Saturday, April 30, 2016


"I don't get it. If Macedonia is Greek, how come the Macedonians don't speak Greek?" the elderly Assyrian man asked. I launched for the third time, into a detailed historical account of the history of Macedonia, from times ancient, through to Byzantine, Ottoman and beyond. Half an hour later, the elderly man smoothed his luxurious moustache and asked: "So the Macedonians are not Greek. Then why are you Greeks saying that Macedonia is Greek?"
Explaining what Macedonomachs around the world term "historical truths," should not be so difficult. It was time to change tactic. "Put it this way," I answered. "What if I told you that you are not Assyrian, but rather a Chaldean?" My aged interlocutor turned various hues of purple. I was convinced that even his white moustache had turned a darker shade. "What?" He spluttered. "That's garbage! There is no such thing as a Chaldean people! There never was. This is an identity that was made up in order to divide our people! Look at the history.."
Scholars generally agree that historically, there was no such thing as a Chaldean people, just as most scholars agree that the ancient Macedonians were not a people, but rather a sub-set of broader Greek tribal confederations. Yet tell the approximately 700,000 Syriac-speaking people that identify as Chaldeans that they are in fact Assyrian and tell the millions of Slavonic-speaking people that identify as 'Macedonians' that they are in fact Bulgarian and pandemonium ensues. It seems therefore that we are not the only people struggling with what we term, 'historical distortions,' or in Greek: «πλαστογράφηση της ιστορίας.»As is the case with many people whose origins lie in western Macedonia, theoretical discussions of identity are keenly felt within many Assyrian and Chaldean families, who are compelled to 'choose sides,' providing useful parallels with our own "name dispute," but also making such choices all the more sad and poignant.
Variously described as Syrians or Assyrians in ancient Greek texts as far back as Herodotus, ( I derive perverse pleasure out of telling Assyrian friends that it was we Greeks who put the Ass into Ass-yrian), the modern day Assyrians who, up until the Assyrian genocide perpetrated by the Ottomans, the genocide of Simele perpetrated by the Iraqi army and the genocide perpetrated by ISIS, resided in the lands of Mesopotamia shared between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, trace their ancestry to the ancient Assyrian Empire. Conquered by the Persians, who subjected them to immense persecution for their religious beliefs, conquered in turn by the Muslims who unleashed even more vicious persecution upon them, theirs is a story of survival despite overwhelming odds. Along the way, they played an immense and now largely uncredited role in preserving ancient Greek civilization, for it was the Assyrian monks who translated key works of the ancient orders for the benefit of their Arabic masters, in time for these to be appropriated by the Crusaders and brought to the West. Furthermore, up until the 17th century, the primary liturgical language in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, was Syriac, the language of the Assyrians and saints such as Saint John of Damascus and Saint Ephraim the Syrian, were native speakers of Syriac.
The Syriac-speaking peoples have entered into the twenty-first century not as one but as three distinct peoples. Their identities have been largely created by those that have ruled over them and reflect religious, rather than ethnic or linguistic differences within an otherwise relatively homogenous people. Syriac speaking adherents of the Nestorian Church of the East, once widespread from Byzantium to Mongolia, as well as former members whose ancestors converted to Protestantism, generally identify as Assyrian. They can point to a long, documented history of a continued presence in their ancestral homelands. Interest in them and fascination with their links to ancient Assyria emerged in the nineteenth century when British missionaries and archaeologists 'discovered" them, along with ancient Assyria during their excavations in the area. In many respects then, the western reconstruction of the Greek and Assyrian identities has followed surprisingly similar paths.
Whereas up until the nineteen thirties, the members of the Monophysite Syriac Orthodox Church identified themselves as Assyrian, due to pressure from Syria's Baath party, they began to refer to themselves as Arabs and lately, as "Arameans." In Sweden, where a large Syriac Orthodox expatriate community exists, the community is split down the middle, with one half supporting the Assyriska football team (and hence stating their affiliation with the Assyrian identity), and the other half, the "Aramean" Syrianska football team, in a manner reflecting similar debates about ethnic identity in the early history of the Heidelberg United soccer club here in Melbourne.
