Saturday, August 25, 2018


There is nothing ostensibly remarkable about my grandfather’s village, Mytilinioi, in eastern Samos. Founded on the side of a hill, the sleepy settlement moves stubbornly but surely, to an archetypal rhythm of rural life, that has deserted many of the more commercial Greek islands.

The very name Mytilinioi is suggestive of a foreign provenance for its inhabitants. Legend holds variously that the village was either settled by earthquake-striken refugees from Mytilene, in Lesbos, in the 1700s, or, settled somewhat earlier, by Mytilenians at the behest of Kılıç Ali Pasha, an Italian convert to Islam in 1549, which is how the village received its current name. My own people, like most of the modern day inhabitants, settled in the region from Asia Minor, separated from the island by nothing more than a narrow channel. Although the village has a distinct late nineteenth century, Aegean fin de siècle feel about it, it is pervaded by a strange conflicting sentiment that it is both of the island, and yet, not of it. It is a feeling reinforced by the inobtrusive presence of remains of cyclopean walls in its vicinity, a crumbling witness to the works of long forgotten ancestors who now underscore their descendants’ lives with mute protest at their consignment to oblivion, even as they are trampled underfoot.

There is a charnel house to the memory of those whose existence pre-dates even that of the Cyclopeans, in the village. For the land around Mytilinioi encloses a remarkable array of fossils from the Miocene epoch, some twenty five million years ago. As farmers till their fields, they uncover prodigious fossil bones, gleaming within the red earth, the remains of extinct precursors of modern species of horses, giraffes, elephants and rhinoceroses. These are lovingly conserved in the Paleontological Museum, along with a display proudly exhibiting the skull of a Samotherium, a type of extinct giraffid of the Miocene, serving, according to some archaeologists, as the inspiration for the depiction of the monsters fought by Hercules on ancient Greek vases.

 Also on display is the ‘kaplani,’ a type of Anatolian leopard immortalised in Marxist author Alki Zei’s famous children’s book about the Metaxas Dictatorship: “Wildcat Under Glass.”  This kaplani would swim across the straits of Mycale to Samos in order to feast upon Samian sheep and goats, before it was finally cornered in a cave, killed and stuffed for posterity. The Museum also unnervingly houses a collection of stuffed native Australian animal souvenirs, all of which appear to have their origins in the Victoria Market; mementoes, from those who have gone abroad and who are destined to leave their bones there, instead of their own bone bespattered birthplace. This is a people who, being of primordial provenance, have no conception of antiquity or what to do with it. Instead, past, present and future conflate into a singular existence that bestrides eternity.

In this, they are no different from the ancients who, unbeknownst to their antecedents, trod the rich incarnadine earth before them. Unearthing impossibly gigantic femurs and otherworldly scapulae in the course of their daily endeavours, the ancient Samians, reverently deposited them in their own archetype of the Paleontological Museum, the great temple of Hera on Samos. Archaeologists excavating the altar of that temple have discovered a large fossilised thigh bone from Mytilinioi, dedicated in the seventh century BC. Unlike their descendants, totally disconnected from their environs, the Samians of old, looked upon their ossified discoveries with awe. For them, they bore witness to the supernatural made manifest upon the earth, a battle between wild forces, untamed and a good deal of slaughter.

In the mythology of the ancients, the god of ritual madness and revelry,  Dionysus, was making his way from India to Greece, when he encountered a band of antagonistic Amazons near the sanctuary of the goddess Artemis, at Ephesus. That temple, one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World was constructed upon a sanctuary said to have been founded by the Amazons themselves. A battle ensued and the historian Plutarch takes up the story: Amazons, flying before Dionysus from the coasts of Ephesus, fell upon Samos, and thereupon Dionysus, rigging up his ships wafted over.”When he caught up with the hapless Amazons on Samos, according to Plutarch, “joining battle,  [Dionysus] slew an abundance of them about that place.” In his satirical masterpiece ‘Gargantua and Pantagruel,’ Rabelais describes the manner of the Amazon’  as a “phlebotomy.” The site where so much Amazon blood was shed, seeping into the ground and dyeing it forever a crimson hue, was thereafter named Πάναιμα (Panaema) meaning ‘All-Blood.’  That place is the village Mytilinioi, and the fossils the ancients found there were considered by them to be the remains of Dionysus’ slain Amazons. Even the large tusks unearthed from the red earth were considered to be the remains of the god’s war elephants, transported by him from India and were thus reverently offered to the temple of Hera. In that temple, we find one the most ancient depictions of an Amazon: a fragment of a helmeted, spear-carrying warrior woman, clad in a spotted leopard skin.

