Saturday, March 31, 2018


Towards the end of his life, the great scholar of what is referred to as the Greek Enlightenment, Adamantios Korais wrote: “The increase and spread of education in the French nation gave birth to the love of liberty.” In his mind, in order for the physical Greek Revolution to transpire, another, more spiritual one would have to precede it. 

 To this effect, Korais maintained that the entire nation would have to be educated, as a condition precedent to any such a revolution taking place. Greek education would have to be aligned with that of enlightened Europe, in order for a newly emerged Greece to take its proper place among modern nations, via a process which he called metakenosis, or outpouring of one into the other.

 Such a process required, in Korais’ view, a return to fundamentals, that is, the writings of the ancient Greeks and it was for this reason that he produced edited editions of ancient writings he considered suitable for study. Such a revolution would not only grant the renascent Greeks access to the wisdom of their forefathers, but also allow them to regain their virtues as well. Having immersed themselves in the lore of their illustrious ancestors, Korais was confident that they would then, by means of immersion, acquire their military skills as well, or at least such martial valour as was necessary to defeat the Persians in the fifth centur and which would accordingly suffice, to defeat the Ottomans. According to Korais, these martial virtues were lost when the Romans conquered Greece, though mysteriously, he was unable to advance a theory as to how study of the ancient texts could guard against others overcoming the military valour of the Greeks gleaned from such hallowed texts, which probably explains why the German Occupation took place.

 Considering the parlous state of Greek education in the period immediately prior to the Greek Revolution of 1821, it would come as no surprise to learn that Korais always felt that the Greek people were not ready for revolution. In 1807, he argued: “Our people need at least fifty years of education.” In 1821, some months after the Greek revolution had been proclaimed, he mused: “the event has come too soon for our interest. If it had come twenty years later..” Assessing from his home in Paris how the product of the Revolution, the Modern Greek State had developed, Korais lamented in 1831: “the Greek rising was fully justified, but inopportune; the right time would have been 1850.”
The lack of the civilising effects of education upon the Greeks blighted and ultimately damned the Greek Revolution and the State it brought about, in Korais’ eyes. It is easy to understand why. Instead of the enlightened, modern, progressive nation that formed the subject of Korais’ aspirations, the Greek State was fragmented, convulsed by internecine strife that saw some of the greatest proponents of its independence imprisoned or murdered and completely dysfunctional. It was corrupted at its core by self-interested power brokers who did not shy away from provoking a civil war in order to further their grip on power, causing much suffering to an already war-shattered populace and was also manipulated by imperialist powers, to the extent where it was questionable as to whether Greece was truly either “free” or “independent,” as its rulers maintained. As Korais wrote: “That the revolution occurred before time was proved by the recklessness of the leaders of the revolution and by the continuing very foolish conduct of many politician within Greece, conduct that caused the flowing of a great deal of innocent blood.” 

Had the Greeks been cautious, had they been patient instead if impulsive and intemperate, had they undergone the requisite amount of spiritual preparation with dedication and a sense of purpose, then they would have been truly free, and not the colonial plaything of a quadrumvirate of word powers: “If the race had rulers adorned with education, as it certainly would have had if the Revolution had occurred thirty years later, then foreigners would have been inspired with such respect that the wrongs suffered from the anti-Christian Holy Alliance (ie the European powers) would have been avoided.”  
Almost two hundred years after the Great Revolution of 1821, with the image of the heavily moustachioed, amply foustanella’d klepht wielding a ponderous sword emblazoned deeply upon our consciousness as the ultimate harbinger of freedom, it is difficult to conceive of Korais’ preferred alternative revolutionary, a cravat wearing, quill brandishing intellectual, mincing down the mountainside in his spectacles, there to engage the enemy in endless philosophical disputation and textual criticism, until they are finally worn out and depart the land they have appropriated, in frustration. Viewed from this perspective, Korais’ vision is, though grand, ultimately, a utopian one.
Nonetheless, it is a utopia that has inextricably found its way within the narrative of the Greek Revolution, even as power brokers masquerading as freedom-fighters became self-interested politicians, even as those politicians set about running the State that was created in the aftermath of so much spilled blood, for their own benefit and that of their imperial overlords and continue to do so today. Though we extoll and exalt our freedom-fighting captains, though we liken them to the classical warriors that sent the Persians packing, somewhere in the back of our minds, Korais’ exhortation, to educated ourselves, cultivate ourselves and ultimately uplift ourselves, plays on our sub-conscious.