It is the Catholic Syriac-speakers who identify not as Assyrian but as Chaldeans. This is because the Chaldean Catholic Church was founded as a Uniate church for Assyrians, in Cyprus, in the sixteenth century. In choosing the term Chaldean, the Catholic church sought to link the Assyrians with the lands from which Abraham came, according to the Bible. Most members of this church are descendants of Nestorians who converted to Catholicism en masse in the late nineteenth century in the hopes that adherence to a 'western' church would save them from persecution. As such, their former affiliation should be almost within living memory. Indeed, the late Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Raphael Bidawid, commented in 2003: The name 'Chaldean' does not represent an ethnicity... We have to separate what is ethnicity and what is religion... I myself, my sect is Chaldean, but ethnically, I am Assyrian." Nonetheless, apart from a few exceptions, Chaldeans today are convinced that they are not Assyrian, instead drawing their heritage from the (ethnically similar) Babylonians who, paradoxically enough differ from the historical Chaldeans. Indeed, most will react with anger or incredulity when taken through the historical evidence indicating that their chosen identity does not accord with history or ethnography, citing spurious folklore or discredited history in defence of their claim. It is quite amusing to sit in on a heated debate between a Chaldean and an Assyrian about the ethnic origins of Nebuchadnezzar, until it becomes disquietingly apparent that the same vitriol, the same appeal to emotions rather than to logic and the same distortion of historical sources takes place as in an argument between an Greek, a FYROMIAN and an Albanian about the ethnic origins of Alexander the Great and his Adidas footwear.
Patriotic Assyrians lamenting the sundering of their diverse tribes cannot understand why the world, and especially friendly countries such as Australia which play host to both communities, allow the Chaldeans to persist in their historical delusions, much as deeply perturbed Greeks find it strange that despite constant re-hashings of the historical evidence, the world continues to indulge those who ethnically identify as 'Macedonians,' their fantasies, even joining in, by agreeing to call them by their desired names. In the meantime, while Assyrian and Greek uber-patriots become enraged each time the mainstream media refers to 'Macedonia' (ie. FYROM) or the Chaldeans, these appellations are so widespread that even Greek politicians are now referring to FYROMites as Macedonians and then excusing themselves as having made a 'gaffe.' Whereas enlightened Greeks offer 'Slav-Macedonian' as a compromise solution, enlightened Assyrians refer to an 'Assyro-Chaldean' identity, in an effort to bridge the gap, an effort, the majority of Chaldeans reject, primarily because they have no need of an Assyrian identity and possibly, because the 'Assyro' is placed here before the 'Chaldean.'
The fact of the matter is that ancient history used as an anachronism to imagine a nation, is not the only determinant of ethnic or national consciousness. Politics too plays a major role as can be evidenced by the existence of a German, Austrian, Swiss German, Luxembourgish and Liechtensteinian national identity, for a multitude of German speaking peoples, or a separate Ukrainian, Belarussian, Rusyn and Russian ethnic identity for speakers of dialects of the Russian language. Similarly, of late, we are witnessing the possible birth of a "Cypriot" ethnic identity, with more and more Cypriots distinguishing themselves from 'Greeks,' especially in the diaspora. As such, while there may not have been a 'Macedonian' or Chaldean ethnicity or consciousness in the past, it cannot be doubted that one exists now, valid or otherwise, because the world has deemed it expedient to allow its creation and millions have subscribed to it and have lived within it, for at least three generations, enough time to allow historic delusion to become overlooked and the comparative reality of living with a manufactured identity to become history itself. Indeed, if Malcolm Turnbull's smug asides are to be taken seriously, Australia is a haven for all those fleeing the conflict arising from such delusions.
While naming or shaming those who make slips of the tongue is fruitless and counter-productive in the face of the inexorable grind of the steamroller of delusion, both the Assyrian and the Greek communities will fight the good fight, for morally, they can do naught else, continuously hoping for "historic justice," as one fervent patriot put it recently, as the world and the new ethnic identities that are constantly being formed, constructed, dissolved and re-imagined, pass us all by.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 April 2016

