Saturday, February 29, 2020


Mention the words “New England” and the mind conjures up images of privileged white adolescents being incited by non-compliant with the directives of the Education Department teachers, to rip pages out of poetry books, as they march across paved courtyards, chanting Carpe Diem in unison, before variously, plummeting to their deaths in frustration upon achieving the realization that others control the modicum of pleasure existing in their lives, or seducing doe-eyed innocent preppies at the behest of drug-addicted vamps, and then dumping them unceremoniously, in acts of intolerable cruelty.
New England, as envisioned by the Puritan fathers who fled the religious intolerance and, according to their point of you, godlessness, of Old England, was supposed to be a remaking of their home country in the image of Jerusalem – a land of the righteousness and godly. The name New England was officially sanctioned on 3 November 1620, when the charter of the Virginia Company of Plymouth was replaced by a royal charter for the Plymouth Council for New England, a joint English stock company established to colonize and govern the region. What the would-be colonizers did not know, is that some six hundred years prior to the founding of American New England, their ancestors had founded a colony also called New England.

            Thus, according to the recently discovered Chronicon universale anonymi Laudunensis, a group of English notables emigrated to Byzantium in 235 ships, reaching Constantinople in 1075.  According to the Chronicle, 4,350 of the emigrants and their families remained in Constantinople in imperial service, while a majority of the refugees sailed to a place called Domapia, six days’ journey from Byzantium, conquered it and renamed it Nova Anglia (New England).
            Such a migration is far from implausible. English, along with Scandinavian soldiers were highly prized by the Byzantines, who hired them to swell the ranks of their elite Varangian (Viking) guard. Indeed, scholars hold that a significant influx of English mercenaries within Byzantium was occasioned by the Norman conquest of 1066. Displaced Anglo-Saxon nobles and warriors sought not only safety from the rapacity of the Normans, but also revenge and thus were willing to ally themselves with any state that was their enemy. At that time, the Byzantine Empire was facing a Norman invasion of its own in Epirus, and demand for soldiers to swell the ranks of the Varangian guard were high. According to Ordericus Vitalis, in his Historia Ecclesiastica:  “The English groaned aloud for their lost liberty and plotted ceaselessly to find some way of shaking off that what was so intolerable and unaccustomed…. Some of them who were still in the flower of youth traveled into remote lands and bravely offered their arms to Alexius, emperor of Constantinople, a man of great wisdom and nobility.  Robert Guiscard, the duke of Apulia, had taken up arms against him in support of Michael, whom the Greeks, resenting the power of the senate, had driven from the imperial throne.  Consequently the English exiles were warmly welcomed by the Greeks and were sent into battle against the Norman forces, which were too powerful for the Greeks alone…This is the reason for the English exodus to Ionia; the emigrants and their heir faithfully served the holy empire, and are still honoured among the Greeks by Emperor, nobility and people alike.”
The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexius I, corroborates the presence of English soldiers in her father’s army, recording that they came from “Thule,” a common name for the island of Britain.
Having fought for the Emperor and acquitted themselves with valour, the English grew restless and sought to settle elsewhere. The Játvarðar Saga, an Icelandic saga about the life of Edward the Confessor, relates that  when the Anglo-Saxons, fighting against William the Conqueror, became sure that the Danish king Sveinn Ástríðarson would notprovie them with any further assistance, they agreed to leave England for Constantinople. As opposed to the Chronicon universale’s 235 ships, according to the Saga, the English force consisted of 350 ships, a "great host" and "three earls and eight barons", all led by one "Siward earl of Gloucester" They sailed past Pointe Saint- Galicia, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Ceuta. Capturing Ceuta, they killed its Muslim defenders and plundered its gold and silver. After Ceuta, they seized Majorca and Minorca, before embarking to Sicily, where they heard that Constantinople was being besieged by “infidels.”
“They stayed a while in Micklegarth [Constantinople], and set the realm of the Greek-king free from strife.  King Kirjalax [Alexius] offered them to abide there and guard his body as was wont of the Varangians who went into his pay, but it seemed to earl Sigurd and the other chiefs that it was too small a career to grow old there in that fashion, that they had not a realm to rule over; and they begged the king to give them some towns or cities which they might own and their heirs after them…king Kirjalax told them that he knew of a land lying north in the sea, which had lain of old under the emperor of Micklegarth, but in later days the heathen had won it and abode in it.  And when the Englishmen heard that, they took a title from king Kirjalax that the land should be their own and their heirs after them if they could get it won under them from the heathen men free from tax and toll.  The king granted them this.  After that the Englishmen fared away out of Micklegarth and north into the sea, but some chiefs stayed behind in Micklegarth, and went into service there.  Earl Sigurd and his men came to this land and had many battles there and got the land won, but drove away all the folk that abode there before.  After that they took that land into possession and gave it a name, and called it England.   To the towns that were in the land and to those which they built they gave the names of the towns of England. They called them both London and York, and by the names of other great towns in England…This land lies six days’ and six nights’ sail across the sea to the east and northeast of Micklegarth; and there is the best land there; and that folk has abode there ever since.”
Though these accounts have captured the imagination of historians, it has proven impossible to verify the historicity of the colony of the original New England, with historians seeking it variously in the Crimea (among ruins which reputedly bore the name ‘London’) and the south Pontic coast of the Black Sea. Nonetheless, the English remained an important part of the Byzantine army and Constantinopolitan life. The fourteenth century Book of Offices by Georgios Kodinos, written centuries after the arrival of the English, mentions how their Christmas customs were adopted by the Varangian Guard: “Then the Varangians come and wish the Emperor many years in the language of their country, that is, English, and beating their battle-axes with loud noise.” Nonetheless, the image of a New York, replete with hirsute helmeted, axe-swinging Varangians cajoling each other to have a nice day, centuries before the English captured New Amsterdam and rebranded it is an enduringly attractive one, worthy inspiration, for many a dead poet.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 29 February 2020