Though the name Panaema slowly faded away in the aftermath of successive population movements occasioned by constant war and instability in the region, the introduction of Christianity, and the coming of Islam, the modern re-naming of the blood-soaked location of the Amazons’ demise as Mytilinioi, is inordinately symbolic. For according to Stephanus of Byzantium, quoting the ancient historian Ephorus of Cyme, Mytilene, in Greek mythology was an Amazon, the sister of Amazon Queen Myrina, who ruled most of Asia Minor, including Anaea, a city just across the water from Samos, named in honour of a homonymous fallen Amazon, all of whom fought in the battle against Dionysus, at Panaema.

Despite the passage of time, Amazons can still be found in Mytilinioi these days. They are the hardy women that have experienced a life-time of tribulation, wars, privation and hardship and yet still endure, their sweat and tears seeping into the ground and mingling with that of their illustrious sisters. Some of them still linger, across the seas, in the other lands they have settled in, fleeing the wrath of Dionysus. Though diminutive, their shadows loom large over their less competent angst ridden and ennui laden descendants, even as they diminish.  My grandmother, though slightly less than five feet tall, was one of them, and a corner of Moonee Ponds will be forever soaked with the fluids of her life’s essence.

The Palaeontological Museum of Mytilinioi sits adjacent to my family’s fields. The first time I visited Samos, soon after the death of my Amazonian grandmother, I stood on that blood-red land, a place which we have long abandoned and in which we are barely remembered, and ran its Amazon-infused soil again and again through my fingers. In the motion of the soil particles flowing from my palm down back into the ground, the identity of the uncanny, otherworldly creature crossing the liminal zone between Asia Minor and Greece, the known and the unknown worlds, became blurred. The notion that the kaplani and the Amazons mediate between worlds became compelling: East and West, human and animal, aquatic and terrestrial, native and foreign, and, in a place steeped in ancient slaughter, life and death. These dichotomies are strangely drawn together in the manifest victory of the (barely) civilised over the barbarous mediated by the preserved trophy skin of the kaplani: it claims kinship with the picture of the leopard-skin clad Amazon provided as an offering to the temple of Hera only a few kilometres away. In final irony over the slain Amazon who wore its pelt, the kaplani, the most-likely extinct Panthera pardus tulliana, was an animal associated as much with the cult of Dionysus, as it was with the Orient.

As the sun languidly set over the Paleontological Museum of Mytilinioi, bathing my ancestral fields in streams of vermillion, I no longer knew where I was. An inherited vision of my grandfather standing in the exact same spot, just after a succession of bloody wars, resolving  that this land had become saturated with blood to the point where it could absorb no more, assailed my eyes. My grandfather turned his back on Panaema. And as dusk turned to darkness, I embraced the identity of the kaplani, swimming across the dichotomies of my own existence, becoming in the process, like the Amazons, extinct. As I oriented myself sanguinely towards my home across the seas, the voices of those other, demented victims of Dionysus irrepressible impetus rose up from the earth to taunt me:  “From far off lands of Asia,/ From Tmolus the holy mountain,/ We run with the god of laughter…/ As he shakes his delicate locks to the wild wind,/ And amidst the frenzy of song he shouts like thunder:/ ‘On, on! Run, dance, delirious, possessed!/ You, the beauty and grace of golden Tmolus…” At Panaema, Mytilinioi, the terminal point, all running stops and all departures begin.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 August 2018