 Korais' call for enlightenment is deeply entrenched within us. It is the continuation of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian’s injunction that it is better to build schools than churches, and accords with visionary Rigas Pheraios’ celebration of reason. It is in fact, the culmination of the entire thrust of the Greek enlightenment, a johnny-cum-lately intellectual movement that was a complete derivative of the west, interpreting the corpus of our ancient legacy through alien, western eyes, but regardless, convinced that the complete espousal of European civilisation was the only pathway by which Greece could extricate itself, mentally, and then physically, from the morass in which it found itself. 

 We have never been able to live up to Korais’ lofty ideals. Surely, our diasporan community has internalised them, for he too was one of us, a Greek living outside Greece, who never saw his homeland again. The first generation of Greek migrant’s irrepressible imperative to educate their children, their drive to build schools and other cultural institutions, even their need to express themselves through poetry and literature and their equation of education with freedom, all comes directly from Korais. Though the Revolution has been gone, there is unfinished business to attend to, for we have not yet attained the goals which Korais has set out for us and which we have espoused. There is an unarticulated sense that as a people, we are not where we want, or set out to be. 

 The Revolution, as the cause of a deeply seated feeling of inadequacy harboured by many, if not most Greeks, is a concept, despite the rhetoric, the speeches, the marches and the flag waving we all rejoice in, tacitly accepted, but rarely spoken of. Yet when Greeks both within and without the State that it engendered, view it, blundering periodically from morass to morass, regardless of their level of pecuniary interest or venality within its paradigm, Korais begins to whisper in their ear: We can do better. We owe it to our ancestors to create the structures that will allow the Greek people to realise their full potential. We owe it to each other to bring out the best in one and other and we do this not through the ossification of culture and tradition, the purveying of prejudice, or the stifling of human endeavour, but rather, through celebrating knowledge, championing innovation and actively engaging with the broader global community.

“The education of a nation is the safest indication of its regeneration and of its political freedom,” wrote Korais. Articulating a particularly Greek approach to our past and to the corpus of global culture as means for the evolution of the modern Greece into a truly independent, self-sufficient State, able to make unique contributions to the world is an objective that lingers still and which has not yet been fulfilled. In many ways, the Revolution for us has somehow, become unhinged, or more likely, has not yet even begun.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 March 2018

Saturday, March 24, 2018


Eaton Mall does not exist. It has never existed. Instead, if GPY& R advertising agency, on behalf of Public Transport Victoria are to be believed, the space occupied by one of the most vibrant and important centres of Hellenism in Melbourne, is in fact a Greek island.

The scene unfolds like a promotional map of the Mall: the perspective is from the South end of the Mall, facing North. In the foreground, on the right, the more perceptive viewer may discern the old bank which is now a Chemist Warehouse. The metal frame tree guides and the central light diffuser hint pay homage to the Mall, juxtaposing it against the beautifully rendered bus passing the Chester Street crossing. Meanwhile, just before that crossing, a sign bearing the legend: “Glyka” hints at the possibility that sweets are sold along this street. Save for a few passersby, the idyllic streetscape is sterile and devoid of life. The pavement and the buildings are whitewashed, as is, one could argue, the presence of the Greek-Australian community. We are not in Eaton Mall, but rather in Mykonos.

The caption to Public Transport Victoria’s latest campaign reads “Discover a Bit of Hellas in Oakleigh.” This is marginally more neutral than its Footscray poster, which reads “A taste of the east in the west.” It is also in keeping with Eaton Mall marketing itself as “Little Athens,” provoking hoots of derision from newly arrived Greek migrants, who prefer to equate it with a square in a provincial Greek town, not Athens per se but still, a little bit of Hellas. The advertisement, exists in the context of seeking to exoticise areas of ethnic settlement in Melbourne, in order to promote transport use by equating it with a holiday. In doing so however, the commissioners of such a campaign have in fact, inadvertedly indulged in gross orientalisation and alienation of the ethnic communities they have targeted, including the Greek-Australian community.

