Saturday, January 28, 2017


“One of the worst things about being a young refugee in Greece, is the knowledge that your life has suddenly been paused, as if God is holding an immense remote control,” Nineveh, who in her early teens was a refugee in Greece in the mid-nineties, confides. “I went from being the top student in my class in Iraq, to just sitting around, waiting for nothing to happen. My parents could not work and I could not go to school. Every morning, I would watch the children in Peristeri, where we lived, go to school and I was insanely jealous of them. I spoke little English and very poor Greek and could find nothing to read in my own language.
To tell you the truth, Ι was bored out of my mind and completely demoralized. All of a sudden, my life no longer had any purpose or any structure. When you are at school, your whole mindset concerns the future: learning new things, progressing to new tasks, adding to what you already know. As far as I knew, not being able to go to school, I had no future. Not only that, not having anything to do makes you focus almost obsessively on things you would rather forget: the frightening experiences we had in Iraq, the traumatic way we left and of course, the terrifying passage to Greece in which we almost lost our lives. I had nightmares continuously.
Nonetheless, it was only when we arrived in Australia and I finally returned to school that I realized the full extent of the damage caused by two years of scholarly inactivity in Greece. I was extremely behind in all my subjects, had forgotten a large portion of what I knew and was no longer used to the discipline of study. Not a few of my friends, in the same situation gave upon on study altogether and went looking for menial jobs. Therefore, to deny someone schooling for even a short period of time is, quite plausibly, to compromise their future altogether.”

Despite these negative memories of scholastic deprivation, Nineveh, who has gone on to enjoy a successful career in the sciences, waxes lyrical about the Greek people per se. “They were all so friendly and so sympathetic. We established lasting friendship and felt completely at ease with our neighbours, all of whom took a genuine interest in us.” A lasting legacy of the compassionate treatment meted out to her and her family by the Greeks of Peristeri, is Nineveh’s innate Philhellenism. In Australia, she deliberately sought out Greek friends so that she could preserve her rudimentary knowledge of the Greek language acquired during her sojourn and regularly attends Greek events of interest to her. She maintains a love of Greek popular music, or at least she thinks she does, for she deifies Notis Sfakianakis and fervently believes that his name is not semantically, the antithesis of what we understand to be music, altogether. In short, though not all of her experiences in Greece were positive, their sum total, where the compassion and basic humanity shown her outweighs the lack of opportunities afforded to her, has shaped Nineveh into a lifelong friend, both of Greece and the Greek community of Melbourne, as is evidenced by the fact that, by her own admission, she recently berated an Italian grocer for recommending Turkish dried figs over Greek ones. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I prefer the Persian ones. Incidentally, she also has the unfortunate habit of berating those of her Greek friends who choose not to send their children to Greek school.

The demented Golden Dawners who recently stormed into a school in Perama, Piraeus to disrupt a meeting being held by teachers and parents regarding the education of refugee children in that facility, would do well to cast aside their troglodytic primal urges and take heed of the stories of people like Nineveh. Though said Golden Dawners are fond of proclaiming their adherence to what they consider to be “pure” Hellenic values, it would be of benefit to point out to them, that one of the basic values that underpin Greek civilisation since the time of Homer, is that of Xenia, better known to the modern Greek as φιλοξενία, one of those terms for which, as the Ellinarades rejoice in telling us, like φιλότιμο, no exact equivalent exists in any other language.
Xenia, as ritualised guest friendship, thus embodies the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, providing a structure for the generosity and courtesy to be shown to those who are far from home. Accordingly, guests are to be provided with succour and protection, and even provided with a present when they leave. By reciprocation, a guest had to be courteous and also offer his host something by way of a gift. (Of course it was understood that the guest relationship was of temproary duration). That Xenia was central to Greek society can be evidenced that one of the greatest ancient epics, the Iliad, revolved around a violation of guest-friendship, when Paris abducted his host, Menelaus' wife, Helen. The Greeks therefore were required by duty to Zeus to avenge this transgression, which, as a violation of xenia, was an insult to Zeus' authority. Memories of Xenia could even create precedents that were a pretext for peace in such a world and transcend the generations. In the Iliad, Diomedes and Glaucus meet in No Man's Land. However, Diomedes does not want to fight another man descendant from the Gods, so he asks Glaucus about his lineage. Upon revealing his lineage, Diomedes realises they are guest-friends, as their fathers had practiced xenia with each other. They decide not to fight, but to instead trade armour to continue the ties of their guest-friendship. Similarly in the Odyssey, the Phaeacians, and in particular their princess Nausicaa stand out for their immaculate application of xenia, as Nausicaa and her maidens offered to bathe Odysseus and then led him to the palace to be fed and entertained. After sharing his story with his hosts, they even agreed to take Odysseus to his home land.