Saturday, August 18, 2018


 Whether by accident or design, the ancient cultures of Greece and China, though geographically at great distances from each other and politically, poles apart, present interesting parallels. One of many of these, would undoubtedly have to be surprising similarities in the foundational texts of both civilisations. Somewhere between 1000BC to 800BC, Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, came into being, on the extreme western coast of Asia (Minor). At roughly the same time, at the easternmost extremity of the same continent, during China’s Zhou dynasty, the seminal “Classics of Poetry,” were collated.
The civilisations that the Greek and Chinese texts describe are ostensibly, quite different. Homer’s world appears to be a warrior culture, in which individual strength is glorified and is comprised of tiny city states. Zhou dynasty China on the other hand, though just as war riven, presents itself as a sophisticated civilisation, with knowledge of its long lineage, expert in the governance of large megacities and able to articulate an advanced appreciation of aesthetics. For this reason, various Chinese scholars such as Xu Yuanchong, compare Homer's Iliad unfavourably to the Zhou dynasty's "Classic of Poetry" on the grounds that the Iliad glorifies war and heroes, whereas the "Classic of Poetry" compendium, sings in praise of peace and the common man.
 This, I think, is missing the point of the Iliad, a complex and subversive work dealing with man's thralldom to fate and the capriciousness of the gods, and ultimately the futility of glory, pride and martial valour in the face of intellectual rigour and always, the sheer futility of it all, given the arbitrary manner in which the gods deal with their human wards.
 In Hector's farewell address to Andromache, for example, Homer has the great hero proclaim: "Where heroes war, the foremost place I claim, The first in danger as the first in fame." Soon after, the Trojan warrior is killed and his body dragged around the Troy in a chariot. So much for military glory.

Zhou dynasty poems, as contained in the Classic of Poetry, present eerily similar themes. Take "a Border Song" by Lu Lun:
 "In gloomy woods grass shivers at wind's howl./ The general takes it for a tiger's growl./He shoos and seeks his arrow-plume next morn,/ only to find a rock pierced amid the thorn."
Similarly, in "Starting for the Front," Wang Han writes: "With wine of grapes the cups of jade would glow at night;/ Drinking to pipa songs, we are summoned to fight./ Don't laugh if we lay drunken on the battleground,/ How many warriors ever came back safe and sound?"
Fate is thus one of the key determinants of a soldier’s life. Wang Han’s sentiments come to be echoed in Patroclus’ retort to Hector, as Hector taunts him, while killing him:
“No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me,and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer.And put away in your heart this other thing that I tell you.
You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now alreadydeath and powerful destiny are standing beside you,to go down under the hands of Aiakos' great son, Achilleus.”

As foundational documents of identity, the Iliad and the Odyssey, at the same time that they offered subtle critiques of the society they were portraying, were creating for the Greeks, a sense of who they were and what values they should espouse. While the Iliad presented a Greek male as someone who carefully cultivated his sense of honour or τιμή, especially, as a warrior, the Odyssey presented the values of peace-time, where such concepts as looking after one’s home, providing guests with appropriate hospitality and being loyal to one’s household and kin, were considered of paramount importance, not only to mankind, but also to the gods as well, considering that it was their values and their behaviour, that seeping down to mankind, were emulated and espoused by it.
A similar “top-down” world view can be found in contemporary Zhou poetry. For example, the King Wen cycle of poems, also plays a similar foundational role in Chinese society, setting the yardstick for the desired moral conduct of all those who would follow his example, proving instrumental in the development of Chinese political culture.
In the cycle, we are told that a wise ruler must order his kingdom by first making his home harmonious, reflecting the harmony of heaven. A good ruler, and a good man, must behave virtuously both in public and private, seeking order and justice at home and then in the sphere outside of it. Thus both ethics espouse a “trickle down” morality, even if the values which are to be espoused differ as much as the character of each society does.
In contrast with his Zhou counterpart, however, the Homeric hero seems to lack an inner voice, and relishes in combat, as can be evidenced in this battle scene: "And he pitched Pisander off the chariot on to earth/ and plunged a spear in his chest – the man crashed on his back as/ Hippolochus leapt away, but him he killed on the ground,/ slashing off his arms with a sword, lopping off his head/ and he sent him rolling through the carnage like a log." The description is so excessively gory that one becomes convinced that Homer is being deliberately subversive, turning the Mycenaean macho warrior culture on its head, even as he purports to celebrate it.
Du Fu, in his “Song of the Frontier,” on the other hand, presents the soldier as one who, while dutifully carrying out orders and cultivating martial prowess, despises war and seeks to compartmentalise it, removing it from the sphere of the pre-ordained: “The bow you carry should be strong/ The arrows you use should be long./ Before a horseman, shoot his horse;/ Capture the chief to beat his force!/ Slaughter shan’t go beyond its sphere./ Each State should guard its own frontier./ If an invasion is repelled, Why shed more blood unless compelled?” Nonetheless, both lineages are venerable, and thematically at least, complement each other, even as they respond to their realities and prevailing mores differently.

