Saturday, December 15, 2018


When I met Ari, in a tavern in Plaka that evening, it was as a kindred spirit. At least, that is what my Grecian hosts told me. “Come and meet an Αυστραλό like yourself.” And there was Ari, blonde, blue eyed, with the bronzed complexion of a Wanda Beach surfer, even though he hailed from western Sydney, resplendent in jean cut-off shorts and tight t-shirt, clutching at a plastic souvenir bag, emblazoned with a blue representation of a hyper-muscular Hercules in the process of inflicting grievous bodily harm upon an endangered member of the feline species.
“Whataya got there mate?” I asked him.
“Oh, just some books and shit,” he remarked laconically. “History and philosophy mainly. My aim is to travel around, rediscover my roots. Brush up on my language skills. Dad was Greek but mum is Aussie so I never really learnt the language. Love it here though. It’s as if I’ve come home.”
 “Isn’t he gorgeous?” one of my hosts gushed. “What a pity he is Greek. I’ve always wanted to date an authentic Αυστραλό.”
 “What do you mean Greek?” a corpulent, balding male host interjected, visibly enraged. “He isn’t Greek. He IS an authentic Αυστραλό. He looks, acts and speaks nothing like us. He doesn’t live here. He has no idea what it is like to be a Greek.”
 “You getting any of this?” I turned aside to Ari as the group descended into a heated discussion as to Ari’s ethno-cultural affiliation.
“Some,” Ari admitted. “What’s going on?”
 “She is saying she wants to date a real Australian but you are Greek and he is saying you are a real Australian.”
 “He wants to shag her doesn’t he?”
 “So if she is saying that the reason why she doesn’t want to date me is because I’m Greek, why on earth is he maintaining that I’m Aussie? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose?”
 “I don’t think he’s picked up on that, yet,” I replied.
 Ari crossed his thong-shod foot over his leg and leaned back nonchalantly.
“Two bob short of a pound. Well, I’ll be whatever she wants me to be, as long as I can take her out,” he finally opined. “She’s a good sort, isn’t she?”
 “Taste is as taste does,” I riposted by way of obfuscation.
“You bet it is,” he remarked, reaching for his wine.
 As I reached for my own glass, I watched Ari, sitting now with his legs wide open, his countenance adorned with an expansive grin, soaking up the musky nocturnal air. Though he followed the conversation, he did not participate and we both sat, listening attentively, as our hosts meandered in their discussion from Ari’s identity, to whether Australia is a British colony, whether Greece is a European colony, and the quaintness of Greek-Australian tourists arriving in Greece and seeking an affiliation with their Helladic cousins. Not once were we asked to proffer an opinion, or to verify any of the facts that were being disputed.

Ari yawned and I was immediately reminded of Constantine Cavafy’s poem “The Prince of Western Libya”:

“Aristomenis, son of Menelaos,
 the Prince from Western Libya,
 was generally liked in Alexandria
 during the ten days he spent there.
 As his name, his dress, modest, was also Greek.
 He received honors gladly,
 but he did not solicit them; he was unassuming.
 He bought Greek books,
 especially history and philosophy.
 Above all he was a man of few words.
 It got around that he must be a profound thinker,
 and men like that naturally don’t speak very much.”

“You Aussies don’t talk very much,” the fleshy man who questioned Ari’s identity, now more relaxed after the fifth glass of wine, observed.

“Hang on, I thought we were Greek,” I replied slowly and carefully, weighing each word as I spoke it. I was in Athens, a place where the dialect of my Anatolian ancestors and my own mother tongue was neither spoke, nor socially accepted. Consequently, whenever in Athens, the speed of my conversation would automatically be halved, as I sought, simultaneous to carrying on a conversation, to: a) find urban equivalents for the rural idiomatic expressions used in my own idiolect, b) eradicate the elision of vowels and undulating intonation that is evidence of rural and thus extraneous provenance. More often than not the mental and linguistic strain would prove too great and I would either choose the wrong words, or stumble over them, as they forced themselves out of my mouth, hence my reticence at conversing. After all, I was “home,” and did not want to do anything or say anything that would call my belonging to that home, into question.