The latest Golden Dawn antics thus seem to underlie the ambiguity of the word ξένος, which, having been in use at least since times Homeric, can be interpreted to mean different things based upon context, signifying such divergent concepts as "enemy" or "stranger", a particular hostile interpretation, to host, and all the way to the hallowed "guest friend." For Golden Dawners, it seems, not only refugees but the vast majority of the population of Greece who do not support their world view seem to be classified as "ξένοι." All the more reason to afford them the courtesy prescribed by the ancients say I.

Ιn their plurality, the Golden Dawners have up until now, lived a comfortable life, in peace and relative affluence. They are in no position to appreciate, let alone comprehend the terrible psychological and physical toll of being uprooted from one's country, witnessing slaughters and losing loved ones, nor the travails of braving rapacious people-smugglers and attempting life-threatening journeys across perilous borders. They have not been sexually harassed or robbed in refugee camps, nor have they, like Nineveh, had to face the prospect of a completely pointless, paused life, owing to an inability to go to school. Instead, by begrudging young, traumatised refugees the opportunity to regain hope and meaning through some type of schooling as they wait to rebuild their shattered lives and by seeking to intimidate those who would proffer them such an opportunity, the Golden Dawners display the worst facets of Modern Greek society: exclusion, suspicion, racism and bigotry. In doing so, they directly contravene the hallowed ancestors who they supposedly hold up as their example.

The flip-side to xenia is that it is reciprocal. It creates strong emotional ties that endure. In the case of Nineveh, it created a passionate advocate for all things Greek and there are many others like her in Melbourne alone. For Nineveh, and thousands like her, her sojourn in Greece was a temporary aberration, and her family had no intention to remain in Greece. This is important to note, because Germany jhas ust announced it will be returning thousands of immigrants and refugees to their point of entry (thins being Greece) starting March this year, and Greece is already hard pressed to deal with its own social and economic issues. However, providing young refugees with dignity and compassion, in the form of the chance to learn and dream where it is possible to do so before they move on, given the limited means Greece has at its disposal, not only transforms their lives, providing them with an outlet from their daily uncertainty that could be channelled otherwise towards anti-social behaviour; it creates a relationship of friendship and gratitude that has the capacity to transform each and every refugee student into a potential ambassador for Hellenism. If this is not possible, then at least let us not intimidate them. Brutish discourtesy, as practised Golden Dawn in their 'raid', reinforces prejudices about the West within the already laboured minds of war-stricken refugees and creates lasting bitterness and enmity that benefits Greece not at all.

Ultimately, Xenia had at the heart of its philosophy, the idea that the gods walk among men and then to refuse hospitality to a god, would be the height of blasphemy. It is high time that we embraced such a humanistic and benevolent conception of mankind, affording each other the respect and mutual regard we all deserve, consigning the thuggery of the simian Graeculi who ape Hellenic attitudes without having the foggiest idea what they entail, where it belongs: The dustbin of history.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 January 2017

Saturday, January 21, 2017


When I was a lad, the way we distinguished the inner circle from the outer, was by discerning people’s ability to speak in the Greek tongue. Once in a while, we would come across a strange phenomenon, especially at school: Peers whose parents were Greek and yet they had no facility in their mother tongue. In our binary way of looking at the world such ersatz “Greeks” were a conundrum, for they defied classification. Our identity was therefore enclosed within the syllables of an arcane tongue, enunciated mostly within earshot of English speakers (otherwise we generally spoke to each other in English, which would invariably elicit, from our elders at Greek functions, the following command: ῾Μιλήστε ελληνικά,῾ sometimes suffixed with the appellation κοπρόσκυλα), thereby proclaiming to all and sundry, our perceived ties of kinship and cultural affiliation.

