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