Saturday, February 22, 2020


“The children now love luxury; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are tyrants, not servants of the households. They no longer rise when their elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize over their teachers.” Attributed to Socrates.

A free barbeque at Red Hill during the Theophania Festival, a permanent mural in Melbourne CBD, to be created by international artists PichiAvo and a Greek history virtual reality programme for the HTC VIVE device that could be made available at the Antipodes Festival, were some of the possible activities mooted at the recent well attended Greek Youth Summit in Melbourne, which took place at the Greek Centre.

A few days before, a prominent member of a Greek community organization asked me: “What are we going to do about the νεολαία? What do you κωλόπαιδα want? You expect everything and contribute nothing. You appreciate nothing and know only how to take, not to give. You are a problem that we need to solve.”

I have always been fascinated by the way the youth have proved to be a perennial problem for the organised Greek community. Despite the rhetoric, save for a perpetuation of existing structures which are antiquated and bear no relation to the complex synthesis of the Greek-Australian social fabric, no one has ever been able to articulate a coherent vision for the youth or a framework for their integration within the community. Known collectively as the «Νεολαία,» this is a body of people that have existed largely outside the imagination and perspective of the dominant generations. Having once been part of the «νεολαία,» and still being considered as one by active octaganerian members of the Greek community, I have watched as “youth committees” have folded one by one over the decades, either through lack of interest or as a result of bitter recrimination, politicking and manipulation by elders who saw them as puppets for their own nefarious designs. While in the eighties and nineties we were enjoined to attend dinner dance after dinner dance in nauseating succession in order to pay off loans secured over brotherhood buildings, so these could apparently be bequeathed to the «νεολαία», our community is now comprised of defunct brotherhoods, who with a few notable exceptions, devoid of youth, struggle to fill their empty halls and are engaged in Mexican stand-offs with their members, where all seek to sell their real assets but accuse each other of intending to misappropriate the proceeds, in reality vying with each other over liquidation rights.

