Saturday, December 21, 2019


That moment in the earth’s celestial orbit fast approaches whereby a family meeting is called at Casa della Kalimniou. The sole purpose of same is to allocate by means fair and consensual, the task of preparing the traditional sweets for the Christmas and New Year period. Sometimes I am allocated the kourabiedes, at other times the melomakarona, and generally speaking, the Chrystopsomo is a collaborative effort, whereby I do the kneading and the mixing, and my wife’s more refined aesthetic is visited upon the decoration, which is as ornate and as convoluted as a diatribe article. Yet never, ever, am I entrusted with the creation of the last of our Christmas, stalwarts, the kileche, for it is alien to my sensibility and occupies a space beyond the margins of my poetics.

I am ideologically opposed to the Kileche, due to the fact that in our household, they share equal footing with koulouria at Easter time, and with melomakarona and kourabiedes, during Christmas and New Year. They are the Assyrian default festive sweet, rolled and folded with nuts or dates and they are absolutely, mouth-wateringly, tongue-pantingly delicious. Manifesting themselves in various combinations and permutations, such as the enticing coconut versions, in the interests of family harmony and maximisation of palate pleasure, we make them all.

So delectable are they, that Assyrians tend to enjoy them with tea all year round, a pernicious pastime, reeking of a singular lack of restraint, that is tantamount to the Greek culinary heresy of baking Pascal koulouria after Easter and all year-round. Even more heinous in my diptychs, are those heterodox Assyrians who, having lived in Greece prior to migrating to Australia and becoming inspired by the culinary forms existing, practise the pestilential art of baking their kileche in the shapes of koulouria. Verily, this is the abomination of desolation as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet, the true mark of the Beast, and I make sure that when I come across them, I destroy them in my mouth, crushing them between my teeth, so that not even the crumbs of such iniquity remain to plague our existence, mouthing verse as I do so: And the widows (or blenders) of Ashur are loud in their wail,/ And the idols (or eggs can be substituted according to taste) are broke in the temple of Baal;/ And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword (or butter-knife, whatever is available),/ Hath melted like snow (I like to substitute coconut here instead) in the glance of the Lord! (or MasterChef. Same thing).” Unfortunately, most Assyrian kileche makers I know do not read Lord Byron and they smile politely but awkwardly as they take my plate and offer more koulouro-kileche. In the lead up to Christmas, I decline, quoting more verses from Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” namely: “And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,/ The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown,” for after all, it is a time of fasting.

Kileche, in the form of Kulichi, have been adopted by the Russians as well as the Arabs and whenever we embark upon the task of making baklava and launch into an interminable argument as to whether the sweet was invented by the Greeks or the Assyrians, my wife attempts to assert primacy by cleverly adding to her well-stocked arsenal, the spurious assertion that the ancient Babylonians were known to make similar cookies as the kileche called qullupu, which were known to be round in shape (qullu), also taking another etymological leap and also attributing the term to the Semitic term "kull" meaning whole, as if the terms whole and round were somehow semantically indistinguishable, which, coming from a populace that does not distinguish between vowels in its alphabet, should not come as a surprise, even if, as they claim,  we received the gift of our own alphabet from them, a proposition I am duty bound to spurn in the interests of maintaining the integrity of our national narrative.
I will have none of this. I could, if I was so minded, attribute the word Kileche (which is the plural form of kilecha) to the Greek κύκλος, (round), but that has already been adopted into Syriac, a medieval form of Assyrian, as “quqlion.” To head off the anticipated argument that κύκλος sounds like the Babylonian qullupu, I steel myself to riposte in advance that another word for round, στρογγυλός, has also been adopted into Assyrian as "estrangela" which also means round in that language and is used to denote one of the cursive Syriac scripts, so there is ample etymological precedent to infer that the slender Assyrians turn to us in order to express rotundity. It was, after all Herodotus, who put the Ass in Assyrian, causing the confusion between Syrians and Assyrians that has afflicted the Assyrian people ever since and probably explains  the real reason behind their uncomfortable relationship with vowels referred to earlier.