 Nostos, or the irrepressible desire for return home, is at the centre of the Odyssey. When Odysseus lands in Ithaca, he is so aged and changed by his travails, that no one is able to recognize him but his dog. A similar scene is played out in “Home-Coming,” by He Zhizhang: “Oh, I return to the homeland I left while young,/ Thinner has grown my hair, though I speak the same tongue./ My children, whom I meet, do not know who I am. “Where are you from, dear sir?” they ask with beaming eyes.”
Finally, compare the unsurpassable Li Bai's "A Faithful Wife Longing for Her Husband In Spring," where the suitor is elemental, to Penelope and Odysseus in the "Odyssey:"
"With Northern grass like green silken thread,/ western mulberries bend their head./ When you think of home on your part,/ already broken is my heart./ Vernal wind, intruder unseen, how dare you part my bed-screen!"
Whereas the Iliad and the Odyssey is dynamic in tone and relishes in words, Zhou poetry on the whole is sparse and reflective.  When translating it, I am amazed at how polyvalent each character is, and how it is impossible to render all of its connotations into English or Greek without almost writing an essay in order to convey these. Any translation can in no way replicate the sparse rhythm and tonality of the original Chinese. Regardless, when engaging either with the Homeric epics, or the poetry of the Zhou dynasty, complementary within their contexts while simultaneously so deliciously diverse, whether as Greeks, or as Chinese, we invariably do as Du Mu, in his poem “Red Cliff”, ever in awe of the longevity and brilliance of western and eastern arms of world civilisation: “We dig out broken halberds buried in the sand,/ And wash and rub these relics of an ancient war.”
First published in NKEE on 18 August 2018

Saturday, August 11, 2018


“The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.”