Saturday, April 23, 2016


The Coptic Orthodox Church of Saint Mary in Kensington is holding a public breakfast, open to all members of the community, in honour of Anzac Day. This is a beautiful gesture which shows how a community, of Middle Eastern origin, that has ostensibly at least, no historical ties with one of the most enduring and hallowed of Australian commemorations, can integrate itself within the context of that commemoration, in a respectful and meaningful way, proving that one does not need to be of the same race as those who underwent the severe trials of Gallipoli, in order to pay tribute to the eternal human virtues of courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. Our community institutions have much to learn from the Coptic approach which, at its heart is truly multi-cultural.

            The word ostensibly is used above because the Copts do have a link with the ANZACs, one  that like so many others is generally glossed over by an official public narrative that had until recently emphasized the role of certain key participants such as the British, the Australians, New Zealanders and Turk and is only now, gradually coming to acknowledge the role of other minor protagonists. One of these are the Copts, the native, non-Arab people of Egypt. As a Christian minority that had been relegated to the inferior status of a dhimmi (non-Muslim) people under Islamic rule, the Copts felt a natural affinity towards the 'Christian' west and avidly supported Britain's appropriation of Egypt in the latter part of the nineteenth century. With their western orientation and superior education, they were able to achieve important bureaucratic positions within the British administration.

Thus during World War I, Coptic community of Egypt held many fundraisers in order to assist the Allied war effort. As well, Coptic public servants played a key role in co-ordinating supplies, provisions and accommodation for ANZAC soldiers billeted in Egypt on the way to the front. Such a task was not always easy.  Egyptian Nobel prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz describes in several of his works, the difficulty faced in controlling the rowdiness of Australian ANZAC soldiers, with their tendency to get drunk and become overly friendly with the local women, in violation of Egyptian social codes. Furthermore, vocal Coptic support of the Anzacs directly defied the call for jihad against the Allies, issued by the Ottoman sultan, who was also the caliph of Islam. Egypt was still technically a part of the Ottoman Empire and much of the muslim population of Egypt was sympathetic to the Sultan's call. The fact that a subjugated minority had the temerity to defy this call and actively assist the perceived enemy did not go unforgotten or unpunished and Copts have over the years paid a terrible price for what is perceived to be, their western orientation

            It is hoped that the Coptic contribution to the ANZAC cause becomes more widely known and more broadly studied in years to come. In the meantime, local Greek community activists, including former members of Parliament Lee Tarlamis and John Pandazopoulos, along with the indefatigable military historian and honorary Greek Jim Claven, through the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee have, after years of hard work, managed to raise increased awareness the Greek contribution to the ANZAC cause, especially with regards to Lemnos. This is of immense importance, as Lemnos was the major base of ANZAC operations, the place where the Anzacs practiced the landings, where the Australian nurses and medical staff established their hospitals, where the sick and injured soldiers returned for treatment and where the soldiers returned for brief periods of rest.  It was also where the war that began at Gallipoli in 1915 ended in 1918, with the Armistice of Mudros, a bay of Lemnos. Joy Damoussi, in her recent book, Memory and Migration in the Shadow of War: Australia's Greek Immigrants after World War II and the Greek Civil War', writes just how instrumental shared experiences of war were, in forging links between Greeks and Australians.

            Furthermore, historians such as Panayiotis Diamandis in Sydney have, through their research, also highlighted the terrible human cost suffered by Greeks as a result of the ANZAC campaign. An estimated 15,000 native Greek inhabitants of the Gallipoli peninsula were forcibly removed and or ethnically cleansed by the Ottoman army, in their bid to secure the gateway to the Dardanelles. As well, he argues convincingly, that the order to intensify the deportation of Greeks and Armenians within the Ottoman Empire, which is considered to have constituted a genocide, was made as direct reaction to the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. The Greek Australian community is thus inextricably woven into the warp and the weft of the ANZAC legend and we can and must do more to explore and commemorate that involvement and historical presence within the broader context of Australian ANZAC commemorations.

