Saturday, May 27, 2017


“Foustanella-wearers and Amalias are national symbols that we must respect, but they are now anachronistic. They do not convince and do not reflect modern Greek cultural reality." 
Professor A Tamis.

My first reaction upon reading Professor Tamis’ thought provoking article “The First Generation is Declining” about the future of the Greek community in Neos Kosmos on 18 May 2017, was to reflect that he is in origin, a Pontian. As such, he is therefore genetically and culturally without capacity to appreciate the exquisite perfection of manhood that can be achieved by means of the foustanella, a garment that is crying out for a retro re-run, with or without hipster moustache (sold separately).
Secondly and as a corollary, it immediately becomes apparent that the Professor’s relegation of this superior form of garb to the realms of the anachronism could be ascribed to jealousy, because being a Pontian, his legs would not look good in a foustanella anyway.
Jokes aside, in his article, Professor Tamis makes some pertinent points. He points out that our local organisations are not only antiquated in scope but also anachronistic, since they rarely meet the aims that they were founded to pursue in the first place and, being self-serving and short-sighted, lack the capacity for co-ordinated action and strategic planning.
Further, he proceeds to do something obvious, that has eluded many omphaloscopic office-holders of our organized community. He compares and contrasts our institutions and level of cultural development with communities of Greeks that arose historically in similar conditions in various parts of the world. Having adopted our yoga navel-gazing stance for a while now, we have generally forgotten that a knowledge of the development and fate of those elder communities can assist us in planning for pitfalls and help us to avoid futile activity.
This is especially so considering that our community seems largely to be in palliative care mode. Professor Tamis’ study of Greek communities in South America, among other places, suggests that within a generation, aged care facilities, which are costly to build and maintain, and clubhouses, become under-utilised, obsolete and then, invisible. Indirectly he makes the most pertinent observation of them all: What is the point of going to such effort and expense to perpetuate Greek community organisations and institutions when that sense of community that is supposed to be the unifying force behind their existence is not passed down to the latter generations, who not seeing the need to relate to one another on the basis of a common ancestry, choose not to engage with such institutions? How do we go about re-creating that sense of community?
Professor Tamis is scathing about the latter generations, who as he says: “Defines the boundaries of [their] interests as not beyond that of the individual..” The change in community ethos from the communal to the individualistic, between the generations is undoubted but unsurprising, reflecting broader global trends and I marvel that the first generation now expresses bitterness about it, for they are partly the authors of this change. Countless members of the first generation, especially those actively involved in organized community affairs, deliberately absolved themselves of any of the social responsibilities and ties of mutual obligation that underlie our community. Instead, it was hinted that their offspring were ‘above’ such pursuits, which were better suited to their “peasant” progenitors and instead, were tasked with obtaining an education and/or making money, a task the second generation dutifully performed. Why the first generation, which, in denigrating themselves and their peers and their community to their offspring at every given opportunity, marvel at the fact that the second generation has largely cultivated a lofty contempt for the organised Greek community and has in part distanced itself from it, is thus mystifying. One reaps that which one sows.
Professor Tamis however, perhaps does not give due weight to the fact that significant Greek community institutions such as the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria and the Pan-Macedonian Association are now headed by members of the second generation. The owner of this publication, which is arguably the glue that binds the Melbourne Greek community together, is also of the second generation. The many dance teachers around Melbourne who are often the first port of call for younger Greek-Australians when it comes to imbibing Greek culture are also in their vast majority, of the second generation and it is they, along with a significant number of second generation musicians, who are now largely the mediators of Greek culture to the latter generations, in forms that are yet to be quantified or assessed. Also unmentioned, is the latest grass roots attempt by Hellenism Victoria to co-ordinate the activities of Greek clubs of Melbourne’s suburbia, so that by sharing resources and working together, a sense of community can be created among Greeks in the areas in which they live. This too, is a second-generation initiative.

