotypes were in existence, their prevalence in no way jeopardized or poisoned relation between Greeks and Australians. On the contrary the esteem in which they are held by Australians, mattered, as it continuous to matter to members of the Greek community. Even while nursing the prejudices mentioned above, the Greek people immersed themselves into all aspects of Australian social life, to the extent that the current emerging generations are, save for a few cosmetic points, culturally indistinguishable from their Australian counterparts and football is the major form of worship in an increasing number of Greek families - as are exhortations in Greek to players at football matches. Our stereotypes, along with those spoken by our PM are merely that, the stuff of fluff and nonsense that in no way prejudice the harmony and tolerance to whose end we have all worked so hard to achieve.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 September 2012

Saturday, September 01, 2012


"Sit in thy cell and thy cell will teach thee all." Abba Moses.

The first thing that you notice when you meet Father Theophilos, is his eyes, and immediately, you enter a paradox. Possessed of a honeyed hue, they gaze at your countenance serenely yet at the same time with an intensity so piercing, that you can feel the layers of your flesh and all the pretence, self-justification, delusion and complacency woven about it by the vicissitudes of modern life being stripped away, leaving in their wake, nothing else than the uncompromisingly unadulterated inner self, in all of its stark insufficiency. He blinks and your self-consciousness vanishes. All that can be perceived now is an immense self-emptiness of an echoing eternity. For in Father Theophilos' eyes, one can see the desert, especially if they have seen such a desert before. His gaze, is as full as it is empty.

Father Theophilos speaks and a further paradox ensues. The words, succinct, unadorned and unaffected emerge crisply from his mouth and cascade down his long reddish beard. He speaks in Greek of simple things, in low, soft tones, his eyes constantly scanning and probing his audience, without however, permitting them to cease emanating a sense of innate stillness, even for a moment. Dressed in his cassock, a komboschoini wrapped around his wrist and his feet disconcertingly ensandled, despite the severity of Melbourne's winter, he looks every inch a monk, that is, until his mobile begins to ring and he answers its call with an unmistakably Australian nasal drawl: "How ya goin?"

Greek-born but Canberra-raised Father Theophilos, who is currently visiting Australia, is that inordinately rare thing: a young, Australian monk, engaged in the monastic struggle in perhaps the most famous and venerable monastery of entire Christendom, that of Saint Catherine's in the Sinai Peninsula. And here then is another paradox: a young man raised in a thoroughly modern country, one of the world's relatively younger nations, chooses to abandon it for a place shrouded in the mists of antiquity (Saint Catherine's monastery was constructed circa 530AD), and for a way of life that, developed in Egypt by the fathers of the Nitrian desert to the east of Sinai, has remained unchanged for two thousand years. The contrast becomes ever so more startling when Father Theophilos puts down his phone and begins to wrestle with a particularly recalcitrant power point presentation, whose aim is to convey pictorially to our lazy imaginations, those aspects of life in the Sinai Desert that the understated yet omnipresent fervour of Father Theophilos' voice has already more than adequately conveyed to us. Struggling with the complexities of co-ordinating sound with vision, he comments: "This is the way of the world now. We have the iphone, the ipad.." "And the imonk," I offer, watching as his lips tighten into a smile.

Having at last been defeated by the wiles of technology, Father Theophilos sits down and begins to speak. He paints a picture of a monastery that defies stereotypes. Rather than living in a rarefied atmosphere of solitude and contemplation as a refuge from the world, as many would have us believe, the monks of Mount Sinai are confronted with the necessity of ministering to people on a daily basis. This is in a large way due to the fact that they are custodians of an archaeological and religious tradition that stems back to the time of the Emperor Justinian. Father Theophilos points out with pride that the monastery's library, in the process of being digitised by a monk from Texas, houses the largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, after the Vatican and was home to the Codex Sinaiticus, the most ancient copy of the New Testament in existence. Further, the monastery is the home of the Achtiname, a charter of protection and rights granted to the monastery by Muhammad and which presumably could and has in the past been cited as a precedent for religious harmony and toleration in the Middle East.