One of the elements that make Melbourne special for me, is its plethora of signs in other languages and alphabets that can be found identifying businesses. From Chinese characters employed for the various Chinese and Vietnamese languages, to Arabic, Ethiopian and tentatively hanging on in an age of assimilation, partly as relics, partly in a last linguistic assertion of dynamism, Greek and Italian, navigating the streets of Melbourne truly is a multi-lingual experience, one that pays tribute and bears testament to the enterprising nature of our vibrant ethnic communities.
In the context of multicultural Melbourne, signs like the one  here reproduced, on the shopfront of Liquorland in Oakleigh, welcoming all and sundry to the locality are thus entirely unremarkable. Displayed variously, are salutations and wishes of good health customarily proffered before or while imbibing beverages. Languages featured range from Dutch, Italian, French, Hawaiian, Spanish and Gaelic, though the Gaelic Sláinte, is misspelt, lacking an e. Also, in questionable transliteration, Japanese and Hindi make an appearance, the rendering of the words Namaste, Kanpai and Konnichiwa (sic) appearing to be an aid in pronunciation, while the Mandarin Chinese greeting Nĭ hăo is admirably provided in the romanised pinyin form. Its intent is clear, to greet potential customers and the populace at large in a large gamut of languages, and to wish them good health, implying that in this great Babel of the South, the one true language that unites us all is that of enjoying a decent alcoholic beverage, presumably, one purchased therein.
Sadly, not all of us appear to be called to partake of this grand linguistic communion of intoxication, something that has given rise to dysphoria among local members of the Greek community, who feel, like the virgins in the Parable of the Bridegroom, left out of the festivities. The Greek language inexplicably appears nowhere on Liquorland’s sign, neither as a greeting, nor as an aspirational expression for the overall well-being of the Hellenic would be consumer.
Sundry members of the Greek community who reside in Oakleigh and espouse the conviction that its locality is synonymous with the Melbournian Greek identity have interpreted the omission of Greek as a slight. Given the axiomatic importance of the Greek community to the municipal entity and the city itself, it is inconceivable to them that such an omission could be due to oversight, or disinterest. Instead, deep, dark, nefarious purposes are at play here, as locals variously commented: “An insult to the Greek community!” “Racism!” and “I reckon they done it on purpose.” Others used the omission to assert demographic claims of superiority over the region, bordering on the irredentist, thus: “Something is missing….the majority are Greek speaking, ” “Someone didn’t do their research about the main demographic in Oakleigh,” and the perceptive: “No need for Greek, it is the official language of Oakleigh, this sign is only for the ‘foreigners.’”
Of course, the Menander the Great prize for Greco-Bactrian excellence is awarded to the gentleman who perspicaciously pointed out on social media, that Greek is already represented in the form “Namaste’ (‘here we are,’) highlighting the polysemy of the Hindu greeting and the ancient links between our two venerable civilisations. After all, Dionysus, the god of wine, was said to have come from India.
What is noteworthy about all of these observations is just how tightly the conception of the Greek identity is enfolded within their Australian place of residence.  Consequently, any act or omission that elides or obfuscates their presence in that residence is tantamount to effacing the existence of Greeks itself, resulting in a particularly hurtful negation of the individual Hellenic hypostasis.
Yet I would argue that the exclusion of Greek from Liquorland’s signage is not just a slight, it marks the height of ingratitude. Long before the English language existed, the ancient Greeks invented the liquor trade, going so far as to sell their wares to the French. In fact, it is estimated that the Greeks of hallowed antiquity shipped nearly ten million litres of wine into Gaul each year through their colony Massalia, modern day Marseilles, while discoveries of grave goods in the Burgundy region reveal a heavy prevalence of Greek-made kraters, designed to hold over 1,000 litres of wine. An acknowledgment of France’s debt to Greek viticulture should ordinarily entitle each and every Greek to a complimentary bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild Pauillac, but the French are the French and Liquorland is but a parvenu in the annals of wine purveyance.
Even the earliest reference to a named wine is from the lyrical poet Alkman of Sparta. In the seventh century BC, he praised “Denthis,” a wine from the western foothills of Mount Taygetus as “anthosmias” (smelling of flowers.) No less a personage than Aristotle made a detailed description of the Lemnia grape, which he stated was the specialty of the island of Limnos, the same as the modern day Lemnio varietal, this being a red wine, possessed of a bouquet of oregano and thyme. Lemnio is thus the oldest known varietal still in cultivation, and Liquorland ought to pay the requisite homage. But then again, Heraclitus did observe that: “It is better to hide ignorance, but it is hard to do this when we relax over wine.” Or multilingual signs for that matter.
Those who would deny us the juices of the fruit of the vine do so at their peril. After all, it was the great Shakespeare who recorded in Richard III that the unfortunate Duke of Clarence met his death by being drowned by his brother Edward IV in a butt of Malmsey, a wine originating in Crete, and one of the most popular alcoholic beverages of northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Even before that, Commandaria wine from Cyprus, was served at the wedding of Richard the Lionheart. Furthermore, such was the Constantinopolitans’ adoration of wine and skill in trading it in times Byzantine, that the City earned the following appellation from denizens of Northern Europe: “Winburg,” which in the vulgar parlance, loosely translates as ‘Liquorland.’ Now the true reason for the absence of Greek is made abundantly clear. You didn’t think we would find out, did you, o hapless Liquorlanders? Ultimately therefore, not just a case, but the entire stock of the modern corporate entity that has appropriated our trading name is properly owed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, payment to be made by way of delivery to its various sub-branches situated in those parishes proximate to  Liquorland stores, in order to save on logistics. The proverb: “Byzantium conquers all with its wine,” is particularly apt here, even though its source is unattested, and is probably spurious, which is for the best really, given that the ACCC is not that tolerant of monopolies these days and the Emperors predictable enough neglected annually to renew their business name.
To those who postulate: “while you were still swinging in trees, we were building the Parthenon, the historian Thucydides adds: “The peoples of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.”
Euripides perhaps says it better: “Where there is no wine, there is no love.” For ultimately, that is all we ever wanted, Liquorland. To be invited in for a quick snifter, to love and be loved. And you did neither, at least not in the beginning. Such was the wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from the Hellenic holdfasts of Oakleigh that Liquorland has come to realise the error of its ways and has proclaimed its resolve to include Greek among the languages upon its welcome board. As yet, there is no news about the status of negotiations as to the Byzantine naming dispute, although I am reliably informed that “Southern Winburg” and “Australo-Liquorland” have made the solution shortlist.
The last time I walked into a Liquorland store, I was in search of retsina. The young man at the counter looked at me quizzically, and informed me that it was not in stock. As I walked away, he remarked: “How can you drink that stuff? You know that Liutprand of Cremona said of retsina: "To add to our calamity the Greek wine, on account of being mixed with pitch, resin, and plaster was to us undrinkable?"
“Yes” I replied, “and an excess of undiluted retsina was supposedly lethal for King Eric I of Denmark and Sigurd I of Norway. Pouring oenopoeic scorn upon the Greek and his works places one in mortal danger.”  
“Relax,” he soothed me emolliently. “Was it not Homer, who said “The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken?”
“I’m pretty sure that was UB40,” I responded, “but I applaud your sentiments.” Now that an entire Greek community is once more made welcome at Oakleigh through the graces of Liquorland, let us descend upon it en masse, bearing dockets, in search of discounts, mindful always of the words of the great cynic Diogenes: “I like best the wine drunk at the cost of others.” It’s your shout.

