Saturday, March 28, 2015


"Kαι τώρα πώς εξέπεσαν, πώς έγιναν, να ζουν και να ομιλούν βαρβαρικά, βγαλμένοι -ω συμφορά!- απ' τον ελληνισμό.»  Cavafy.
If Cavafy's poem «Ποσειδωνιάται»  is anything to go by, the phenomenon of diasporan Greeks feeling concerned about losing their mother tongue in their adopted countries is neither a product of the post-colonial, globalised capitalist world or a product of cultural imperialism. Instead, it is a historical inevitability. In his poem, set in Poseidonia in Southern Italy, colonised originally by Greeks from Sybaris, who over a long period of time, assimilated with their Latin neighbours, Cavafy sets out the manner in which assimilated Greeks struggle to make sense of their cultural heritage, going through the motions of conducting "Greek" rituals, mouthing words they barely understand and finally, being overwhelmed with the sense that they have lost something that they really can't define. 
Cavafy's poem was inspired by the ancient writer Athenaeus who wrote that the Poseidonians celebrated an annual festival of "forgetting", where they called up from memory, the remnants of their heritage and lamenting their loss, went their separate ways. Cavafy, and Athenaeus, are making a pertinent point: Despite what we may have been led to believe by the various myths that underpin and inform our ethnic identity, geographic alterity does produce amnesia. Otherwise, whet real need is there for our "Speak Greek in March campaign," or indeed our many other festivals which, rather than exhibiting or expressing a dynamic culture of their own making, instead, appear to be a litany of past remnants of memory, re-enacted so as to not be forgotten? 
Olbia Pontica, nowadays called Nikolayev and situated in the Ukraine, also provides a striking parallel to our contemporary reality. Founded by Greek settlers in the sixth century BC and serving as the granary of Greece, Olbia remained a predominantly Greek city  until 63 BC when an army of Dacians and Getae captured and destroyed it. 
In his 'Borysthenitica', Stoic philosopher Dio Chrysostom of Prousa  describes his visit to the city in 95AD. He relates how the local inhabitants were 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.."
During his visit, 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, a sentiment echoed here in Melbourne time and time against by visiting Greek dignitaries and indeed, in sentiment and practice, not much seems to separate the Olbian Greeks from their Melbournian counterparts two millennia later.
As such, campaigns such as "Speak Greek in March" and our various festivals may appear to some to be, trite, kitsch, or anachronistic, given that they either present an idealised, ossified re-construction of a culture that bears no resemblance or relevance to a modern reality, or, at least, in the case of the Speak Greek campaign, represents a futile and ultimately doomed attempt to stave off the inevitable. However arguably what we can do, in view of our history and current practices is to realise that perhaps in so far as any concepts of Greece or a Greek identity inform our composite sense of self, our culture is a culture of memory, and a culture whose sole aim seem to be to stave off amnesia. Having accepted this, we can then accept another key value, something that our diasporan ancestors have troubled themselves with for thousands of years: that regardless of the state of preservation, or of the intensity of our own effects to effect such preservation, whatever we understand to be Greek culture or language is important to us, and sine our culture is founded upon our attempts to preserve it, without its preservation, we will cease to exist.
Undoubtedly, users of the Greek language among the second and third generations of Greek Australian do not possess in adequate numbers, the fluency or dedication that will see the Greek language used for daily discourse beyond a generation or so. Yet faced with such a bleak prospect, our Olbian ancestors provide consolation. For the wheels of history turn in unexpected ways. Centuries after the Greek language died out, Catherine the Great re-settled the entire area with Greeks eager to leave the Ottoman empire. The vibrant communities that they founded provided the impetus for the creation of the Philiki Etaireia and the emergence of Modern Greece. The creative impetus of these communities has largely died out as they too have become assimilated, culturally and linguistically with their neighbours, yet the shared memory of both sets of ancestors' exploits appears to be enough to sustain them, until the next turn of the cosmic wheel. In absence of all else then, we can do as the Olbians do, and always remember.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 28 March 2015

