Saturday, December 21, 2013


Generally speaking, the festive season in Australia is a relatively complacent and bourgeois affair. Preceded as it is by droves of determined shoppers ploughing down department store aisles in search of the unattainable – cheap but expensive looking Christmas presents with a furrow marked across their brows, checking their list of who bought them or their children tacky Christmas presents last year, Christmas not only provides a subtle but effective outlet for retribution for wrongs done during the year, it also engenders a sense of civic responsibility in children. For in fostering a festival of hylism, the state provides children with the basic building blocks – demand, demand and demand until you get a supply- of the market economy, and were would we all be without it? After all, paradise on earth truly does consist of possession of the latest iphone, as foretold by all the best market analysts.
This exceedingly important principle has already been passed on to the elder generations. How else can one reasonably explain the proliferation of vast quantities of food – which food is rarely eaten its entirety but serves to garnish the room in which it is partially consumed with a sense of plenty. Of particular note appears to the Greek–Australian obsession with the ritual immolation and subsequent consumption of meat and the blacker the better.
Yet there may be a further reason for this. Around about Christmas time, my mother loves to take time out to tell us the story of her favourite Christmas. This has become enshrined in annual family tradition, so that while the story has now been so committed to memory that I could tell you at exactly which point my mother will make a flourish with her hands or raise her eyebrows in emphasis, one inevitably casts the Christmas shopping list aside and listens.
The story is quite simple. A ten year old girl is sitting on the hard wooden floor of her home, back in the village, crying piteously, because all the other children are at home excitedly sniffing the wafting fumes of their once-a year meat soup. Some of these children’s mothers have hung colourful paper or cheap and tacky tinsel decorations around the room and there is a sense of snowballing anticipation. In the young girl’s home however, there is nothing. There is simply not enough money to go around, not to buy meat, certainly not enough to indulge in frivolous Christmas decorations. The girl is crying because as far as she can remember she has never celebrated Christmas without a gnawing pain in her belly, or a slow, dull heaviness in the heart. Hunched over the stove, yiayia pokes the few charred blocks of wood and watches as some ash escapes through the open door and flies up, up towards the rafters. She remains, as if transfixed, watching the ash dance up and down the current of heat emitted from the stove, until it tires and is whisked away by the cold draft coming in through the roof. She has seen ashes before, in far worse times… In an hour or so, her daughter will return, possibly bringing a few coins, or at least she hopes so. Last year, there was nothing. Grandmother and granddaughter sit silently and feed their hopes with the dying embers. Heavy, careworn footsteps are heard outside. The door creaks open and the girl’s aunt inches into the room, carrying a small package. There is some rice and two beef stock cubes given to her by the lady she works for. That will be Christmas dinner. “I also have something for you,” she tells the young girl. She pulls out five or six large lengths of plain white butchers’ paper. “Shhh, she says. Don’t ask where I got it. Now we will decorate the house.” Aunt and niece get to work with fervour. In half an hour, they have attached the paper to the rafters. For the first time in a year, the house has a ceiling again. The aunt gathers the scraps together and folds them up over and over each other. Then she attacks them with the scissors, dexterously sliding the paper between her fingers. In no time at all, the unfolded scraps become a masterpiece of patterned lacework and the girl claps her hands in delight. Lovingly she arranges the pieces on the only cupboard in the room, resting them underneath the three glasses the household possesses. That was, in my mother’s estimation, the greatest Christmas she ever experienced.
Upon the telling of the tale, my great aunt, who is also listening,  rushes off to see how the turkey is doing. It is not hard to draw the following conclusion therefore: Many of the first generation here were hard pressed to have even the barest of Christmas meals. Now, they are overcompensating, fearful that the seven lean years prophesied by Joseph to the Pharaoh, will return. In my mother’s case, the overcompensation comes more in the form of over-decoration, rather than over-consumption, a tendency to which I too, am not immune.
In my estimation and having spent not a few Christmases away from family, Christmas is best felt while traveling. After all, how better to feel the plight of the Holy Family rushing from place to place to be in Bethlehem in time for the census and finding themselves giving birth to the Saviour of the world in a stable. During one particular Christmas, I had to get from dreary Komotini in Thrace to Samos, in time for Christmas. The weather was particularly pernicious that year and on the bus, it was a race against time before the roads would close. In archetypal Get Smart fashion, as soon as we left a city, that city would become blockaded by snow. City after city closed its doors against the cold and as we pulled into Thessaloniki, steeling ourselves for what would become an eleven hour train journey to Athens in which we had no seats and remained upright in the aisle the whole way, singing Christmas Carols with students traveling home to their families and exchanging hopes and dreams for the future I had ample time to come to the conclusion that it is neither sustenance nor presets that make the holidays special. Rather, it is the fundamental need for human warmth – we are but domestic farm animals, crowding around a manger, seeking solace and deliverance. Sadly, this Christmas, the persecuted, the isolated and the lonely will be deprived of the chance to celebrate love and life in a way we here take for granted. In Syria, the place where people were first called Christians, the dwindling Christian population will celebrate the feast in fear of their lives. In Greece, a not insignificant amount of people will celebrate Christmas in conditions akin to those experienced by my mother half a century ago. This then is the perfect time to reach out to one another and to truly celebrate, in the person of the Birthday Boy himself, what we all mean for each other. Diatribe takes your leave with the most fervent of hopes for a beautiful Christmas, wishing you all that is superlative in the New Year.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 21 December 2014