By its very nature, to exoticise something, is to place it outside the norm. By exoticising Eaton Mall, the advertisement suggests to the mainstream Australian therefore, that Eaton Mall is not an organic part of the Melbournian landscape. It has no legitimate place within the local geography. It cannot be rendered in terms of at least seventy years of Greek settlement in the broader area. Instead, evidently, the advertisers believe that in order to be palatable to the dominant cultural market, Eaton Mall must be depicted as, or reduced to a stereotype, a laid back, sleepy, soulless place, the epitome of a western understanding of a Helladic tourist paradise. For the evocation of such a stereotype to be effective, Greek-Australians may not be afforded any role within it. That this type of activity, one which effaces an entire community, and in the case of the Footscray advertisement, effectively reduces a diverse population to “a bunch of food oriented occidental orientals,” can be indulged in four decades after the advent of multiculturalism as official Australian policy, is deeply disquieting.

Eaton Mall is not Mykonos. It is not even Greece. Instead, it is a lively hive of activity, frequented not just by people of Greek descent, but of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Had the advertisers or Public Transport Victoria bothered to contact or seek to liaise with the traders of Eaton Mall, for some of these were incensed at the lack of communication, they would have learned that the mall id far from the monocultural, ethnic ghetto that is implicit in the poster.Vanilla Lounge, for example, has a diversity policy, by which it employs people of different ethnic backgrounds and even sponsors their visa applications. Had they spent time in the Mall, they would have noticed the significant numbers of Middle Eastern patrons, coming to savour a social experience reminiscent of that which is common in their places of origin. Had they the perspicacity, they would have discerned among the crowd, Anglo-Australians, eager to explore, discover and enjoy a culinary and social tradition that embraces all and excludes no one. Most significantly, had they the sensitivity to do so, they would have witnessed a community that is neither Mykonian, nor Zorban, neither Athenian, nor Spartan, but unselfconsciously Greek-Australian. From the lovers who met and courted each other within the confines of the mall, to the tired and frustrated mother dragging her squalling children across the pavement, all the while managing not to spill a drop of her precious take-away frappe, to the nubile girl who has meticulously brushed every eyebrow lash separately and bronzed out the last remnant of cellulite from view, in order to look stunning and obtain the complements of her friends, to the cranky grandmother, yanking her grown son in a business-suit by the ear, to the svelte newly arrived Greek waiter who magically can appear in more than five places simultaneously in order to take one’s order, to the self-satisfied businessman with the protruding belly and the bejeweled corpulent fingers brandishing an unlit cigar, to the old man, sporting five days growth, smoking the seventeenth cigarette in the row, to the entire population, which is able to play people tennis in unison, turning their heads synchronously as pedestrians promenade down the Mall, in order to give “the glance,” the one from which one can discern the pedestrian’s entire life history, Eaton Mall and its patrons have no relevance to Greece. It is an Australian phenomenon and deserves to be portrayed us such in its own right, not expunged from the discourse.

In their seminal work: "From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos point out that one of the ways that the dominant culture secures and reinforces its position as legitimate owner of this country is by abrogating to itself, the right to determine the discourse of multiculturalism, defining the manner in which the ethnic communities it permits to reside alongside it, shall be portrayed, or shall articulate their own identity. As potentially subversive “eternal foreigners,” ethnic communities, no matter how long they have existed on Australian shores, must be placed on the margins, orientalised and presented, not as an integral part of modern Australian social reality, but rather, as the other, or effaced altogether. According to this paradigm, the reality of Eaton Mall and its people cannot exist. Instead, in Orwellian fashion, it must be replaced by something that does not challenge the hegemony of the dominant culture. This is certainly achieved by portraying the denizens of the Mall, not as Australians, but rather, as people who not only come from somewhere else, but actually, still live there.

The fact that members of our community not only accepted the advertisement but were flattered by it, suggests that we are still suffering from a derivative cultural cringe that does not let us assert our unique identity as Greeks in Australia and instead, makes us feel compelled to seek recourse to stereotypes in order to define ourselves and articulate our ethnic identity, or to employ these and accept these in order to gain the approval of the dominant culture. To these people, the insulted Greek-Australian traders of Eaton Mall ask: Why can we not demand that Eaton Mall be celebrated for what it is, a gritty, aspirational, thriving expression of a community that is inextricably interwoven within the fabric of modern Melbourne.