Saturday, March 21, 2015


“Haiti’s connection with Greece has more to do with modern Greece than with Ancient Greece,”  writes Caribbean writer Jean Charles. He goes on to say: “The culture of faking the sentiment of patriotism ….is now ingrained in insidious ways where upper echelons of Greek media intertwined with the political structure prevented reporting of financial mismanagement that may cloud any hope for resolving the crisis….we find the same scenario in Haiti, the motherland of nation-building…..The rest of the population, akin to the Greeks, develops a fake patriotism culture that makes the country an easy prey for foreign meddling.”
Greece, a yardstick by which an ostensibly failed nation state such as Haiti measures itself? Perish the thought! Yet these two seemingly distant countries have much in common, commencing with the manner in which they were founded. For, contrary to common belief, which generally holds that it was the Great Powers of the day that first recognized Greece’s independence, guaranteed it and thus gave themselves the right to meddle in its internal affairs, it was in fact the recently liberated Haiti that has this honour.
Rather than being a failed state, Haiti in the early nineteenth century was widely considered to be an innovative state of great promise. After a long and bloody conflict, African slaves had managed to overthrow their French overlords in 1804 and established a state whether its founders believed, equality and justice would reign. 
The fact that armed struggle could result in liberation seemed to be of some inspiration to the Greek people, who identified with their plight, but also their achievements. This is the reason why supporters of the Greek revolution some seventeen years after the founding of the Haitian state saw fit to write to the Haitian government and seek its assistance. It was felt that the Haitians, who were slaves of the French, could uniquely appreciate the inferior social position afforded to Greeks by the Ottoman Empire and just how this worked to dampen any future prospect of the development of the Greek people. Furthermore, Greek expatriates living in France would have definitely heard of the Haitian Revolution and abolitionism from relevant circles in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France. Also, the writings of prominent French abolitionist, Abbe Gregoire, who, was a firm supporter of the Haitian republic and remained in contact with some Haitian leaders, would most likely have played a role in disseminating knowledge of the Haitian Revolution to Greek nationalists and intellectuals. Thus, the idea of reaching out to the Haitians probably originated within the Greek diasporic community.
The letter sent to Haiti received a response by no less a personage than the president of Haiti himself, Jean Pierre Boyer, who on 15 January 1822 wrote to the great man of letters and “teacher of the Greek nation” Adamatios Korais, expressing sympathy with the Greek cause and recognising the Greek people’s right to freedom and self-determination. In the letter, Boyer mentioned that he viewed both Haiti and Greece as similar in their long history of oppression from others, from imperialism, both European and Ottoman. According to President Boyer, "Such a beautiful and just case and, most importantly, the first successes which have accompanied it, cannot leave Haitians indifferent, for we, like the Hellenes, were for a long time subjected to a dishonorable slavery and finally, with our own chains, broke the head of tyranny." In addition, Boyer's letter addresses the theme of slavery in relation to imperial or colonial rule as well as several allusions to classical Greek history and culture, such as referring to the Greek nationalists as "descendants of Leonidas."

Though expressing much sympathy, Boyer goes on to explain that owing to the Haitian’s parlous finances, Haitian troops or cash could not be sent to Greece. Interestingly, Boyer also attributes the recent integration of Haiti and the Spanish-speaking former Spanish colony to the east, now known as the Dominican Republic as another drain on the Haitian budget because "the revolution which triumphs on the eastern portion of our island is creating a new obstacle in carrying out our aim; in fact, this portion, which was incorporated into the Republic I preside over, is in extreme poverty and thus justifies immense expenditures of our budget." 
It is worthwhile observing at this point that revolutionary Haiti, like its neighbor Cuba over a century and a half later, was devoted to exporting its revolution, its first president, Petion, lending support to South American liberator Bolivar and the liberators of Venezuela and Colombia and we could possibly view Boyer’s letter in this context: as an attempt to at least claim some sort of moral “ownership” over the Greek revolution, in the hope of the future establishment mutually beneficial ties.
Some historians claim that Boyer did send Adamantios Korais twenty five tons of Haitian coffee that could be sold and the proceeds used to purchase weapons but not enough evidence exists to support this, or, the other claim, that one hundred Haitian volunteers set off to fight in the Greek Revolution. Allegedly, their ship was boarded by pirates somewhere in the Mediterranean and these fighters purportedly never reached their destination.
Nevertheless, Boyer’s letter is widely believed to be the first official recognition of Greek independence and sovereignty, to be followed in succession by the recognition of Great Britain and that other republic that was founded after a war of independence, the United States. Boyer’s reference in his letter to democracy, Greek triumphs against the Persians, and revolutionary idealism accord with the founding myths of the Greek State which is why even today, it resonates with those Greeks who have read it.  Indeed, what is even more fitting is the fact that this self-same Boyer who waxed so lyrically about democracy, the classical past, freedom and equality presided over a country where corruption and venality became the norm and it is this dichotomy, between founding myth and actual reality both in Greece and Haiti that seems to arouse the sensitivities of Caribbean writers today.
Were the Greek and Haitian revolutions actually betrayed, or do we take a Trotskyist approach and declare that the revolution is eternal and thus, having no end, is still a work in progress? Either way, Boyer’s letter provides a unique insight into the prevailing aspirations and myths upon which two states were supposedly emancipated and founded. Just how true to those ideals those countries developed is a question that an increasing number of its respective citizens are now asking. In this, the final word, belongs to Jean Charles:  “Greece in the Mediterranean, like Haiti in the Caribbean, needs to start creating a new generation of citizens who accept the concept that duty is the reverse side of privilege. The nation will move forward when each citizen does his part, in paying taxes, in volunteering for the common good, and forsaking the vain desire of spending what you do not have. It was Abraham Lincoln who promoted the notion that a nation is the aggregate sum of moral citizens working for the common good, providing individual satisfaction for each one.” Long live the Revolution.