In my spare time, I like to collect retro invitations to brotherhood dinner dances that include the phrase: «Θα έχουμε ντίσκο για την νεολαία,» reminiscing over those times when, resplendent in black pants and white socks, at each such χορό, we would be relegated to the table next to the toilets, furthest away from everyone else. As our inebriated and by this time, flatulent elders would pass us, unbuckling their belts in preparation for their ablutions, they would invariably ask: «Τι κάνει η νεολαία;» and we would roll our eyes in frustration. In those days and up to the present, the only elder-sanctioned sphere of youth involvement was a dance group, to be trundled out in traditional regalia for performances that redounded to the greater glory of the σύλλογο, and returned safely into obscurity once the performance was over. Sadly, the antagonistic and gerontocratic social culture of these brotherhoods, which dominated Greek community life, and their narrowness of perspective, generally limited to dances, barbecues, and these days, subsidized group holidays, precluded substantive participation of the youth, and save in the notable cases of Pontiaki Estia and the Pancretan Association, the youth learned next to nothing about the complex tapestry of folklore, history and tradition that characterized their ancestral regions, nor were they assisted to explore it, revel in it, or identify in it. In many cases, the bile, viciousness and anti-social behaviour of their elders turned them off the Greek community altogether.

Consequently, the enthusiasm, capabilities and energy of "the youth" have not been harnessed anywhere near to their full potential. Even in these “enlightened times” Greek youth are generally active outside the confines, or at best, in the case of NUGAS, which has undergone one of its periodic remarkable reinventions of late, on the margins of the organized Greek community. Structures do not seem to exist, even within large organisations that purport to represent all Greek-Australians to incorporate Greek youth, or to channel its endeavours, into that organized community. Quite possibly, what we are therefore witnessing is the emerging obsolescence of the institutions which have defined our existence as an entity, for the past one hundred years.

The topics discussed at the recent Greek Youth Summit merely serve to reinforce this phenomenon of alienation and separateness from the rest of the community. It comes as no coincidence, therefore, that the first topic of the successful evening addressed “the stigma that may come with being a member of the Greek Australian community and what could be done to deal with this issue."

The fact that discussions are being held by the youth in which they consider that there is a stigma in belonging to the Greek-Australian community and that this is an issue, is of profound significance and should not escape our attention. There is, a great deal of unaddressed historical trauma involved in growing up within the organised Greek-Australian community and this is a trauma that leads to identity complexes that can be inherited down the generations. The organisers of the Greek Youth Summit are to be admired for their perspicacity and their courage in finally identifying and addressing this impediment to youth integration within our communal structures.

Correctly recognizing the failure of the elders to pass on the corpus of lore relevant to the Greek identity to their offspring, the panellists of the Greek Youth Summit, examined ways to reach out to their peers in order to re-ignite an engagement with Greek culture. Obviuosly, they value this heritage and its continuity. What exactly that Greek culture is, for them, remained undefined, as it should be, for as a concept, it defies stereotypisation and exhausts superlatives. Any such conception however, must take cognisance of the unique culture we have created for ourselves here, and it is for the emerging youth to interrogate that culture, deconstruct it, and mould it accordingly. The complex, multi-faceted identity of today’s Greek-Australian youth, coloured by gender, sexuality, other ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic class, is something that was rightfully stressed at the Summit and which has largely been ignored by the previous generations. As one of the organisers charmingly put it: "You don't have to be hardcore to be Greek." The term hardcore also remained undefined at the Summit.

In this way, the ensuing discussion of ways to bridge over the past, find points of contact and establish a modus vivendi with the older generation of Greek-Australians who still dominate the structures of our community provided a useful analysis of the ontopathology of the Greek-Australian youth: existing on the margins of the dominant structures, acting generally autonomously and without reference to these but still unable to conceptually emancipate themselves from the organizational superstructure that in many ways continues to define their identity. What the organisers of the Summit aspire to, is, at least, co-operation, so that access to the social and other networks of the first generation can be granted to them, in the furtherance of their own activities.

