Saturday, February 27, 2016


The newly arrived lady from Greece parted her fleshy lips in a smile, treating me to a display of milk white teeth so well-proportioned as to rival the columns of the Parthenon itself. As she continued to expostulate with me, in an attempt to disabuse me of my misconceptions with regard to matters Helladic, I began to wonder whether her teeth were subject to entasis, that brilliant slight convex curve in the shaft of a column, introduced by our brilliant ancient ancestors to correct the visual illusion of concavity produced by a straight shaft. Indeed, I began to calculate how far above her head, if one was to extend the height of her admittedly magnificent teeth, they would meet, until a gentle tap on her heavy bangle bedecked arm upon mine, once more diverted my attention upon her.
Momentarily that is, for seconds later, realizing that her monologue was punctuated neither with commas, or full-stops, I began to muse that while the ancient Greeks did have punctuation, sporadically using punctuation marks consisting of vertically arranged dots as early as the 5th century BC as an aid in the oral delivery of texts, and even developed an elaborate system of dots, placed at varying heights to mark up speeches at rhetorical divisions, such as the ypostigmi, a low dot on the baseline to mark off a komma (a unit smaller than a clause), a stigmi mesi, a dot at mid-height to mark off a clause (known as a colon) and the stimgi teleia, a high dot to mark of a sentence (periodos), such notions seem not to have carried on to their Helladic descendants. Were the Turks perhaps at fault and could we blame them for this as we do all of our other shortcomings?, I pondered. How would the nation seek recompense for the retardation of its progress?
A short, sharp tap of my interlocutor's foot and I was jolted back to an appreciation of the undulating cadences of her voice. She was a lady well shod, in porphyry tooled leather cowboy boots tapering dramatically at their point, which was why I was rubbing my leg in discomfort. I began to consider that during the days of the Emperor in Byzantium, the wearing of such leg-wear would have been considered a capital offence, for only the Emperor himself was permitted to wear porphyry buskins, this being the imperial colour, though said buskins would have borne upon them, the seal of the double-headed eagle, at least during the late Palaeologian dynasty. In my head, I attempted to visualize the last emperor of Byzantium Constantine Palaeologus about to remove his imperial buskins and other regalia so as to not afford the Ottomans the opportunity to claim his body as a trophy. Mysteriously, in my mind's eye, it was a pair of tapered porphyry tooled leather cowboy boots he was attempting to cast off, looking frantically for somewhere to sit in order to undertake this difficult task.
"Are you paying attention to me at all?" came the indignant tones of my monologist. Looking up, I perceived a slight waywardness in one hair of an otherwise breathtakingly straight set of eyebrows. I began to reflect upon the Greek word αλφαδιασμένος (levelled), which seems to denote the medieval use of an alpha shaped instrument, when the question was again repeated: "Are you listening to me at all?"
«Συγνώμη,» I apologized. «Ήμουν με τους χίλιους στ' Άγραφα.»
"What are you talking about? How were you with the thousands at Agrafa? You've been here the whole time. And who are these thousands?" she pouted, arching her eyebrows ominously.
"It's an expression, isn't it?" I responded. "Isn't it just a way of saying, sorry I was distracted?"
"So you don't find what I'm saying interesting, is that it? And anyway, I've lived in Greece all my live and I've never heard such an expression. Sounds like complete nonsense anyway," the lady huffed, reaching into her bag in order to retrieve a compact. She powdered herself plaintively, lamenting the lack of manners exhibited towards her by male Greek -Australians and the outlandish conceits of the Greek language they seemed to rejoice in. Immobilised by her distress, I could only think to ruminate over her complete disavowal of an expression I had used all my life and her posing of the compelling question: "Who are the thousands of Agrafa?"
«Ήμουν με τους χίλιους στ' Άγραφα,» is an expression that has been handed down within the extended family by my great-grandmother and is used heavily to denote one whose mind is not where it should be. It is also employed by persons hailing from her village and its surrounds, near Ioannina. Yet over the successive weeks following my ill-fated conversation I came to learn that this expression, which I have never reflect upon and considered perfectly mainstream, is not readily understood by almost all Greeks I have spoken to not hailing from the prefecture of Ioannina and in most cases is met with complete incomprehensibility.
Yet this expression seems to have a venerable provenance, derived from local lore. According to one source, the origin of the phrase has to do with Greek Revolutionary hero Yiorgos Karaiskakis' ambition to become the captain of Agrafa, and his occupation of the region with a thousand men. Apparently, this was achieved with the connivance of Omer Vrioni, the impaler of Athanasios Diakos. However, there is a demotic song entitled "Του Ζαχαράκη" which refers to the thousand of Agrafa, and which predates Karaiskakis ' exploits by about thirty years:
Το μάθαταν τι έγινε κάτου στην Παλιοπάτρα;
Η κλεφτουριά παράδωσι κι τα καπιτανάτα.
Ου Ζαχαράκης του σκυλί, ν' αυτός δεν παραδίνει:
-Δε σε φουβάμαι, βρε πασιά, κι εσένα βρε βεζύρη.
Ν-έχουμε χίλιους στ' Άγραφα, χίλιους στο Μισολόγγι
κι τιτρακόσια ολόγυρα, νούλοι Σαρακατσάνοι,
ν' αυτοί δεν παραδίνουντι, πασά δεν προσκυνάνι.
However, the mention of one thousand men seems to be a literary trope in Greek folk songs of the region, especially when it comes to the region of Agrafa, a place so remote, that it did not, as its name suggests, appear on any maps. In the folk song 'Tolios,' mention is made yet again of a thousand men swanning around Agrafa, looking for a good time:
«Δεν έχω άδεια να βγω να ιδώ τον Τόλιο που διαβαίνει
τον Τόλιο τον περήφανο τ" άξιο το παλικάρι
πως πάει απάνω στ" Άγραφα να μάσει παλικάρια
χίλιους νομάτους έμασε χίλιους και διαλεγμένους.»
There is also a variant of a folksong about the exploits of the famous klepht Katsantonis that employs this motif. Thus, I don't think I will ever find out who exactly the thousands of Agrafa were. What I do know, is that they have provided exquisite company for me over the years, for they are the refuge to which I flee when the mundanity of the world encroaches upon my sanity. It is there that I go to know, in my quest to unlock the mysteries of one of my great grandmother's other common expressions: «Όλα τα 'χει η Μαριορή ο φερετζές τής λείπει» (Mariori has everything and only lacks a headscarf), an expression used when one is perceived to hanker for something superfluous. The origin of this phrase is well documented however, for it is attributed to the Epirot Prime Minister Ioannis Kolettis. At a function for King Otto I, he noticed that a wealthy society widow, Mariori Kontoleon was sporting a veil so that attendees could not see her blush, something that was considered unfashionable. In his usual forthright manner, he coined an expression used around Greece to the present day. Seek me therefore, with the tens of hundreds, in the lands of the unwritten.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 February 2016