Several decades on, it cannot be disputed that the primary language of discourse among second generation and increasingly, many first generation Greek-Australians, is English. Similarly, increasing numbers of second and third generation Greek-Australians have little or no fluency in Greek. Despite earlier generations considering the maintenance of the Greek language to be one of the key pre-requisites to perpetuating a “Greek” identity, it appears that quietly and over a long period of time, subsequent generations have managed to develop their own ideology of identity, to which lack of knowledge of the language of the mother culture is not inimical.

Thus, in Melbourne it is de rigueur to consider oneself a passionate Greek, even when one does not use or is not fluent in the Greek language. According to this view, what takes precedence over prescribed cultural, religious and linguistic criteria as determining Hellenism, (which give rise to innumerable questions as to: 1. Who determines these? 2. Can they be changed to reflect changing values or experiences? 3. Why are these the criteria of Hellenism and no other?) is how one personally feels about their own individual ethno-cultural identity. Proving that the task of defining Hellenism has been a work in progress since times ancient, without any clear resolution, are the endeavours to establish the Hellenism of the Macedonian Kings in order for them to take part in the Olympic Games. In those times, religion and language, were the key determinates. Cavafy’s Poseidonians, on the other hand, occupy a middle position between the archetypal two approaches. Having lost their language, and not comprehending the significance or meaning of the traditions they had preserved, they still clung to these, regardless of the fact that their ostensible irrelevance caused them angst, because they still felt that they comprised part of their identity. Here, it is not language but consciousness, coupled with the perpetuation of practices, that formed the Poseidonian conception of being Greek.

For me, there is something counterintuitive in the widely and deeply held “Hellenism without Greek” approach to identity emerging within Greek communities of the Anglosphere. After all, language encodes unique cultural practices and perspectives in a singular way. In the case of the Greek language, it provides an unbroken continuum wherein three millennia of shared thought and experience that be expressed in a manner that can only be approximated by translation in other tongues. While it cannot be denied that non-Greek speakers can identify as Greek, it follows logically that such an affinity hangs of the tail end of the Greek speakers they have come in contact with or grown up around and is not plausible beyond a generation, simply because the lack of the ability to receive and communicate information in the language of the ethnic group to which identity is claimed, eventually inhibits participation and an understand of that group. The lesson we learn from Cavafy’s Poseidonians therefore, is that while they “felt” Greek, however burdensome that “feeling” was, that feeling did not endure and they were eventually completely Romanised.

It is in this context that Greek deputy foreign minister Terence Quick's recent controversial comments to Greek Americans in Tarpon Springs should be understood. At a recent gathering, he expressed his disappointment at the fact that all of his hosts were using English instead of Greek, despite the fact that the aim of the gathering was to seek the Greek government’s aid for Greek to be taught in schools in the region: “The Greek language should be a powerful reference point for the Greek Diaspora, as is Orthodoxy. Here in the US we have now reached the fourth and fifth generation, and Greek is fading. If you, the parents, and grandparents do not support the Greek language in your own gatherings, then Greek will be extinguished…. So, despite all the previous Greeks who spoke in English, I will speak in Greek, which is the mother of all languages. "

There is a certain irony in a person by the name of Quick chiding expatriates for not speaking Greek and exhorting them to do so. It goes without saying that Quick's own ethnic background would challenge many Greek-Australians’ conception of what it is to be Greek.