On the penultimate occasion I visited the Mall, a woman walking in front of me, remarked expansively to her companions, who appeared to be visiting from Greece: "And here are the Exarcheia of Melbourne." Now try depicting that on a Public Transport Victoria poster. Just make sure faithfully to capture the moment where the Molotov cocktail impacts with the bus, and bursts into flames…. Public Transport Victoria, we've got the hots for you.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 March 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018


On the morning of the Sunday of the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, I was ensconced in the Epirus tent, clad in full Vlach regalia. As pedestrians were rather light on the ground, I decided to amuse myself by playing jazzicised versions of Epirot folksongs on the violin. Five bars into: «Δεν μπορώ μανούλα’,μ», a heavily accented voice asked:
"Χαλό, γιου Κών;» It was an elderly gentleman, clad in a suit and wearing an Athens 2004 Olympics cap.
«Ναι,» Ι responded in Greek.
«Γιου δε γουάν σπίκ ον δε ράντιο;» the old man persisted in broken English. He spoke slowly, haltingly, the words stumbling across his tongue and escaping his mouth with perceptible difficulty.
«Ναι, παρουσιάζω το Ηπειρώτικο πρόγραμμα,» I informed him, again in Greek.
«Άι λίσεν έβερυ γουίκ. Γιου βέρυ γκουντ. Άι λάικ βέρυ ματς,» the old man persisted.
«Μιλάτε ελληνικά;» I asked.
«Οφ κόρς ρε. Γιου στιούπιντ;» the elderly gentleman inquired incredulously. Slowly, sonorously, over the course of the next minute, he intoned: «Χάου άι λίσεν του γιου μπλάρρυ ράντιο ιφ άι νο σπικ Γρήκ ρε;» 
«Δεν θα ήταν πιο εύκολο για όλους μας αν μιλούσατε στα ελληνικάI asked him, with a view to facilitating a speedier and somewhat more comfortable discourse.
It was at that point that for some inscrutable reason, the old man lost his temper.
«Ά γκε φάκ!» he exclaimed and walked off. I picked up my violin and shaken, played Waltzing Matilda in a minor key, as a tsifteteli, instead.
Sometime later, my daughter joined me in the tent. An elderly woman passed by the tent and noticed her.
«Κόρη σου είναιshe asked me.
Να τη χαίρεστε«Να’στε καλά.»
Turning to my daughter she asked: «Χάβαγιου ντάλι μου;»
My daughter responded with a blank stare of non-comprehension.
«Γιου γκουτ;» the old lady persisted.
“It’s easier if you speak to her in Greek,” I advised. “Her English is still not that strong.”
«Γιου γκο του δα σκούλ;» the old lady inquired.
Silence from my daughter.
«Ουατς γιουρ νάιμ ντάλι;»
«Μιλήστε ελληνικά,» I advised her again.
«Δεν σας καταλαβαίνει
Ουάι γιου νο σπικ; Γιου σάιthe old lady persisted, smiling.Having received no response, she gave my daughter a pat on the head and walked off, whereupon my daughter mystified, turning to me, asked: «Γιατί δε μιλούσε η κυρία ελληνικά;»

It is widely held that grandparents are the chief repositories of Greek language and culture within our community. This is because they are the ones that have largely experienced that language and culture in its native context and it still forms the primary medium of their daily discourse. However, of late, a convention has evolved within the community, whereby, while Greek can be and is used as an intra-generational tool for communication and even as an inter-generational mode of communication, this does not extend to the third generation, especially when addressing members of that generation that do not belong to one’s family. Instead, it is customary to address such children in English, regardless as to how bad the speakers English actually is.

In some bizarre cases, as the first dialogue herein suggests, members of the older generation persist in speaking English to their younger interlocutors, even when it is apparent that both speakers are fluent in Greek and that communication would be a good deal more convenient in that language. I remember one particular elderly gent who attended my office in order to seek legal advice. His English was parlous and despite my constant efforts to encourage him to speak in Greek, for the sake of brevity and so that I could understand him, he persisted in speaking a close to unintelligible form of garbled English. Having pleaded with him to speak in Greek and even appealed to his hip-pocket by informing him that most lawyers charge in six minute intervals, so that it would be cheaper for him to speak in Greek, he blissfully ignored my ministrations. At the end of the excruciatingly long consultation, I asked him: “Why didn’t you speak Greek? Wouldn’t it have been easier for both of us?”
“Because English is your language, not Greek, you smart-arse” he snapped. “You were born here.”