First published in NKEE on 11 August 2018

Saturday, August 04, 2018


The almost apocalyptic catastrophe afflicting Athens recently is truly immense. Over eighty people have perished and hundreds more have suffered terrible wounds in sense reminiscent of the 1922 Smyrna conflagration. Is this a tragedy? Absolutely. Is it a ‘Greek tragedy?’ Arguably, it is.

A Greek tragedy, as opposed to any other type, broadly refers to a form of theatre whereby the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.

Applying this definition, Greece, a country of immense importance to the world for reasons that are well known and superfluous to mention here, has experienced disaster owing to circumstances it could not deal with. Arguably, ‘personal’ failings may have contributed to that disaster in the sense that ailing and beleaguered Greek society, struggling for almost a decade under an economic, social and political crisis that threatens to pull apart the country at the seams, has produced, it is widely believed, the arsonists that are responsible for this heinous crime. It is also being argued that fire prevention and protection readiness was nowhere near what it should have been and that this is a major failing of the state. As such, all the elements are there to plausibly maintain that the fires do signify, a Greek tragedy.

Given the above, why do we as Greek-Australians, instinctively recoil at Adelaide advertiser cartoonist Jos Valdman’s cartoon entitled: “Another Greek Tragedy?” Why have Greek-Australians found it demeaning and chafe at its connotations? Ostensibly, the cartoon does not appear to offend. To the right, it depicts some burly hoplites bearing water filled amphorae, engaged in the process of extinguishing the fire. The conflagration itself is suggested by a few wisps of flame to the extreme upper and lower right, as if the cartoonist wishes to draw the viewers’ attention away from it and onto the humans who are suffering as a result of it.

To the left, a Grecian couple is locked in an embrace. Dignified in their sorrow, they shed bitter tears. A determined man kneeling behind them, his stern gaze imbued with a sense of purpose, seems to be collecting those tears in an amphora, suggesting that this vessel, brining with tears will be handed to the heroic aquarii, who will then use them to put out the fire. The message here seems to be one of a Greek people who are utterly alone, stripped bare and totally dispossessed of any means to protect themselves, reduced to using their own tears, a powerful symbol of mourning, in order to deal with the latest catastrophe to afflict them. Nonetheless, they do not flee, nor do they give up. Nourished by the collective anguish of the Greek people, the stronger amongst them, hasten to protect them and provide them succour. Owing to their resourcefulness in the face of adversity, they have not let the flames consume them. Instead, they have banished the flames to the edge of the cartoon. On the extreme right, one of the hoplite fire-fighters bears a shield emblazoned with the image of Pegasus. Not only is the white Pegasus a symbol of purity, his white wings are a symbol of hope, suggesting that the Greek people can and will manage to see their spirits soar as they slowly recover from the tragedy. Moreover, according to Greek mythology, everywhere this winged horse struck his hoof to the earth, an inspiring water spring would burst forth. Triumph over adversity. The victory of life, over death.

