Saturday, July 28, 2018


My Melburnian geography is one of lost Greek landmarks. As I drive down the main drag of my suburb, I look at the thriving Greek restaurants and commemorate the demise of those who didn’t quite make it. To my right, the Chinese bread shop in the place of a Greek café that sold inordinately stale cakes. To my left, a Malaysian restaurant is busy asserting itself in the remains of a Greek restaurant that failed to gain the confidence of the populace at large, for it would sell Microwave reheated, pre-prepared food. Further down, the three Greek restaurants that are doing a brisk trade. I only ever patronise one, a most excellent purveyor of gyros newly arrived from the motherland, but the others truly are landmarks, for they have been there for years.
Two main roads away and I am in the area where my people settled en masse before moving out to outlying suburbs. I drive through streets and identify the homes in which aunts, uncles or people from my parents’ village once lived. There are no longer there. Their homes have either been sold, or demolished by their descendants and units erected in their place. In the main street of that neighbourhood, I see ghosts: the ghosts of Greeks walking up and down doing their daily shopping. There was a time when it was impossible to venture into the street without running into someone you knew, or more likely, someone who you didn’t know, but who definitely knew you. I run into no one now and in the remains of the great market that once stood behind the street, a vibrant marketplace that housed over ten Greek businesses selling everything from fruit, to chickens to fish and chips, fabric and everything in between, a true focal point for the community, there now looms a faceless, stereotypical mall. I don’t recognise anyone there now. Our communal encounters have, in the face of the changing demographic and the ravages of urban planning, receded to the point where they largely take place around one brilliant restaurant whose proprietor hands out business cards proclaiming that he is a “μπιζιναδόρος” and the two churches that bookend our suburban hypostasis. Yet daily, reality and memories converge as we navigate the topography of our communal loss.
I don’t need to stretch my imagination much to remember the Greek precinct when it was replete with Greek businesses and bursting with life. I return again and again to the Cambodian eatery that was once the Greek restaurant in which over the course of a year or so, I managed to beguile my wife into believing I was worth entwining her fate to. I return again and again to the bar that was once Medallion Café, a business that even inspired a song by composer Christos Ioannides:: ῾Στο Μεντάλλιον για καφέ, για καφέ και χαβαλέ, στο Μεντάλλιον για γλυκό και για κάτι ελληνικό.” This was a place in which it was almost impossible to find a seat and even more impossible to view who was inside, through the thick veil of cigarette smoke. It was here that I had or witnessed the most intense discussions of a political or historical nature, here, that so many Greek community deals were brokered, here that marked the epicentre of community enthusiasm at Greece’s victory in the 2004 European Cup. Now, a solitary stele on Lonsdale Street provided by the Council commemorates a heart of Hellenism that no longer beats. It exists, in the memories of Salapatas and Pitsilidis but it is stilled. In what was once Dion and is now a Chinese “Caribbean Fish Grill Bar,” the fossils of the bare bones of that existence remain: a plaster Hellenistic relief sculpture juxtaposed against the gaudy piratical decoration of the rest of the store, significant to those who remember, unintelligent, to those without those memories. As I walk down Swanston Street, I acknowledge the shops that once were Greek hamburger eateries, serving the greasiest and most satisfying hamburgers known to man. Time and time again I was the recipient of the kindness of their proprietors, upon them learning I was Greek, until their ultimate extinction. Enshrining continuity of memory as a tradition not being our forte as a community, I have no emotional response to the long since gone pioneering businesses of Stanley Young (Yiannopoulos) or Alfredos Kouris (Alfredo's) that the previous generation remember with fondness.