Saturday, December 14, 2013


«Μες το μαχαλά πέφτει κουμπουριά
 οι Ζεϊμπέκηδες χορεύουν στου Δελή Θρακιά
Πίνουνε ρακί τρώνε παστουρμά
και χτυπάνε τα ποδάρια με τα γεμενιά

 Παλληκάρια ένα κι ένα με σαλβάρια κεντημένα
και χρυσά κουμπιά
 Έχουν τα σπαθιά στα χέρια και στο στόμα τα μαχαίρια
 Γεια σας ρε παιδιά!»

The above lyrics, penned by the immortal Pythagoras Papastamatiou captured my imagination like no others during my childhood. Listening to Dalaras’ version, amidst the tinny tinkling of the santouri, I pictured myself as one of the Zeimbekides, prancing around in a gold buttoned, embroidered shalwar, while waving swords and clenching daggers between gritted teeth. In making a foray upon the kitchen utensil drawer in order to lend verisimilitude to my daydream, I almost inflicted upon myself a grievous injury, at which time, I was forcibly dispossessed of my accoutrements of manhood by my progenitors and summarily despatched into the backyard, there to purge myself of my embroidery-loving proclivities, through re-education by labour.
Two questions pertaining to the song remained unanswered. Who were these Zeimbekides of whom Pythagoras spoke so highly? My grandfather’s response, was curt and bone-chilling as it was incomprehensible: “These were the Turks who lived in the mountains around our villages. They would become μαστουρωμένοι and come down to kill and rob people.” Resolving not to idolize zeimbekides further, I posed my next question: “What is pastourma?” At this juncture, my grandmother interjected loudly: Παστουρμάς is something that when eaten, causes your wife to run away from you for days.”
I marvelled that in a period after which I had divested myself of any convictions as to the potency of magic beans and sundry other ingredients of fairy tales that could serve to distort the laws of nature, there actually existed a food that could exercise such an effect upon people. For years, I pondered over the circumstances that would compel someone to seek the assistance of other entities in order to repel their wives, settling on evil step-mothers as a prime example. Then, at one fortuitous Christmas, my uncle brought a plate of shavings of a dark, pungent meat to the table. Gingerly piercing the yielding flesh, covered with some sort of spice mixture with a fork, I slowly lifted it into my mouth only to be carried away by an intense conjunction and confluence of flavour and texture. I found myself craving more and more and before anyone could stop me, I had polished off half the platter. “Someone stop him,” my uncle’s Smyrnan mother giggled derisively, “before he turns into an Armenian.”
For the next blissful hour, I savoured the taste of the fenugreek-spiced pastourma in my mouth, listening to my uncle boast to his mother that he had, through a process of investigation and elimination, managed to track down the best pastourma, that it was made of camel meat as all true pastourma should be and that it was just a good, of not better than that of Miran Pastourma. This Miran Pastourma, as I came to know during repeated and almost obsessive visits to Athens, is a famed pastourma and soutzouki charcuterie business and market in Athens, in operation since. Rightly considered the charcuterie of the connoisseurs, its founder, Miran Kourounlian, is thought to have been the man who brought pastourma to Athens for the first time, in 1922. It says much for the potency of all he purveys, that despite the current Greek economic crisis, Miran is expanding its business and has doubled in size to accommodate increased demand, which is why I am planning a foray.
Miran is probably the reason why in the old days after the Asia Minor catastrophe, whenever Athenians would come across an Armenian, they would remark deprecatingly: “It smells like pastourma in here.” Armenians themselves claim pastourma as their invention, especially the ones around Caesaria, modern day Kayseri, where the art was perfected, yet this is disputed. Some evidence does suggest that a preparation of wind dried beef has existed in Anatolia since at least Byzantine times, known as pastron, meaning pressed, while the Turks claim it as a heritage of their nomadic horse-riding ancestors who preserved meat by placing slabs of it in pockets on the sides of their saddles, where it would be pressed by their legs as they rode. In modern Turkey today, there exist, as I discovered to my infinite delight, some twenty two separate types of pastourma, which is why I rate Anatolia not only my ancestral, but also culinary homeland.
The making of pastourma, either via camel, by far the preferred option, water buffalo, or beef, is simplicity in itself. One takes the meat, salts it or allows it to dry, before coating it with a paste of crushed garlic, hot red pepper powder, cumin, and crushed fenugreek, known in Greek by its Turkish appellation, tsimeni. It is then hung it in a dark breezy place for a couple of weeks to dry and absorb the paste and is then ready to serve.  Served with eggs for a filling breakfast or savoured on its own the way the purists do, it sets the tastebuds tingling and the pores expanding in sweet bliss.
The secret to the power of tsimeni is this: Intact fenugreek seed has no smell until it is crushed like garlic. When the two are combined, this creates an irrepressible explosion of odour that assails one’s olfactory senses even from a distance. The chemical substance enters the human system and announces its righteous and harmonious presence in joyous breath, sweat, and digestive waste, sometimes for days. It is upon this flimsy pretext that my extended family has combined to a) ban my uncle and I from attempting to recreate our own pastourma and b) permit us to consume the said comestible only under strictly controlled conditions of isolation. During those times, when I submit to the inexorable and voracious inner passion, I am shunned, banished from the boudoir and treated as a pariah. And yet, despite of my humiliation, I am inordinately and pungently felicitous and at peace. 
When the time comes, should I be translated from this transient place to the abode of repose, wherein there is neither pain, nor sadness nor sighing, I pray that this comes in the form of a small wooden table, containing a small bottle of ouzo and a platter of pastourma. It is there that I wish to contemplate eternity, all the while listening, alternately to the lyrics of the Pastourma song: «Αααα, για το ούζο μεζεδάκι παστουρμάπαστουρμά,σαγανάκι κεφτεδάκι με κυμά ,» or G Krimizakis’ classic «Δυο καφενεία, δυο σινεμά, / παστέλι ούζο και παστουρμάπολλά κορίτσια, λίγοι γαμπροί / και το βραδάκι κρύο βαρύ.Τι Λωζάνη, τι Κοζάνη» while my spouse, sainted by her long-suffering stoicism, holds her dainty nose disapprovingly.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 December 2013

