Saturday, July 29, 2017


“It’s quite simple,” the kindergarten teacher commented nonchalantly. “Your daughter should repeat kindergarten. She isn’t quite ready for school.”

“Really. On what basis do you make that assessment?” the shocked mother asked.

“Well she doesn’t relate to other kids and she doesn’t follow instructions…”

“She doesn’t speak English. How do you expect her to follow instructions if she doesn’t understand what you are saying?” the mother countered.

“That’s my point. She isn’t ready for school,” the teacher crowed triumphantly.

“What type of language support has my daughter been provided?” the mother continued, undaunted.

“Well, we are under-resourced…”

“Have you undertaken a skills analysis? Are you aware that she is literate in another two languages?”

“Yes but for the purposes of school next year… ” the teacher stuttered, flummoxed. “Anyway, I think that maybe the fact she speaks other languages is making her confused. Maybe you should just concentrate on English.”

“Are you aware of Dr Priscilla Clarke’s paper on “Supporting Children learning English as a Second Language in the Early Years?”” the mother persisted.

“I’m not…”

“In that paper, Dr Priscilla Clarke says the following: “Evidence shows that young children can learn more than one language with ease, as long as they are exposed to good language models and have plenty of exposure to both languages. Maintaining the first language does not interfere with the learning of English. Research suggests the opposite – that knowing one language can help the child understand how other languages work. The maintenance of the first or home language is particularly important for the child’s development of a positive self-concept and well-being.

Children who have the opportunity to maintain their first language can extend their cognitive development, while learning English as a second language. Their level of competence in the second language will be related to the level of competence they have achieved in their first language.” Are you aware of that?” the mother asked, handing the paper to the teacher.

“Yes but, for the purposes of school next year…,” the teacher interjected.

“Furthermore,” the mother interrupted, turning over the pages of the paper, “Dr Priscilla Clarke has this to say about knowledge of the English language as a pre-requisite to readiness for school:  “Some early childhood professionals and parents believe that children who have limited English may not be ready to start school. They feel that the children’s level of English will be insufficient to cope with the school environment. While it is an advantage for children to speak some English and be able to communicate their needs and wishes, some children do begin school without having been exposed to English, and schools have programs to support these new learners.

For children who have already attended in a children’s service, the ability to speak English is an important asset that they can use within the school environment. However, children’s readiness for school is shown in many ways. For example, children need to demonstrate an awareness of other children around them and be able to relate to others in a social context. Being able to take a risk and talk to a peer or adult even with only a few words in English is an indicator that a child is ‘socially’ ready for school. Other skills include self-confidence, positive social skills and an interest in learning. In the pre-school years early childhood professionals work with children to develop their social skills so that they are able to interact with others without much spoken English. It is important to remember that children’s comprehension of English always exceeds their ability to speak fluent English and that the ability to communicate is not measured by grammatical competence.”

“Oh,” the teacher gasped.

“Does my child demonstrate an awareness of other children around her and is she able to relate to others in a social context?” the mother enquired.

“I suppose so.”

“Does she take risks and talk to peers or adults even with only a few words in English?” the mother continued.

“Yes, she is speaking more and more English these past weeks,” the teacher admitted.

“Does my child display self-confidence, positive social skills and an interest in learning?” the mother rejoined.

“Yes,” the teacher responded.

“Then can you please tell me in what way you believe my child is not ready for school next year, given that it is July and we have another six months of pre-school to go?” the mother concluded.


            The above conversation is, unbeknownst to many of us, currently being played out, albeit with small variations, in pre-schools all around Melbourne, with the only difference being that many Greek-Australian parents, who choose to bring up their children with Greek as their first language, are usually not aware of leading educator Dr Priscilla Clarke’s research and are generally unable to counter their children’s pre-school teachers assertions that their offspring should repeat kindergarten, or that teaching them Greek is harmful, as it retards  their acquisition of English.

            Instead, confused and highly concerned parents, who seem to remember that they did not have much trouble in mastering English when they first went to school, either accept the teacher’s usually baseless contention and either a) make their children unnecessarily repeat preschool or b) stop speaking to their children in Greek altogether. On the odd occasion, savvy parents will insist upon having their child’s readiness for school assessed by an external professional. Invariably, lack of English is not considered by them to be an impediment to their starting school, though other behavioural problems may be. As a result, parental confidence in their offspring’s preschool teacher and their ability to support English language learning is greatly diminished.

            In one glaring example, a mother was horrified to be informed by her son’s pre-school teacher that he was, in her opinion, dyslexic. When asked for evidence to support her contention, the teacher pointed to the child’s ‘distorted’ way of writing his name, even though his other classmates had not yet mastered the art of writing their own names. The mother glanced at the page and burst out laughing. The child had written his name perfectly, in the only language in which he was literate: Greek.

            The fact that as a community, we have gone from being New Australians, to well established has seen an erosion in resources, with regard to supporting English learning as a second language. Gone are the enlightened multicultural programmes of the eighties, the Greek language readers commissioned by the Victorian and South Australian State Governments to ease Greek speakers into English literacy. Three decades on, it is assumed that we have all become linguistically assimilated, with mother tongue Greek speaking children considered to be an aberration by teachers and parent-peers alike, an unjustifiable drain on classroom resources, taking away the focus from those who have the ‘right’ to language support: recent arrivals, for the current multicultural paradigm does not seem to allow for the retention of a first language other than English, beyond one generation. The complexity of the situation is of course compounded in cases, such as that of my own children, whose family context has brought about them being conversant in two languages other than English, prior to their learning that language.