First published in NKEE On Saturday 21 March 2015

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Is it possible in this day and age to articulate or identify a particularly Greek-Australian attitude to girls and education? This was the question I asked myself as I listened to a distinguished group of panelists and guests, comprising, State Minister for Families and Children and Minister for Youth Affairs, Jenny Mikakos, Dr Vivianne Nikou, principal of Alphington Grammar, Greek Ambassadrice, Ms Eva T Dafaranou, Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Joy Damousi, Professor Georgina Tsolidis, of Ballarat University, Dr Anne Mitsis of Swinburne University and Arts/Law student Maree Skalistis, expound their unique perspectives on this question, at the recent Food For Thought Women's Network event, in celebration of International Women's Day. The inspiration for the discussion, Food for Thought Chairperson Varvara Ioannou, herself an educator and community activist, has long been at the forefront of a concerted effort to empower, motivate and establish networks among Greek-Australian women and in this, the month of speaking Greek, an examination of one of our founding myths and the way it has played out among Greek-Australian women presents a myriad of foci and possibilities.
 Evah T Dafaranou certainly believes that we can articulate a Greek attitude towards education. In a concise, perceptive and thoroughly moving exposition, she outlined a manifesto of education that had its roots in ancient Greece and defied gender boundaries or stereotypes. According to her, the main aim of the ancient Greek education was to rear children to be καλοί και αγαθοί, that is, beautiful and good. The emphasis therefore was not only upon knowledge but on ethics and spirituality, a sense of responsibility and service to a higher purpose than one's self, as well as a dedication to excellence. Such an education also required constant lifelong cultivation. I would argue that this perspective was somewhat tweaked by the time we get to the birth of the modern Greek State. For activists and educators such as Saint Kosmas the Aetolian and Adamantios Korais, education was a form of spiritual rebirth that was inextricably linked to the rebirth of the Greek nation. This is important to note, as education thus forms one of the founding myths of our modern identity, one that has been absorbed by our ancestors and passed down the generations ever since.
 Evah T Dafaranou's incisive contribution to the discussion was invaluable because it can be juxtaposed with the complex attitudes Greek-Australians have had towards education since arriving in this country. All of the panelists agreed that both their parents placed great emphasis upon their children's education, regardless of their own socio-economic position or level of education and provided a supportive environment in which to pursue their own academic interests. From thereon, the panelists examined aspects of gender relations in the academic and broader context yet in my mind they kept returning again and again to the same point: for their, in most respects, uneducated parents, education was an important ideal. This is consistent with our community foundation mythology: our particular reality was brought into being by our creators because they wanted their children to be better of than they were, that is, educated and affluent. The fact that within a decade of our arrival here, Greek-Australian women began to emerge as educated professionals attests to the power of this myth. 
 It is a pity that time constraints did not permit an analysis as to why this was so. Had the opportunity been provided to do so, arguably, enough anecdotal evidence would have emerged to suggest that the motivations of that section of the community that prized their daughters' education were actually quite diverse and produced by a complex set of historical and social phenomena. Rather than being just a matter of producing women that were 'beautiful and good,' one could speculate, education was seen as a means of social advancement, of material and economic gain and also, as a form of attaining respectability and a sense of emancipation. This is logical considering the rigid, almost untranscendable social structures existing in post-war Greece and the manner in which an Australian education could facilitate social mobility.
