Saturday, November 24, 2018


If one was called upon to guess the identity of the structure occupying the photograph accompanying these words, two possible answers suggest themselves, the first: that this is a representation of Saint Sophia, the greatest church in Christendom and the epicentre of the soul of every modern Greek. The second: that this structure, with its lofty verdigris patinaed dome, depicts Flinders Street Station, one of the iconic landmarks of Melbourne and one of the few that draw inspiration from the Byzantine architectural tradition.
Although, when seeking to define ourselves to ourselves as well as to others we, as Greek-Australians often resort to appropriating our ancient past, when it comes to Byzantium, we draw a blank. This period is barely, if at all, taught in our schools. It figures nowhere in the midst of the helmeted and shielded hoplites or foustanella-clad freedom fighters that populate our festivals. There are no diademed Emperors borne on shields by Varangians, preceded by labarum bearing cataphracts in the public assertions of our identity. For most modern Greek-Australians, it plays absolutely no role in our communal discourse. This is significant, because the Byzantine Era represents one thousand years of experience and history and yet, our community pays scant regard to it.
There are a number of reasons for this. Since the time of Gibbon, who wrote a scathing history of Byzantium in 1776, the West, in appropriating ancient Greek culture as its own, has orientalised Byzantium as a corrupt, venal, and nefarious concern. We have internalised this orientalisation and turned it upon ourselves. It is thus common for Greeks to dismiss Byzantium as naught else but a dim era of religious strife and prejudice, one that destroyed the supposedly rational and democratic ancient world, only to usher in, superstition and tyranny. So internalised is this Western-imposed orientalisation that it is often forgotten than for at least eight hundred of its one thousand years of existence, Greek-speaking Byzantium was a major world power, at the forefront of technological innovation and possessed of a vital, erudite culture, steeped within the ancient tradition, that was in constant conversation with and constituted, the envy of the known world.
The other problem we have with Byzantium is that because we have reinvented ourselves in accordance with western concepts of the nation-state during the advent of nineteenth century nationalism, whereby a single national identity based on shared social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a shared and singular history, is propagated, we cannot see how Byzantium can fit into our newly moulded, narrow self-conception. Byzantium was after all, a multi-ethnic, Greek-speaking empire, populated by people who, though they spoke Greek, believed themselves to be Romans and citizens of the Eastern Roman Empire, heirs to the polity of Caesar Augustus. Byzantium thus transcends and subverts all those elements that we are told, comprise the modern Greek.
Then there are the four hundred years of Ottoman occupation, which was brought about by the fall of Constantinople, the Byzantine megacity. Those four centuries, upon which we blame all our ills, defects, failures and perceived shortcomings, were sufficient to break almost completely, the long, unbroken relationship with both our ancient and medieval past, which is how the West was able to hijack the discourse of our identity and history in the first place. Consequently, we have, through that great break in tradition, lost the ability to view our past and its seamless evolution from within the paradigm of its own tradition. Instead, we view it with foreign eyes, disparagingly, glossing over those things that those who control the discourse deride, and emphasising those elements that we believe will gain us favour in their eyes, in the process, creating a vast repository of convictions of inadequacy.
It is for this reason that the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria Greek Language Schools’ drama production on the history of Byzantium is so breathtaking and so revolutionary. For the first time in the one hundred or so years of our existence in Australia as a community, the GOCMV schools have attempted to assert the intrinsic place that the Byzantine Era must have in assessing and gaining an understanding of the cultural underpinnings of the modern Greek, and indeed in the formulation of our own identity narrative and have chosen to do so, in dramatic form.
Their endeavour is magisterial in scope, presenting a complex and compelling tableaux of vignettes that in succession, illustrate the diversity of experience but also the epic rise and ultimate fall of an Empire we all ignore, while secretly mourning our exile from the greatness that it represented and whose vestiges are still embedded within us, as a form of communal destiny.