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Yianni is five years old. He was born in Greece and has been living in Australia for three years. His parents, who left Australia at a young age, have no support network in this country and during the day, he has been left at a crèche. As a result, to his parents’ regret, though he understands the Greek language, he no longer speaks it.
Both Ross’s parents are Greek-Australians who define themselves as ‘educated professionals.’ They are proficient in the Greek language. They choose not to speak Greek to their son at home and have asked his grandparents not to speak Greek to him, for fear that his learning the Greek language will inhibit his socialisation and progress at school. He attended Greek school last year but understood nothing and was a constant source of disruption in class. This year, his parents have decided not to send him back. When Ross hears extended family members speak Greek, he becomes agitated and demands that they speak in English.
Three-year-old Angelica’s mother is Serbian and her father is Greek. Angelica’s mother, who looks after her during the day, speaks Serbian to her and her father speaks Greek to her. Currently, she is fluent in both languages and understands, from the context of the environment she is in, which language to use. Currently, her Greek vocabulary is broader than her Serbian and her mother attributes this to the plethora of Greek cartoons she plays for Angelica from the internet. Angelica has not yet learned English and as a result, she finds it difficult to communicate with her cousins, most of whom no longer speak Greek or Serbian. While her mother is committed to her retaining the two languages of her heritage, she wonders whether there will be anyone left Angelica’s age to be able to speak to her in those languages in the next few years.
Melissa just turned four. Her father in an Anglo-Australian and her mother is a Greek-Australian, born in Melbourne. Both parents speak to her in Greek as her father attended Greek classes for a number of years prior to being married. Melissa spends the summer with her relatives in Greece every year and is cared for during the day by her maternal grandmother who communicates with her in Greek. Melissa also sees members of her primarily Greek speaking extended family on a regular basis. She also attends one of the few Greek kindergartens in Melbourne. As a result, she speaks Greek fluently.
Cristobelle’s parents are both Greek. Though they are functional Greek speakers, they do not speak Greek at home. She attends Greek school but has not learned much. Christobelle’s mother has told her many stories about how she was hit with a ruler by her teacher when she was at Greek school. Christobelle’s mother also gets very angry when her Greek school teacher gives her homework to do. When Christobelle does go to Greek school, her homework is invariably incomplete and when questioned about this, she tells the teacher “My mum said I didn’t have to do it.” Christobelle’s grandfather is very proud of the fact that she has learned to dance the kalamatiano. Christobelle’s father opines that Greek school is just an expensive child minding facility while they have enjoy time out at their favourite café on Saturdays. Next year Christobelle will cease attending Greek school, in order to take up jazz ballet.
Georgia’s parents are divorced. She lives with her mother who is an Anglo-Australian and is a victim of domestic abuse. Georgia has limited contact with her father, who while fluent in Greek, speaks to his daughter in English. Georgia’s only contact with the Greek language is via her Cypriot grandmother, who speaks to her in a mixture of English and Cypriot-inflected Greek, and at Greek school. Georgia’s mother is most anxious that her daughter learns the Greek language as she believes that it is important for her daughter to be able to be part of the Greek community and to be able to access that part of her heritage. However, she is surprised that in the school that she has enrolled Georgia, there appears to be little language instruction, homework is not supervised by parents and neither parents or students take Greek school seriously. She is also surprised at what she perceives to be the negative attitudes expressed to her by Greek-Australian parents about Greek school, including such questions as why she bothers (most of them seem to be obliged by their parents to send their children to Greek school, rather than doing so willingly) and she wonders why such parents send their offspring to Greek school in the first place. Georgia’s Greek is poor.