            Although pre-school education is of vital importance as a pathway to further formal learning, our community is yet to articulate a unitary approach to it, or assess how it impacts upon Greek language learning, something that is surprising given the historic emphasis given to Greek language learning in the primary and secondary learning tiers. This is of concern not only because lack of training in supporting English as a second language (even though proper research exists to facilitate this) is resulting in educators providing faulty or incorrect advice to parents, making them feel bad about or undermining their language choices and ultimately contributing not only to monolingualism but also to a diminished preschool experience.

            Ultimately, it is incumbent upon us to defend and justify our choices in the face of ignorance, but only when we have come together to work out what exactly it is we want from our pre-school education system. When asked by my daughter’s prospective headmistress as to whether extreme patriotism was the main reason behind our choice in introducing her to her own ancestral languages prior to learning English, I responded as follows: “It is because growing up in Melbourne, I was only introduced to the works of world literature, Hans Christian Andersen, Miguel Cervantes, Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and the like, in the Greek translations I was provided at Greek school. I never did encounter, or was taught, the great works of European literature in the English system. I do not want to deprive her of the same opportunity to enjoy a holistic education.”

            Smiling, the foreign educated headmistress gave me the thumbs up. “Good thinking,” she beamed.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 July 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017


 Slowly they wind their way up upper Bourke Street. It is a cold, wintry day and the street, especially this far up from the Bourke Street Mall, is deserted. Still, they shuffle, shouting to the closed windows, crying to the brooding shadows of the empty buildings: “Justice for Cyprus, Justice for Cyprus,” over and over again, as if these words, coupled with “Turkish Troops out of Cyprus” are a magic mantra that require repetition a prescribed but undisclosed amount of times or need to be intoned in a particular way in order to unleash the magic entrapped within them and bring about by spell and incantation, the elusive resolution of the Cyprus Issue.
The stragglers reach the Victorian Parliament building. They are few and their hair is generally gray in hue. As they listen to self-appointed dignitaries mouth platitudes, they purse their lips and shake their heads. Once in a while, someone will interpose a desultory “Justice for Cyprus,” and the rest of the small gathering will repeat it half-heatedly, one or twice, but they soon fall silent. Some of the dignitaries will attempt to punctuate their addresses with words such as «Ζήτω» which the crowd repeats like automatons, but with growing indifference and a sense of melancholy. All of them remember with bitterness and nostalgia, the days of old, when a sea of Greek people, a veritable «λαοθάλασσα» would surge through the city centre, spraying its righteous anger upon the rest of the populace. Now THAT was a protest. Whereas this….this miniscule gathering takes the form of a living wake, one in which we mourn the passage into impotence and oblivion of our own community, wondering when the inevitable and ever imminent day of our demise shall come, marveling that we are still alive, in any event. Viewed from this perspective, (and there are many others, for the Justice for Cyprus Committee has over the course of four decades tirelessly compaigned on many fronts for the restitution of justice on the island, notably recently with one of the best websites around) the annual Justice for Cyprus March appears now to many of its participants as having more to do with justifying our own continued existence to ourselves than in substantively seeking redress for a heinous crime. In the Cypro-Cartesian we employ: “I protest, therefore I am.”
The young ladies who once wore black and carried the photos of their missing loved ones at the head of the protest march have now grown old. Large furrows have been carved down their cheeks by the descent of countless tears. They still wear black, they still carry the same photos and they still have no idea what became of their loved ones, though their suspicions can be discerned clearly in their eyes. They have been at the forefront of this demonstration for over four decades. They have heard, over the course of those decades, sundry Australian, Helladic and Cypriot politicians vow that they will fight for the freedom of Cyprus. Over the years, that oath has turned into a pledge that they will support a just “solution” to the “problem,” for both sides implying that victimhood is not only annoying and inconvenient but also, ambivalent. Now, they just don’t bother turning up at all, neither they, nor the hierarchs with aspirations of ethnarchy, nor the majority of the community presidents of organizations with pretentions to leadership save for a few key ones such as the GOCMV, and nor indeed, the Hellenic facebook warriors, those who behind their computer screens emphatically type maledictions against the “lesser races” who have caused the Greek people’s woes. So intent are they upon fighting the battle for reclaiming Greece’s greatness in cyberspace by accusing those of moderate and nuanced views of being traitors and posting racially abusive memes, that they refuse to budge from their virtual trenches for even a moment, to make the trip down to the city, pick up a flag and march down the empty streets, in order to protest against the continued occupation of Cyprus before an empty and mute Parliament, to the clouds and the skies and whatever celestial being inhabits them. Mingling with the remnants of the masses, is quite beneath them.