Thus, thanks to the practised and professional artistic direction of talented drama teachers Katerina Poutachidou and Eleni Boukouvala, ably assisted by educator Vicky Petalas, whose inspired, minimalist treatment and immense attention to detail and authenticity (among other things she engaged in extensive research as to the exact hue and design of Constantine’s Chi Rho banner of victory) facilitates our conjuring up of vivid images of the era, we bear witness to the founding of the city of Byzantium in times ancient by the Megarian Byzas, and are present when Roman Emperor Constantine witnesses a vision of the Cross, that changes history as we know it and alters the geographic epicentre of the Greek world. We wail and gnash our teeth as we expect the imminent arrival of the barbarians, sit upon the edge of our seats as we await the outcome of the Nika riots, breathing a sigh of relief as the Emperor Justinian manages to save his throne, just in time to codify laws and construct Saint Sophia as the most enduring architectural monument of Eastern Christendom. The hair on our arms stand on end as we are propelled towards resplendently clad Empress Theodora, power personified and the major player behind what arguable constitutes the world’s first power couple. Finally, we rage with indignation at the Latin betrayal and rape of “our” eternal City in 1204 and weep when the desolate Constantine Palaiologos, in a poignant confrontation with turban-clad half-Greek Mehmet II, refuses to surrender the City to him, indicating that it belongs not to him, but to powers spiritual, timeless and infinite. All the while, something magical takes hold. Time itself is subverted. Within a period of less than two hours, we have lived through and most importantly, felt, an entire millennium. We have partaken of it and now it resides within us.

The actors portraying the diverse roles demanded by an undertaking of such immense undertaking, and indeed, some expertly played multiple characters, are locally-born, Greek-Australian GOCMV students. The language employed in the production was of a demanding nature and yet the students acquitted themselves admirably, assimilating, but most importantly interpreting their given texts so that they were delivered, not as unintelligible tongue-twisters, but instead, within context and with the requisite poise and passion. As a consequence of their art, a particularly strident and imperious Justinian, an electrifyingly omnipotent Theodora, a dolorous but dignified Constantine and an industrious Anthemius and Isodorus were conjured from the depths of history and vivified, drawing us inexorably and artfully, into their world.
In their dramatic production, the GOCMV and its inspired teachers display the same technique: show, do not tell. Practise, do not preach. There is no nationalistic narrative here, no hyperpatriotic hyperbole to engender anachronistic perspectives. Such brotherhood as exists, is found through kinship forged as companions on a journey back through time together and in the rediscovery of semitones in symphonies half-remembered but never entirely forgotten. This is an opportunity for us to view our ancestors as humans, not as stereotypes and the directors and writers of the epic treat it with great sensitivity.
All the while, the protagonist of this journey, the students, are not only gaining the necessary tool to place their identity into context, they are also vastly improving their fluency in Greek. As a result of their innovative efforts, these talented educators have truly redefined Greek language education discourse in Australia, teasing its permutations and extending its boundaries far beyond the staid, the stolid, the self-interested and ultimately the self-defeating, challenging preconceptions of what is possible. This is what the best of Greek language teaching in Australia does: it vivifies the language and makes it relevant not only to the mother land, but to all of us living in our own community here. Byzantium exists here: in Flinders Street Station, in our internecine politics and engraved upon our tongues.
Bearing witness to the pomp, the pageantry, but also the skill, the optimism and the progressiveness that characterise both Byzantium on stage and the Greek language education in general, truly the GOCMV and its team of accomplished pedagogues have earned the right to exclaim, as Justinian did before them: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” To the shield bearing linguists of our most hallowed tongue therefore, thrice hail and νίκα.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 November 2018

Saturday, November 17, 2018


That stupid kid,” my friend raged as his son cowered in the corner, protecting his carefully coiffed hairstyle from his father’s verbal onslaught. “A detention again! Can you believe it? I slave away every day trying to get enough money to pay his bloody fees and he goes and gets himself a detention.”
“What did he do?”
 I asked.
“Can you hear vre?” my friend shouted. “Tell θείο what you did.”
“Backchatted to the teacher,” the boy mumbled, reaching into his pockets to extract a fidget spinner.
“Backchatted to the teacher,” my friend repeated syllabically, in a manner reminiscent of the arrested enunciation of the Greek-Australians of the nineties. “And what did you back-chat about?”
“Questioned school policy on uniform,” the boy offered indifferently, betwixt texting a friend with his new iphone. “The school tie is a form of forced conformity and repression.”
“Ακούς ρε; He questioned school policy, ο μάγκας,” my friend crowed. “Because he doesn’t want to wear the school tie. Do I pay for you to learn, or to become a social fashion activist re? Answer me!”
 the boy shrugged and shuffled off towards his Xbox, nonchalantly.
“Can you see the new generation?” my friend sighed. “Defiant. Uncooperative. Thinks the world owes them a favour. My son, a detention!”I watched him as he began to scratch away in exasperation at the psychosomatic eczema that blazed its way up his forearm. The livid red colour matched exactly, the furious flush of his cheeks.