Circumstances like these suggest that on the odd occasion, the Greek language or its non-use is wielded by native speakers as a tool of exclusion, against other generations. For reasons of their own, they may feel threatened by members of the younger generation and the only way to preserve a feeling of ascendancy, is by creating a language dichotomy, whereby the ‘legitimate’ language is reserved for use by ‘legitimate’ speakers, while those deemed to be upstarts or not worthy, are directed to speak in English, a language, in this case, of disempowerment. Over the years, in pursuing my own literary endeavours in the Greek language, not a few well-meaning members of the Greek community literati have suggested emphatically that I cease writing in Greek. Apparently, being Australian-born, the only language I am authorized to write in, is English.

Generally however, and especially when it comes to the third generation, the convention of employing English in inter-generational discourse does not come from a desire to exclude, disempower or marginalize. Instead, it seems to derive from the opposite: a deeply held assumption that the latter generation has lost the Greek language altogether, and so, to address a child in Greek, would form a barrier to communication, or indeed, in some instances, cause trauma. This comes in marked contrast to the practices of a generation ago, where grandparents were considered the main point of contact between younger generations and the Greek language, and their use of the Greek language as a means of communication with grandchildren and as a method of ensuring cultural continuity, was unquestioned.

Nowadays, many elderly Greeks, will, when questioned as to why they speak to younger generations in English will not only state that it is because they assume that most of them do not speak Greek but also because it is considered rude to do so. The social transgression here apparently comes in the form of unduly exposing a child’s ignorance of the Greek language, if one speaks to that child in Greek, and the child does not respond. Apparently, this is a social transgression identified and excoriated as such by the second, ie. parental generation.

On most mornings, when I take my daughter to school, we sit in the playground while she tells me her favourite vampire stories and tales of Greek mythology, in Greek. An elderly lady sits nearby and smiles. She holds her grand-daughter in her arms and speaks to her in broken English. A few days ago, as we were discussing whether skordalia could be plausibly used as a vampire repellent, she commented:
“It’s good that you speak to your daughter in Greek.”
“Well, we are Greek, what else could I do?” I responded.
“My grand-daughter doesn’t speak Greek. Her mother isn’t Greek,” the old lady offered wistfully.
“My wife isn’t Greek either,” I told her.
“So how does she learn Greek? From her γιαγιά;” the old lady asked.
“From all of us,” I responded. “The family, the community, even from you right now.”
“My son and my daughter-in-law have told me not to speak to my grand-daughter in Greek,” the old lady confided sadly. “They say that it’s going to slow her down at school and that its going to make her feel inferior to the other kids.”
“Do you agree with that assessment?” I asked.
“Well,” the old lady mused, “I brought up my kids speaking Greek. I didn’t think that was a problem. We all thought it was natural that we should pass on our language to our children. But somewhere along the line, we discovered they don’t feel the same way. They don’t want to pass on the language. They speak to their kids in English. In the beginning, I told them: “let them at least learn Greek from me, whatever they learn can only benefit them,” but they told me categorically not to speak to the kids in Greek. What can I do?” she shrugged. “I brought up my kids in the way I thought was best. Now they are doing the same. And even in families where the parents are homogenous, they are not teaching their kids Greek anymore.”
When the bell rang, the grand-daughter was balancing precariously upon a bench. ῾Μη,” her grandmother shouted spontaneously. ῾Θα πέσεις. Σλάουλυ, σλάουλυ.᾽ And she looked up at me and beamed.
Once the last of the first generation of Greek speakers is no longer with us, a tangible linguistic and cultural link of continuity with our place of origin will be sundered. Depriving the latter generations of the rich repository of memory, shared tradition, perspective and outlook that can only be transmitted through the ancestral tongue, even before the demise of the generation that can pass it on, is tantamount to committing cultural suicide. Considering that among native born Greek Australian peer groups, social interaction in the Greek language is by convention rare, contact with native speakers is vital if our community is to retain the Greek language into the future. For this reason, this March, let us encourage the elderly members of the community to defy and ultimately smash pernicious convention and speak to our youth, unashamedly and unhindered, in Greek. And let us actively seek out ways in which we can harness and support their linguistic expertise, tying it to such key concepts as family, connection and community, in order that our emerging youth may contextualise that linguistic expertise to their lived existence, thus ensuring our linguistic survival as a distinct and relevant part of the multicultural fabric of Victorian society, well into the future.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 March 2018