Saturday, December 07, 2013


"Solomon, I have surpassed you.” Emperor Justinian.

One of my chief sources of pride derives from the fact that my family’s origins lie in Tralles, modern day Aydin, home of the great Modern Greek writer, Dido Sotiriou and of course, Anthemius, one of the architects of possibly one of the most important architectural masterpieces ever devised by humankind: the vast domed church of Saint Sophia, in Constantinople.

Saint Sophia, the church dedicated to God’s holy wisdom is but one of the many surviving Byzantine churches that exist in modern day Istanbul, yet by its sheer size, innovation of design and apparent weightlessness, it has captured the imagination of the entire world. It was also a chief selling point for Byzantine civilization and religion, especially with the pagan Russians, who in the quest to adopt a state religion, had sent embassies to the Judaic Khazars, the Islamic Caliph and to the Byzantines. It was said that when they entered the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, they were so caught up in the chant, the incense, the icons, the liturgy, and the sense of the holy presence of God, that they were overcome.  In their report to the Prince they said they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth and they had never seen such beauty.  They could not describe it except to say, "there God dwells among men..."

For 800 years, the Great Church was so interwoven within the fabric of Byzantine politics and religion that it became a focus both for the development of Orthodox ritual, a bulwark against imperial absolutism and/or a willing participant in government. As such it shared the successes and vicissitudes of the rest of the empire, being stripped of its iconic decoration during the period of the iconoclasts, and of course, during the 1204 sack of Constantinople, was subject to the same abuses as the rest of the population. This is how chronicler Nicetas Choniates described the fate of the church: “Nor can the violation of the Great Church be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendour. .. Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch's seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.”