“I seem to remember that you also were the recipient of a detention back in your heyday,” I reminisced. “In fact, if I remember correctly, it was almost an expulsion? You and Jimmy?”
Immediately my friend spun around, a gleam in his eye. “That was different,” he grinned. “That was a righteous revolution! A fight against oppression, a blow against the establishment….It was….”
“What exactly happened?” I asked. “I remember your mum coming around in tears, crying to my mum that you had just thrown away your future but I never was able to get the full story. Next thing I knew, you had gotten into medicine, your parents had bought you a car and were going around telling all the χωριανοί that you were a brain surgeon… I assume everyone lived happily ever after?”
My friend fingered the remote key to his BMW x 5 lovingly. “It all started when my parents enrolled me in the private school,” he reminisced. “Being the only Greek, and of a working class family in a school chock full of the privileged families of the suburb is one thing. Being dropped off to school in your father’s Kingswood, is quite another. Don’t get me wrong. I was proud of my dad and I loved that Kingswood. I especially loved the way that all the Aussie parents would turn their nose up every time that car would backfire, spewing smoke over their Mercedes. But the meaning behind the look was clear. You and your dad who works double shifts at Ford, sits in the dark and skimps on food in order to afford the school fees don’t belong here, whatever marks you get, however clever you are. To even the dumbest kid in the class, all I ever was, was the Wog in the Kingswood.
“Jimmy on the other hand, was different. He was the Wog with the Dough, because θείο Taso managed to keep afloat in the eighties and stave off the banks who were trying to take his properties. The problem is that Jimmy thought he was just “with the Dough.” So when he would invite his Aussie mates around for a pool party and his dad would come out in his singlet and knee high socks in thongs to cook them souvlaki, he didn’t realise that the next day, his so –called ‘mates’ would come to school and scoff: “Did you check out Jimmy’s house yesterday? Concrete as far as the eye can see. And those George Michael posters in the bedroom, once a Greek always a Greek if you know what I mean….Wham!”
“I admit, I always found the presence of those posters in his room disconcerting,” I interjected.
“Yeah,” my friend laughed. “The only picture I was allowed to have in my room was Panagia, staring at me so I would study. But Jimmy didn’t get it. And that’s when in Form 5, he developed a crush on Amber, who quite frankly was repellent in every way: whiny voice, inane conversation, into netball… you know the type. Jimmy was besotted with her. He followed her everywhere, from the footy oval to the locker room and then into the tuckshop. And that’s where the problem began.
“Amber didn’t exactly rebuff Jimmy. She let him follow her around, hold her books and look at her like a lost dog. Amber’s mum though, was the head lady in the tuckshop and when she cottoned on to the fact that Jimmy was chasing her daughter, and flirting with her right before her very eyes, she was furious. No filthy wog was going to go out with her daughter. Next thing you know, Jimmy is no longer at school. Jimmy’s dad comes over and tells my dad that Jimmy has been suspended for stealing a meat pie from the tuckshop. My dad comes into my room and gives me a lecture about pride and the necessity of keeping your αξιοπρέπεια:
«Δεν έχουμε τίποτα εμείς,» he says, «αλλά το τίποτα είναι τουλάχιστον δικό μας. 
Δεν θα λαχταράς για κάτι που δεν είναι δικό σου. Δεν θα με κάνεις ρεζίλι σαν τον Τζίμη του Τάσου.»I tell my dad that I don’t like meat pies. Tears well up in my dad’s eyes and he cries «Δάτς μάι γκουντ μπόϋς.»
“Now I know Jimmy hasn’t stolen the pie. I know this because our mothers would make us lunch at home and we never had any pocket money. Sometimes I would earn some extra coin by helping kids with their maths homework and would spend that on Sunny Boys. And it was there one day that I saw Amber’s mum’s face displace itself into a vision of the Apocalypse while she watched Jimmy take hold of Amber’s palm and pretend to read her future, as she giggled. “F….n wog!” she snarled, slamming the freezing Sunny Boy onto the counter and sending it sliding to the ground. It was evident that she had concocted the accusation, in order to implicate Jimmy and remove him from her daughter’s path. And it was evident that this was an injustice that had to be redressed. The only way to do this, was to strike the evil at its source. We had to boycott the tuckshop.