 Education, was also seen as form of escape. This is the reason why so many Greek-Australian first generation women today take great delight in involving themselves in literary circles, to the chagrin and merciless mirth of the local media. To these women, upon whom a multitude of expectations were foisted upon their arrival in this country, including becoming economically productive units, all the while adhering to a set of often oppressive stereotypes about their place and duties to the family and broader community, education, the ability to learn and discover, as well as to be transported, at least noetically away from a world of drudgery if only for a brief moment, was a luxury and form of solace available only to the lucky few. Further than this, it was felt, by a good many first generation Greek-Australian migrants, that their daughters' or grand-daughters' education would empower them in their relationships, granting them an equality that they themselves did not enjoy. These are viewpoints and psychologies have seldom been articulated openly, yet they form the foundation of the way our community views the education of its female members today and thus deserve deeper analysis.
 It is easy to feel pride both in the panelists and our community when considering the manner in which their education was prized and fostered by their families. Their stories, similar in many respects save a few nuances, are valuable, leading us to believe that possibly, the Greek-Australian attitude towards education has been a truly enlightened one from the outset. However, this is not so. For again largely unexamined is the experience of a large number of young Greek-Australian women of the sixties and seventies whose parents did not value education as highly as the stereotype would have us believe. In some cases, Greek-Australian women had to fight hard against their parents and prevailing social stereotypes in order to secure their education and faced extreme prejudice and difficulties from their family unit, when embarking upon their careers. Others, removed from school as young as fifteen, they were expected to work in order to earn their keep and/or to get married.  The presentation of such limited life prospects caused inestimable damage within that generation, its after-effects being felt within the family, the marriage and in relationships with children. It also influenced the manner in which that generation passed on an education value to their daughters: in some cases, it served to emphasise the importance of an education but in many others, mothers, who were taught not to attach particular importance to education, merely passed on the same attitude to their daughters, expecting them to follow in their footsteps, to produce and reproduce.  The Food for Thought Network thus makes an invaluable contribution to the consideration of all facets of this issue, in giving rise to the need to examine such experiences.
 As we can identify both conservative and progressive currents of thinking within our community's historical attitude towards education, perhaps it would be instructive to see just how if at all, such conflicts are a reality for modern Greek-Australian women. If the work of influential local poet Koraly Dimitriadis, who has written extensively about the manner in which what she perceives as archaic social expectations, are given greater priority than education or the prospect of a career in many a contemporary Greek family, it is quite possible that this unspoken conflict still is yet to be resolved for a considerable number of modern Greek-Australian women. Again the unique historical, social and psychological phenomena that comprise this continued conflict cry out for further investigation.
 Finally, even if we could argue that a unique Greek-Australian attitude towards women's education has ever existed, a question that the event rightly left unresolved, to what extent has this attitude, after half a century of our sojourn in this country, merged with the mainstream of public opinion? The Food for Thought Network is to be commended for instigating a debate that gives rise to such pertinent questions, inviting a certain introspection and self-knowledge that can only come from a deep respect and sensitivity to the unique and largely unarticulated experience of Greek-Australian women within our community. 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 March 2015