When a friend recently called me in distress to lament the closure of a Greek coffee shop in his neighbourhood, Northcote, the gentrification of another into a faceless establishment catering to hipsters and the closure of an eatery that was particularly good, at least, in the beginning, before it changed proprietors, he made a bold suggestion: that the community at large communally invest in the acquisition of commercial premises in proximity to each other, which could be leased out to Greek businesses at concessionary rates, thus encouraging the growth of Greek commercial precincts in target areas. My initial reaction was to snort dismissively: private trade after all, when viewed in a vacuum, is an entirely selfish pursuit. It is the communal endeavours that should be enhanced with funding. Yet to view Greek businesses along these terms is to completely ignore the context in which they exist.
Although we have been in Melbourne for over a century, and even though we have created a thousand negative stereotypes about the manner in which we relate to each other as compatriots, we persist upon invariably seeking out Greek businesses in order to entrust our custom to them. Conversely, it is those businesses that sponsor the endeavours of Greek community organisations, whether these be festivals, dinner, dances or charitable events, and it is those businesses whose advertising subsidises our community print and airwave media. In the suburbs, the social interaction stemming from these businesses have been responsible for the formation of many Greek-Melbournian sub-cultures, and are often the only means of interaction within a Greek context, for many otherwise isolated or disengaged members of the community. Apart from being the means by which their proprietors feed themselves and their families, they constitute not only the oil in our communal engine, but also as a visible point of reference for those sharing the same identity, our public face, the very means for asserting that identity openly, within the context of multicultural Melbourne.
It is for this reason that the closure of a Greek business, an unremarkable event in the ordinary course of commerce, is met with such force of emotion for many Greeks in Melbourne. When a Greek business closes or vanishes, we feel that we are all diminished as a result and thus lament its loss, whether or not we were patrons, or held its wares in esteem. For us it is the mere presence of an identifiably Greek business as a point of reference in our local geography that is important and when we lose such points, we become disoriented. Further, the social structures that have evolved around them unravel in much the same manner in which life withers away upon the extinguishment of hydrothermal vents, Bridge Road in Richmond being but one of many examples.
Despite the fact that many post-war migrants emphasised tertiary education to the extent where large numbers of their offspring have sought “desk-job” employment, commerce and business occupy a significant portion of the members of our community. As time passes, much of this business is no longer conducted in an overtly “Greek” fashion, the target market being the entire social fabric of an area and not specifically a Greek clientele. Outside certain areas, the ubiquitous signs proclaiming: “Παντοπωλείον” or in one glorious instance: “Φρουτοπωλείον,” are now hard to come by, owing to marketing and linguistic assimilation. Rather than advocate a planned approach to the articulation of the identity of Greek businesses that perpetuates past forms of social interaction and enshrines the nostalgia that is omnipresent in all of us, perhaps all we can do is celebrate the significant contributions made by such businesses to the culture of our organised community and enjoy all these have to offer, for as long as it is relevant to do so. It is through attrition, interaction and mutual support that the relationship of Greek businesses to the evolving Greek community and its identity, will be negotiated.
In the meantime, as we pass by the stelae that mark our passage through time, let us rejoice that we, as the Pharaohs before us, get to choose the manner in which we are remembered, at least, for a little while.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 July 2018

Saturday, July 21, 2018


Ours is a world based on speed and consumption, or rather of speed of consumption. Daily, we are assailed by messages telling us which products to buy, which stars to emulate, which fallen footballers to empathise with, which news to believe. And daily, we are assailed by the problems of the world, in easily digestible sound and vision bites, just enough to let us express our humanity to our peers by pressing like on facebook, while posting photographs of our shoes, or hash-tagging a #feelingblessed on twitter, just enough to let us believe we are being intellectual by watching pundits pontificate on socially progressive current affairs shows while practising mindfulness in yoga pants, just enough so we don’t have to invest too much emotion on the terrible things that people do to one another in the civilised world.

Just enough, to make us feel safe.

As Cypriot poet Kyriakos Charalambides said in Rise from Sleep: “The eyes see whatever is an optical illusion./ All the rest are kept in the memory of the Gods.”

A cursory glance at what purports to be news, will reveal that there are currently sixty million refugees in the world. We are yet to figure out what to do with half a million Rohingas, a million Iraqi refugees, or five million Syrian refugees, except perhaps for posting a like on a relevant facebook post, summarising the sum total of our social activism, for all to see.

In the meantime, we have no idea what to do with Central and South American children finding their way across the US border.  Charalambides points out in ‘The Third Dimension’: “It’s a shame then that we subject ourselves. To physical barriers; that we don’t control/ every molecule that grows on the planet – look at the city, it is in agony.”

 “War rises up on crutches from the ruins like a brother of the sun,” Charalambides informs us in his poem ‘Submission.’