Domenic’s father is Italian and his mother is Greek. While Domenic’s mother and maternal grandparents want him to learn Greek and to go to Greek school, Domenic’s paternal grandmother and his father opposes this. According to them, ethnic languages are of no use. They have chosen not to teach Domenic Italian and expect that it is just that his mother’s family should not teach him Greek. Whenever Domenic spends time with his maternal grandparents, he comes home using some Greek words. This enrages his father, who then yells at his mother. Consequently, Domenic’s father is now exploring ways in which he can limit his son’s contact with his mother’s family. Domenic does not and likely will not ever go to Greek school, or speak Greek.
Trent’s parents are both Greek. They live in an exclusive Melbournian suburb and have enrolled him in one of the best private schools in Melbourne. They do not speak to Trent in Greek or send him to Greek school because they would like him to develop a network of friends whose family background includes politicians, doctors, judges and not migrants. Trent’s mother is proud to relate that Trent no longer enjoys visiting his grandparents and cousins in the western suburbs because he doesn’t fit in with such people. Trent’s father’s eyebrows twitch whenever he is spoken to in formal Greek.
Sophia and Giorgos’ father is an immigrant from Greece. Their mother is Italian. Both children enjoyed going to Greek school, though Giorgos was a much more committed student. Their father transported them to and from Greek school and supervised their homework. Unfortunately, said father is required to spend many weekends away as part of his job. During those weekends, Sophia and Giorgos’ mother did not take them to Greek school. Eventually, they dropped out. Where they were approaching fluency, now they can barely make themselves understood in Greek.
Katerina’s mother is battling a drug addiction. Her grandfather eventually was able to send her to Greek school when she was in year three. She spoke not a word of Greek and could barely read and write. Within two years, with the help of her teachers and grandfather, she became a fluent Greek speaker. Further than that, her mother now takes an active role in assisting Katerina’s Greek school organize its activities. Katerina’s Greek far surpasses that of her mother.
Case studies such as those listed above not only reveal the diversity of our community but also the breadth of the challenge faced by the Greek community in developing a cohesive approach to language acquisition and preservation. Such a challenge transcends the Herculean and becomes almost Sisiphean as attitudes to the Greek language, once homogenous, have become as complex and stereotype-defying as Greek families and the Greek identity itself. Broad and far reaching statements about making “Greek fun and easy,” touting technology or gimmicky slogans as ‘quick fixes’ or compelling Greek language learning simply because of its historical and political importance, as well as its potential as a language of trade [insert cynical snort here], do nothing to address the sociological or even psychological aspects of young Greek-Australians’ lives that affect attitudes towards language acquisition. Without understanding these and by inference the background of those who we seek to educate, we are already setting them up for failure.
It is high time that such correlations are studied at the appropriate multi-disciplinary level for it appears that as a community, when addressing the decline of the Greek language, we tend to focus solely on teaching techniques and ephemeral stop-gaps rather than taking the time to undertake a much needed study of the grass-roots of the community that we would all like to see speaking some form of Greek into the future. Proper knowledge of the demographic and a thorough sketch of the ambivalence of its thought processes (especially those of parents) with regard to the language are the first step in formulating that which is long overdue: a pan-communal approach to Greek language learning that can not address the diverse needs of our multi-faceted community but also articulate some type of coherent aspirations that will ensure the continued survival and relevance of functional Greek within the broader multicultural framework of Australia.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 February 2016