Nonetheless, I strenuously maintain that the Assyrian word "kileche" as well as the Slavic word "kulichi" all derive from the ancient Greek word κόλλιξ, or kollikas, or kollikion or in plural kollikia, meaning a roll or a loaf of bread. I pursue my polemic, by positing that there is a school of thought which contends that in the Greco-Syrian pronunciation of Antioch, kollikia was pronounced “kollichia.” As my wife’s eyebrow arches in disbelief, I interpose between her and the parabolic equation that determines the full extent of its supraocular curvature, the fact that in his play “the Acharnians,” no lesser personage that the great Aristophanes himself, called the Boeotians "κολλικοφάγοι," or roll eaters. Considering the propensity of modern day Assyrians to daily quaff kileche with copious amounts of tea, it is an epithet whose transmigration to them, would be well deserved. My wife absorbs this information with equanimity borne of complete indifference. There are no comedians in the classical Assyrian tradition, save Lucian, who wrote in Greek, and is thus largely impenetrable to her tribe. I harbour hopes that our eighteen-month old son will be the second Greco-Assyrian to break the Assyrian comedy barrier, considering that his first word was “
αστείο,” but his mouth is too full of kileche to make any meaningful contribution to the debate.

As we project decontextualized nuggets of history and linguistics at each other, the pile of kourabiedes, melomakarona and kileche grows ever larger and the ones already baking in the oven cause the kitchen to become redolent with the ambrosial smells of indescribable longing and seasonal joy. I stand with muted respect as the piping hot kileche cascade onto the kitchen bench and as I dust my kourabiedes, find myself vaguely musing as to what would happen if I Helleno-baptised the said kileche in icing sugar.

“Don’t even think about it,” my wife cautions. “Why is it so important to you that kileche, and almost everything else, is Greek anyway?” she teases as she takes the nuts out of my hands and begins to crush them, slowly and methodically, with intense deliberation, over the melomakarona. As she pulverises them, my resistance crumbles, like the crumbs of an over-assertive kilecha and I busy myself with the arcane preparations that will cause my long-dead grandmother’s Chrystopsomo to emerge renascent. After all, it is not the biscuit but rather its name that is the bone of contention here and there are plausible reasons why Umberto Eco declined to name his epic, “The Name of the Kilecha.”

As we prepare the table for the Christmas feast, I muse that rumours that Alexander the Great died in Babylon as a result of eating a questionable Babylonian kilecha are probably apocryphal, considering that the personage of the kilecha in the local lore is sacrosanct and exists above interrogation. Nonetheless, I place the bowl of kileche as far away from me as possible, for one can never be too careful, even if, as is now customary at Christmas, my wife will invariably choke on a kourabie which I have steeped for too long in rose-water, and thus, in her infinite mercy, forestall the inevitable.


First published in NKEE on 21 December 2019

Saturday, December 14, 2019


There is a mezuzah beside the door of my office. This is a piece of parchment contained in a plastic case and inscribed with the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, beginning with the phrase: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”
On the outside of the wound scrolled, the Hebrew word שדי (Shaddai) is inscribed.  This means "Almighty," one of the biblical names of God and also serves here as an acronym for Shomer Daltot Yisrael, meaning  "Guardian of Israel's doors". The mezuzah is tilted, so that the top slants toward the room into which the door opens. This is done in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, to accommodate the variant opinions of Jewish Talmudic scholars  as to whether it should be placed vertically or horizontally and also to imply that God and the Torah are entering the room.