Thus when Professor Tamis states that foustanella wearers do not reflect modern Greek cultural reality, he is actually voicing a powerful protest against the reduction of Greek culture to arid and restrictive stereotypes, that marginalize and trivialize whatever vitality exists in our community as kitsch. Significantly, the process of such stereotyping is bi-polar, taking place not only by us, through a preferential distillation of our understanding of our cultural heritage but also by the ruling class that seeks to define us in a certain way. Professor Tamis considers closer contact and understanding of the cultural scene as it exists in Modern Greece to be vital to the breaking of such stereotypes and the creation of a viable Greek culture in Australia.
Nonetheless, what is the Modern Greek Cultural Reality we are expected to emulate? I for one am convinced that the Greek Australian Cultural Reality is an entirely different proposition from the Helladic one altogether and that our reality such that it is, with all our myths, stereotypes, delusions, anachronisms and bizarre rituals form a unique culture of its own that is derived from but is not identical to that of Modern Greece. As anyone who places a Greek and a Greek Australian side by side can deduce, our points of reference that provide our conception of who we are, are often markedly different. Our culture, such that it is, exists in differing forms, permutations, geographical areas and even is expressed in completely different dialects or languages than that of Modern Greece though it cannot be disputed that close cultural contact with Greece is desirable, as long as we are provided with the opportunity to interpret and adapt Helladic cultural forms, rather than unthinkingly adopt them wholesale.
Thus, though it cannot be doubted that foustanella wearers and other cultural fetish idols can become stereotypes, does the fact that so many Greek-Australians were moved by the visit of the foustanella-wearing Evzones of the Presidential Guard to Australia this year suggest that these are not only a symbol, but also a very potent one that has great meaning for many Greek-Australians?
Similarly, does the fact that every year, thousands of us feel the need to don the foustanella in order to participate in public dancing performances, or to march through the City of Melbourne also suggest that the foustanella is not an anachronism but a part of our Greek Australian life, albeit in a commemorative context, much as many Aussies of Scottish background don the kilt to mark their own important days? In addition, is it not part of the unique Greek-Australian language that we employ in order to articulate our identity to others, regardless of how relevant it is to our everyday reality?
Professor Tamis’ assertion however, is an extremely valuable one because it gives rise to questions as to what extent we make our own cultural reality and whether the symbols we use to express it evolve gradually over time.
The fact that, over one hundred years after the founding of our community, we are still apparently labouring under a cultural cringe that sees us psychologically and culturally dependent upon a country whose mores, values, interests and manner of thinking are extremely different to our own and have not been able to coherently articulate or develop our own Greek-Australian culture, with reference to our daily lives, is perhaps the real reason why our community, in its present form, lacks an ideology and framework all of its members can identify with, that will enable it to perpetuate itself and address the needs of the future. It is thus this stance of culture as archaeology or folklore, that Professor Tamis, in employing the motif of the foustanella-wearer, is rightfully decrying. Symbols are important but they do not define culture, only express it. This is why the nuanced and multi-faceted approaches to culture outlined by Professor Tamis in his article deserve thorough consideration.

Ultimately however, it is for the second generation to decide the form their community should take. The comitragedy here is that the ageing and declining first generation still feels responsible for the second generation, and instinctively wants to make decisions on its behalf, without reference to it, even though it of itself, is of an age of maturity and integrated into all facets of Australian life. Conversely, having been absolved of the responsibility of being active in community affairs for a generation, much of the second generation has little vision for the community or any conception of what it should be.
It is therefore in the pious hope that our ruminations become symbolic of an ethnogenesis, I humbly beg pardon for imposing upon the gentle reader, an anachronistic picture of myself, with my Assyrian nephew, as foustanelloforoi. My Assyrian nephew dons the foustanella every year and marches proudly by my side because his foustanella identifies him with me, his Greek cousins and our extended multicultural family. He can also sing Σαν πας Μαλάμω για νερό in flawless Greek. That has to count for something.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 May 2017