Saturday, February 13, 2016


“The strong do what they have to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.” Thucydides

Our august Prime Minister, while on a visit to the planetarch, snuck in a reference to classical Greek historian Thucydides.  It is not the first time our classically minded leader has done so. A month or so before, he quoted Thucydides to the Prime Minster of Malaysia and the Prime Minister of China. As way back as 2012 in fact, our prime minister tweeted excitedly that he was about to “discuss Thucydides at the Classical Association of NSW annual dinner.” Prime Minister Turnbull’s recourse to our classical past for inspiration has sent shivers of delight down the spines of sections of the Greek community. According to them, these remarks are indicative of the fact that the Prime Minister is paying the requisite homage to the Greek people as the personification of civilization itself. Malcolm Turnbull thus is a Philhellene and surely only good things would flow on to the Greek community as a result, in contrast with his other parliamentary colleagues, who are not sufficiently enlightened to realise that good governance depends upon a deep knowledge of and the capacity to learn from the ample examples provided by Greek history and apply them to daily challenges.

Yet as delighted as they may be at the sound of Greek names upon Anglo-Saxonic lips,  those Greeks that are titivated by this form of exposure are deluding themselves. Had Malcolm Turnbull quoted revolutionary general Makrigiannis to Obama, then we would all have ample justification for amazement and delight, for he belongs to us and we, the modern Greeks can relate to him directly. Thucydides on the other hand, no longer belongs to us in the way that Makrigiannis does. For he has long been appropriated by the West and subsumed into the manner in which the West perceives its culture.

An interesting parallel to this phenomenon is the manner in which the West views the Parthenon. In 1988, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson, now mayor of London,  published an interview with a senior curator at the British Museum. The curator was quoted as stating: “the Elgin Marbles are “a pictorial representation of England as a free society and the liberator of other peoples..” Notably, anything to do with the building’s religious function or its builder’s ethnic origins are irrelevant  for the purpose of this form of cultural appropriation.

This is evidenced by the fact that members of the West views such elements from the ancient Greek world in ways that reinforce or justify their own particular sense of themselves. Thus, Cecil Rhodes viewed the Parthenon as a manifestation not of democracy, but of empire, stating: “Through art, Pericles taught the lazy Athenians to believe in Empire.” In 1832 French poet Alphonse de Lamartine last of the romatics declared the Parthenon to be “the most perfect poem ever written in stone on the surface of the earth,” while architect Le Corbusier, he of the drab and arid edifice, upon first seeing the Parthenon proclaimed it to be the “repository of the sacred standard, the basis for all measurement in art.