“Do you remember Massive Con, θείο Γιάννη, the butcher’s son? Yeah, he was at our school for two years before he left to set up his first restaurant. Originally, I had appealed to my classmates’ sense of justice. For us wogs, who had neither money, nor the freedom of culinary choice, forgoing the tuckshop was no sacrifice. For the rest of students though, it was a calamity. They flatly refused to go along with my planned withdrawal of patronage, which is why it became necessary for me to compel Massive Con to stand in the middle of the tuckshop doorway, (his bulk took up the entire space anyway) and thump all would be patrons trying to gain access.
“A day passed and no one entered the tuckshop. On the second day, I could see Amber’s mum from within the tuckshop craning her neck to try to decipher what was going on. On the third day, the Form 5 Co-ordinator, after making some enquiries among students exhibiting acute withdrawal symptoms, barged into my chemistry class and ordered me into her office.
“What’s going on?” I asked as she frog-marched me down the corridor.
“Shut up,” she snapped, hurling me into her office.
“By the Co-ordinator’s desk, I discerned the unsmiling, prune-wrinkled face of Amber’s mum.
“Have you deliberately set out to ruin and embarrass the school?” the Co-ordinator suddenly inquired.
“I don’t understand,” I responded.
“Don’t play coy with me,” the co-ordinator snarled. “Or I’ll have you suspended.”
“On what basis?” I asked.
“You know very well you sly little….” interjected Amber’s mum, exasperated.
“I am being interrogated by the tuckshop lady?” I asked, ignoring her and directing my gaze towards the co-ordinator. Do I need a lawyer?”
“YOU are creating financial harm to the school!” the co-ordinator boomed.
“I’m sorry? Financial harm? How?” I affected ignorance.
“Do you realise that no one has purchased any food from the tuckshop for three whole days? And don’t play dumb. We know you are behind it. There are going to be consequences,” the Co-ordinator dropped the tone of her voice to a steely, gravelly pavement level.
“Well I think that’s ridiculous. Just because we are exercising our democratic right not to patronize the tuckshop, we are being persecuted? Since when is it compulsory to buy tuckshop food? Show me where this is written in the school rules,” I challenged her.
Amber’s mum by this stage had turned the colour of a ripe cranberry. “Listen you stupid little..”
“I’m not going to be subjected to abuse,” I cut her short, referring again to the co-ordinator. “Especially not by the lady whose false accusations have resulted in the suspension of our friend. And if you must know, we will continue to boycott tuckshop food until such time as Jimmy returns to school, his name is cleared and an apology is issued.”
“What?” co-ordinator and tuckshop mistress screeched in unison. “This is about Jimmy? Jimmy is a thief.”
“Jimmy is not a thief. Jimmy has been unjustly accused on no evidence. We aren’t going to shop at the tuckshop until this is sorted out,” I declared flatly.
“I’m calling your parents,” the Co-ordinator yelled. “You’ve just earned yourself a suspension. And when you come back, you will have detention every Friday for the rest of the year. That is, IF you come back.”
“When I returned home that afternoon, my mother was sobbing in the kitchen, her head buried in her hands. My father was waiting in my bedroom, holding his leather belt. «Σε στέλνω στο σχολείο να γίνεις άνθρωπος!» he panted between landing blows with the belt indiscriminately on my torso. «Όχι για να κάνεις τον ήρωα! Κοίτα τα χέρια της μάνας σου βρε! Κοίτα το σπίτι αυτό. Όλα δουλεμένα με τον ιδρώτα μας αλήτη, ε αλήτη.» Pushing me onto the floor in disappointment, he pronounced: «Χάνω το χρόνο μου μαζί σου. Δεν θα γίνεις άνθρωπος ποτέ. Σαν τον παππού σου είσαι. Κι αυτός έκανε τον ήρωα. Και τι κατάλαβε; Τον μαζέψανε οι Χίτες και τον σφάξανε. Τα ίδια σκατά είστε και οι δυο.»
“The next day, my mother and father sat motionlessly as the co-ordinator explained to them in the extremely slow, exaggerated tempo one usually employs towards kindergarten children, why I was being suspended and why in her opinion it was best if I did not return next year, as I was not a “good fit” for the school. My father looked at her up and down, nodding as she droned on. Then, he put his hands on the table and, spoke:
“Listen miss, my son done nuthin wron. Tzimi, he done nothing wron too.”