Given the particularly dense humanitarian quagmire the world continuously finds itself in, why should we continue to care about Cyprus, and in particular Ammochostos, the city of Famagusta?

I remember the first time I saw Ammochostos. I was in the refugee settlements of Deryneia, in free Cyprus, in the company of its last elected mayor, Andreas Pougiouros. Beyond the wire fence, barring us from the city, I saw looming across the sand, a long array of concrete buildings slowly mouldering away in silence. In that part of the city, Varosha, time had stood still. Empty, unoccupied, hollow and dead. A parody of all of mankind’s  aspirations towards civilization and high esteem for its achievements. There, on a balmy summer’s day, while languidly sipping a frappe, was the entire human tragedy of the Cyprus invasion visually represented, by means of dignified decay of a ravaged and then abandoned Queen. The words of Charalambides’ poem ‘Baton’ sprang to mind: “The city was asleep in her dream/ precious and alone,/ dissipating every associated evil/ felt that tomorrow would be better./ She wakes and sees black death before her.”Facebook of course hadn’t been invented then. Had it existed, then chances are that this poem and my evocation of it, would have been expressed instead, with a weepy face emoticon.

Andreas Pougiouros was pointing out to me the various plans he had made for the city. He spread his arms out lovingly, as if to embrace her, showing me which buildings were under construction, which zones, earmarked for tourism were going to prove the most lucrative. One could see that in his eyes at least, the city was a living, breathing organism, full and life, and most importantly, unsullied by the heinous events of those decades ago. “I adore imagination./ Seeing you and imagining that I don’t see you/ fascinates me most,” Charalambides mused in ‘The Wind God.’

As the sun set, Andreas Pougioros sensuously gestured to his Galatea as a veritable Pygmalion with his fingers and called to her in a soft crooning voice. Charalambides once more insinuated himself within the silence of my contemplation: “How beautiful is man,/ sweet is the star that covers him/ day and night in cold and in rain/ who laughs and howls at the sun.”

It is for this reason, that there is relevance in Greek-Australian academic John Milides’ recently released English translation of Kyriakos Charalambides’ elegy to a city lost, but ever present: “Famagusta Regina.” The ‘sand-shoved’ city, as it literally is called, lingers, partially occupied, partially unoccupied, as a telling metaphor for the so-called Cyprus Issue itself: always, if one believes the news, on the cusp of being solved, always awaiting a new initiative that will dissolve the dividing line between its free and the occupied parts but ultimately, elusive and illusory, leaving the victims of brutality to collect an safeguard the shattered shards of their erstwhile existence. Charalambides observes in ‘A Magical Game:’ “Alas/ you assemble her/ among many fragments of various kinds./ One day, in her mass grave you found/ the hand of a child, and on another day- its head./ You assemble her and you identity her./ The limbs of ancient colossi are scattered…”

When reading John Milides’ translation, we are reminded just how bound up our identity is within our soil. Our sense of self derives from its presence within its natural environment. Charalambides may be an exile but so are we, dislocated from our topos and exiled to the artificial realms of the cybersphere. Charalambides is a refugee from Famagusta. We are refugees from reality. We need an exile, to show us the way home.

The very act of translating the work of one of the most renowned and celebrated living Cypriot poets, especially one who adheres so steadfastly to the Greek Cypriot linguistic register is an exacting one. While a replication of the undulating musicality of that register is almost impossible in English, John Milides artfully is able to approximate its cadences, variously through short, staccato like verses that assail the reader, alternating with long, lyrical, mellifluous stanzas that wrap around the reader like a blood-ripe Cypriot sunset.