Quick’s contention, that it is ridiculous to seek assistance from a beleaguered Greek state for Greek language education while at the same time displaying a non-commitment to the perpetuation of that language and its relevance within a multi-cultural society by not using it in diasporan social contexts, seems logical and could equally be applied in Australia as well, where though much lip service is paid to the importance of maintaining the language, as an ideology, daily practice indicates other priorities. Quite possibly, the mere act of seeking Greek language education when one is not prepared to use the language, should be seen as yet another Poseidonian ritual. However, as a representative of the Metropolis, Terence Quick’s placement of the Greek language at the centre of his conception of the Greek identity, seems to suggest that what is Greek is truly in the eye or the consciousness of the beholder, or stakeholder for that matter. His revealing comments seem to suggest that we are entering a Meta-Greek era, an era where, given the increased distance and time spent away from the motherland, our experiences, priorities and attitudes towards our mother culture have diverged to such an extent that old constituent elements are being discarded and new identities formed that bear marked differences to the culture that spawned our original cringe. For example, among various Greek-Australian sub-cultures, such as the Pontian or Cretan, it is arguable that dancing has taken centre stage as the key component of ancestral identity.

In inclusive multi-cultural societies where a multiplicity of social realties exist concurrently but in reality the Anglo-Saxon one predominates, ethnic languages have proven to be the casualties of such identity reformation, coming as this does, off the back of postmodern cultural relativism. It will be interesting to see to what extent the anglophone Greek identity which has already emerged, will be considered as "Greek" by the denizens of the motherland, not known for their inclusive outlook, for a number of factors, language and geography chiefly among them, already preclude such an acceptance. It will be fascinating, to gauge as to whether or not such an identity assumes the form of a watered down, de-hellenised Greekness that is the penultimate state to total assimilation or can actually articulate the Greek-Australian experience plausibly down the generations and be the jumping off point for an entirely unique identity in its own right.

Rather than pontificating to the Poseidonians about their parlance, thus cutting them to he Quick, Terence Quick would do well to study the social and psychological conditions in which language loss came about in the first place. Further, if Global Hellenism, a concept that the Greek State has propagated, is to be plausible, it has to be sufficiently broad and sophisticated as to encapsulate the multi-faceted fabric of the societies in which it has arisen and respectful of the people whose daily lives are its constituent elements. It is a coalescing of historical processes that cannot be driven by the Greek state alone. Such a task requires a little less grandstanding and a good deal more introspection and collaboration, for in this game, that of maintain and developing unique Greek identities, there are no quick fixes.


First published in NKEE on 21 January 2017

Saturday, January 14, 2017


The diminutive old man with the care-worn, drawn cheeks and the aquiline nose kneels rhythmically as he lovingly lowers his ear over the mouth of the clarinet. Then, slowly, his eyes half closed in ecstasy, he takes an inordinately deep puff of his cigarette, the type that only the Greeks can describe as σέρτικο, sensuously drawing the smoke deep into his lungs at the same time that he draws the sonorous notes of the clarinet from its mouth, deep into his soul. With a flourish, this sprightly octogenarian allows a great sigh to escape from the abyss within him, and immediately leaps up, beating the dust from his τσαρούχι, as if banishing his cares and woes forever, twirls around and, without losing time to the inexorable beat emanating from his chest, loses himself in the epic masculine majesty of a tsamiko that is as much from the heart as from the clarinet itself. Indeed, it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. 
If a single man could personify the region of Epirus, then undoubtedly that man is the late Giorgos Konstantinidis, whose loss, just before Christmas left the Greek community of Melbourne so much the poorer. Small and lean, with a physique toughened and forged in the bleak, minimalist mountain landscapes of Konitsa in Epirus, there was no pleonasm of flesh or feature about him, save for his luxurious, upturned moustache, the likes of which would turn Stalin green with envy. Here indeed was a man, who, though cast in the mould of privation, was possessed of an inexorable zest for life.
A founding member of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, I knew him from my childhood days, marching with him at the annual Independence Day march to the Shrine. Back then, he would march proudly at the helm of a group of youths that included his daughter, nieces and nephews. He continued to do so throughout his life, showing no sign of slacking, as he marched proudly in step, turning his head sharply to the right, in order to greet the officials, one year resplendent in his foustanella, the next, in the μπουραζάνες that comprise the daily traditional costume of the Epirotes, the one constant in an ever-changing world. When we wanted to obtain an impression of what a traditional Epirot looked like or gain a few tips as to how the traditional Epirot comported himself, Giorgos Konstantinidis was our constant point of reference. After the death of my great-grandmother, when the pain of loss became too great to bear, I would seek refuge in his conversation, for he, like her was one of the last authentic repositories of the riches of the Epirotic dialect, the words falling of his tongue as mellifluously as the notes of the clarinet which he so adored. Giorgos Konstantinidis’ speech was chthonic. Having its origin in the land that according to legend was held to lead to the underworld, his speech emerged from the infinite chasm of the primieval Epirotic tradition, careful, considered and unconsciously idiomatic. It was the kind of speech that compelled silence and introspection, tying our generation, imperceptibly but inexorably, to the generation that came before. As such he was and even beyond the grave, still remains, a stalwart of the past, persisting in the present, in order to propel us forward to the future.