“That’s an internal matter Mr Jack, Mr Jacklopl, Mr J…”
“My name is Mr Giannokopoulos. You etzucated woman? You teatsa? Why you can’t read?”
“That’s an internal matter. Jimmy’s theft of school property has been dealt with.”
“Lissen miss,” my father’s voice rose to a crescendo. “We no eat your food, never. Your pie is like goat kaka in our mouth. Our wives make food for our tsildren. We no let them eat this rubbis. You steal rubbis? No. You steal goat kaka for eat? No. Jimmy no steal kaka. My son, no eat kaka. You kick him out of school because he no eat kaka? 
Τον κακό σου τον καιρό. Θα περάσεις από το πτώμα μου πριν το διώξεις το παιδί. You understand μωρή? You step on my dead body first and then you kick him out.” And with that he rose from his seat, smashed his fist on the desk, sending the co-ordinator’s file flying and remained, his eyes bulging out of their sockets, staring at her. Then, dragging my mother and I along with him, he stormed out of the office.
“The next day, Jimmy and I were both back at school and our classmates received us with hushed tones of awe. “Jackanopalopalous,” my form teacher commented wryly, barely concealing a smirk. “Pop those lunch orders over to the tuckshop will ya?”
For a long time after, I sat, watching my friend tie his son’s school tie into a half-windsor knot, in silence. Then, he passed it over his son’s head and fastening it around his neck, as the boy sat, his eyes fixated upon the moving pixels on the television screen, oblivious to all but the controls in his hands. Seconds later, without taking his eyes of the screen, the boy gently removed the tie from his neck, undid the knot and proceeded to tie a foppish Eldredge knot, which he left half fastened down his chest. “Best if you give in on the tie issue,” I advised. “Give you Giannakopoulaioi enough rope and you’ll hang yourselves.”
First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 November 2018

Sunday, November 11, 2018


“I speak the tongue of a race the acme of whose mentality is the maxim: time is money. Material domination. Domine! Lord! Where is the spirituality? Lord Jesus? Lord Salisbury? A sofa in a westend club. But the Greek! KYRIE ELEISON! A smile of light brightened his darkrimmed eyes, lengthened his long lips. The Greek! he said again. Kyrios! Shining word! The vowels the Semite and the Saxon know not. Kyrie! The radiance of the intellect. I ought to profess Greek, the language of the mind. Kyrie eleison! The closetmaker and the clockmaker will never be lords of our spirit. We are liege subjects of the catholic chivalry of Europe that foundered at Trafalgar and of the empire of the spirit, not an imperium, that went under with the Athenian fleets at Aegospotami. Yes, yes. They went under. Pyrrhus, misled by an oracle, made a last attempt to retrieve the fortunes of Greece. Loyal to a lost cause..”
It is perhaps trite to refer to Irish novelist James Joyce’s love of Greek civilisation. After all, the main character in his masterpiece, ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ is named Stephen Dedalus and his seminal “Ulysses” transposes the Homeric Epic to one ordinary day in twentieth century Dublin. That novel is steeped in Joyce’s admiration of ancient Greek civilisation, with his characters extolling its virtues in such exchanges as: “God, Kinch, if you and I could only work together we might do something for the island. Hellenise it,” and: “Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.” What is less known is that James Joyce’s admiration for ancient Greek civilisation forms part of a dialectic with the Christian tradition and its spirituality, one in which James Joyce’s lifelong interest in the Orthodox Church plays an intrinsic part.
The manner in which western spirituality is constantly compared and contrasted to ancient Greece is evident in Stephen Dedalus’ first Holy Communion, as described in ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’: “When the rector had stooped down to give him the holy communion he had smelt a faint winy smell off the rector’s breath after the wine of the mass. The word was beautiful: wine. It made you think of dark purple because the grapes were dark purple that grew in Greece outside houses like white temples.’
In 1904, James Joyce left Dublin, eventually settling in Trieste where there was a very large Greek expatriate community. Just before arriving, he wrote a satirical poem entitled ‘The Holy Office’, in which he lampoons the great poet Yeats and other leading figures of the Irish literary revival for what he perceived to be their contrived and unworldly Celtic romanticism. With the Orthodox doctrine of catharsis, or purification of the soul as his inspiration, cleverly juxtaposed against the Aristotelian concept of catharsis, Joyce positions himself as a dissolute peripatetic ascetic of what would be, in contemporary jargon, referred to, as “keeping it real:”
Myself unto myself will give 
This name, Katharsis-Purgative. 