Whether or not we ever manage to conceive of the much coveted, integrated inter-generational approach to our community and identity, the manner of negotiating the Greek community, the nature of articulation of the apodemic discourse by the youth, which reflect broader societal trends and tropes of expression, as exemplified in the Greek Youth Summit, deserve intense study.

What the Greek Youth Summit, an event generated by concerned youth without the instigation or direction of their elders, indicates, is that the Greek-Australian youth continue to identify, in a non-prescriptive way, with the community that has evolved here over a century. It is for them to formulate their own narratives and to engage with communal institutions in a manner in which satisfies their own objectives and preoccupations, if the Greek discourse is going to be of continuous relevance to multicultural Australia in the future. The elder members of the community should not consider this to be a “problem.” Nor can they be expected to plan for or to address the needs of a generation that is multi-skilled and integrated within the broader social fabric. That generation is more than capable of, and must do this for themselves. Their main challenge, considering their freshness, energy and diversity is their transience: theirs is a stage of life that soon passes, meaning that they are unable to form permanent institutional cultures with traditions of their own and each generation thus inhabits an ahistorical, decontextualised space, in which previous wisdom and lore does not accumulate and there is general ignorance of previous youth experience. This makes their integration within a large framework of co-operation all the more valuable. What our community must be able to do, is to nurture, inspire and support them, while they, in the words of the Shadows, “…live, love
While the flame is strong,/ For [they] won't be the young ones very long…”
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 22 February 2020

Saturday, February 15, 2020


Rigas Pheraios, in his famous pre-Revolutionary poem: “Thourios,” conceived of the Greek revolution as a movement that would unite peoples of all creeds and colours against tyranny and intolerance. He wrote«Σ' Aνατολή και Δύσι, και Nότον και Bοριά,/Για την Πατρίδα όλοι, νάχωμεν μια καρδιά./Στην πίστιν του καθ' ένας, ελεύθερος να ζη,/Στην δόξαν του πολέμου, να τρέξωμεν μαζύ./Βουλγάροι, κι' Αρβανήτες, Αρμένοι και Ρωμιοί,/Aράπιδες, και άσπροι, με μια κοινή ορμή./Για την ελευθερίαν, να ζώσωμεν σπαθί. »