The very title of the work presents a problem, owing to its polysemy. The word ῾βασιλεύουσα, in the original Greek title: Αμμόχωστος Βασιλεύουσα, is used in Greek to connote only one city, the city which is referred to as “THE CITY,” without the need for further explanation: Constantinople, the enduring spiritual capital of the Greek people. It is a feminine participle, signifying a “reigning.” Other translators have thus called rendered the title as “Ammochostos, Regal Capital,” a rendition that fails to embrace the way in which the poet is appropriating the singularity of Constantinople, and by inference, the importance of its fall, for his own city: Ammochostos. John Milides’ “Famagusta Regina,” is thus inspired, not only because he has been able to provide symmetry, matching the Latin version of the city’s name, with a suitable latinesque version of βασιλεύουσα, but by making Famagusta the “Queen” of Cities, he best aids and abets the poet in his appropriation of the Great Citys emotive cultural legacy, thus emphasing the enormity of the catastrophe that befell it. Moreover, the word Regina also evokes memories of British rule over the island, (ie Victoria Regina and Elizabeth Regina, the British monarchs during whose reign Cyprus was made a colony and finally, granted independence,) a subject that the poet will return to, time and time again. Finally, John Milides, in his careful and thoughtful translation, has regard to the manner in which the poet constructs or rather deconstructs, memory, form, place, name and reality itself: “Could “Famagusta,” the name of a city, be fake?/ A contrived separation of space and land, of utopia?/ Time made of finely crafted sand/ as you gaze at her white breasts.”

The sands of time continue to run through and over Ammochostos, Queen of Cities. As they do, they bury her in the bile of countless more unresolved conflicts that have come after her, serving to desensitize and already distracted people at the plight of the victims of the Cyprus invasion. Thrust among the shifting sands of this maelstrom of modern existence, if it were not for Charalambides, it would be easy to submit to the oblivion of the quicksand. Yet he and his latest translator John Milides draw dignity and strength from futility, even as everything is destined to pass on: “And then,/ the immortal city,/ although tired,/ will fall into a swoon – a monster of the lake;/ that will suddenly reappear to allay silence, and engender a bitter little almond tree….Everything exists; both those lost and those present. Everything is blown away by the wind God.”   Here then, lies the final, fragrant victory of the victims over their oppressors: “A crowd of defenceless martyrs/ from within the rocks and torrents./ A soul with so many flowers around the line of the face/ blossoms sweetly on its mountains and their windows.” (‘Baton’)
In the speaking of the poets words in various tongues, ably assisted by John Milides (“Glossolalia,”) with all its connotations of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the catholicity of a message of peace and reconciliation, “the stars of the Heavens have been purified.”(Free Field-Style Vase) An aspirational work of apokatastasis, John Milides’ translation of “Famagusta Regina,” surely is the panacea that is needed for healing in these most fractious of ages.

Famagusta Regina will be launched on 29 July 2018 at 3pm at the Pontian Community of Melbourne, 345 Victoria Street Brunswick, by Dr Thanasis Spilias and Dean Kalimniou.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 July 2018

Saturday, July 14, 2018


“Bloody fascist, communist, dictatorial SYRIZA lunatic government,” my friend raged over his soy latte.
“Yes, but what have they done now?” I asked.
“They have rejected New Democracy’s proposal to amend the voting laws so that Greeks overseas can vote in Greek elections,” he responded, eyebrows quivering.
“Considering that you have never lived in Greece and don’t hold a Greek passport, why is this a problem for you?” I enquired.
“A problem? Of course it is a problem!” he spluttered, twirling his spoon within his cup with vigour. “They are making all the non-Greeks living there citizens and denying the vote to those who have left. Soon we will be ruled by non-Greeks!”
“Pardon me for saying so, but given that both of us have been born and have lived here all our lives, who is “we?” And here in Victoria, adopting the same approach, would you say that the mainstream is ruled by the migrants that have come here, especially those involved in politics?”
“But that’s different!” my friend protested. “This country belongs to no one. Greece belongs to the Greeks.”

I must admit that since the heady days of the operation of the Council for Greeks Abroad, to have been a fervent supporter of the belief that Greece was, or should be, a type of Israel: a homeland in which all its diasporan children, scattered throughout the globe, had an immediate stake. By law, such a stake is already offered: a person of Greek descent may, having established that descent, become a Greek citizen and live in Greece as a Greek.

A person of Greek descent who lives permanently abroad, whether citizen or not, cannot however participate in Greek elections and this is a source of rancour not only among many of those living in Australia who are Greek citizens, but also those of Greek descent who are not citizens but hold the deeply held conviction that be virtue of their descent, they should have a say in the manner in which Greece is run.