My mezuzah was placed at my door, by the first occupant of my office, Michael, a man of immense business experience, a leader in his community and possessed of the most generous and inquisitive of spirits. He was a mentor and a friend and passing by my door, he would touch the mezuzah, look in and slowly, settle down for a chat. His eyes would be drawn immediately to the icons handing on my walls and over the years he learned to distinguish between Russian and Greek iconography, asking me how to decode the symbolism of the various scenes depicted on the icons.
Michael’s fascination with the icons was informed by his religious background. The Second Commandment as contained in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 commands that “You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” and since his understanding was that these commandments had been incorporated into Christianity, he found the existence of icons incongruous and slightly amusing. As an Askenazi Jew, that is, a Jew whose ancestors lived in Eastern Europe,  he understood the commandment to be absolute and scoffed at my argument that  it did not prohibit absolutely,  any and all artistic representation, and that instead, what was intended was a prohibition against the construction of idols, which were objects of worship in the cultural area in which the Israelites dwelt. When I would point to sections of the Old Testament that seemed to provide evidence for artistic activity, he would throw up his hands and laugh.
Our friendly banter, which would take place usually between 9-10am each day continued over several years. I remember that look of puzzlement on his countenance when I arrived at work, showing him a mosaic depicting a man replete with halo. “A nice depiction of Jesus,” he looked at it appraisingly, for by now he was a connoisseur. “Where is this from, Ravenna?”

“No,” I responded. It is from the floor of the synagogue at Hamat, Tiberias in Israel. And it is not Jesus. It is the Greek sun god, Helios.” Expanding the margins of the picture, Michael gasped. Not only was the pagan god Helios depicted upon the floor of the synagogue, he was surrounded by representations of the Greek signs of the zodiac, each of them labelled in Aramaic.
“I don’t know what to say,” he stuttered falteringly, his mouth contorted as he was recovering from a stroke. “Greek converts to Judaism who are still being weaned off their sun god? Prove me wrong.” I returned the next day, brandishing a photograph of the mosaic floor of the Beit Alpha synagogue, depicting Helios, this time riding his chariot, in particularly Semitic style, again surrounded by the twelve signs of the zodiac. “You guys obviously had a thing for the sun god,” I joked. We then discussed the Hellenisation of the Jewish people during Hellenistic times, culminating in the translation of the Old Testament into Greek, by the Jewish scholars of Alexandria. He was fascinated to learn that it was that text that formed the foundation text of both the New Testament and Christianity itself. Through our discussion he was able to place the conflict between Judaisers and Hellenisers in Hellenistic times, culminating in the revolt of the Maccabees which overthrew Greek rule over Palestine into context. But try as he might, he could not wholly accept the Jewish iconographic tradition. “Floors are floors. People tread on floors so maybe this is a way of showing disrespect to pagan oppressors,” he offered in argument. “But you wouldn’t see any pictures on walls in any Jewish synagogue. No way.”
“Do me a favour,” I grinned as he ambled to his room. “Look up the Dura Europos Synagogue and then come back for a chat.” He shrugged and shuffled away. He returned the next day, animated. “I am shocked,” he said laconically. “I cannot believe it.” For the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria, dated at 244 AD and thus, one of the oldest surviving synagogues in the world, was, until its recent destruction by ISIS,  was covered in fifty eight wall paintings depicting biblical scenes, with accompanying Greek and Aramaic inscriptions. Many of these are painted in a style that would not look out of place in an Orthodox church and thus prefigure the development of Byzantine iconography. Others, tending to abstraction and simplification, are in a style all of their own. In discovering the influence of Hellenism upon his own tradition, Michael reveled in the adaptability and versatility of that tradition, its openness to modes of expression shared with the peoples and cultures it encountered, a broadness of perspective that allowed it to evolve but most importantly, survive millenia of persecution.

“I want to hang an icon on my wall,” Michael asked one day. “Which one would you recommend?” I made him a gift of a detail from a Byzantine fresco, depicting musicians engaged in an act of worship as denoted in the Old Testament Psalm 150: “Praise him with the sound of a trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harp./ Praise him with timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and the organ./ Praise him with melodious cymbals: praise him with loud cymbals./ Let every thing that has breath praise the Lord.” Beaming with enthusiasm, he hung it on his far wall, in pride of place, above framed photographs of his prized racehorses. “The guy in the crown holding the psaltery looks like King David,” he said proudly.