Lovingly rubbing his stomach, he looked me up and down: “Well you could pass as a Greek,” he offered. “I mean, except for the funny way you speak. But your friend, absolutely not. And forgive me for saying so but what is it about Australia that makes you all so socially inept? None of you know how to behave, or to carry on a proper conversation. You are not so bad. Your friend, however, is a prime example. We all speak English. Why can’t he learn Greek? And then he calls himself a Greek. Everything about him is ersatz.”
Again, Cavafy’s words pervaded my thoughts:
“He was neither a profound thinker nor anything else—
just a piddling, laughable man.
 He assumed a Greek name, dressed like the Greeks,
 learned to behave more or less like a Greek;
 and all the time he was terrified he would spoil
 his reasonably good image
 by coming out with barbaric howlers in Greek
 and the Alexandrians, in their usual way,
 would make fun of him, vile people that they are.”

Ari observed us, leaning back on his chair, his arm now draped around that of his effusive admirer with the majesty and self-assuredness of a western Libyan prince of old. It was not Ari, the archetypical Libyan prince that Cavafy was lampooning in his poem. Was he instead, drawing my attention to the disconnect between the way the Alexandrians thought of themselves and how they related to the Prince? After all, is it ever possible for a person who is foreign to deceive those who already belong to the cultural discourse in which he seeks entry and validation? How can the Alexandrians, on the one hand, consider the foreign prince who is making an effort to be a “Greek,” “a profound thinker,” and on the other “just a piddling, laughable man…coming out with barbaric howlers in Greek,” for their derision?

«Έχς ζήσ’ αβδά συ πουτές;» I asked the belly-stroker, without thinking.
What?” he winced.
«Έχεις ζήσει εκεί ποτέ σου;» I rephrased the question in modern Greek, incensed that despite being on my guard, I had allowed myself to bring forth such an idiomatic howler.
“No, and why should I? I am Greek and my country is Greece. I won’t abandon her in her time of need, like so many others who now want to return and call themselves Greek..”

“This was why he limited himself to a few words,
 terribly careful of his syntax and pronunciation;
 and he was driven almost out of his mind, having
 so much talk bottled up inside him.”

Cavafy’s last lines juxtapose the way the Alexandrians viewed the prince of Libya with the viewpoint of the poem’s narrator. In the stanzas before, it became evident that more than exposing the irony of employing pretence to belong to a group that won’t have you as a member, and as a result, deprive you of your voice, the poem serves to highlight the arrogance of a cultural group that holds itself out to be superior. Now, in his final stanza, the agitation is completely internal, focusing on the tensions within the narrator’s own narrative. His own understanding of the Prince’s motives is filled with self-doubt and unconsciously and he begins to emulate the arrogance of the Alexandrians he so derides. In phase such as “he was driven almost out of his mind,” and “and all the time he was terrified,” we come to understand that he is not objective and that these phrases, rather than merely providing insight into the Prince’s pretentiousness at the hypocrisy involved in cultural appropriation, mirror instead, the narrator’s anxiety and empathy at his own need to respond in an appropriate way to his own cultural paradigm. It was not Ari who was the Prince. It was Constantine.

Ari and the object of his affection stood up. “We’re gonna call it a night, mate,” he slurred, his arm coiled around her waist. Catch up tomorrow? Late?”

The Belly-Rubber shot me a look of horror and also rose: «Λέω να την κάνω κι εγώ.» Pointing to the food on the table, he asked: «Όλα αυτά πληρωμένα έτσι;»
I replied in the affirmative.
«Τα λέμε. Όλα τα καλά,» he propelled his considerable bulk onto the street.
«Κι πάντα πλήθια,» I called back, employing the old ancestral wishes for abundance my people use in Australia.
“What?” he called back.
“You’re Greek, look it up,” I responded. Flexing my shoulders, I draped my jacket around them like a royal cloak, and strode off into the night, every bit a prince of western Libya, my imaginary linguistic retinue, clearing the road before me.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 December 2018