Also notably absent is the Melbourne-Cypriot community, almost in its entirety. For weeks prior to the protest march, the diverse forms of Greek media beg and cajole the populace to descend to the city and support our Cypriot brethren, only to discover when those few heeding their call arrive, that those same Cypriot brethren are largely nowhere to be seen. Thus, while the few chant: “Justice for Cyprus,” not a few chant: “Where are the Cypriots?” The answer, of course is as simple as it is sad: those who would maintain the rage are either infirm or dead and their descendants lack the immediacy of that rage in order to rouse themselves to fervour suffient for participation. Time, as always, is the enemy, and the Enemy knows this.
In a community that measures success by empty and often quixotic gestures than by substantive results, the indifference shown by the community to what ostensibly is, the key event in the yearly campaign to obtain justice for their homeland, is mystifying. Yet it need not be so and the community’s decision to abjure public protest is completely understandable, as regrettable as it is. Turkish troops brutally invaded and have occupied Cyprus for over four decades. Tens of thousands of Cypriots lost their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones. Only the other day, a mass grave of Cypriot prisoners of war, massacred by the Turks, was discovered in the port of Kyrenia. Yet save for a few face-saving United Nations resolutions, the International Community has displayed a blatant unwillingness to punish Turkey for its crimes, or uphold International Law. Instead, it has, through conduct and omission, given us to understand that the only International Law that exists, is that which the World Powers are willing to enforce. As long as a country is powerful, is willing to hang on long enough and its services are required by others, it can invade, violate international sovereignty and commit almost any crime with impunity. To add insult to injury, the International Community has legitimized and rewarded Turkey for its invasion of Cyprus, by compelling the Cypriots to accept the presence of the invaders on the island as a condition precedent to the “issue’s solution,” and condemning the Cypriots for refusing to accept the manifestly unjust Annan Plan in 2004. All the while, silently yet indefatigably, the Justic for Cuprus Co-ordinating Comittee has benn lobbying, informing, praying and hoping.
It is no wonder then that the community largely no longer participates in the Justice for Cyprus March. For protesting against the invasion and occupation of Cyprus to those who tacitly uphold the entire International Legal System and who are by their inactivity, complicit in Turkey’s occupation, is tantamount to protesting to the Commintern against Stalin’s purges. It is demeaning, humiliating, hypocritical and ultimately counter-productive. Furthermore, it could be argued that the fact that after four decades, we insist upon following the same threadbare and worn modes of protest, despite the fact that they a) have not worked b) fail to inform public opinion as there is no one in the city to witness them, c) do not take into account the fact that demonstrations on issues that are marginal to the mainstream are no longer effective ways of influencing government policy and d) take up energy that could be best utilised in finding other more contemporary and effective means to get the message about the injustice visited upon Cyprus across, highlights the plight of a community that is as tired, broken, bereft of energy and new ideas, as those who would solve the Cyprus problem themselves, broken by the passage of time and the impunity of the aggressor. Yet it is no fault of our own that our efforts over the past four decades have been rendered impotent, and the march, even in the form it has assumed, has become enshrined in our community calendar as a sacred day.
It is for the the sacredness of this ritual, that I will attend the Justice for Cyprus March next Sunday, as I have always done. I will do so because the valiant efforts and hard work of the Justice for Cyprus Co-ordinating Committee over four decades need to be appreciated and supported. I will do so because there is something inordinately wicked in hearing speechifiers repeat for the forty third time, their pious hope that next year, there will be no need to protest, especially given the failure of the latest round of talks aimed at resolving the ”Issue,” owing to a Turkish refusal to remove its troops from the island. I will stride up a chilly, empty Bourke Street, meeting the gazes of the few bemused Asian shoppers that will cross my path with a stern countenance and assume an air of grim determination as they raise their iphones to entrap me within their photo gallery for eternity. I will chant the mantra “Justice for Cyprus,” and maybe mouth a few platitudes of my own because it is the voice crying in the wilderness that often prepares the way of the lord, save that, I have absolutely no idea which lord that may be. I will repeat the Justice for Cyprus incantation: «Δεν ξεχνώ, » because more than anything, it serves as a cursory warning to all those who look to hollow international and man-made political structures for safety and believe, in that need for safety, in human progress. But most of all, I will hold the hands of those sorrowful women, whose grief cannot be diminished by time, and for whom there is no balm in Gilead. The violation of Cyprus teaches us never to forget how precarious, how vulnerable, our existence actually may be and it is mostly for this reason, put in Orwell's Nineteen Eight-Four so eloquently: "We didn't ought to 'ave trusted the buggers," that all of us, the entire community, should attend the Justice for Cyprus march, hopefully, for the last time.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 July 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017