Ensconced every year since 2004 within the cultural tent of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia at the Antipodes Festival, surrounded by the various accoutrements comprising the re-enactment of a traditional Epirotic home, Giorgos Konstantinidis looked and felt at home, every part the image of an Epirot shepherd. Cheerfully treating passersby to some home made tsipouro, every so often he would grabs his klitsa and ring the cattle bells hanging from the tent emitting shepherd’s whistles and cries as he did so. Those who passed by, especially tourists, would view this wonderful phenomenon in natural habitat, that was, by virtue of his capacity to transcend time, in no way anachronistic, with awe and delight. Most were sufficiently moved so as to request to be photographed with him, or to drag their most often reluctant progeny, kicking and screaming, also to be immortalised with him in digital clarity. Within a few seconds of having his arms around them, they became calm and happy for this doting grandfather had a remarkable way with children.
A few minutes later, the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis would once more be on the move. The traditional Epirot musicians would arrive and he, naturally, would be called upon to lead the dance, doing so with remarkable gracefulness of poise and noteworthy agility. Artfully placing a cigarette in him mouth, he would throw his skoufo down onto the ground disdainfully, as if expressing his complete and utter unattachment to the accoutrements of this world and dance around it, a titanic, elemental Kazantzakian figure, if there ever was one. Moments later, he would cast a side glance at me, a bespectacled ersatz anachronism masquerading as an Epirot, that glance conveying a mute command for me to follow his lead. 
Satisfied that everything was then in order, his roving eye would scan the enthralled crowd of onlookers. Ultimately, he would zoom in on one Asian lady with a bemused and nervous expression on her face. Before she had time to realise the fact, the tsamiko predator had already pounced and instantaneously lured her into the labyrinthine circle of the dance, a potent symbol of life itself, there to be instructed by a true master of the art.
As a beloved and instantly recognisable figure at the Antipodes Festival, the unassuming and completely unselfconscious Giorgos Konstantinidis well deserved the appellation of Festival Mascot. If one was to put words in his mouth, then it is quite possible that he would rationalise his motivation for spending forty-eight hours straight in a plastic tent on Lonsdale Street every year, as a desire to exemplify and thus pass on tradition. Yet this would only be partially correct. He is did not set out to re-enacting a dead tradition. Instead he constantly endeavoured to find a way to articulate harmoniously, a way of life that he believed, forms the basis of our identity, which lived within him. As one of the few living links with that authenticity, he was a Festival highlight and was cherished as such, especially by those who half in horror, half in glee, sought to evade his roving klitsa, as well as his bespectacled sidekick.
This year, the spirit of the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis, who was accompanied to his grave by the laments of the Epirotic clarinet he so loved, will imbue everything that will transpire at the Epirus Cultural Tent at the Festival and in all endeavours of the Epirot community in Melbourne, for we cannot understand our communal life without him. Though without his corporeal presence we are much diminished, it is in the keeping of his values, his love of tradition and family which he understood to embrace the entire community, that we must seek to ensure his, along with so many irreplaceable others like him, place in posterity and so retain our sense of self, generations into the future.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 January 2017