Saturday, March 10, 2018


When Slav-FYROM members of the community burnt Greek flags at their protest last Sunday, to the chant of "F*ck Greeks", I became distressed. Had they chanted "F*ck Greece," I would have been just as distressed, but I would have understood that they were venting their frustration at a country that in their opinion, seeks to deny their identity. To direct the imperative to all Greeks, however, is to include, me, my family, my friends and all those of us who live side by side with Slav-Fyromians, go to school with them, work with them, befriend them and marry them. It is in fact, an act that promotes racial hatred in one of the most tolerant, vibrant and multicultural cities of the world. It incites all those who think in the same way, to dehumanise the entire Greek people and if taken literally, to violate them sexually. The next chant, an unintelligible "ΕλλάςΕλλάςπουτσολιάς," I suspect, though sexually charged, was not a reference to the upcoming visit to Australia of the reputedly well-endowed euzones, on the occasion of Greek national day. Again, it was not clear whether those gifted by nature euzones had any connection to the "Occupied Macedonia" referenced in various irredentist placards.

When Slav-FYROM members of the community paraded bearing a banner which read: “Greeks and Pontians out of Macedonia,” effectively calling for ethnic cleansing, I felt sick.

Sometime later, it emerged from reports that a bunch of hoons, not content with making displays of racial intolerance at their demonstration, rampaged down Lonsdale Street (they think it is still Greek), and bearing flares, attacked Spiros Caras in his iconic Caras Music store, spitting on him and spraying water around his store.

On Sunday morning, in contrast, it became known that the schismatic Slav-FYROMIAN church in Preston was vandalised, the slogan F*k Skopje, ΕΛΛΑΣ ΕΛΛΑΣ ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΑ graffitied on its exterior fence. Members of the Greek community, myself included, immediately banded together to publicly condemn this heinous and disgusting act of desecration. Some of these Greeks even offered to pay for the cleaning of the graffiti itself. Similarly, the appearance of a banner proclaiming: "FYROM = Albania" suspended over a pedestrian bridge and presumably created in response to an earlier banner during the week which read: "Greeks = Turks," and yet another proclaiming "Macedonia, Never Greek,"  was also excoriated by the consensus of the Greek community, as unhelpful. All this took place even though, on closer inspection, the Δ in ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΑ appears to have been written as a Cyrillic Д, giving rise to uncomfortable questions.


Furthermore, in the days before the Slav-FYROMIAN hate rally, the Greek community mobilised against one group's stated intention to attend that rally and stage a counter-demonstration, protesting against the way in which they perceive that community has conducted itself during this time. Passions were high, the youth were inflamed. In their anger, they accused various members of the Greek community of being "soft" or not fully committed to the "national cause." After an exhausting round of appeals and counter-appeals, in which Neos Kosmos took an active role and even bureaucrats and Greeks embedded within the political system weighed in, the aggrieved group, while remaining unashamedly attached to their opinions, resolved to listen to their community elders. They chose not to stage their counter-demonstration. Instead, they published a list of their grievances and stated that in the interests of harmony and cohesion, they would refrain from any acts that could provoke racial conflict.

These internal checks and balances exemplify our community at its best. They suggest an organised community that though steadfast in promoting its own views about topics of concern to it, is mature enough to, on the whole, express those views in a focused way, without resorting to the vile racial slurs, acts of intimidation and violence that seem to have permeated through the recent Slav-FYROMIAN approach to protest in Melbourne. They also suggest a community that is possessed of a strong sense of social responsibility, viewing itself, not as an isolated entity within a vacuum, but rather as an integrated constituent of the multicultural fabric of Melbourne and sharing the priorities of that diverse and tolerant city.

As a Melbournian institution, therefore, the Greek community is able to identify potential ruptures within the social fabric and to move quickly to neutralise these in the interests of social cohesion. The fact that it was able to convince the enraged potential counter-demonstrators to desist, shows just how precarious the existence of that social cohesion really is. Had those persons witnessed the derogatory slogans chanted at the Slav-FYROMIAN rally, had they seen Greek flags being burnt, had they seen the placards de-legitimising the victims of the Greek genocide, had they witnessed the attacks upon Spiros Caras, no doubt they would have felt compelled to respond. And then, all hell would have broken loose.