Rarely is a book offered to the community that is so deceptively simple in style, so disarmingly charming in its imagery and yet so infinitely subversive. Yet Ekaterini Balouka’s ῾Οι Χήρες και οι Μακαρίτες,᾽ translated into English by Konstandina Dounis as ‘The Widows and the Dear Departed is truly outstanding both in scope, the references in employs and the way in which its meta-narrative teasingly gyrates upon our sense of aesthetic.
It is important to note from the outset that Konstandina Dounis’ translation, though painstakingly accurate is no substitute for the original Greek and thus forms a counterpart to a work of duality. The conondrum can be seen in the title: Μακαρίτες, literally means the beatified ones, if Jesus’ μακαρισμοί on the Mount, are translated as the blessings… And truly blessed are those who are departed for the reasons Ekaterini Baloukas will set out throughout her clever narrative, yet to translate the title as the Widows and the Blessed would not only be too obvious but also deny it the mortal connotation inherent in the Greek. Conversely, to render the title as the Widows and the Blessed Dead, has all the makings of a decent horror film, though I do not believe that is the authors intention.
Similarly, Mrs Balouka has chosen to write in a light from of her native Pierian Macedonian dialect, a dialect whose distinguishable features, such as an almost indiscriminate massacre of consonants and endearingly, the use of the feminine article where a masculine one is properly employed ie. (“ι καϊμένους” instead of ὁ καημένος῾), cannot be rendered into Australian English in any way. The cultural and linguistic worlds are just too diverse and Australian is too young an idiom to have developed equivalent peasant dialect forms. Konstandina Dounis’ prose overcomes this obstacle by rendering the tone, the rhythm and the cadences of the original, if not its idiomorphy. Mrs Balouka’s endeavour in rendering her native patois is praiseworthy, especially at a time when these are dying out in her homeland, thanks to an onslaught of Athenian centralized prejudice and extremely bad daytime television. Historians and sociologists of the future may well want to study the significance of why she, and a few other diasporan authors such as Haris Siamaris, whose book Τα Τραούδια του Χωρκάτη, is written in the Cypriot dialect, have penned works in dialects for which not much real literature is extant.
The structure of the short book is delightfully tight and well comported. The narrator is visiting Greece (she takes pains to point out that she is with her husband, a clever juxtaposition of the scene that is to follow from her own reality) when she spies five widows making their way to the cemetery in order to tend their husbands’ graves. They invite her to accompany them and then, a scene reminiscent of an ancient Greek chorus unfolds. Konsandina Dounis renders it thus: “Huddled around, they lit their candles and then, to cool down, lifted their skirts and each one sat on their husband’s grave. I asked each widow to tell me her story…”
The five vignettes that follow are heavily laced with chthonic sexual tension, and this not just because the widow’s husbands are buried beneath them, while they lift their skirts and straddle them. When she meets them, the narrator makes sure that the reader understands that the widows, in stark contrast to their mouldering husbands, are fecund and full of life: “You’re all so vivacious and attractive, how did you get rid of your husbands…while you now visit them for solace?” 
The first storyteller, is the widow Kalliopi. The choice of name is significant as in times ancient, Calliope was the muse who presided over eloquence and epic poetry; so called from the ecstatic harmony of her voice. Her husband, by consequence, was a drunkard who, having overindulged, would sing loud and not so tuneful lyrics. Furthermore, when in that state, “when he tried to put the key into the keyhole, it wouldn’t stand still!” a powerful metaphor for coitus while over the .05 limit if there ever was one.
Interestingly enough, having a drink with Kalliopi seemed to restore his key-mastery and Kalliopi’s appreciation of him. “How could I ever forget him? He was insatiable. If only he were still alive. I couldn’t care less how much he drank…. Sometimes I even sit on my grave, in case he rises out of it!” 
Ourania, the second narrator, finds her counterpart in her namesake, the muse of astronomy and also of love and philosophy. Her story takes place by the fireplace, where the tickle of her departed’s moustache would lead to other “fun and games.” As the celestial orbs dance in heaven, so too did this muse, albeit for a brief time, for the music has now been stilled: “How can I dance, now that there’s no clarinet player?” It goes without saying that the long, columnar organ referred to therein is a powerful metaphor indeed. Significantly, alone of the widows, she does not name the owner of that instrument.
Demetra the third narrator, is like her deity namesake, a restorer of harmony and order. Order she achieves by sitting on her husband’s grave not out of yearning or for pleasure but rather, to prevent him from rising up to service the local womens’ plumbing (her words, not mine, I hasten to assure the reader), and harmony, by burying him with his wrench, (Konstandina Dounis employs the term ‘plumbing tool’ proving that she can be as equally cheeky as the author) an act of supreme emasculation or its opposite, depending on which side of the casket one happens to be.
Maria’s story is the inverse of that contained in the Gospel tradition. Being possessed of a feckless husband, rather than being led in safety to her own Bethlehem, it is she who is forced to traverse strange lands, astride a donkey and on her own, in order to make a living. Yet her solace lies in her own capabilities, her slender waist and her ability to arouse her husband, a red velvet dress a relic of an enduring, albeit dysfunctional passion.
Antigone, like her namesake, is torn between passion and duty. In the face of her husbands gross disrespect she makes a supreme act of emancipation, taking possession of what traditionally belonged to a husband: “Are you going to come home and sow your own field or should I give it away before it grasses over?”
Upon the conclusion of the stories, the widows are invited by the narrator for coffee. This is not mere hospitality for there is polysemy in the Greek conception of that beverage. It is associated with consolation, whose original Greek word παραμύθι, has now come to signify a story. It is also associated with confession, since one can discern in the dregs of the cup, traces of all things withheld, voluntarily or otherwise.
All these women are monolithic forces of nature. There is none of the ennui, self-doubt or insecurity that characterizes the modern day psyche about them. Rather than seeking the causes of their fate, or to blame others, these women endure their lot and transform it into a life-giving force. They are in fact, elementals, titanesses and all the more seductive because of it.
Christos Avramoudas’ ostensibly understated illustrations accompanying the text are truly remarkable. Just as Armenian painter Arshile Gorky blotted out his mother’s hands (the only aspect of her which he remembered in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide) in his portrait of her, so too has Avramoudas portrayed the veil clad widows without furrows or wrinkles. Their pain, anguish and unfulfilled desires lay deep within and cannot be revealed unless their owners choose to do so. By focusing on this salient feature of the widows, Avramoudas has lent their portrayal immense dignity, ably complementing the rendering by Mrs Baloukas/Konstandina Dounis.
There would not be many first-generation female authors in our community who would be brave enough to address the issue of senior sexuality, let alone link it so expertly, seamlessly and unselfconsciously to the elemental forces of life and death, as Mrs Baloukas. In the frustratingly few pages of “The Widows and the Dear Departed” which leave us frustrated, unfulfilled, aching and crying our for more, we have a feminist counterpart to Kazantzakis’ Zorba, at least as far as sexuality is concerned. It truly is a remarkable achievement.
In his illustrator’s note, Christos Avramoudas laments the loss of a genteel life via a process which Pasolini termed: ‘scomparsa delle luccione,’ the disappearance of the fireflies. In her masterful text, with the dexterity of a true illuminatus, Mrs Baloukas suffuses us with just enough light within the darkness of modern artificiality to revel in things basic, bounteous and beautiful, as bittersweet as these may be.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 July 2017