I, who dishevelled ways forsook
To hold the poets’ grammar-book, 
Bringing to tavern and to brothel 
The mind of witty Aristotle, 
Lest bards in the attempt should err 
Must here be my interpreter: 
Wherefore receive now from my lip 
Peripatetic scholarship.
In Trieste, where the bulk of ‘Ulysses’ was written, (the cover of which Joyce insisted by printed in the blue and white of the Greek flag), Joyce taught at the Berlitz foreign language school, where some of his students were Greek. According to Padraic Colum, he began to study Modern Greek. He also began attending the local Greek Orthodox Church, San Nicolo dei Greci and became fascinated by the ritual of the Orthodox liturgy, become a frequent visitor. In a letter to his brother, Joyce remarked how his church attendance had caused colleagues to point out a discrepancy between his outwardly critical stance towards Christianity and his church attendance: “He says I will die a Catholic because I am always moping in and out of the Greek churches and am a believer at heart, whereas in my opinion, I am incapable of belief of any kind.”

In many ways, Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’ mirrors his interior tension. Whereas Jesus is held in Christianity to be the perfect, complete man in his humanity, Joyce set out to craft his own perfect man, in the image but also in antithesis to Christ. Sculptor Frank Budgen relates that Joyce found such a man in Odysseus. Conversing with him. Budgen asked: “What do you mean by a complete man? For example, if a sculptor makes a figure of a man then that man is all-round, three-dimensional, but not necessarily complete in the sense of being ideal. All human bodies are imperfect, limited in some way, human beings too.” Joyce is said to have replied: “[Ulysses] is both. I see him from all sides, and therefore he is all-round in the sense of your sculptor’s figure. But he is a complete man as well—a good man.” Joyce went on to opine that he did not consider Christ a perfect man as: “He was a bachelor, and never lived with a woman. Surely living with a woman is one of the most difficult things a man can do, and he never did it,” whereas Ulysses in contrast, “is father to Telemachus, husband to Penelope, lover of Calypso, companion in arms of the Greek warriors around Troy, and King of Ithaca. He was subjected to many trials, but with wisdom and courage came through them all.”
Nonetheless, Joyce retained an abiding interest in the Orthodox Church. In 1938, while living in Paris, he used Greek church attendance on Good Friday as a means of evading a social obligation: “But today she rang up to ask us to dine on Friday at 7:30! I am going to say I have to go to the Greek church - perfectly true, it is their Good Friday, and can’t get out until 8…” A friend of Joyce’s in Paris and subsequent biographer, Jacques Mercanton, remembered that during this time, Joyce remarked to him that “Good Friday and Holy Saturday were the two days of the year when he went to church, for the liturgies, which represented by their symbolic rituals, the oldest mysteries of humanity.”
Joyce’s conflicting emotions with regard to Christianity, ranging from the eschatological to the scatological can be evidenced in the notebooks he used while learning Greek. On two facing pages, we see on one side, the Lord’s Prayer, written carefully in flowing Greek script, and on the other side, the following misspelt Greek phrases: «Συγνόμην, πρέπει να πηγαίνω εις το αποχωρητήριον / Οι χίροι τρόγουν σκατά / Εάν δεν το αγαπάτε, να (Σε) χέσω τα μούτρα σας…»
Even so, there was something that moved him deeply about the Orthodox liturgy. Joyce’s friend Alessandro Bruni recorded that he had seen Joyce’s eyes fill with tears upon hearing Jesus’ words on the cross: “Eli Eli, Lama Sabacthani,” at a dramatic moment in the Holy Thursday service. Further, Bruni remembered: “On the morning of Palm Sunday, then during the four days that follow Wednesday of Holy Week, and especially during all the hours of those great symbolic rituals at the early morning service, Joyce is at church, entirely without prejudice, and in complete control of himself, sitting in full view and close to the officiants, so he won’t miss a single syllable of what is said.”
Some scholars postulate that Joyce’s fascination with Orthodoxy formed part of his attempt to appreciate the entire Greek world. A fluent modern Greek speaker, he described his linguistic skills and his relationship with Greeks thus: “I speak or used to speak modern Greek not too badly … and have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onion-sellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck,” and would insist on closing his birthday celebrations with a rendering of the Greek National Anthem, a paean to liberty that bore many parallels to the emergence of modern Ireland. Nonetheless, Joyce’s appreciation of the aesthetics of the Orthodox tradition transcended the Greek and extended to the Slavonic, Mercanton reminiscing that: “Speaking next about Russian Churches, where he loved to hear the deep bass voices of the officiants, he said he could not understand my fervent admiration for the eastern ritual.”