However, it did not. There was no inter-ethnic violence because our community at large is able to see past the political issue, past the nationalist rhetoric employed by both sides and to focus on what is intrinsically important to our existence as an entity here: the human being. No one deserves to have the national symbols they hold dear burnt, so we refrain from doing so. No one deserves to see their friends and family attacked so we refrain from doing so and intervene to stop others from doing so. None of our children deserve to be exposed to raging mobs threatening or delighting in potential violence.  When we see that there is a potential for conflict, we defuse it. When unspeakably disgusting acts such as the vandalism of churches take place we condemn them. And we do all of these things despite the criticism of armchair or keyboard warriors who call all those who exercise such leadership as "soft," call their patriotic credentials into question and seek, in the social media, "an eye for an eye." In the end, our sense of civic responsibility prevails over our hurt feelings and any reactionary instincts. We can, bar a few unsavoury incidents, be very proud of the manner in which we have conducted ourselves.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that there is a marked difference in the manner in which the Greek and the Slav-FYROMIAN communities conducted their respective rallies. It is understood that owing to threats made by members of that community, Victoria police were forced to place six police officers at the Hellenic Australian Memorial for the Commemorative events of New Zealanders that served in both wars in Greece, which was being held concurrently,  attended by the NZ High Commissioner and the Greek Consul General . This establishes a terrible precedent.

  As a result, Melbourne itself is much diminished. Now that the protests have been and gone, and the governments of our respective homelands have consigned both of them to the dustbin of politics, both communities now have to exercise leadership  in coming together to engage with one another, rather than ignore each other's existence, an isolation which permits people to view their co-citizens as 'the enemy' and thus facilitates the terrible incidences of hate speech, vandalism and racial intolerance we have all been subjected to and borne witness to lately. Our communities must find common ground, not in the naming dispute but in co-operating with each other to minimise the racism and hate speech that seems to be endemic to this dispute and must begin this process immediately, using our own successful internal mechanisms as a guide. We owe it to each other, but most importantly to the tolerant society in which we live and which has allowed our communities to flourish. When history will write that our communities focused upon hatred rather than positioning themselves to meet the challenges that lie ahead, linguistically, socially and culturally, our legacy, no matter how much we may proclaim we embrace our 'identity" in the crudest of forms, will be a very poor one indeed.




First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 March 2018

Saturday, March 03, 2018


The whole affair took place while I was having a coffee with a friend at one of the cafés on Toorak Road, near my office. My friend a particularly patriotic gentleman when it comes to matters Hellenic was holding forth upon the necessity for us to regain our erstwhile greatness, by casting aside the foreign imposed title of Greek and replacing it with that of Hellene. In his estimation, a simple name change would suffice to turn around the destiny of the beleaguered Greek people. 

“Did you know,” I interrupted as an aside, “During the First Balkan War in 1912, when the Greek navy captured Lemnos, it promptly sent soldiers to every village and stationed them in the public squares. Children from all over the island ran to see what these so called Greeks looked like. "What are you looking at?" one of soldiers asked. “At you Greeks” one of the children replied. “Are you not Greek yourselves?” said the soldier. “No, we are Romans” replied the child.”

“No but you see,” my friend interjected, “Roman is one of those words that was used by the Turks to deny us our heritage. To them, anyone who was Orthodox was Rum, or Roman, because they did not want us to have a Hellenic national consciousness that would enable us to tap into our ancestral roots and discover our ancient civilization.”

“Actually,” I objected, “from at least the 400s to 1453, the Greek people did call themselves Romans. If you have a look at the inscriptions on the Byzantine coins, they name the Emperor and describe him as a faithful and august king of the Romans. The inscriptions are in Greek, mind you.”

“It’s the church’s fault,” my friend riposted. “They did that on purpose to keep people away from their Hellenic roots, so they would lose the ability to philosophise and question the priests. Did you know that back then, to be a Hellene meant to be a pagan?”

“Yes,” I concurred, “and to be a Roman, meant being a citizen of the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, which was considered to be a continuation of the original Roman empire. Interestingly enough, as the scholar Apostolos Kaldellis has pointed out, non-Greek speaking minorities of the empire, such as Arabs, Armenians and Bulgarians were not considered as Roman unless they were assimilated within the Greek-speaking milieu. To put it plainly, you had to be a Greek, to be a Roman. The reason why other peoples, such as the Arabs and the Turks of the time called the Greeks Romans, was because we called ourselves Roman. Pontians referred to their country as Ρωμανία, the land of the Romans. And even today, when we want to refer to the Greeks of Constantinople, we don’t use the word έλληνες. Instead, we speak of Ρωμιοί.”