Saturday, July 08, 2017


It is June in Melbourne and the sky is grey. During this month, Greek Melbournians dispense with their usual greeting customs. There is no «Γεια σας,» or «τι κάνετε;» to be heard among them when they meet each other. There is no «Χαβαγιού λαβ; Γκουντ;» or even a «Χάλαου,» to be offered. Instead, in the month of June, Greek Melbournians of a certain age greet each other urgently with a question: «Πότε φεύγετε;» or «Τι κανονίσατε;» Most of them will ask: «Πότε θα πάτε απάνω;» whereas Peloponnesians will betray their place of origin by asking instead, «Πότε θα πάτε κάτω;» providing an interesting commentary on their conception of their geographic position.
«Την άλλη εβδομάδα,» «αυτό το ουίκεντ,» are some of the most common responses and then they all make plans to meet each other, somewhere, if possible, but only after an important event, referred to with furrowed brow as «να τακτοποιήσω τα χαρτιά,» comes to pass. Upon hearing the words «τα χαρτιά» they shrug their shoulders in sympathy, as for each of them, those terrible words have their own personal meaning and it is partially for the sake of those dreaded «χαρτιά,» be these tax returns, gifts of land in specie, powers of attorney or innumerable other incomprehensible forms, that they are attempting their flight in the first place.
On the odd occasion, their interlocutor will answer their question with a disconsolate: «Δεν θα πάμε φέτος.» Only just managing to suppress the expression of incredulous horror that invariably floods their faces, the original questioners provide the response that was once generally employed only when hearing the news that someone’s offspring were marrying outside the ethnos: «Νταζιμάτα. Καλά νά’στε.» Once in a while, especially in my neck of the woods, the questioner will be assailed with the response: «Δεν πάω εγώ σ’αυτή τη σκατόχωρα.» Such uttered blasphemies barely rate response and it is customary to back away from the ranter slowly while muttering: «καλά τρελάθηκε τελείως.»
Come July, the morning frost broods upon the roof tiles of Melbournians like a burgeoning tax debt. In the great meeting places of the Greeks, our compatriots are thin on the ground. During this month, Greek Melbournians dispense with their usual greeting customs. There is no «Γεια σας,» or «τι κάνετε;» to be heard among them when they meet each other. There is no «Χαβαγιού λαβ; Γκουντ;» or even a «Χάλαου,» to be offered. Instead, in the month of July Greek Melbournians of a certain age greet each other anxiously with the question: «Καλά, ακόμα εδώ είσαι;» «Δεν έφυγες ακόμη;» «Τι περιμένεις;» They then regale each other with stories of the woe of unremitting exile: So and so couldn’t leave because at the last minute they discovered they had a heart condition, someone else couldn’t leave because the money they had earmarked for their travel had to be transformed into an emergency loan for their children, someone else had a death in the family… They shake their heads sadly and intone in unison, both in consolation and pious hope: «Δεν πειράζει...Του χρόνου πια, του χρόνου.....»
Such customs do not pass the second generation by, except that it is those who have left us who continue to taunt us, via the social media, posting impossibly impeccably constructed scenes of luxurious languor amidst deep blue seas and pebbled beaches, or photographs of Wellness Centres purveying “Ancient Greek Massage” captioned thusly: “Omg. Santorini is to DIE for. I can’t believe you’re not here.” Here the customary response in this instance, is an optional choice between: “You deserve it koukla/koukle” or, “Omg. Zileuw bad.” I once considered forging a new custom by posting by way of response, a photograph of me standing in line at my grandmother’s local IKA in Pallene, waiting to collect her pension but she has now migrated to places celestial and eternal and all my thoughts of flight are now invariably connected with an understanding that I no longer have a home to go to. I thus execrate and excoriate Santorini and all its ersatz connotations, massages and mud-masks included, out of the vilest of motives: sour grapes.
Come September, and the organised Greek community emerges from its hibernation, as all of its presidents return one by one to resume control of their organisations’ affairs, for perish the thought that these could run independently of their leaders’ will. The coffee and cake shops, the clubhouses and the nightclubs of Greek Melbourne are brimming with life again. Asked how they fared in the Motherland, the elderly shake their heads and launch into detailed analyses of all the bureaucratic faults of the state of Greece, the degeneration in the moral fibre of its citizens, and most notably, the absence of a “system.” They also seem to be bemused by modern Greek summer holiday customs, whereby modern Greeks, while on vacation, dispense with ordinary greetings and instead ask each other: «Πόσα μπάνια έκανες φέτος;», attaching special significance to the exact amount of times one has immersion themselves within the briny waters of the Aegean. But most of all, they rail against what they perceive to be a lack of reciprocity in hospitality. As one elderly returnee once remarked to me: «Τι να πεις γιαυτούς τους αχαΐρευτους; Όταν έρχονται εδώ τους μπαμπακίζουμε, (this is a Greek-Australian verb that denotes the act of barbequeing) τους «δώνουμε ξερά καρπιά» κι αυτοί το μόνο που μας ρωτάνε είναι: «΄Ηρθες; Πότε φεύγεις;» Άχρηστοι άνθρωποι οι έλληνες.» Of course, the fact that said gentleman was attempting for the fifth time to obtain what he beeived to be an equitable division of his family’s agricultural property, may account for the somewhat chilly reception he may have received.
Scathing assessment of Greece and Greeks notwithstanding, the aforementioned gentleman’s ire invariably begins to wane towards the end of the Australian Summer, (at which time he is secretly researching the cost of tickets to Greece) to be completely dissipated at the coming of Autumn at which time he, like so many others of his ilk, develops vacation negativity amnesia and having once more been lured by the call of the homeland, attends his local travel agent to once more enact his escape from his exile. From this moment on, until the month of June, it is customary for him to greet all those that he meets with these words: Τό ’κλεισα το «τικέτο». Σε τρεις μήνες φεύγω.»
This then is the month of the Greek Melbournians as antipodean migratory birds, flying north for the Winter. Whether we remain in exile awaiting our Winter of discontent to be made glorious Summer, or not, one thing is certain. Our antipodean hypostasis, is one of constant physical and mental travel between our place of abode and our place of origin. And each voyage, is one of return.