            One aspect of Greek involvement in the ANZAC legend is generally overlooked sits in parallel with the Coptic experience. During World War I, a relatively large, wealthy and politically significant Greek community was resident in Egypt, especially around Alexandria and Cairo. The connection of that community with the ANZACs in a fascinating one because its wealthy leaders, industry and property magnates with political interests in Greece, variously aligned themselves with the royalist (anti-war) or Venizelist (pro-Allied) factions within that country, polarizing the Greek-Egyptian community in the process. Works of literature such as Dimitris Stefanakis' epic 'Days of Alexandria,' («Ημέρες Αλεξάνδρειας»), portray just how riven by internecine strife the Greek community was at that period, with one half actively supporting the British, the wives of wealthy Greek businessmen holding fundraisers for the ANZAC troops and seeking to organize entertainment for them, (and indeed, some female members of the Greek-Egyptian community formed attachments of love with ANZAC soldiers) while the other half of the Greek community embroiled themselves in numerous arguments with their compatriots, dissolved friendships and on occasion, found themselves at odds with the British authorities as a result of their opposition to the Allied cause. It would be fascinating to study the considerations which led the Greeks of Egypt to actively support or oppose the ANZACs for in doing so, a microcosm of contemporary Greek society is revealed while contemporaneously providing one more link between our community and the ANZACs. Sadly, no such attempts have been made here in Australia to date and it would be of great benefit if the various Greek-Egyptian-Australian organizations that operate here, could turn their minds to such an important task. In the meantime, we should also do more to raise awareness of and celebrate the contributions of the small Greek-Australian community at the time, to the ANZAC effort.

            One doesn't have to be an Anglo-Australian to honour or appreciate the ANZAC legend. Nor does one have to be an imperialist, colonialist, or nationalist. One cannot help but admire the courage, steadfastness, loyalty and resourcefulness of the young Australian soldiers, who were placed in the most horrific of circumstances but nonetheless remained committed to sacrificing their lives for what they believed to be the greater good. There's is a very human achievement, that reminds us that even in a place of utmost evil, love and friendship can endure. That the Greek people both within Greece and outside of it, and others, stood beside the ANZACs, cheered them on, tended to their wounds, fed them, provided them with comfort and held their hands as they died is something our community can be inordinately proud of. In all of these ways, ANZAC day is of vital importance to the Greek-Australian community. It is OUR day, not only as Australians, but as Greeks as well and judging by the large number of Greeks attending my local RSL's pre-Anzac day commemoration, these are sentiments which laudably, are shared by the majority of the Greek Australian community. On the 25 of April this year, and on every day thereafter, we the Greeks of Australia will remember them, and because we are an old people, with incredibly long memories, we will never forget.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 April 2016