Saturday, March 07, 2015


Not a few things made a profound impression upon me at the launch of the Speak Greek in March campaign, which took place last Sunday at the new improved Greek Orthodox Community HQ. The first was the blessing of the whole endeavor by the articulate and functionally grecophonic second generation priest, Father Eumenios. In perfect Greek, tinged with the lilting tones of the ecclesiastic, Father Eumenios made, what I believe to be, a profound point: that language retention is linked to «αξίες,» that is, values, or an ideology, just as these same values depend upon the language that underpins these and the erosion of these values results in a corresponding erosion on language use and retention. Father Eumenios was most likely pointing to religious observance as a key component of these values and historically he would be right in doing so, but obviously if one accepts that the Greek language is the medium through which a unique way of thinking has evolved, it follows axiomatically that abandoning the aspirations or perspective of that way of thinking, will most likely result in an ancillary loss of the medium that conveys these.
Saint Kosmas the Aetolian knew this while facing a Greek language crisis three hundred years ago, when he scoured the villages of north-western Greece cajoling his compatriots to speak Greek, instead of Albanian or Vlach. In his view, the key values underpinning the necessity of Greek language use were religion and culture - that is -  it was necessary to speak Greek because the Bible and the liturgy was in Greek and because through Greek, a proper education could be obtained, one which would permit the downtrodden Greek people to achieve not only physical but also spiritual independence. Today of course, we enjoy, at least apparently, both, and therefore Father Eumenios perspicacious observation invites us as a community, to consider and articulate those core values that are deemed necessary for the maintenance of our identity in a post-modern, globalized society that pay lip-service to gastronomic, if not linguistic multiculturalism.
The second impression was that made by former Victorian Multicultural Commissioner and current head of Community Languages Australia, Stefan Romaniw OAM. He spoke of language retention, not as a duty or an aspiration but rather as a commitment, something akin to football training or jazz ballet classes. In this way, and coupled with Father Eumenios' pertinent allusion to values, one can approach language retention as a value that requires, discipline, commitment and dedication in order to attain. It is that sacred cow of Anglo-Australian aspiration - a challenge. Stefan Romaniw also provided a broader perspective on the issue of language retention, pertinently pointing out that this is a problem that is faced by all the non-English speaking communities of Australia and that we have much to learn from each other, if only we communicate. Stefan Romaniw is absolutely right. It is instructive for example, to parallel the linguistic fortunes of a young member of the Greek minority in Albania, whose parents have steadfastly taught him Greek despite the fear of Albanian persecution, only to come to migrate to Australia and within two years, promptly refusing and then forgetting to speak Greek altogether, with a young Assyrian-Australian, whose family has faithfully retained its ancestral language despite a millennium of Islamic persecution, who, after attaining school age, embraces English and becomes less and less fluent in his mother tongue, to the point where he does not want to speak it at all. If we accept that each community has its own set of values underpinning language retention, would we, after consultation and collaboration with other ethnic communities as Stefan Romaniw suggests, be able to identify a common threat to these diverse values and trace how it impacts upon each community differently? Can we identify any differences in values or identities among communities that have already lost their ancestral languages prior to arriving in Australia, such as the Copts, in assessing the manner in which language underpins ethnic identity? The possibilities are fascinating.
Quite apart from trying to make unwilling second and third generations feel "proud" of the Greek language by telling them how many Greek words exist in the English language (an endeavour that is futile, for in my opinion, though it serves to boost the self-esteem of the first generation, it merely serves to prove the flexibility of the English language in being able to absorb so many terms), or trying to entice them to embrace Greek by hinting at future glorious career prospects once proficiency is attained (these are miniscule, for modern Greek is a language esteemed by a specialized few), or even the health benefits, with clinical studies suggesting that polylingualism staves off dementia and at least in one instance, causes weight loss and stops premature balding as well, it is hoped that the Speak Greek in March campaign will act as a focal point among the grass roots of our community, for educators, but most of all, concerned parents who have a vested interest in their children retaining the language.
Given the increasing complexity of Greek-Australian family units, which now tend to reflect those of the broader mainstream, it would be instructive, to have a debate on how this diversity has impacted upon those values that mitigate against language loss. Furthermore, highlighting the experiences of parents on the ground, and finding practical ways in which to enforce language acquisition values would also be valuable. This is because there exist within our community the most remarkable stories of people attaining fluency in Greek. One teacher present at the launch of the speak Greek campaign highlighted the many cases she has experienced whether the child's father is Greek, the child's mother is of another culture and yet the child excels in learning Greek, something which exhausts the stereotypes of mother's being the arks of the "mother" culture and "tongue." The same teacher also highlighted cases of both parents being Greek but steadfastly refusing to speak Greek to their children or taking an interest in their Greek language education, rather treating Greek school as a child minding facility, whose sole purpose was to provide them with free time. It is therefore hoped that the Speak Greek in March campaign will cause our communities and especially our academics to undertake the necessary research required to collate the diverse and largely unknown experiences of parents and students, so that we can have a properly informed debate about the values, aspirations, concerns and practices that lead to successful language acquisition, or its loss. We want to know why and how some of us out there, such as the brilliant Vasso Zangalis, whose mother is not Greek, possesses linguistic skills in Greek that permit her to conduct a radio program on 3ZZZ, while others do not. We want to know why Meron, an Ethiopian girl I had the honour of teaching Greek at St Dimitrios Parish Greek school can, at the age of 10 speak 5 languages and learn for pleasure, while most of us cannot. The fact that we have not undertaken this task is an indictment upon all of us.

The final impression made upon me at the launch was by a grandfather whose daughter has married into an Italian family. That family is at odds with this particular grandfather because he speaks Greek to his grandson, even though he has been told that his son-in-law does not want his child learning either Greek or Italian. "I don't understand it," he lamented to me at the conclusion of the launch. "I told him that Italian is a beautiful language and the more languages the child knows the better. They can teach it Italian and I will teach it Greek. Yet he refuses. Can you imagine not wanting to teach your child your own language? And my daughter complains and tells me that I am putting her marriage in jeopardy. Can you imagine? The whole world has turned upside down." It appears therefore that Father Eumenios is right. As we speak Greek in March, let us remember that the conversation upon our underpinning values, is long overdue.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 March 2015