A chilling, fell wind sweeps across the ashen paving stones. Pedestrians raise their collars and clutch at their jackets in order to entrap the last vestige of warmth within them. It is so cold that the smell of the hecatombs of meat sizzling within the restaurants flanking the square barely keeps pace with the speed of travel of the sound of piped Greek music permeating their walls, instead, expiring at their threshold.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 8 July 2017

Saturday, July 01, 2017


In the minds of most Australians, Ethiopia is the land of famine, drought and war. For Greek-Australians, the country evokes more complex connotations, given historical ties between Ethiopia and Greece that stem from ancient times and the presence of a consequential Greek community within that country. When 57 year old Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie, president of the Crown Council of Ethiopia enters the room, he smiles disarmingly and grasps my hand. He is in Melbourne, having come from Canberra, where he met with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, attended a special parliamentary reception hosted by Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne, laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial in the company of Dr Brendan Nelson and met with a host of other senior political figures. All I can think of is that the hand that I am grasping, once grasped the hand of his grandfather, the Emperor Haile Selassie, known as the Lion of Judah, one of the most significant African leaders in history. He sits down and we begin to chat.

Welcome to Australia. What is the purpose of your visit?
It is great to be here. I am here commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of my grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie’s official visit to Australia. I am also exploring closer investment ties with Australian mining companies who operate in Africa. Furthermore, I am delighted to be connecting with the remarkable Ethiopian-Australian community here.

In the minds of many, Ethiopia and Australia are poles apart….
And yet we are connected in so many ways. I was astounded, arriving here to notice that the light is extremely similar to that we have in Ethiopia. Of course, eucalyptus trees are native to Australia and Addis Ababa is ringed with them. The broad flat plains also remind me of Ethiopia. Then there are the “Waler” horses that were used to provide mounts for the ceremonial guard during Imperial times – these also came from Australia. Our soldiers fought alongside each other during the Korean War. My understanding is that cricket, which is a popular sport among some Ethiopians, was introduced by Australians. And of course, I am very proud of and grateful for Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, an obstetric fistula hospital which has been founded and run by Australians. Finally, Australia is the land of the fair go. For much of its modern history Ethiopia led the struggle for a fair go for African people, though my grandfather’s campaign for African decolonialisation.

Ethiopia is as polyethnic and as religiously diverse as Australia. How would you compare its experience in managing social cohesion, as compared with that of Australia?
You have to understand that each society developed under different conditions, though there are some superficial similarities. For much of its history, Ethiopia developed in isolation and Australia too has been seen historically to be an isolated country. As a result, each country is able to form unique societies that reflect the aspirations of its people. The process of Ethiopia forming as a conglomeration of peoples of diverse languages and faiths that espouse an Ethiopian identity has evolved over millennia. Australia’s multicultural society is a more recent phenomenon. That it is one which works can be evidenced by the way in which the Ethiopian community has been welcomed here and the extent to which it has been interwoven into Australian society so successfully, something for which I am extremely grateful.