More such abuse and suffering would be visited upon the Great Church during the 1453 sack of the city by the Ottomans. Throughout the siege the Liturgy was performed and the church formed a refuge for many of those who were unable to contribute to the city’s defence. Trapped in the church, congregants and refugees became booty to be divided amongst the invaders. The building was desecrated and looted, and occupants enslaved or slaughtered; a few of the elderly and infirm were killed, and the remainder chained. Priests continued to perform Christian rites until stopped by the invaders. When the Sultan and his cohort entered the church he insisted it should be at once transformed into a mosque. One of the mullahs then climbed the pulpit and recited the Islamic statement of faith. From that point on, until 1935, when Kemal Ataturk decided that that Saint Sophia should be opened to the public as a museum, the church was off-limits to Christians.

Ever since that time, Saint Sophia has loomed large over Greek conceptions of identity. Religiously speaking, there is no doctrine of the Orthodox church that affords a special place to this church, for God can be worshipped in any church. Rather it is the symbolism of the church, as being identified with both the greatness and suffering of a people, that has caused it to occupy a special place within the hearts of the Greek people to the present day. It is the focus of much irredentist and crackpot theory but further than that, a potent reminder of a time of brilliance long gone. It is the waking dream whose last moments linger long after the corpus of the dream is long forgotten, leaving but a taste of its significance. It is an offering of hope and eternity.

This is the true reason why Greeks and other lovers of Saint Sophia are deeply disturbed at the recent suggestions by Turkish officials that just as Saint Sophia in Trapezounta has recently been converted into a mosque after years of being a museum, so too the Great Church itself may be reconverted into a mosque, as will the Byzantine monastery of Stoudion, which lies in ruins and will be renamed İmrahor İlyas Bey Mosque.. The argument that this is a gross and unnecessary insult to the Orthodox faith however, does not address the fact that for four hundred and eighty two years, the Great Church has been utilised as a mosque. Further, as a mosque, it holds a special place in the hearts of Turkish muslims, because it acts as a symbol of the Turkish conquest of Byzantium and consequently of the foundation of their empire and state and further, it formed the blueprint for the development of a particular Turkish style of Islamic architecture. Again, symbols and connotations appear to be more important that religious considerations.

Kemal Ataturk, who understood this, was therefore right in ordering that the Great Church be converted into a museum. In this way, the church could act as a neutral vessel for the symbolism and connotations of both historical and religious traditions, without impinging upon any nation’s sensitivities. It could also act as a beacon of much needed healing at a time when a war had caused untold misery for people living on both sides of the Aegean. Such is the power of the edifice and the wisdom of Ataturk’s decision, that subsequent years of provocation, conflict and abuse have until now, not compromised the Great Church’s capacity to act as a mother for the hopes aspirations and beliefs of all.

As Greek Orthodox Christians, we would like to be able to pray in the Great Church. We would also love to pray in the churches of St Sergius and Bacchus, Panayia Pammakaristos, Saint Irene, the Monastery of Chora and a host of other churches in Constantinople that have been converted to mosques, concert halls or museums. Though we cannot, we can do the next best thing, which is to visit them, marvelling at the ingenuity of our ancestors, excelling in a multi-ethnic society, all the while reflecting on the fickleness of fate and the vanity of all that we do.

For Turkish Muslims also want to pray in these buildings. On 23 May, thousands gathered in prayer to protest the law that bars religious services at the church. Worshippers shouted, “Break the chains, let Hagia Sophia Mosque open.”  According to Salih Turhan, a spokesman, “As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right.”

Determining the legitimacy of one claim over another, in favour of muslim worship sets a dangerous precedent, one that threatens to inflame conflict and give unnecessary religious and nationalistic dimensions to an issue that at its heart , is about respect for people’s heritage and their cultural symbols. A mature society is one that acknowledges the commonality of such symbols , celebrates them and makes them open to all. An immature society on the hand, seeks to exclude, to deny, to narrow its focus and turn in on itself. Both Greeks and Turks have been prone to such tendencies in the past, and this has been to both people’s detriment. One marvels that after years of attempts at rapprochement, genuine or not, that such a retrograde and clumsy step as the conversion of Saint Sophia is actually seriously being reconsidered. Such reactionary approaches make one despair of any possibility of peace and understanding in the broader region

Whatever transpires and in whatever form, Saint Sophia, will continue to abide in the hearts of all who love her, divorced from any petty and grubby political considerations. In this, the last word goes to the historian and over of the Great Church Procopius:  “For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty."

FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE ON Saturday, 7 December 2013