Thus the Parthenon acts, to the western world, as a magnet and a mirror. The west sees itself in it and appropriates it for its own devices. As a result, its original meaning has been obscured. The West sees only what flatters its own self image or explains it through the connection to the birthplace of democracy.

Attacks on the integrity of the elements that have been appropriated are thus considered to be attacks on Western civilization itself, and possibly should not be seen as defences of Hellenism. Thus, when British naturalist, mineralogist and historian Edward Daniel Clarke gave the following  eyewitness account of the lowering of a metope in 1801: “Removed from their original setting the Parthenon marbles have lost all their excellence,” he was merely lamenting the destruction of a cultural icon, something that as even felt by the Ottomans. Clarke states that as the metope was hoisted down, the rigging dislodged an adjoining block that fell to the ground with a thunderous noise. The local Ottoman military governor took no longer restrain himself. He took his pipe out of his mouth, let a tear fall and uttered, with an emphatic tone: “Te-los.” It would be fascinating to see within which perspective, this decidedly non-western individual appreciated the destruction of this wondrous building.

Rather than identify us with our ancient forebears, western appropriators generally seek to separate us from them, indulging in a form of orientalism, whereby, by divorcing us from those ancestors, we are included within the paradigm of a patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies. In Edward Said’s analysis of Orientalism, the West essentialises these societies as static and undeveloped. Implicit in this, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior. Of course when examining Western society, Said points to the appropriation of the ancient Greek tradition by it. So complete is that appropriation that certain nineteenth century thinkers have even sought to deny our heritage to us, Fallmerayer and others arguing that we are so unlike our ancient ancestors (ie we are too middle eastern), to be descendent from them, a process that has its origins in the political rivalry between Greek and Latin cultures during the Byzantine Empire.

The aforementioned orientalist tendencies are now well entrenched within western societies and their attitudes towards modern Greece and are no more so evident that in the justification provided over decades by the British museum us to why the Parthenon Marbles should be retained in London – simply that the primitive oriental Greeks, cannot look after them in the manner that their superior western counterparts can. Thus Urging his fellow peers to block any return of the marbles to Greece, Lord Wyatt of Weeford in 1997 stated in the House of Lords: “My Lords, it would be dangerous to return the marbles to Athens because they were under attack by Turkish and Greek fire in the Parthenon when they were rescued and the volatile Greeks might easily start hurling bombs again.”

As modern Greece is as western a creation as the west’s reconstruction and interpretation of ancient Greek culture, that skewed view of our heritage has been foisted upon us, along with a misplaced sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem. It is this insecurity, that we are somehow not good enough, far fallen from the imagined glories of our ancestors that causes us to snap to attention and bask in what we believe to be praise vicariously lavished upon us by the dominant ruling group, through our ancestors. While an increasing number of scholars are now reinterpreting ancient Greek culture and tearing down the Olympian superhuman stereotype in favour of a nuanced view that sees the ancients in all their frustrating and all too human complexity, rational and yet superstitious, moral yet capable of the worst brutality, measured and yet irrational, the old view has become so internalised that it will take a considerable amount of time before it is dissipated. In the meantime, we will continue to smile, every time a politician makes a classical reference, consider them our admirers, laud ourselves about the “strength” of our “lobby,” and become bewildered when it becomes apparent that as an ethnic community we are to enjoy no more grace or favour than anyone else.

Granted, I have no problem with our Prime Minister discussing ancient Greek historians with world leaders, for there is much to be learned from Thucydides and I harbour a sneaking suspicion that the majority of world leaders, in their synaxis, generally prefer to discuss the multifarious undertakings of Kim Kardashian instead. What I do have a problem with however, is the said Prime Minister’s government considering penalising Greek-Australian pensioners, who have endured great privations in order to make a lasting contribution to this country, for choosing to spend protracted periods of time in their homeland.

We leave you this week with the musings of Lord Byron on Lord Elgin. In the poem: The curse of Minerva he seeks to distance his country from the appropriations of Elgin thus: “England own him not: Athena no! thy plunderer was a Scot.” In Childe Harold’s Pilgimage, however, he comes clean in the second canto, which is devoted to the atrocities of the pillage that was supposedly necessary in order to make the world safe for democracy: “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defac’d, thy mouldering shrines remov’d/ By British hands.”