The fact that Greeks living outside of Greece should determine political outcomes in Greece seems paradoxical to many in Greece. Recently, I was interviewed by a radio station in Ioannina about the Tsipras-Zaev Treaty and diasporan reactions to it. After presenting my midgivings about the Treaty and describing the manner in which it was received by the Greeks of Melbourne, the interviewer asked me: “Do you vote?” When I replied in the negative, his response was meaningful: “Then why do you care?”

Even more revealing was my own instinctive reaction to the question. I felt as if I had been kicked in the stomach. All of us who have been born here, to varying degrees, have spent time and effort creating, developing and shaping a sense of Greek identity, particular to ourselves. Doing so, requires dedication, whether this comes in the form of attending Greek school and church, learning the language, participating in festivals and cultural events or even interacting with one’s peers as a ‘Greek.’ Furthermore, these efforts take place within the context of a community whose institutions have been designed specifically with a view to preserving and perpetuating that identity and this is why in turn, it imbues its young with those values. Therefore, being “Greek,” in multicultural Australia is at the core of our very being. Our entire sense of self is invested in the concept of being “Greek,” which is why validation of that identity by the motherland in so important to us and why, when those of the motherland are perceived to call that identity into question, or seek to impugn it entirely, it hurts so much.

The very idea of diasporic Hellenism however, is inimical to the Helladocentric dependency that seems to afflict our understanding of our identity. The ancient Greek colonists who left their mother cities to found flourishing Greek colonies of their own did not lose their identity by virtue of the fact that they no longer lived in Greece. Instead, especially in Ionia, the Black Sea and southern Italy, though they maintained cultural and religious ties to their cities of origin, they refined, extrapolated and expanded the scope of that identity, making lasting contributions to broader Greek civilization, from within their places of settlement. Such a vital and emancipated approach to their identity was in not any way compromised by their inability to vote or otherwise participate in the running of the affairs of their ancestral polis. After all, political life in ancient times was inextricably linked to one’s participation and presence  within the polis. If one was not in the polis, this would render the term politics, rather redundant. The focus, always was upon actively participating in the society in which one lives, rather than the one left behind.

The dismay many Greek Australians feel at not being able to participate in the Greek voting process has thus more to do with a deep seated ontopathology giving rise to a sense of denial. If one is able to vote in Greek elections from Australia, then one has really never left Greece and the entire antipodean existence therefore becomes a marginal irrelevancy. In this way, one can continue to get worked up about bus strikes in Greece, or the refugee crisis (as diasporans, we want them all out, because they are taking up resources that could otherwise be allocated to antipodeans who generally don’t want to come back except as tourists on a holiday to Mykonos and Santorini and also because if they stay there long enough and get the right to vote, they may become more “Greek” enough and thus disenfranchise the identity of our future great-great grandchildren) and be completely indifferent and disengaged from one’s immediate, local environment.

Ultimately, it is the Greek communities of Australia that are will be the poorer for the propagation of an identity that requires direct participation in Helladic affairs. For generations, we have been labouring under a cultural cringe that views all of our cultural efforts as ersatz, the diet coke of Hellenism, ergo not quite Hellenic enough. Instead of allowing our own voices, our own modes of expression, behaviour and ultimately traditions to develop and flourish, we remain fixated upon validation from the motherland, bent upon preserving every aspect of its existence and replicating its forms in contexts that often bear no relevance to their creation in the first place. As a result, in perpetually reaching for the generating sun of the motherland, we run the risk of allowing our cultural roots to become shallow, then atrophy and die, ensuring that our precious investment in the  concept of Hellenism, was a wasted one.

I do not lament the fact that my grandparents migrated to Australia. I am proud of the fact that I consider Essendon my ancestral homeland, one that three generations on, is becoming enshrined in family lore. I am also enamoured of the villages from which my ancestors came from, for I am tied to them with bonds of blood, language, religion, culture and friendship. I want to have the best of both worlds: the opportunity to flit and slide seamlessly between the Greek and Australian cultural and linguistic traditions and I find I can already do so without the need to vote for a parliamentary representative in the part of Greece from which my grandfather left sixty five years ago. I can do so within the context of the Greek community of Melbourne, which is still large, vibrant, Greek speaking, complex, multi-faceted, unique and utterly absorbing. It is within that community and nowhere else, that I can articulate and manifest my hybrid self, secure in the knowledge of total understanding by my peers. It is here, in the Greek polis of Melbourne, that my true stake in Hellenism lies and it is in no way diminished by my inability to be exploited by Greek parties for short term political gain.