Joyces’ masterpieces are a by-product of his admiration for Greek civilization and the need to shape a perfect man in an image he could control, as a reaction against, in parallel to, and in proximity to Christ. His relationship to all these elements which fuse so seamlessly in his work can be best exemplified by the fact that when he died, he left two books in his desk. One, was a Greek lexicon.

First published on Saturday 10 November 2018

Saturday, November 03, 2018


I don’t think we will ever know the exact sequence of events that led to the recent shooting death of Konstantinos Katsifas in Northern Epirus. The official version is that this man, a native of the Greek villages of Albania who migrated to Greece and became a Greek citizen, returned to his village to take part in the annual OXI Day celebrations. Prior to doing so, he boasted on facebook about the necessity of ‘taking back” Northern Epirus, which has been part of Albania since 1918. Apparently, he protested at the Albanian police lowering the Greek flag, (though the Albanians deny this and the fact that the Greek flag was flying next to the Albanian on that day and that the Greek Minister of Culture was present to participate in the commemorative event, seems to raise questions about the veracity of any flag provocation) and fired a Kalashnikov at them. Why he would fire a gun at them is unclear. Some members of the Greek minority claim he merely fired in the air. Others claim he had no gun at all, though video evidence seems to refute this. It is unclear, why the Albanian police would want to pursue and ultimately kill someone who had no gun and posed no threat. Eventually, Konstantinos Katsifas, who fled from the scene, was shot in the head and the heart. Paradoxically, the Albanian police, prior to his death, sent images to the media suggesting he had been arrested. It only later emerged that he was shot, for resisting arrest while armed. Konstantinos Katsifas apparently has a criminal record. He was, according to sources convicted of drug trafficking in Athens in 2009. At the time of writing, he now lies at the morgue in Argyrokastro, his family refusing to take custody of the body until an independent post-mortem takes place.

How one feels about Konstantinos Katsifas depends on which side of the Greek political and ideological divide one stands on. To the right and the hyperpatriots, he is a hero, a man who died defending the Greek flag, a living, or rather, dead symbol of the trials and tribulations of the Greeks of Northern Epirus. They of course vehemently deny that he pulled a gun on police, and even if he did, according to one antipodean right wing activist: “guess what... I don’t care what the Albanians think... one of our boys is dead.. they have blood on their hands so they can all go to hell.” Katsifas’ death, according to them, exposes the bankruptcy of the leftist Greek government which lacks the power or the inclination to put the Albanians (and all other pesky neighbours in their place), simply because, the Greek government is full of traitors who act against the national interest, as defined by the right. If everyone followed “brave” Katsifas’ example, all of Greece’s wrongs would soon right themselves (if one pardons the pun).

To the left, Konstantinos Katsifas is a right-wing extremist, typical of his ilk. His fate is the logical conclusion of the activities of all racists, fascists and supremacists. Bearing arms against Albanian police officers is unacceptable (unless one happens to live in Exarchia, or is fighting one’s own local police force) and in a way, the man courted the fate he ultimately met. Nationalism causes violence, which leads to death. It is for this very reason that irredentism is dangerous. Borders are political constructs and we should learn to live without them in a spirit of brotherhood and harmony. Of course, a range of views exists as to who was “behind” Katsifas, ranging from the Greek police, extremist cells in the Greek army, or extremist political parties such as Golden Dawn.
As such, Konstantinos Katsifas’ death has merely served as fuel and fodder for the great ideological schism tearing its way through Modern Greek society in Greece and abroad. We either idolise the man as a hero and justify the unjustifiable, or we deride him and his followers, holding him up for execration. According to this paradigm of polarization, there is no room for rational analysis of the context and background upon which this hapless individual was killed.
That context is important because it is now, as it was during the Cold War period, providing a distorted view of the condition of the Greeks living in Albania. According to Katsifas and many on the right who thought as he did, the native Greek population of Albania is numerous, down-trodden, continuously persecuted but is strong, vibrant and is awaiting a liberator in order to annex the region to Greece.  Many of these argue that successive traitorous Greek governments, infected and pervaded by left wing ideologues or bought off by higher interests, refuse to take the necessary step to claim the land for Greece.