 And we all wait desperately for the day when an Australian Prime Minister can suggest interpretations of world politics to his American counterpart, gleaned from the wisdom of Karagiozis.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 February 2016

Saturday, February 06, 2016


"Ainte," my late great-grandmother would encourage me from time to time. "Get married and I will bring Lalo Fako to play clarinet at your wedding." Yiayia, though present in this country since 1963, incidentally the same year that Haralambos Fakos arrived upon these shores, had no idea that the person that for her symbolized the ideal of a musician, was a member of her own community. For her, the Fakos clan, as represented by its latest illustrious scion, Haralambos, was a remnant of an omnipresent past without which all joys of village life could not be understood. The songs my great-grandmother heard the itinerant Fakos clan play in those pre-radio days, when music was not available 'on tap' and thus had to be imbibed, savoured and retained indefinitely, sustained her throughout her life, grating her and her descendants a sense of purpose.

            For there is great beauty in an inherited order that reaches back across the globe to places ancestral and observances ancient and eternal. Our own observances of joy, though transplanted in the Antipodes, always had as their touchstone, the legacy of the Fakaioi. For this reason, they were at least in our elders' estimation, much diminished.

Meanwhile, Haralambos Fakos, here in Melbourne, devoted his life to perpetuating his family's tradition of playing Epirotic music to the migrant masses, in the respectful, unpretentious manner that so characterizes his tribe, playing at weddings, impromptu gatherings and concerts, his pedigree and dedication making him the most significant exponent of the Epirotic clarinet in Australia. So important was his (largely unacknowledged and unsung) contribution to demotic music in Australia, that a few years ago, the members of Melbourne's Meyhane band resolved to record his stylings for posterity. The resulting CD, entitled «Ξενιτεμένο μου πουλί/My bird, so far away,» a homage to the great Haralambos Fakos, is a unique repository not only of his family history but also his singular technique, a distillation of centuries of a family tradition in music. The recording of the CD was timely, for on Christmas Eve last year, both Haralambos Fakos' voice and clarinet were stilled, he taking his leave of us at the venerable age of 85.

In the course of making the CD, Haralambos, or 'Lalos' Fakos as he was known to the Epirotes, related valuable information as to the manner in which demotic music and its ancillary techniques were passed down the generations. According to him, his great grandfather,  Lalos Fakos, born in the village of Veltista, was one of the greatest violinists of the Balkans. Fascinatingly, Lako-Fakos was the court musician of Mustafa Pasha of Ioannina. Legend has it that on one occasion, while Lalo-Fakos was musically accompanying the pashas's procession in Ioannina, a nightingale flew from a tree and perched upon his violin. The amused pasha exclaimed: "How can I not love you Lalo? Even the birds gather to hear you play violin."

Indicative of the way in which demotic songs were created and achieved so much popularity among the populace that their origins and composer were forgotten is Haralambos Fakos' account of the manner in which his ancestor Lalo composed revolutionary songs in secret, in order to inspire the local freedom fighters. "Kleftes Veltsistinoi" and the heart-rending funeral dirge "Mariola," are still sung and form an inseparable part of the Epirotic musical canon. The free spiritdness of the Fakos clan is exemplified in the following anecdote: The pasha once asked Lalo-Fakos whether he would like some agricultural land, hoping to provide him with a source of income so as to enable him to concentrate primarily on his music. "My pasha," Lalos replied, "I want nothing. My wife does not work. She loves music. Do you understand? If you give me land for sowing, what good is it to me?" As a result, the pasha granted him a house in Ioannina, which reputedly still stands. On another occasion, Lalo asked the pasha "I want some land in my village." The pasha obliged and Lalo donated this land to the village as a cemetery, which I still in use today. Further, on a visit to the village of Papingo with his ensemble, Lalo created a song named after the village extolling the beauty of its newly construction fountain. That song is still sung today.