The ruling government of Greece has not rejected diasporan voting per se. Instead it has sought to defer determination of the issue, through the creation of a twelve member committee that will set up “working groups,” responsible for its discussion. Given that the Greek communities of Australia have not ever formally asked for the vote, it is to be expected that this is merely one of a perennial series of Greek carrot-dangling from a disingenuous wielder of an identity stick, eager to exploit, but never to offend.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 July 2018

Saturday, July 07, 2018


Recently, I observed the performance of one of the more skilled Greek dance groups in Melbourne, one that takes great pains to master every single detail of the dances of the region whence its performers derive their origin, and reproduces them with exacting accuracy.
“See,” the dance master beamed, “Every single detail is authentic, from the steps to the costumes, and the music, right down to the expressions on the dancers faces.”
“Not everything,” I observed.
“What?” the dance master shuddered, half in surprise, half in indignation. “We’ve enlisted the help of dance experts from Greece. Every single aspect of this performance has been meticulously researched. What is not authentic?”
“Their shirts,” I responded. “I don’t think they had collars and buttoned barrelled cuffs in those days.”
“You are right,” the dance master conceded in horror. “We have to do something about this immediately. After all we are talking about 4,000 years of history here.”

Our dances may have evolved over four millennia, but somewhere between the nineteenth and early twentieth century, that tradition became ossified, and impervious to the corrosive effects of globalisation, or indeed, to organic evolution within the changing society that it is supposed to express. Instead of responding to the manner in which modern Greece emerged, it became embalmed as one of the chief symbols with which to articulate the discourse of Hellenic identity. If a British person ventured that one of the key constituents of their ethnic identity was the Morris Dance, the quadrille,  or the medieval Volta, this would raise eyebrows. But for a Greek to assert that his identity is inextricably linked to dances popular two hundred years ago among mountain brigands, is perfectly natural.

 After all, though the traditional dances and music of the Greeks have proved largely impervious to change (with the unspeakable Gogo Tsampas’ pernicious “Τα καγκέλια” proving the disastrous effects of the theory of unnatural selection), they are still performed, in the areas where they originally arose, and within similar social contexts, such as annual rural panegyria. In the cities, that social context largely does not exist, so dances tend to be forgotten, rather than “sullied” by the westernising influences of urbanisation.

As such, traditional Greek dances can be paralleled to the Orthodox liturgy: Inexpressibly old, enshrined in millennia of arcane ritual that is unquestioned and faithfully replicated, employing an antiquated, pre-modern idiom, and yet, intelligible to all those who partake of its mystery, in a highly emotive experience that infiltrates to the very core of one’s self-perception.

In Melbourne however, the social context that tethers the relevance and immediacy of Greek dance to a topos, does not exist. Not only is Melbourne an urban entity, and thus antithetical to the rural discourse that has shaped the construction of Greek identity, but it is also an entity that prior to our arrival, had no relevance to the history of the development of it whatsoever. In one way, the nature of the appearance of Greek dance in Melbourne can be likened to dances that were forcibly extricated from their place of origin by means of man-made catastrophes, such as in the case of the Pontians, where the social context, if not the topos, was faithfully replicated in the areas of Greece where the Pontians settled, suggesting that places, real and imagined, exist contemporaneously and have great power. In Melbourne, where Greeks from all parts of the country intermingle throughout the city, there has been a remarkable sharing of traditions, with dances that in Greece would be generally known only by those stemming from that region, enjoying cross-regional dissemination.

As is the case with Pontian dance in Greece, vast importance is placed in Greek-Melbourne on “authenticity,” the exact replication and/or reconstruction of dance steps, even when the time period of the snap shot of what a dance “should” look like, is completely arbitrary. For young Greek-Melburnians in particular, born and raised in Melbourne, steeped in globalised culture and able to alternately twerk, rap or croon with the best of them, moving to the cadences of mountain shepherds that expired two centuries ago, thirteen and a half thousand kilometres away from their place of residence, and which ostensibly, at least, seem to have no bearing upon their contemporary lives, is somehow of great significance.