“If what you say is true,” my friend mused, “then we have appropriated the Roman identity, in the same way that the Skopjans have appropriated a Macedonian identity for themselves. I wonder why the Italians haven’t realized this. They would sue the pants off us. And it turns out we are no better than those we deride, except that we got away with it.”

“No,” I interjected. “Byzantium was the continuation of the Roman empire, of which the Greek people were citizens. So, they were citizens of the Roman Empire and saw themselves as such. The term was meant politically, not ethnically and this caused confusion. The proof is that while the easterners called the Greeks Romans, the Romans and the western Europeans referred to them as Greeks. For example, there are runic inscriptions in Sweden dating from the eleventh century, mentioning men who went to “Grikkland” to serve the emperor and were known as “Grikkfari” or “Greece-farers.” If this isn’t complicated enough, after the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the West, the German emperors refused to consider the Byzantines as Romans and called them Greeks instead. The Byzantines found this offensive. As the bishop Luitbrand records, when the Emperor Nikephoros Phokas received a letter from the pope addressing him as emperor of the Greeks, he shouted in fury: “Doesn’t that idiot of a pope know, that Constantine the Great transferred the imperial capital and senate here, to Constantinople and left behind in Rome only slaves, plebeians and common types?” Further, when in the ninth century, in a letter to pope Nicholas I, the emperor Michael III referred to Latin as a “barbarous and Scythian language,” the pope asked: “How then can you call yourself a Roman?” Similarly, when the pope sent a letter inviting the Byzantine delegation to the Council of Ferrara, to discuss union between the churches, Bishop Stephanos of Media exclaimed: “He is insulting us. He is calling us Graikoi. How can we go if he is insulting us?”

“Which is the same thing as the Macedonian issue,” my friend frowned. “Just like we thought we were Romans and promoted a Roman identity, even though the world was telling us we were not, they think they are Macedonians, even though they are not.”

“I think the difference is that we actually were Romans, that is, citizens of the Roman Empire,” I responded. “We knew exactly who our ancestors were and we knew that our language was Greek. The Roman identity was borne of a state, legal and religious ideology, not an ethnic consciousness and this was always understood by the Greeks of Byzantium, which is why, when deprived of that political entity, were able to identify ethnically and linguistically as Greeks, even though the Roman appellation persisted, either in predominance or in parallel, right up until the twentieth century. The Skopjans, on the other hand, do think that they are ethnically Macedonian. That is where they make their blooper. As for calling ourselves Greeks or Hellenes, considering we have called ourselves everything under the sun since we first formed a collective consciousness, does it really matter? What makes us great is not our name but the sum of our collective experiences, including the collected works of Sakis Rouvas.”

“This is doing my head in,” my friend complained. “I can’t have a cup of coffee with you without getting a migraine. You’re a bloody Roman.” 

Having exhausted his patience, I approached the café counter in order to proffer payment. To the side of the cash register, I noticed some suspiciously familiar round biscuits covered in icing sugar, resting on a plate.
Turning to the proprietor I asked:
“What are these?”
“These are called courbiettes,” she responded, affecting a French accent.
“What are they made out of?”
“Crushed almonds.”
“Where do they come from?” I persisted.
“France, I think,” she responded. “Do you want some? They are $4.00 each.”
“Go on,” my friend goaded me. “I want to see you pay $4.00 in a pretentious joint in Toorak for a kourabie. Because that’s what it is. It’s a bloody kourabie masquerading as a courbi-, whatever the hell it is. Πού φτάσαμε. Flogging off Greek kourabiedes to the hoi polloi as French petits biscuits. What a ξεφτίλα.”
I handed over eight dollars and pinkies in their air, we each bit into our respective courbiette. It was unmistakably, a kourabie, despite its gallicised name. The taste however was excremental.
“Alright,” my friend crowed triumphantly, as he blew a gust of icing sugar in my direction. “Tell me, is this a courbiette in the political, linguistic or ethnic sense? Or this is a courbiette that secretly knows that it is a Greek kourabie?”
“Actually,” the proprietor intervened, “it’s a qurabiya. Our chef is Iranian. These originate from the Turks of Tabriz and you can find mention of them in Ottoman sources from the fifteenth century. But of course, being where we are, we need to market them accordingly.”
“So there you go,” I turned to my friend. “Its ethno- linguistically Turkish, culturally Greek and economically French. Does that satisfy you?”
“Bulldust,” my friend muttered defiantly. “They will never take our name.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 March 2018