It was into this venerable tradition that Haralambos Fakos was born in 1930, in Veltsista. His first independent performance as a musician, his first big break, was never forgotten, as it linked him to his great grandfather: "One day, everyone was gathered outside the church for the feast of the Saviour. It was there that we had our debut performance and the crowds clapped and encouraged us: "Lalo-Fakos is playing the clarinet!" they shouted. We played for many hours and from there people began to invite  me to ply at weddings."

Haralambos Fakos imbibed deeply of the culture of camaraderie among the village musicians, retaining the same collegiality among his peers upon his arrival in Australia: "In our village, all the musicians lived in the same neighbourhood. All you would hear was music! This quarter was nicknamed "the offices" as no one did any manual labour. There were no arguments. We all helped each other and if a musician fell ill, another would play in his stead."

With his fellow musicians, Haralambos Fakos traversed all the villages of Epirus and even venturing as far down as Patras where he played at the world-famous carnival. However, post-war, pre-migration rural Greece was a bleak place, punctuated as it was by bursts of vitality and happiness. Haralambos Fakos played at a pivotal moment in the villages of Epirus' history: "Life was pulsing in those villages where the inhabitants hadn't deserted them in preference for the cities or migration. The households were vibrant and alive! Seeing people get up and dance en masse would fill me with joy.I will never forget a young girl in one of those villages approach me as I played. I was 17 years old and she requested the song 'Kontoula Lemonia,' with such passion! I remember it to this day."

In 1963, Haralambos Fakos emigrated to Australia. Here, he reconstructed his Epirotic band of musicians, with the arrival of his violinist, the great Christos Karkanakis. Their music was balm and balsam to the troubled, apprehensive and lonely new migrants arriving in Australia from their villages and being compelled to adapt to city life. The music played by Fakos' band provided much needed consolation and security in the knowledge that through the medium of their traditional folksongs, enduring ties still bound them to their motherland and each other. The indefatigable Fakos, throughout his long life thus became synonymous not only with the migrant experience but also the weaving of their musical tradition into the broader fabric of the host society, creating a truly relevant, Australian Epirotic musical tradition.

The last song in Meyhane's poignant recording of Haralambos Fakos' work features his stirring, hearty voice signing the folk tune: "Lay me down by the base of a tree." It truly is arm-hair raising. There he awaits us, by the tree that gave his clarinet life, in well-earned repose, watching over us and inspiring the musicians that he has left behind, as custodians of a lineage of music so ancient, so awe inspiring, that it must not ever be broken.

"Lay me down by the base of the tree, Eleni,
So I may lay down and sleep,
Let me cover myself
With a golden kerchief."

First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 February 2016

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


I was predisposed not to enjoy the book. In particular, the title, coupled with a pixelated Turkish-flag bedraped coastline looming over a fragmented Greek-flag covered shore tended to suggest to me that this latest work by Greek-American journalist, writer and Neos Kosmos contributor Alexander Billinis, was but one of a series within the yawn-worthy genre of: «Τούρκος εγώ και εσύ Ρωμιός….εγώ λαός και εσύ λαός…» books that seem to be popular nowadays, in which it is tacitly argued that the peoples of the Mediterranean belong to the same cultural heritage and it is only prejudice and politics that keeps them from indulging in a perpetual love-fest.. ‘Yes, there are mosaics and there are melting pots,’ I yawned as I reached for the book…”but what we need are more fondues.” And yet, when Billinis writes, one would do well to pay attention.

The first page immediately disabused me of my ridiculous prejudices. As a journalist, this being his first foray into fiction, Billinis’ prose is firm and muscular. It is refreshingly unadorned by literary tropes or clichés and sufficiently light (without in any way being superficial) to permit the reader to immerse themselves completely in what is a breathtaking story. It is trite to mention that I was so absorbed by his text that I read the book in one sitting. It is noteworthy however, to admit that in the following days, I re-read it another three times, seeking to wring every last drop from the essential oils contained therein.