How do you view the Ethiopian community in Australia?
I am in awe of the way that the Ethiopian community here is maintaining its sense of family, faith, culture and language and passing it on to the next generation.

I’m interested in your choice of order of those words…
One completes and fulfils the other. A family is network of people who share a common vision and care about each other. That vision is underlined by a belief system, whatever that may be. What emerges from the process of caring for each other in furthering that vision is culture and language is what articulates it. As such, the family is the microcosm of the entire nation. And the faith is so important.

You are referring here to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Why is it so important?
It provides continuity. The Church has been present in Ethiopia since at least 330AD. It provides a common narrative of identity for all its adherents. Of course, people to people relations are so important. Since the 1974 Revolution, a concerted effort was made to efface certain aspects of Ethiopia’s history and identity. Some of these, including our faith, were lovingly maintained and protected by the people, something I was moved to see here in Australia. Wherever I went, I was treated with great friendliness and enthusiasm. I was moved to be approached by one elderly gentleman, who served as interpreter to my grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie, on his State visit to Australia. He was Pastor Sir Douglas Nicholls’ son in law, an important and inspirational man and a role model for the Aboriginal community, which was proof to me as to how intrinsic the Ethiopian community is, to multicultural Australia. One thing I stressed to the young Ethiopian-Australians I met was this: “Never forget the sacrifices your parents have made to get you here. And never forget that you are Australians. Next time I see you, I want you to be able to tell me: I am a doctor, I am a scientist, I am a builder. Make something special of yourselves.” In this process, I think the Greek community of Australia is a sound role model.

You would, of course, be aware that in our community there are many Greeks who were born or lived in Ethiopia, or who are married to Ethiopians. How do you view the relations between Ethiopia and Greece?
Where do I begin? We are kindred spirits. We go so far back in history. I don’t need to tell you how prominently Ethiopia is featured in Greek mythology, or the works of the ancient Greek historians. Nor that the first Ethiopian coins were minted with Greek inscriptions, with Greek being an important language of the Ethiopian court for a long time. It was a Greek, Saint Frumentius, who became the first bishop of Ethiopia and our common faith has been the cornerstone of our relationship. During Byzantine times, both our empires were in constant alliance and they were considered the north and south poles of civilization itself. Between them, they forged policies of collective security as sophisticated as those we see in place in the modern world. Both of them were isolated and had to fight for survival. As you stated, in modern times, Ethiopia has played host to a Greek migrant community, with silversmiths from northern Greece settling in the country as early as the 1750s.
I should mention that my grandfather, the Emperor Haile Selassie loved Greece. He first visited it as regent in 1924, where he met the president of the Republic, Admiral Paul Kountouriotis and Archbishop Chrsyostom of Athens. He also saw an ancient Greek tragedy at the Herodeion and this had a profound impression on him. As emperor, he returned to Greece in 1954, where he funded the reconstruction of a hospital in Liksouri, Kefallonia, which had been damaged by the 1953 earthquake. There was personal connection here, as my grandfather’s personal physician, Jacob Zervos, was from there. You may also be interested to know that my grandfather was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Thessaloniki in 1965. 
On a personal note, I would say this: I fell in love with Greece the moment I stepped foot there. The light, the land, the friendliness of the people… I felt the bond between our two nations very deeply. How can I not love that country? Apart from the age old ties we have, how could I not be eternally grateful to Greece for taking in so many Ethiopians after the Dergue came to power in 1974, including members of my own family? Greece for me will always be light and freedom. Visiting this country, and having met so many lovely Greek Australians here only further cements that love. Of course my dream is to visit Mount Athos, one which I hope I realise in the near future.

I suppose one of the things we have in common is that we are both members of a diaspora. What effect have the political developments in Ethiopia since the 1974 Revolution, causing you to leave your country, had in shaping your ethnic and cultural identity?
I learned that the world is a much larger place than first I thought. That there are a multiplicity of perspectives through which things can be viewed and that respecting and celebrating difference, while at the same time focusing on those things that we have in common. In many ways, when you are away from your country, you are compelled to look at it from the outside in a way you wouldn’t do had you remained. The sense of family and history also becomes extremely important, especially when you live away from home and are subject to innumerable other influences. Of course, since obtaining my Ethiopian passport ten years ago, I have been back many times.

Continuity and history are manifestly important to you. The Ethiopian Imperial dynasty has one of the longest lineages in the world. Yet this is a world that is constantly changing. Can the Monarchy still be relevant to Ethiopia?
I believe that the longevity of the dynasty means that as an institution it is a part of the nation’s psyche. My family traces its history to the union of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The monarchy can provide unity, stability, tolerance and a rallying point for Ethiopians of diverse languages and faiths. Ultimately though, that decision belongs to the people. They will decide what is good for them. The important thing is for Ethiopia to remain alive.
Do you fear that Ethiopia’s existence is threatened in any way?
No. Ethiopia has been through a lot over the course of the past few centuries and we have managed to survive. We are a resilient people. We need to safeguard that survival and create an Ethiopia that is peaceful, prosperous and able to afford opportunities for a good life to all its citizens. In order to do that, we need to foster the socio-economic development of the country, and heal the traumas caused by the Revolution and the Civil War.