Saturday, April 16, 2016


The montage accompanying this diatribe is doing the rounds of social media these days. In juxtaposing the veiled Catholic and Orthodox nuns, along with manifestly Muslim women wearing the burka against the parade of nubile, healthy young women clad in what purports to be the ancient Greek style among the ruins of Olympia, the monteur is attempting to both hold up the ancient Greek tradition as one of progressive enlightenment, worthy of emulation, while dismissing modern Abrahamic religious traditions as being dark, reactionary and oppressive; all the conditions precedent for making the imposition of a sumptuary injunction upon female adherents to wear the veil. The monteur of course assumes that the viewer, consciously or subconsciously accepts that the veil is a garment closely associated with female subjugation and oriental "otherness." In short, it is not 'Greek.'
Of course, the monteur, for the purposes of his argument, completely disregards the fact that the religious ritual he has captured his desirable ancient Greek caryatids in the process of performing is a complete fabrication, created in order to add colour to the modern Olympic Games. Furthermore, in deliberately choosing to associate ancient Greece with the absence of the veil, the monteur is ignoring an extremely important fact: that the veil was widely worn by ancient Greek women since Homeric times. In the Odyssey for example, Penelope is referred to as wearing a veil, on no less than five separate occasions. A reading of the Homeric epics leads one to draw the conclusion that in the early archaic period the veil was the prerogative of elite women and their personal attendants. Iconographic evidence suggests that exclusive use of the veil by elites came to an end in the late archaic period and points to a broader adoption of the veil in democratic Athens and even more widespread use of the veil in the Hellenistic world.
Scholars maintain that the wearing of the veil by ancient Greek women was a component of a prevailing male ideology that endorsed female silence and invisibility. While women who veiled their heads subscribed to this ideology, the act of veiling did not simply entail female powerlessness in the face of male authority. Instead, veiling allowed women a certain degree of freedom of movement and provided them with opportunities to comment on their social standing, their sexuality, and their emotional state. If these arguments sound familiar, it is because they also appear in modern debates about the use of the veil within Islam and its relationship with the western world.
Just as in the Islamic world, a variety of words and definitions for the veil exist in the ancient sources, further demonstrating that the veil was a familiar and important garment in the ancient Greek world. A plethora of archeological evidence exists to prove the prevalence of veil wearing in ancient Greece. In surviving statues and vase paintings, some of the women merely have their hair covered. In others, the women have drawn the veil across their mouths in a manner reminiscent of Islamic usages today, a style which scholars such as Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones consider to have become fashionable in the late classical period.
The dichotomy between the literary evidence of veiling and artistic depictions of women uncovered and on display can be explained by the fact that except in the case of the late fifth-century terracotta figurines of veiled women and the occasional representations of veiled women on vases the veil appears to be absent in many female-related artistic compositions. Nonetheless, scholars have convincingly shown that Greek vase-painters often created scenes that allude to the veil by means of a variety of elements, including female veiling gestures and the presence of garments such as the pharos or himation, which could be used as veils. In particular, much is made of the "anakalypsis (unveiling) gesture." This gesture in Greek art is usually performed by a female who raises part of her veil in front of her face, or simply touches the veil. This gesture, which seems to accord with the abundant textual evidence supporting the habitual veiling of women, when out of doors, appears to be a motif reminding the viewer of Greek art of the female figure's aidos without obstructing the view of her physical beauty.
Proving that certain attitudes can become entrenched for millennia, veiling, like sexual separation, was employed to preserve the Greek female's chastity, thus ensuring both the legitimacy of her husband's offspring but also, the highly valued honour of her menfolk. As in modern Islamic cultures, when the woman emerged from her home and the protection of her male guardians, the veil rendered her both socially invisible and sexually inviolate and marked her as the property of the male whose honour was reinforced by both her invisibility and chastity. It is important here to consider the ancient Greeks' view of the veil as a barrier against women's naturally dangerous miasma and uncontrolled sexuality, both of which posed serious threats to the social order. The veil shielded males from the female's dangerously sexualized gaze and controlled her sexually enticing hair.
Llewellyn-Jones has shown that the veil would first be worn by girls who had reached puberty and had experienced menarche. Evidence for this is found in the fifth-century stone-inscribed catalogues of textile dedications to Artemis Brauronia on the Athenian acropolis and the fourth-century clothing inscriptions from Miletus and Tanagra, where young women dedicated their veils to the goddess.
Confining women and on the other hand creating a "safe" domestic" space for them in which to operate, the veil's seemingly contradictory ability to both control and liberate women also assists in explaining the counterintuitive appearance of the face-veil known as the tegidion in the Hellenistic world, in an era marked by increased participation by women. Scholar Llewellyn-Jones argues that the tegidion, by making the female even more socially invisible, allowed women correspondingly more freedom to go out in public. Increasing female freedom of movement and the growing control over female sexuality were thus intertwined in ways again eerily reminiscent of the practices of the Islamic world.
Proving again how ancient women negotiated the male ideology of veiling and found ways to express themselves and gain control over their movement and status in the male domain, veiling could be used to express a wide gamut of emotions. The rendering of the veil could be used to express anger or grief, while it could also be used to accentuate sexuality, in a manner akin to the Orientalising movement of the nineteenth century.
Making use the veil as the symbol of the enlightenment of 'Greece and the West' compared with the darkness of the 'East,' is thus unhelpful, as well as historically inaccurate. Instead, the tradition of female veiling, with all its ancillary issues of sexual mores, gender relations, and the construction of personal identity, must be placed within the ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, which includes ancient Greece.
Re-evaluating the place of the Greek veil within Greek history and society (and there appears to be a diachronic continuity since the veil was present also in Byzantine and Ottoman times, right up until the present, under differing conditions but largely using the same rationale), is to view a complex cultural icon in its proper historical and social context. Such a perspective, rather than obfuscate issues of gender repression under an imagined and unrealistic illusion of a past based on equality or intellectual superiority, will serve as one of the necessary steps in identifying the historical roots of misogyny within Greek society, and one would hope, lead to their excision.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 April 2016