A chance meeting between a Greek tourist and his Turkish doppelganger in Smyrna sets off a tumultuous chain of events that climax in both of them discovering that they are not only related, but also compelled to reassess much of the lore, mythology and social constructs that comprise both their national and personal identities. Along the way, we are introduced to poignant, but relatively unspoken and unstudied elements of a shared Greek-Turkish history, the most important being: the plight of Greek muslims fleeing from their Christian compatriots’ revolutionary wrath and their subsequent re-settlement in Asia Minor, the survival and integration of crypto-Christians within Ataturk’s Turkey and the traumatic and often schizophrenic negotiation of elements of  one’s personal identity and history with the changing narrative of the nation state, whether this be secularism, Islam or glorification of the Ottoman Empire in the case of Turkish society, or in the case of the Greeks, any number of the diachronic elements from times ancient, through to Byzantium and beyond that comprise both our sense of superiority and victimhood.

All these elements come together to confront the main protagonists of the novel in a concatenation of circumstances whose heart-arresting climax would appear unlikely and implausible in any other part of the world save the Balkans. The author agrees that “truth is [usually] stranger than fiction,” and in his case this is definitely so, for his narrative is loosely inspired by discoveries, one, in his own family history, of the existence of a Muslim ancestor who converted to Christianity after the Greek War of Independence and another, while on a trip to Smyrna, of a Turkish man speaking in a form of Greek which he referred to as “Kritika.”

Alexander Billinis is perhaps uniquely positioned to examine the narratives of history and identity that remain on the margins of officially sanctioned ideology and their effects upon the daily lives of individuals. As a Greek-American of partial Arvanite descent, a journalist, an investment banker, a lawyer and a traveler, he has a unique and dexterous grasp of the marginal and its subtext. Furthermore, he has conducted extensive explorations and research within the Balkans and Turkey, producing incisive, gem-like texts about the way civilizations and cultural elements lap away at each other and often, subsume each other. The book’s front cover is thus symbolic of this process and has as its inspiration, the whitewashing of the frescoes of Saint Sophia. As such, the book is a crucible in which all of his careful observations, gleaned over years of travel, are reduced, faithfully revealing in microcosm, not only a personal drama but a region in flux and in crisis, beneath the “plaster” of the Blue and White of the Greek Flag, or the Turkish Red and White, just as an archeologist would liberate the Saint Sophia mosaics from their veil of gypsum.

Perhaps reflecting Billinis’ own inclusive and cosmopolitan outlook (he is entranced by what he perceives to be the cultural inclusiveness of Byzantium, give or take a heresy or two), his Greek and Turkish counterparts appear, despite the heavy price they have to pay (in loss of loved ones), willing to accept the peeling away of the scab of ignorance that has clouded their sense of self and reach out to one another. In the meantime however, and this is where “Hidden Mosaics,” becomes ever more so valuable, Billinis, with the finesse of an impressionist, paints a sensitive representation of all of the forces within Greek and Turkish society that are threatened by such a revelation, whether these be the Ataturk secularists of the Turkish protagonist’s family, his Islam-focused boss and work rivals or in the case of the Greek main character, Golden Dawn adherent with a particular monolithic view of Greece and their own identity, often forged amidst fires of great pain and personal tragedy. Juxtaposed cleverly against these are marginal figures created by modern society, gays, members of ethnic minorities and trans-religious couples, all of whom make cameo appearances as if belonging to an ancient Greek chorus, in order to add yet another tessera to the complex mosaic that Billinis so expertly reveals to us.

Hidden Mosaics is not a happy ever after novel. Billinis takes his leave of his main characters as they ‘return to the ground,’ in order to address their own serious existential problems, including that of whether it is worth abandoning the region and seeking a better life elsewhere by means of emigration. Even here, Billinis’ deconstructive approach to identity and history is subtly made manifest. While his Turkish protagonist is quick to admire western and in particular American history and culture, he is reminded by a Greek academic that his object of admiration committed genocide against its native population (much like Turkey). A close reading of the text will reveal many such parallels, circularities and incongruities that will delight the reader and provide ample pause for reflection.

An Aegean region without the whitewash of ideology, mythology and nationalism would be a brave and possibly unrecognizable new world indeed. It is the mark of a true storyteller that Alexander Billinis has been able to deftly weave his preoccupations within the warp and the weft of a broader social tapestry that is in the process of unravelling, without his narrative appearing implausible, preachy or doctrinaire. For this, and for the thrill of plunging into a tale that comes together so brilliantly, “Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale,” makes for compulsory summer reading.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 January 2015