Almost half of the population of Ethiopia is Muslim. ISIS is raging in Libya, there is a porous border with Somalia where a number of Islamic militant groups operate, Boko Haram in West Africa and of course, ISIS terrorism in Egypt. Is religious fundamentalism one of the factors that you believe, threaten the existence of Ethiopia?
No. Both Christianity and Islam are indigenous religions of Ethiopia. As a result, they have developed side by side and have had centuries to work out an equilibrium, so you don’t see religious clashes or terrorism in Ethiopia to anywhere near the extent of other countries in the broader region.

Yet, five years ago, Syria was being held up as a similar example of religious tolerance…
The difference is this. You need to give each sector of society, each faith, a stake in the country, a feeling that they are part of the country and the country is part of them. Where you persecute, fence in, or restrict minorities, you create a weak society and a vulnerable one. These vulnerabilities can be exploited and cause societies to implode. This is what I believe, happened in Syria. I do not believe it will happen in Ethiopia because I say, there, members of all faiths partake in all aspects of governance and have done so since Imperial times. This is something my grandfather the Emperor felt very strongly about. We need to work in maintaining and broadening this approach as there is increase tribalism in Ethiopia.

With that in mind, how do you evaluate the political and social developments of Ethiopia  since the Mengistu era?
Ethiopia has changed markedly. When I left, it was a country with a population of that of Australia and now it has a population of 100 million. Ethiopia is rapidly developing and it is my opinion that there is great potential of sustainable growth as a dynamic part of a broader Indian Ocean economic market. We are still not self-sufficient in food production, and 85 percent of the population is still involved in subsistence farming, but that situation is improving. Job-creation is of vital importance. African nations need to create opportunities for their people, and not see them all leave to seek those opportunities elsewhere. Finally, we need government that is open and stable in order to secure appropriate long-term investment. There needs to be a move away from strong political personalities, towards strong institutions that will provide Ethiopia with the good governance it needs in order to attract investment.

In that context, how do you view the significant Chinese investment in Ethiopia and the African region in general?
I am eternally grateful for the investment of the Chinese in our infrastructure. They invested at a time when no one else was willing to do so. However, a prudent development plan must be one of balanced diversification, where no one investor dominates. During my grandfather, the Emperor’s time, we had investment from both the West and the Eastern bloc and that was in my opinion, appropriate. Ideal investment will create jobs for the people and create technology and skills exchange. I am convinced that diversity of investment and investors will best facilitate this. I also believe that a greater cooperation between African states will cement stability and economic development.

What does it mean to you to be a Prince of the Ethiopian House?
To try to be exemplary, a role-model. To facilitate the creation of a strong identity and instill a sense of pride in people of African descent. Ultimately, to provide them with a sense of destiny, and equality, based on a native tradition. In this I am privileged because I have so many examples of members of my family I can draw from, over a protracted period of time.

What is your most enduring memory of your grandfather, the Emperor Haile Selassie?
On a personal level it is this: His kindness and love of animals. He was extremely tender towards small children and kind to animals. He derived immense pleasure from his pets, and had an affinity from nature that I feel can only come from a true understanding of Africa.

How do you view his legacy? What examples can you personally draw from such a legacy?
It was one of courage, definitely. My grandfather was betrayed many times during his life, yet he was tenacious and never gave up. He had an extraordinary capacity for forgiveness that I still draw upon. He constantly stood up for the underprivileged and the vulnerable. It is no small thing for the leader of an African nation to denounce the League of Nations as ineffectual, when Italy invaded Ethiopia, nor for him after the war, to challenge the World Powers of the day to afford dignity to African peoples by granting their colonies independence. Collegiality and collectivism, certainly. My grandfather was a driving force behind the creation of the Organization for African Unity, whose foundation conference took place in Addis Ababa. He also believed in theological unity and sponsored the Addis Ababa conference where talks were held exploring the unity of the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches. His championship of the United Nations was based on his firm belief that all nations had to band together in order to guarantee collective security. At his initiative, Ethiopia participated in collective security operations, including in Korea and Congo, creating a precedent as being a trustworthy African mediator that modern Ethiopia can build upon.  He was not afraid to speak out for the sufferings, calling for the Vietnam War to end on several occasions. At the same time he was an outspoken proponent of African Americans' Civil Rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. As such he gave hope to millions. Finally, generosity. My grandfather was constantly involved in charitable works In 1959, my grandfather left his home in exile during the Second World War, Fairfield House, Bath, to the City of Bath for the use of the Aged. My grandfather’s legacy is thus a multifaceted but ultimately, an inspiring one, based on selflessness. He was often compelled to make difficult decisions, which he believed were for the benefit of his country, at great personal cost.

I wish you all the best for the rest of your stay in Australia

I am so inspired to have been given the opportunity to visit this remarkable country and to have met so many outstanding and welcoming Australians, including members of the Greek-Australian community. You are the yardstick by which the success of Australia’s multicultural society is to be measured and an exemplar of the successful integration of minority groups within the broader melting pot. I wish you every success.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 1 July 2017