Rigas would have been astounded to have seen those people he especially saw as sharing common interests with the Greeks, the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Albanians, squabbling over land during the Balkan Wars and other conflicts. He would have gasped at the failure of the proposed but ultimately failed proposal for a Greco-Albanian condominium. His conception of a Greek state, as a form of a multi-ethnic liberal polity inspired by the French revolution, never came to pass and he would, most likely, not have considered the modern state of Greece to have been a success.
Adamantios Korais, styled as one of the great “Teachers of the Nations,” saw education as a condition precedent for a successful revolution. For him, the revolution needed first to take place in the mind. The Greek people had to transform their world view through study and intellectual cultivation. Only then would they be in a position to successfully run a liberated state according to the principles of the enlightenment. Musing on what he considered to be the failure of the 1821 Revolution, he wrote: “If the race had rulers adorned with education, as it certainly would have had if the revolution had occurred thirty years later, then foreigners would have been inspired with such respect that the wrongs suffered from the anti-Christian Holy Alliance (i.e. the European powers) would have been avoided.” The modern rulers of Greece are extremely well educated. This, however, does not always seem to be commensurate to good governance.
Most of the time, other revolutionary protagonists, such as the clergy, saw the Revolution as a means of protecting people against Islamic persecution and ensuring that Christians would not be second class citizens. For much of the history of the resulting Greek State, which enshrined the Orthodox faith as the official faith of the state in its Constitution, this was a given. Now, however, we are seeing the exact opposite process: Muslim populations fleeing conflict or merely seeking a better life, wish to settle in Greece in large numbers, thus challenging for many, the unarticulated but deeply felt original rationale for the existence of Greece.
Some revolutionaries, such as Ioannis Kolettis, the erstwhile doctor of the infamous Ali Pasha and sometime Prime Minister of Greece, the Greek Revolution was a means of uniting all Greeks, inhabiting what was defined as “historic Greek areas” into one state with its capital at Constantinople. Termed the “Great Idea,” this defined Greek foreign policy to some extent right up until 1974. As a result, with a few brief reverses during the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the first hundred years of the establishment of the Greek State was marked by its continuous territorial expansion. Yet 1923 saw the extirpation of the Greeks of Asia Minor from their ancestral homelands and although in 1947 Greece gained the Dodecanese, it failed to gain Northern Epirus, and bearing the trauma of the 1955 pogroms against the Greek of Constantinople that caused their mass exodus from that city, embarked upon a tortuous and ultimately failed attempt for the liberation of and union with Cyprus, culminating in the occupation of the north of that island. As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of the Revolution, with a Turkish leader who lays claim to Greek islands, violates Greek airspace, and threatens to push as back into the sea, as he did our ancestors, it is clear that Kolettis’ conception of the Revolution is well and truly dead in the water. Rather than see all Greeks united in one country, the modern history of the country has been one of constant migration away from Greece, pushing Hellenism to corners of the globe that Kolettis’ had never heard of, all the while redefining what it means to be Greek.
Revolutionary fighter Yiannis Makrygiannis’ idea of the revolution was that it would create a state in which all would contribute in accordance with their ability, for the common good of all, as characterised by his famous phrase: «Είμαστε εις το «εμείς» κι όχι εις το «εγώ». Και εις το εξής να μάθομεν γνώση, αν θέλομεν να φκιάσομεν χωριόν, να ζήσομεν όλοι μαζί.» The corruption that has mired governance in Greece, the erosion of social capital, the rise of xenophobia and violence, the collapse of the state’s financial foundation, the parlous state of the judiciary, and the way in which Greece, at crucial moments of its existence, such as during the Revolution itself, the National Schism between Royalists and Venizelists and the Greek Civil War had the propensity to let its social fabric turn inwards against itself and begin to self-destruct, all seem to belie this remarkable visionary’s aspirations.
Petrobeis Mavromihalis, and so many other revolutionary fighters of his ilk, wanted to get rid of the Ottoman Pashas so they could be free to lord it over the inhabitants of their regions in their stead. Their legacy endures within the political culture of Greece.