In Judaism, a mezuzah is affixed to the doorpost of Jewish homes to fulfill the Biblical commandment to "write the words of God on the gates and doorposts of your house".
When Michael died, I asked his family whether it would be possible for the mezuzah to remain in memory of him. Graciously, they consented and every  day when I walk into the office, see the mezuzah and the Byzantine icon hanging on his wall, I remember him, and not only that God is one but also that all of us, crazy, petty, dysfunctional and brilliant as we are, are also one. And it is this ethos that informs the manner in which I view my own tradition and the broader world.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 December 2019

Saturday, December 07, 2019


“A blocky, cuboidal head, faced in pinks and whites and ruled in a fretwork of longitudes and latitudes which showed a few orthographic traces of worry…” Three Wogs, Alexander Theroux.
In his word drunk 1972 masterpiece “Three Wogs,” Three Wogs verbal sorcerer and deep-seeing satirist Alexander Theroux demonstrates that he is unafraid of prolixity or obscurity in the pursuit of a complex effect: the grotesque real, the dusklight under which social aversions reveal erotic fears and fantasies – the depths where horror and pleasure coincide. A politically incorrect triptych-novel set in late 1960s, “Three Wogs” casts each protagonist representing a particular type of disagreeable racist, and the author’s task is to flay their backward attitudes alive with his divinely caustic prose. In this work, Alexander Theroux subverts the term “Wog” so that it does not refer to an ethnic stereotype but rather, to those who harbor racist prejudices. Take his breathlessly forensic description of Mrs Proby, who reminds us of certain prominent Australian racists:
“Mrs. Proby look[ed] like a huge jar or, when shambling along as she often did, something like a prehistoric Nodosaurus. In a neck somewhat like insipid dough showed occasional fatty splotches, her hair sort of a heap of grey slag scraped back into a lumpish mound at her back. Her eyes had a russet, copperish hue that recalled garden thistles or cold glints of steel, depending, as so much did, upon her moods. She was paradigmatic of those fat, gigantic women in London, all bum and elbow, who wear itchy tentlike coats, carry absurd bags of oranges, and usually wheeze down beside you on the bus, smelling of shilling perfume and cold air. She wore "sensible" shoes, had one bad foot, smoked too much, and cultivated a look as if she were always about to say no.”
In many ways, Theroux prefigures the work of our own pioneering comedian Nick Giannopoulos, who through his comedy, also subverted the term “wog” as employed in Australia, taking ownership of it and transforming it from a term of abuse to a term of pride and endearment. Unlike Theroux however, Giannopoulos’ wit is more gentle, more generous, creating sympathy for all his characters and recognizing the ethnic stereotyping is not restricted to dominant cultures but forms part of the human condition. During the eighties and nineties, “wog” as used by him, became an apt term to describe a certain identity currently in formation: that of Southern European migrants and their children living and negotiating their cultural identity in an urban Australian environment. Proud of his achievement and ostensibly in order to protect the term from abuse and misuse during the apogee of the “wog” era, Nick Giannopoulos trademarked the term. Not only is he therefore the Wogboy, but also, the Wog ™  Supreme Arbiter.
Although the trademarking took place years ago, it has recently caused consternation among ‘ethnic’ comedians, with media reports alleging that some comedians have been advised not to use the term ‘wog’ ™ to promote their shows, for fear of legal action. Comedian George Kapiniaris, famous for his iconic character “Memo,” playing alongside Giannopoulos in ‘Acropolis Now,’ took to social media to remark in jest: “I hope he hasn’t got a Trademark on the word MALAKA. I’ll be out of business.” So, no doubt, will we be all.
Such consternation as exists, is testament to the enduring nature of the myths we weave around ourselves. There is an emotional attachment to the wog ™ identity the way it was articulated by Giannopoulos in the eighties, within many first and second generation migrant communities, especially our own, as many of us view Giannopoulos’ achievement in breaking into the mainstream and presenting us to them on his terms, as a seminal moment in our own acculturation and social emancipation.