According to many on the left, there is no persecution at all, and, adopting the ideology of official Albanian propaganda, the few “Greeks” of the region that identify as such, are not really Greek, they are merely confused and are victims of a century of hypernationalistic right wing propaganda. According to them, the movement of peoples in the Balkans defies national stereotyping, therefore issues of identity are merely the constructs of an undeveloped mind and the problem is thus, not so much with the dead Katsifas and his violence but with the existence of people in the region who claim they are Greek, when they should not.
Of course, both views range from the exaggerated, to the bizarre. There is of coursed a sizeable Greek minority in Northern Epirus. Even allowing for the movement of peoples, Greek speaking people have been living in the region since ancient times, something attested to by archaeology. Some villages, especially in the Dropoli region, a region which is officially designated as a Greek minority zone by the Albanian government, are ethnically homogenous. Others, have mixed populations and in areas like Himara, along the coast, the Albanian government officially denies the existence of a Greek minority, even though three of its seven villages are predominantly Greek speaking. In areas such as Korytsa, which have historically been Vlach speaking, the ethnic and cultural affiliations of the inhabitants are being constantly renegotiated. The land is complex and defies sweeping characterization.
Members of the Greek minority are represented in all mainstream Albanian political parties. There also exists a political party known the Union for Human Rights, which is in effect a party largely based upon the support of the Greek minority, since by law, political parties cannot be constructed in Albania on ethnic lines. Its main role is to draw attention to acts of discrimination and racism experienced by ethnic minorities in Albania by the state and its organs. To argue that there is organized repression of the Greeks of Albania is thus misleading. But it cannot be doubted that the modern Albanian state finds the presence of persons identifying as Greek within its borders problematic and does not always deal with them in an equitable way.
This is because Albanian nationalism is a potent and extremely virulent force in domestic politics, allowing the electorate to focus not on corruption, a parlous economy and a dearth of public services but rather, on territorial expansion, and feelings of being hard-done by, since, according to what is being taught in official Albanian geography books, Albania should include all of Epirus and parts of Macedonia and the entire modern Greek state owes its existence to Albania and Albania’s greatest son, Alexander the Great. When Albanians, especially those serving the state, are steeped in this ideology, they are bound to react when, in contrast to what they are being taught, they come across villages who want to raise the Greek flag and celebrate what Albanians consider to be not a fight against fascism, but rather an invasion of Albanian territory. Members of the Albanian security forces and municipal authorities have tried to obstruct Greek flag raising in the past. Coupled with that, the fact that in 1914, the Greeks of Northern Epirus fought a war with the Albanians in order to secure an autonomous status and one can see how the Greeks are portrayed as a disloyal, potential fifth column by cynical politicians to their constituents.
Prominent and outspoken members of the Greek minority are subject to harassment periodically, if they advocate for “rights”. In areas such as Himara which form the Albanian Riviera, there is a concerted effort to drive elderly people out of their homes and appropriate land in an illegal fashion, for sale to developers. Electoral fraud and intimidation in these regions is rife.
 Even though Greeks and Albanians have lived side by side throughout the entire Balkans for centuries, their national narratives within the borders of modern Albania exclude one and other, and consequently, the absorption of those identifying as Greek into the broader national narrative seems to be impossible, possibly because they have only ever related to each other from a point of political/class  ascendancy or servitude, something that extremists on all sides, gleefully exploit. The shooting of Katsifas once more sends the message to the Albanian mainstream that those identifying as Greek are subversive and a threat to the state. This does not augur well for interethnic harmony in the region. It also leaves questions about the justification for the excessive use of force and whether or not Albanian special forces exercised best practice in apprehending an armed law breaker, unanswered.
Katsifas’ death is thus a tragedy, not because it exposes the cynicism of an Albanian police force already known to “construct” events in order to feed local prejudice (the stealing of ballot boxes during elections in Himara being a case in point) but because it achieved the opposite of what he purportedly wanted to do. Instead of raising awareness and sensitivity about the complex and ever changing ethno-linguistic demography of Northern Epirus, his death has  reduced to a stereotype, one to be employed to feed the prejudices of a Greek polity constantly in search of more mud to sling at each other. And in that corrosive struggle, the day to day difficulties of the Greeks and Albanians that live in that impoverished region, being of no use to those who seek only to orientalise them, are ignored and effaced.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 November 2018