Arguably, despite the dreams of the Revolutionaries, Greece has never been entirely free in terms of sovereignty. For much of its existence, its freedom was guaranteed by foreign powers who imposed their political will and their own leaders upon the country. Nor was Greece free to make its own foreign policy, as was evidenced in 1854–59, when following the Crimean War, Piraeus was occupied by the Anglo-French fleet to forestall Greek expansionist intentions, in 1916 when the Entente Allies occupied Piraeus in order to force the king to pull his army away from Venizelist troops, into the Peloponnese and in 1967 when the CIA assisted treasonous Greek colonels to subvert the democratic process. Greece has never been financially free either. Forced to borrow way beyond its capacity to repay in order to finance the Revolution, Greece has stumbled its way from financial crisis to bankruptcy, trying valiantly but somehow always failing, to be a going concern. Since its creation as a nation, Greece has endured one war after another, brutal occupation, poverty and instability. It has not enjoyed an easy ride.
When Greek plutocrat Yianna Daskalaki unveiled the logo of the Organising Committee for the celebration of two hundredth anniversary of the Greek Revolution, I, like most was underwhelmed. Three stripes, that look more like barbed wire or jail bars but which, we are reliably informed, form the number two, penetrate the number one and then, for reasons inexplicable, having transfixed the said number, split off into five thinner rays that launch off into the distance. The prime number sequence, 3, 1, 5 may be code, or may be designed to befuddle numerologists and Greek parliamentarians, though these two terms are synonyms. A variant reading has five arrows (according to some, those belonging to the Rothschild family,) penetrating Greece. As a result a thrice flowing open wound symbolising the troika, flows from what should be the prime country of them all. Significantly, that wound is not finite. It merely disappears into the distance, giving no promise of its staunching or clotting.
The caption underneath the bizarre logo: 200 Years After the Revolution, Greece-2021 is bland and appears in font used in Greek school text books. In fact, the colour scheme and layout is reminiscent of a Greek grammar book. Rather than being brash, inspiring, triumphalist and celebratory, dripping with arms, armour and Hellenic heraldry, the logo is austere, dour, ambivalent and betrays a palpable sense of unease. Yianna, famous for presenting us with two pastel blobs as mascots for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, states that the anniversary “is not simply history, but a great opportunity to escape daily reality, celebrate, as Greeks know best, and to remember where we started from; to realise where we stand and decide where we want to go…” You wouldn’t know it from the perforated numeric logo.
Escaping daily reality forms the basis of Greek civilisation. Remembering where we started from, necessarily entails recalling and analysing all the traumatic experiences that form part of the Greek collective conscience. It also entails realising that modern Greek society in many respects, whether one likes this or not, has diverged from the expectations of its revolutionary founding fathers. To many, this divergence must be responded with an immediate getting “back on track,” for others, it is the necessary and welcome consequence of historic evolution. The dawn of the third century of Greece’s existence finds its people, both at home and abroad struggling to articulate a coherent vision of their nation that is in keeping with the values of its founding fathers but able to address the challenges of the future. In many respects this is because apart from being an independent Orthodox country under their rule as stakeholders, Greece’s founding fathers may not have developed any further social vision for their country, in the first place. We are the neo-hellenes, stranded without a clue as to how to reinvent ourselves. And the belief that we all harbour in our bosoms, that somehow, neither we or the nation we identify with have lived up to our potential, is inescapable.
It is for this reason, for all of its self-conscious, incoherent, uneasy, disquieting, severe and claustrophobic inversion of neohellenic élan vital, that I have overcome my original revulsion and come to appreciate the 2021 Logo as a work of the highest genius. Signifying nought else but what the late Dimitris Mitropanos termed, «η εθνική μας μοναξιά,» it symbolises more than anything else, a nation at the crossroads, confused, unresolved, fraught with insecurity and ennui. Nonetheless, it is a nation that despite all odds, despite all that it has endured that has threatened to prove inimical to its very existence, has managed to survive. Rather than bread and circuses, what it does deserve, is a bit of a breather.
We take our leave, after politely hinting that the new logo looks uncannily similar to that appearing on an old Soviet stamp to celebrate the 40th  anniversary of the Great Patriotic War, suggesting the following lyrics, by Fatboy Slim as a fitting soundtrack for the marketing of Modern Greece’s bicentenary, with any luck featuring the terpsichorean stylings of Koulis M, Alexis Ts and of course, the limber Yanis Var:
“We've come a long, long way together
Through the hard times and the good
I have to celebrate you, baby
I have to praise you like I should…”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 February 2020