Also a witness to the Justinianic tradition and the necessity of maintaining equilibrium between religions, is the way in which the monks of Mount Sinai minister to the Gebeliya, the Bedouins of the region, who are descended from Pontic soldiers despatched to Sinai to guard the monastery by Justinian. Long ago converted to Islam, they still perch precariously between protecting the monastery, as they admirably did so during the internecine strife and religious intolerance that has blighted Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, and seeking assistance from it. The Gebeliya are poor and modern ecomonics, coupled with a failure to reconcile contemporary life with their Bedouin traditions ensures that the monastery still plays a most important part in their lives, as a source of employment, advice and welfare. Even its venerable archbishop, whose place is an honoured one within the Orthodox Church's hierarchy, has been called upon not only to mediate tribal disputes but also to deliver infants in childbirth for this is a land where medical facilities are scarce.

Father Theophilos speaks fervently of the life of Saint Catherine, tortured upon the wheel of martyrdom and beheaded, only to have been miraculously found in the vicinity of Mount Sinai. He paints a picture with his words of the oldest surviving encaustic icon in the Orthodox iconographic tradition - that of Christ Pantokrator, each side if his face artfully depicting a different aspect to the Deity - that of stern judge and of loving father, so skilfully, that it is as if he is applying the final brush strokes to this remarkable work of devotion.

After mentioning that the well where Moses watered his flocks according to the Old Testament can be found on the monastery grounds, along with the burning bush, an enduring image of God's presence, Father Theophilos is asked about the existence of miracles at the monastery. Suddenly, he veers into the modern world. "Did you know," he relates, "in my early years at the monastery, a 'gerontissa' from Jerusalem came to visit and we set about making prosphora for the liturgy. It was our first time and we didn't know that we needed to include yeast in order for it to rise. The gerontissa told us not to worry. She took a leaf from the burning bush outside and placed it on the prosphora and prayed. And do you know what? The prosphora rose! And this, through the fervour and the purity of her belief! Little miracles like this occur continuously."

To my question as to how we should relate to monks such as him, living a life completely alien to the demands and conceits of the modern capitalist world, he responds simply: "We are one big family. We can't exist without you, your prayers or your love and nor can you exist without our prayers. We depend upon each other."

Despite my probings, I find it extraordinarily difficult to extract information of a personal nature from Father Theophilos. In my endeavour to elucidate the path through which he determined to become a monk, all I am able to glean is that it was a long process, not without pain. He is invariably more forthcoming about why he chose the ascetic struggle at Mount Sinai. Almost immediately, he launches into an enraptured narration as to the immensity of its silences, the eternity of its mountains. "When you ascend to the top of the mountain," he confides, "and you sit there alone, there is utter silence. And in that silence, you can truly feel the presence of God." I nod my head, finally understanding what I see in his eyes. For I too have felt that long, brooding, pregnant silence on a solitary moment upon Mount Sinai, that complete emptiness that compels introspection and quietitude. It is an experience that I have never been able to divest myself of and to which I return every day of my life.

Yet Father Theophilos skirts past such grandiose sentiments, even after describing the magic of gazing upon the desert night sky while praying on the roof of the monastery, to relate how a monk used to dwell near the peak of Mount Sinai in order to confess pilgrims before they trod its holy ground. He then relates the story of a visiting hierarch who requested he be vested in some of the monastery's ancient vestments, in order to celebrate the liturgy. Vested accordingly and possibly preening himself all the while, he was accosted by one of the simpler elderly monks of Saint Catherine's. He looked him up and down and burst out laughing, leaving the preening prelate not a little humbled.

It is then, and then during the following Sunday 's liturgy when I have the privilege of chanting along with Father Theophilos, watching him intone the kathismata with his eyes half-closed yet in a state of absolute attentiveness, and later, when he tells me how much he misses the monastery and yearns to return there that I realise why Father Theophilos does not talk about himself. He has become one with his monastery, an organic and intrinsic member of the brotherhood to which he belongs. This is underlain by the fact that he became inordinately uneasy when I revealed to him that I wanted to write about him and only consented to this after first having asked and received, the consent of his Archbishop. Then there is the photograph accompanying this article, a picture that caused Father Theophilos a good deal of disquiet. Here he is, his eyes staring not at the camera, but at the inner self, in a stance of quietitude and self-searching, that characterises the ascetic struggle of the true monk, as an individual casting aside the petty demands of this world, his heart focused on the glory of the world to be. Of this product of our church in Australia, continuing the tradition of Mount Sinai, we can only remain in awe, exhorting him, in the words of Abba Pambo: "Your skill is not in what you do, but how you do it."


First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 September 2012