Yet, so many decades on, can we really be called wogs ™? The wogs ™ of old lived in inner city workers’ suburbs. They were caught between non-English speaking parents with no connection to Australia than their presence here and an Anglosphere that looked down upon them on the basis for their ethnic background. They viewed their arcane cultural heritage with incomprehension, fetishised the expletives of their mother tongue while discarding the rest of it, worshipped machismo and had more in common with other urbanized migrants of the Mediterranean than anyone else. The term “wog” ™ elided their inherited cultural baggage and focused instead, on shared experience, in the now.
Even as Acropolis Now drew to a close however, our community changed, something that the Chief Wog ™ does not address in his comedy. Increased communication with Greece via internet and satellite television and cheaper travel allowed second and third generation Greeks to rediscover their motherland and its heritage. All of a sudden, it became cool not to be a wog ™ but rather, a born again Greek and it was on the beaches of Mykonos and the pupils of Jennifer Aniston’s eyes rather than in the backstreets of Brunswick that we began to locate the centrepoint of our identity. Rather than frequenting the multicultural discotheques of old, we turned inward. Barakia and “Greek nights” proliferated, refashioning the cultural geography of parts of the CBD of Melbourne, as we celebrated our distinct hypostasis as Greeks. No longer did we find common cause with the Italians, the Lebanese, the Turks and the Yugoslavs. Though we spoke our mother tongue haltingly, we knew or learned enough Greek to mouth the latest Notis Sfakianakis lyrics. In this post-Wog ™ era, the wog ™ meta-narrative was relegated to the margins of the community, to a few stalwarts and true believers, cherishing the memories of their sexual conquests, real and imagined, in premises that no longer existed, and now, not having been able to evolve or adapt into the coveted new species, unable to breed.
The barakia may have shut their doors but the strong identification with Greece and the Greek identity endures. It is for this reason that the cringeworthily emulative works of Giannopoulos’ successors do not work: they are based on a premise that no longer exists. As Greeks, we cannot identify with the violent, incoherent ravings of the characters in ‘Superwog,’ or the repellant antics of those who populate “Fat Pizza” for example because we are no longer wogs ™ and thus have no affinity to them. If anything, they reinforce our own smug sense of distinctiveness. The implausibly accented Sooshi Mango Italian grandmothers and grandfathers are now relevant only to the community they represent, and are to the younger generations of the Greek community incoherent, to the older ones, but a relic or a memory. Simply put, the wog ™ is a superseded discourse. However, no ‘ethnic’ comedian has been able to articulate a comic perspective that portrays our communities with all their fragmented, but infinitely fascinating combinations and permutations, as they currently are.
Rather than acting as a brake on comedic expression, Giannopoulos’ trademarking of the term ‘wog’ ™ is a blessing. By restricting its use, mummifying it and in the process, accepting its redundancy, Giannopoulos is compelling would-be comedians to view the communities they wish to lampoon and celebrate with fresh eyes, and to produce novel satire, relevant to the post-wog ™ zeitgeist. As such, Giannopoulos parts company with them and becomes instead of a comedian, a cultural historian, guardian of the ark of a certain form of historically significant lapsed cultural identity. It is for the latter generations to deconstruct, interrogate and ultimately caricature the evolution of their ethnic identities from that point and there is so much material to draw from, without recourse to ossified concepts of the wog ™. In the words of that exhauster of superlatives Alexander Theroux in the mouth of bigot Mrs Proby, in “Three Wogs”: “Your how is not necessarily my how, nor is ours theirs.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 December 2019