The ancient Greek vase the tableau unfolds itself upon is cracked, but it is not broken. Some cracks can be mended, some cannot, but this particular crack does not appear to affect the structural integrity of the vessel. The cartoonist here seems to imply that though Greece is battered and bruised, she is not damaged beyond repair. She will endure. And she will reach the heights once more, not through the intervention of other parties, but rather through the endeavours of its own people.

Valdman’s cartoon, is thus an extremely well-considered pictorial representation of a tragedy, imbued with a multiplicity of meanings that are designed to evoke in their decoder, sympathy but not condescension. Instead, he has afforded both the victims and the Greek people themselves immense nobility. There is a synergy to the figures portrayed on the vase that suggests that the Greek people, though afflicted have, to use the vernacular, “got this.” They have the inner resources to deal with every single tragedy that comes their way. The depiction of the modern Greeks in the guise of their ancient forebears further reinforces this message, as does the title of the cartoon, where the word ‘Another’ is of vital significance to the overall meaning of the piece: The Greeks are a very old people who have being dealing with tragedy since the dawn of time. They will overcome.

There is thus nothing offensive about Valdman’s sensitive and respectful cartoon. Granted, Greek-Australians profoundly dislike being stereotyped and are often indignant at the perceived inability of the mainstream to deal with or portray Greeks on their own terms, as they really are, without resorting to clichés that reduce and ultimately trivialize Greeks, portraying them either as an eternal subversive, an antiquated relic, or a trifling, orientalised entity of little or no substance, thus relegating them to the margins of the discourse. Yet this is definitely not the situation with Valdman’s ‘Another Greek Tragedy.’

Rather than stereotype the Greek people, the cartoonist has employed his arts expertly, in finding a common denominator that will speak to the heart of the non-Greek viewer and assist him to find common ground with the victims of the fires. Valdman has achieved this by recognizing that ancient Greece is widely considered to by the foundation of western civilization and drawing from that knowledge. In depicting the fire-fighters as hoplites, he hearkens back to the heroic battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, events that in the West have become synonymous with valour, dedication and courage. He implies that the modern Greeks who stand in their ancestors shoes retain the same attributed. He connotes that such values are eternal within the Greek. In fact, in choosing to portray the modern Greek victims of the terrible fires as ancient Greeks, (and how many times do we as Greeks shove our ancient past in the faces of westerners, demanding homage as a consequence of it, and how many times do we use it as a birch twig with which to flagellate ourselves for our perceived comparative incompetency?) Valdman has cleverly broken down barriers of bigotry in order to find a common cultural denominator where victim and empathiser can look upon each other, not as equals, but as one. This is a remarkable achievement and one that deserves praise, not condemnation.

If there is a tragedy outside of Valdman’s inspired cartoon, it is this: that in our own ontopathology, enmeshed within a quagmire of conflicted attitudes to our identity and the way we and others represent it, we are unable to accept a compliment and a genuine gesture of solidarity when it is proffered, unless we dictate its terms. It is sad the editor of the Adelaide Advertiser was compelled to apologise to righteously indignat Greeks stating: "The cartoon was meant to be a poignant tribute to the Greek people, both the tragedy they are now facing and their undeniable resilience.....It was never our intention to add to the hurt or distress the Greek community has been suffering as a result of the fires."

Ultimately, in castigating the well-meaning and fabulously polysemic efforts of Valdman to laud the Greek people, respect the victims and lionize the firefighters who have saved their lives, we run the risk of contributing to our own, tragedy of pettiness and our complete alienation from the mainstream narrative, for fear of offence.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 4 August 2018