Saturday, April 09, 2016


Mάνα μου τα μάνα μου τα κλεφτόπουλα, are the words I hear in my mind, whenever I recall my Greek school days, enunciated by a voice loud, and clear as a bell, each syllable punctuated by a rhythmic clap, executed high above the head. Upon the conclusion of this song, my brain immediately races to the next one, traversing an entire playlist of Greek poems, carols and songs that exists in my memory as a photograph of pages of a scrap-book in which these were once lovingly pasted.
The interpreter of the verses is the same person who provided the pages upon which the lyrics were printed: Κούλα Λιώλιου, co-founder of the Greek Academy of Melbourne, arguably the most significant institution in the history of Greek language education in Australia. Any excuse was sufficient for her to break out into song as she taught us, her eyes gleaming and her face beaming with delight. So earnest was her signing that she made us all believe we were little mountain klephts, bringing the song to life. It is to this remarkable person that I owe, in no small part, my adulation of Greek letters.
At the commencement of the Greek school year, each of us would receive from Kyria Lioliou, apart from a performance of the relevant poems and songs both secular and religious relevant to that time, a paper icon, which we were to paste in an exercise book and write the Lord's Prayer beneath it. In my year, a good deal of wrangling and swapping would take place as we all tried to secure the Byzantine style icons, considering the odd Romanesque type that found its way into the pile as inferior. This book was our ημερολόγιο, or diary, where we were to record our thoughts, musings or write the odd story, to be reviewed by Kyria Lioliou herself, because unlike most teachers who felt themselves tasked merely with delivering a lesson, she was primarily concerned with how we felt, not only about our work but also, the world around us. I soon discovered that I could evade the weighty and onerous task of filling an entire page by writing in verse. Kyria Lioliou seemed not to mind my flouting of the rules, save that my diary would be returned to me all the more heavily annotated and corrected, as the years progressed. In her comments and critiques, she encouraged me to persist in writing poetry in Greek. Some decades and six published collections later, her injunction, given while she clasped my hand and looked fervently into my eyes, still rings in my ears: "We Greeks take poetry very seriously. It is life itself."
Possessed of disarmingly penetrating eyes and a broad, ecumenical embrace, Kyria Lioliou was a beacon of love to which all children (and teenagers, despite themselves), gravitated. She offered that love unconditionally to all and she was to be invariably found, during recess or lunch-time, hugging, playing with her students or comforting them. Her acts of generosity and compassion are ever enduring. When I was ten, my grandfather reached the terminal phase of his illness. I had never experienced death before and I was overwhelmed with fear and immense pain. Somehow, it seemed perfectly naturally for me to confide my sadness to Kyria Lioliou, one day at lunch-time, bursting into tears as I did so. Nestled in her embrace, I cannot remember exactly the words she said to me, something linking the birth of my sister the year before, with the natural cycle of mortal man and the importance of memory but it made absolute sense and gave me the strength to endure what was, the most shattering experience of my childhood. She also attended the funeral. I have loved her like a son ever since.
The sharing of pain for Kyria Lioliou seemed to come as a corollary with building a consciousness. At her school, a strict adherence to the old Greek curriculum meant that we were exposed not only to the rudiments of the Greek language but also to its greatest exponents. In the study of the works of Alexandros Papadiamantis, Grigoris Xenopoulos and Fotis Kontoglou, we were invited to discover the disparate but coherent shards of a particularly Greek outlook upon life. Keenly perceiving my love of the absurd and fascination with the concept of the margin, Kyria Lioliou expertly steered me in the direction of Miltos Sakhtouris and Cavafy. Unlike "English school," which appeared stultifyingly parochial and anglocentric, Kyria Lioliou determined that we should be exposed to world literature. It was through her lessons on passages from Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde that I first discovered that not only did I have a soul, but that I was responsible for addressing pain and misfortune in the souls around me. These then were the seminal gospels from which she taught, that underwrote her own behaviour, imperceptibly inculcating in us, an ideology of social responsibility.
As we grew, so too did the subtlety of her guidance. At high school level, she actively encouraged our interest in modern Greek history, making suggestions, pointing us to sources and having us devour our textbooks in search of arguments with which to defend our interpretations. Never prescribing or dismissing our half-baked adolescent romantic utterances, she cajoled, insinuated and invited. Taking me aside one day, she slipped into my hand, a cassette tape containing Maria Farantouris' rendition of Yiannis Ritsos' "Lianotragouda," a major turning point in my life, as Ritsos' verses have formed a constant touchstone to which I return continuously. Soon after, she beckoned me into the school library, in a corner of which resided a dust covered set of 1962 encyclopaediae. "Take them," she insisted. "They will come in handy." Grossly outdated in so far as statistics go, these tomes have been a valuable resource of Greek ethnography, folklore and references to obscure Greek personages and events. They are a bottomless well of information into which I did my bucket of inquiry endlessly. As I gaze upon the library stamp bearing the legend: Βιβλιοθήκη Ελληνικής Ακαδημίας Μελβούρνης, I am assailed by insurmountable pangs of nostalgia, though Kyria Lioliou, in setting out a moral and intellectual compass for all of our lives, is always with me.
A few weeks ago, I was sent a copy of a Christmas card I wrote to Kyria Lioliou, at the conclusion of my last year of Greek school. In that card, I wrote about my regret in no longer being her student. Her response, delivered personally, was neither soppy nor sentimental. "I want all of you to go out into the world," she smiled, in a manner reminiscent of Maxim Gorky's 'My Childhood,' "and make me proud." Wherever, we are, and whatever we may do, we, her students, recall her with immense affection and awe. A gifted educator and gargantuan humanitarian, she receives, in her retirement, little formal community recognition for her invaluable work in instilling in successive generations of Greek-Australian children, newly arrived, or locally-born, an immense love of Greece and competency in the Greek language. Yet perhaps this is commensurate with her self-effacing personality, for her achievement is exemplified in the love her students still bear for her and their own endeavours to pass on undiminished, the flame she lit in them, so many years ago.
And not a day goes by in which I do not raise my hands over my head, clap rhythmically and sing to my daughter in sonorous tones: Mάνα μου τα μάνα μου τα κλεφτόπουλα....
First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 April 2016