Intriguingly, though many latter day Greek-Melburnians may no longer speak Greek with ease, though they may have a limited, or next to no experience of Modern Greece, its politics, history or society, though they may not be church goers, though they may reject what they perceive to be the obscure and superseded traditions of their ancestors, a considerable number of them employ centuries old Greek dances as the primary method of articulating their Greek identity within modern Melbourne.

The reasons are obvious. Dances require less commitment and are less demanding than language learning or following a prescribed code of conduct. With their accoutrements, ornate standardised traditional costumes, they are also a most visible and attention-grabbing form of identity assertion. They provide, through the joining of hands, an instant kinship network, a sense of belonging, placed within an imagined, reconstructed past.

On the night that my discourse with the Greek dance master took place. I was seated at a table among a company of sixty-year olds. All of them bar one were, while the dancing display was taking place, intermitted looking down at their phones, so they could simultaneously watch the footy. Context, as always is key.

“Why don’t you get up and dance?” one of them suggested.
“I’m not from there,” was my reply and it was immediately accepted, without question. In actual fact, I am born and bred in the suburb where the dance took place. As the suburb in which my grandfather settled over six decades ago, it is my πατρίδα. Even so, there is something within me that has not permitted an Antipodean backstory to develop, sufficient for me to identify with dances that do not derive from my ancestral homelands, in order for me to enjoy them, even if they are Greek, and thus acceptable. Like so many others, I am emotionally and ideologically tied to places that have had no tangible role in my  personal evolution but which have shaped it in ways invisible nonetheless. In this way, ossified dance expresses complex and conflicting facets of a Greek-Australian identity that is still struggling to come to terms with the loss of its primeval context and to reconcile it with the benign monoculture to which it is marginally appended. The overzealous can thus be pardoned for lamenting the corruption of even the most insignificant dance step. It serves a metaphor for the diasporic condition.

There is immense power in our fossilised dances. Even as we depart further and further, linguistically, politically and socially from those who first traced their steps, they serve as arks which connect us to that context, into the future. We must have enshrined them just at the moment of Greek Independence in order to retain just one spark of freedom as a flame imperishable, to sustain and nurture us into the future. For some reason, our prescient ancestors must have felt that we had need of it.

One group that never achieved that emancipation are the Assyrians. As one dances with them, to the disconcerting sound of a keyboard, one is told: “This song is very old.” “How old?” one enquires, “Oh at least fifty years old,” comes the response. One stifles the laugh of derision that can only be chortled by those possessed of a long pedigree because these are people who have suffered genocide at least every two generations. “What are your traditional musical instruments,” one asks them. “We don’t know,” they respond sadly. “This knowledge was lost after the massacres.” “What are the lyrics to your traditional songs?” one asks. “We don’t know, they perished with our grandparents,” they sigh, dolorously.  Having no anchor, these hapless people drift from one tradition to another, buffeted by the extreme violence meted out to them in their homelands by their intolerant conquerors, until, forced to leave, they are left with few tools with which to graft their sense of self onto the broader social fabric and even less fragments with which to reconstruct or invent an identity.  Only dance remains to them. The Greek within the Greek-Australian sighs with sympathy. This could have been us, had we not the good fortune to have been freed. Each dancer I spoke with on the night of the dance, confirmed that every time they begin to perform the steps of any given traditional dance, the concept of freedom lurks somewhere at the back of their minds. And this, in spite of the lightning gaze of their puritan instructor who will accept no improvisation.

The poet Cavafy was held, in his famous poem, to have viewed the Poseidonians’ repetition of arcane rituals they no longer understood, as a symptom of assimilation. Yet he provides a clue that their dismay at that assimilation, was misplaced. After all, even if they no longer understood the original historical meaning of those rituals, they had, in their inability to emancipate themselves culturally from their motherland, invented a unique context for them, all of their own, one of longing and loss, within a topography that provides all of the material comforts unavailable in that imagined home. One can only guess at how generally he would view the heavy participation of our own dance groups in all our communal celebrations.

Which is why every night, when I come home from work, I gather my half-Greek-Australian offspring together and with manifest exuberance, dance the Μπεράτι with them. We then go on to lament the death of Markos Botsaris and the sullying of Yiannis’ handkerchief, perhaps, the greatest loss of all.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 July 2018