Saturday, February 08, 2020


“The anaemic responses to multicultural policy by Labor and Coalition since the mid-90s, that Dr Aly alludes to, has allowed race and new identity politics, born in the US, to colonise our very distinctive policy. Our multicultural policy was exceptional in determining language as a key aspect of diversity.
Fotis Kapetopoulos, Neos Kosmos.

“My daughter is starting kindergarten without speaking English,” I informed an educator I was introduced to at a social function last week.
“What’s her language?” the teacher asked.
“She speaks Greek and Assyrian,” I informed her.
“Spent some time overseas, have you?” she smiled.
“But you were both born here?” came the puzzled response.
The implication is that since my progeny and I have been born in this country, English must be our primary language. Furthermore, language, in the monolingual mainstream zeitgeist, seems to be used to characterize and classify a person. Thus, I was not asked which language(s) my daughter speaks, but rather, what her language is, thus excluding her from the possibility of belonging, or indeed of being capable for traversing linguistic boundaries, a phenomenon common overseas but relatively unknown in the southern Anglosphere.

I had a similar conversation three years ago, with my eldest daughter’s kindergarten teacher. Both the educator, and that teacher, while displaying a proficiency in comprehending school diversity policies, and having received the prescribed departmental training, seemed, on a personal level, to struggle to understand how people born here, would have a primary language other than English. Apparently, languages other than English are the preserve of migrants, to be tolerated and nurtured and of course celebrated in statistics and policy documents,  until such time as acculturation and assimilation takes place. The fact that Australians born in this country would choose a different primary language, appears unfathomable.

 What is significant about the second, more recent conversation however, is that the educator I was conversing with, is of Greek descent.
“I don’t know why you bother,” she dismissed my arguments about the importance of the Greek language. “I started off like you because my mother was bringing up the kids while I was working. It’s a complete waste of time. First of all, everyone speaks English now, even the older Greeks, so there is no use for it. Everyone in Greece speaks English too, so you don’t even need the language for your holidays. You don’t need to speak Greek to feel Greek.  Second of all, it puts them at a disadvantage because they start off behind the other kids. Why would you deliberately place your kids at a disadvantage. Thirdly, as if she already speaks two languages. How is that even possible?”
I began to expound my theory that in a multicultural society, all languages are acceptable, Australian languages and that my daughter’s fluency in languages reflects the diverse linguistic reality of our family, but she would have none of it. When I went on to explain how important a knowledge of the Greek language is to one’s identity and how it grants access to 4,000 years of an unimaginably rich literary culture, she shrugged: “We live in Australia now. And that stuff isn’t part of our culture. The ancient past is part of Western culture. You don’t need to speak Greek to understand it. The oldies never talked about it. All they were interested in was where to get groceries cheaply and where to invest in property. Why do you want to burden your kids with irrelevant stuff that stops them fitting in?”
 “When the other parents hear you speaking to her in Greek, they won’t like it,” she warned me. “They will think it is rude because they don’t understand what you are saying and they will consider that you are doing this on purpose. They will not want to socialize with you.” This seemed to concern her greatly, as she repeated the warning several times.

As far as warnings go, they aren’t far off the mark. Until she learned to speak rudimentary English, my eldest daughter was invisible to her kindergarten classmates, while the parents of her Greek-background classmates would assiduously avoid me when they would hear me speak Greek to her while dropping her off in the mornings. Yet it seemed to me at the time, that if people, especially children of migrants find listening to languages other than English confronting, that this is a problem for them, not for me.

“Well, how would you feel if you were in a room full of people, speaking in a language you don’t understand?” the educator, observing my quizzical expression, furthered. That experience too, forms part of my professional and personal life. My clients come from a multitude of backgrounds and I especially relish the opportunity to brush up on my parlous high school Mandarin, with my Chinese customers. I am also often placed in social situations where I listen to family members and friends converse in Assyrian, Arabic and Kurdish. Some of them, having lived in Greece, speak to me, unselfconsciously, in broken Greek. Most of the time however, rather than feeling confronted or excluded, I listen intently, trying to decipher what I already know, decrypting novel expressions, memorising pronunciation, revelling in nuance, or etymologising familiar words, comparing them to my own tongue. On the odd occasion, without prompting, the interlocutors will feel embarrassed and switch to English. When that happens, I beg them to switch back to their original language, quite simply, because I want to learn. Furthermore, it is in their own languages that they are able to express themselves the most clearly and in the most genuinely heartfelt manner. I want to understand them as much as possible, as people, in their own medium. Rather than feeling intimidated, I feel privileged.