Saturday, April 02, 2016


I try to introduce a new Greek word to my three year old every couple of days. Last Saturday, while buying fruit, the new word for the day was άγουρος, which was directly relevant to our purchase of bananas, since green, the colour the aforementioned adjective applies to, happens to be her particular favourite.
Listening to my daughter expound in Greek, why we must only eat yellow bananas and reject, at least for the purposes of consumption, the green, άγουρες of their kind, a moustachioed elderly gentleman, approached us, beaming. Patting her on the head, he enquired: Χάλο ντάλι μου. Χαβαγιού;
My daughter looked up at him, and then at me, having no idea what he was saying. Having explained to him that she does not yet know English, the old man continued: Γιου γκούτ;
At this point, my daughter furrowed her brows and answered: Δεν καταλαβαίνω τι λες παππού.
Try as I might, I could not get the old man to speak to my daughter in what manifestly was, his main language of discourse.
A similar scene was repeated a quarter of an hour later at the Greek deli, a few shops away, when the store owner overheard my daughter request that I acquire for her a quantity of tarama, in the following terms: Θέλω ροζ σκορδαλιά μπαμπά. Laughing loudly, he addressed my daughter: Χάλο μπιούτιφουλ κούκλα. Γιου ουάντ σαμ ταραμά;
By this stage, my thoroughly confused daughter merely shrugged him off stating: Αχ ρε χαζούλη παππού. Δεν ξέρω τι λες.
This far into our sojourn in this country, it is understandable though not excusable, that the Greek language is not used in daily discourse within the second and third generations. Indeed, (unless your interlocutor happens to be a recent arrival), to speak Greek to one of your peers is either considered an affectation, or a sign as a side of rudeness, given that you are placing said peer in an uncomfortable position of having to respond, in a language around which there exists some unease.
Thus, up until recently, Greek was relegated to the status of an intergenerational language, that is, a medium of communication to be employed almost solely when addressing the first generation, especially the elderly within in it. However, it appears that increasingly, the elderly, largely monolingual generation is no longer speaking to the latter generations in Greek, preferring to speak to them in broken, almost incomprehensible English. As a result, the limited role Greek played as a method of discourse seems to have been made totally redundant, causing me distress, in considering that since not even elderly Greeks speak to my daughter in Greek, my family's decision to bring her up as a Hellenoglot is actually effecting her social exclusion from the Greek-Australian community. Histrionics aside, it is logical that any encouragement or insistence on our part that she speak Greek once she learns English, will be severely compromised by her realization that there is absolutely no need to do so, given that English is now the culturally accepted mode of communication to one's elders.
There appear to be two main reasons why the elderly are choosing to speak to the latter generations in English and both are equally disturbing. The first has to do with the innate tendency of Hellenes to draw out differences and marginalize people in order to secure or preserve their own sense of power and/or privilege. Thus not a few second generation Greek-Australians who have made ill-fated attempts to participate in the management of Greek community organisations have observed that members of the previous generation deliberately exploited their lack of proficiency in Greek in order to keep them away from the decision-making process.
To first generation Greek brotherhood power-brokers, the existence of younger Greek-Australians who are articulate in Greek is an anathema, because this means that they can approach them, question them, argue with them and seek to be included in decision making on an equal basis. Non-proficient members of the second generation can be excluded and spoken to condescendingly in broken English, and the resentment first generation Greek-Australians feel when coming across Grecophone members of the second generation is palpable. I have in my archives two letters addressed to me by first generation Greeks. One is by a community author and intellectual, advising me that since I was born here, I have "no right," to pursue my literary pretensions in the Greek language and "must" confine myself to English. The second is my the secretary of a brotherhood fraternal to the one I represent, complaining that the Greek I employ in my correspondence is too formal and thus boring and requesting that I write in English (a language not understood by the author of the letter) instead.
Truly, there is nothing more Dali-esque, than being engaged in a conversation with a largely monolingual elderly Greek-Australian where he is speaking in broken English and you are responding in Greek, with each of us persevering in our idioms. The former, in speaking English is attempting to relegate you to the status of an outsider, disenfranchising you from speaking his tongue in order to convey to you the message that you are not equals. Your own insistence on speaking the ancestral tongue is those not seen as praiseworthy or as a password for inclusion. Instead it is mere effrontery.
The second reason for the exclusion of younger Greek Australians from the Grecophone community by the first generation is a logical and infinitely sad outcome of the first. Quite simply, the first generation, while emotionally attached to the generation of their grandchildren, are no longer able to identify them as belonging to the same social/ethnic group, except in principle. Whether this has come about because of the prevalence former exclusionary stance, or (in most cases) because their progeny have made a conscious effort not to speak to their offspring in Greek and have forcibly enjoined their parents to also not "stress" their grandchildren by speaking to them in that language, a social convention has been created whereby the first generation has internalised a belief that younger Greek-Australians must be spoken to in English. The matter is complicated further for grandparents who have grand-children of various ethnic backgrounds and who are compelled to switch between Greek to their grandchildren who are learning the language and English to their non Greek-speaking grandchildren.

In no small way, this phenomenon also has to do the way in which multiculturalism is viewed through a monolingual prism within Anglo-Saxon Mainstream Australian society and a large part of its failure to treat other languages as equals within it, as been imbibed by our own community, creating psychological hang ups that deserve proper study. So entrenched is that belief, that, as in the cases cited above, no amount of encouragement or pointing out that their mode of communication is incomprehensible will suffice to deflect many elderly Greeks from their adherence to this disturbing convention.
As a result, the first generation which is still the (diminishing) bastion of Grecophony in our community, in either pandering to the insecurities of a generation that seeks to reject or marginalize the continued importance of the Greek language in their and their children's lives, believing that English is the proper language of the latter generations, or in fearing rejection themselves by their interlocutors should they employ Greek in their discourse with them (I have seen monolingual Greek-Australian children display disturbing hysterical reactions when spoken to in Greek by their elders), are doing themselves, the latter generations and the community at large a great disservice, for they are actively bringing about the end of the functionally bilingual Greek community as we know it, inexplicably, given the large amount of Greek speakers within that community.
It is for this reason that campaigns such as "Speak Greek in March" are so important. Derided by some for being tokenistic, sensationalist, heavy on buzz words and light on substantive ways in which language retention can be effected, this campaign is the stepping stone to restoring the speaking of Greek language among the generation to social respectability and broader acceptance. A specialised campaign, targeted towards the first generation, where they are enjoined not to fear rejection via the monolingual insecurities of the latter generations, or resign themselves to the failure of the Greek language in Australia but to assert their language skills proudly will ensure that not only language but also a multitude and centuries old agglomeration of unique culture encoded within it will have, at least a sporting chance of survival.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 April 2016