Upon absorbing this, the teacher opined: “Well it’s a recipe for trouble anyway. You want your kids to be Greek, and your wife will want them to be Assyrian and you are going to end up fighting. English is neutral and avoids drama.” I tried to explain that identities can be flexible, hybrid, fluid and that languages rather than fixing such identities in stone merely facilitate discourse but she would have none of it. “Australia has moved on,” she declared. “And what is the point of bringing them up in a language that by the time they grow up, no one their age speaks? You might as well teach them Latin. It’s sad, but you can’t ignore reality.”

Interestingly enough, said educator is quite proud of her son, who last year received a certificate for prowess in French. “That’s different,” the teacher explained, when questioned. “French is an international prestige language. Greek is useless. And before you mentioned it, I had not even ever heard of Assyrian.” So while under multiculturalism, all languages are equal, some languages are evidently equal than others. And of course those languages are definitely not the community languages, the languages of the migrants to this country. Those languages are for use only within each ethnic community and are rarely studied or offered for study, to the mainstream.

In their magisterial “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000” George Vassilacopoulos and Toula Nicolacopoulou, postulate that despite the veneer of formal equality characterizing race relations in this country, there lurks within the substratum, a fundamental concept of the ‘perpetual foreigner,’ defined by those who obtain legitimisation of their rule and presence in this country, at the expense of its traditional owners, by conferring upon such foreigners, citizenship and residency rights. Nonetheless, these foreigners are not automatically subsumed into the liberal democratic individualist paradigm. They remain a distinct ‘group,’ which is expected to provide appropriate declarations and exhibitions of loyalty to the ruling culture, or face the fear of being labelled suspect. One way in which to achieve acceptance and lessen the opportunity to be considered a subversive influence, is not only to adopt the dominant culture’s language, but to discard one’s own.

Multiculturalism as propounded in the late seventies and early eighties sought to determine language as a key aspect of diversity. What is usually overlooked however, is the fact that this novel experience was foisted upon the pre-existing and over-arching framework that legitimizes the dominant culture’s rule in this country, its violent destruction of its native people’s cultures and languages, and granted it the tools by which to continue to perpetuate the stereotype of the foreigner, using language (and religion) as a criterion, abrogating to itself the right to determine which linguistic groups are to be considered subversive, at will. The sections of these linguistic groups that internalise and replicate the attitudes of the dominant class, evidence the tenacity and flexibility of the initial paradigm, as acculturated individuals are admitted into the dominant group under certain conditions and new classes of foreigners are created. It is easy to blame governmental policy shifts for a perceived lack of tolerance. It is much harder to ascribe the roots of that intolerance to the fundamental structures and mores underpinning the dominant culture’s ontopathology regarding its own sovereignty.

It is thus not multiculturalism that needs to be re-booted, as Labor MP Dr Aly recently suggested, but the broader social system in general. A society that labels citizens according to their language, penalizes and is confronted by the use of languages other than English in any context, whether social or otherwise, at the same time that it periodically provides funds for community language acquisition, only to threaten to withdraw such funding at convenient opportunities, is a society whose understanding of multiculturalism cannot survive the circumlocutions and meanderings of policy and legislation. Linguistic communities, whose members insist on the daily and constant use of their mother tongue, by their very existence and persistence, provide a valuable service by critiquing and undermining the dominant discourse, challenging its presumptions and defying its monolingual imperatives. Our community, the history of whose ideological approach but also practice of language retention is a complex and diverse one which defies stereotypification, is, in the deconstruction of multiculturalism, worthy of further study, as is an evaluation of its progressive elements’ historical campaign for acceptance of these values into the mainstream.

At a local Greek festival recently, an elderly lady turned to me and asked:
 -Γιου Γκρηκ;
Before I got a chance to reply, she turned to my wife and asked:
- Ξένος είναι;
To which my wife replied:
- Ναι.

And that for me, is the essence, of multiculturalism, real, imagined, re-booted, or re-mooted.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 8 February 2020.