Saturday, March 28, 2020


Just prior to his death by strangulation in the castle of Belgrade, Serbia, Greek visionary Rhigas Pheraios is said to have uttered the immortal words:  "I have sown a rich seed; the hour is coming when my country will reap its glorious fruits."  Contrary to common belief, the Greek revolution was not the first major uprising against the Ottomans in the nineteenth century. A decade prior to the 1821 declaration of Greek independence, between 1804 to 1813, the Serbs of the sanjak of Smederevo  rose up against their Ottoman oppressors, firstly, to protest against the seizure of power by Janissaries, and then, in search of complete independence. Although the first uprising was crushed brutally, causing up to a quarter of the population to flee across the border into the Austrian Habsburg Empire, a second uprising commencing in 1815, eventually succeeded in securing Serbian autonomy and ultimately independence.

At all stages of the Serbian struggle for freedom, the Serbs were aided by Greek freedom fighters and diplomats. Indeed, the first ever historian of the Serbian Revolution was a Greek, Triantafyllos Doukas, from whom we learn that as early as 1806, the French consul in Thessaloniki reported that "the Turks are very furious against the Greeks because of their communications with the Serbs." He also reported that a significant number of Greek peasants were arrested by the Ottomans, on suspicion of aiding the Serbian rebels. So important was the Greek contribution to the fight for Serbian freedom, that after the failure of the first Uprising, the Serbian revolutionary leader, Karadjordje  fled to Moldavia, where he joined the Philiki Hetaireia, actively supporting preparations for Greek Independence in the Danubian principalities.

Some not so insignificant Greek revolutionary figures participated in the Serbian uprising. The Thessalian armatole Nikotsaras took part in the Uprising along with 550 men. His Thessalian Vlach commander compatriot Giorgakis Olympios, whose early career involved protecting Epirote villages from the raids of Ali Pasha, moved to Serbia in 1798 and, under the name Kapetan Jorgać, fought with Karadjordje in the main battles of the First Serbian Uprising. He also married a local Serbian woman, Chuchuk Stane  widow of Serbian freedom-fighter Hajduk Veljko. Fleeing to Moldavia with Karadjordje upon the crushing of the Uprising, he was instrumental in facilitating Karadjordje’s return to Serbia in 1817, with the hope that the Serbian revolt would pin down Ottoman troops that would otherwise quell the planned Greek Revolution.

Kontas Bimbasis, known in Serbian as Konda Bimbasha, a Vlach from Ioannina, Epirus, has achieved immortal fame in Serbian folklore, as the  heroic fighter who, during the 1806 siege of Belgrade, managed to infiltrate the city and open the Sava gate,  permitting the Serbian fighters to enter the city. A mercenary in the Ottoman army, he joined the rebel Serbian army with the rank of major (bimbashi), and, having a thorough knowledge of the defences of Belgrade, conceived of the plan to enter the city by stealth, posing as an Ottoman soldier with five of his men, climbing the rampart and jumping over the palisade. He then attacked the guards, while his men broke into the Sava Gate locks with axes. In the fracas, Konda received five wounds but continued to fight until his ultimate death at the Battle of Loznica in 1807. A romantic figure, he features as a character in Svetomir Nastasijević's 1954 opera, “The First Uprising,” while a street in Belgrade rightfully bears his name, the Kondina ulija.

Petros Itskos, known in Serbian as Petar Ičko, provided invaluable services to the Serbian Uprising, on the diplomatic front. A Vlach from Katranitsa in western Macedonia, he was a merchant who migrated to Serbia in search of commercial opportunities. A successful operator, he was well respected by the Ottoman authorities and was thus employed as a dragoman, or interpreter and diplomat in Ottoman diplomatic missions in Berlin and Vienna. At the outbreak of the Serbian Uprising, he offered his services to Karadjordje  and provided guidance as to navigating the objections of the European powers, to the concept of Serbian independence. So influential was he, that the Serbian rebel leaders sent him as their representative in Constantinople, where he managed to obtain for them a favourable peace treaty, known as “Ičko’s Peace,” with the recognition of a form of autonomy and clearer stipulation of taxes. He returned and lived in Belgrade as an honorary citizen, but died there soon after, on 5 May 1808, probably as a result of poisoning by the rival Obrenovic family, which was feuding with Karadjordje for leadership of Serbia. His house is still an important cultural landmark in Belgrade today, while his son Naoum’s home, also a diplomat, designed and constructed by Greek architects, is the oldest continuously operating traditional tavern in Belgrade.

The fate of Naoum Karnaras, known as Naum Krnar, a Vlach from Moschopoli in Northern Epirus illustrates the difficulty some of the Greeks in the Serbian uprising faced, when caught between two rival factions vying for power. A leather and fur trader settled in Belgrade, at the commencement of the Uprising, he joined Karadjordje, soon becoming his personal secretary and chairman in the Serbian Ruling Council. He accompanied Petros Itskos on his diplomatic mission to Constantinople. Fleeing Serbia with Karadjordje after the Uprising’s suppression by the Ottomans in 1813, he found refuge in the Russian Empire and in 1814, became one of founding members of the Philiki Etaireia.  On 12 July 1817, he and Karadjordje, by this time settled in the Danubian Principalities, secretly crossed the Danube into Serbia, assisted by Giorgakis Olympios, in order to continue the Serbian Revolution. Unfortunately, the leader of the Second Serbian Uprising and rival of Karadjordje, Miloš Obrenović, who had lain down arms in exchange for Ottoman autonomy, learned of their presence. Their hideout in a cottage in the village of Radovanj was betrayed,  the sleeping Karadjordje was despatched with an axe blow to the head, and Karnaras, who was washing himself and fetching water for Karadjordje in a nearby river, was shot with a rifle. Both were beheaded and their heads were sent to the Sultan in Constantinople. After being exhibited in the Constantinople Museum of Sciences, Serbian legend holds that the Greeks secretly stole the heads and hid them in a museum in Athens, though this remains uncorroborated by Greek sources.

Though well-known and honoured in Serbia, the Greeks who fought for Serbian independence largely exist outside the mainstream Greek historical narrative. Yet the narrative is a reciprocal one, with such Serbian fighters as Vasos Mavrovouniotis, Hadži-Prodan, later Serbian Defence Minister Mladen Milovanović, Anastasije Dmitrijević, Constantin Nemania and Rados Mavrovouniotis fighting for the Gree forces both in Moldo-Wallachia and in Greece proper.
Significantly, while at the beginning of the Revolution the Serbian units were ethnically homogeneous, the mutual trust and sense of brotherhood developed between the two peoples saw the full integration of their armies. Thus, after 1823 Greeks enlisted in Serbian units and vice versa.

The lasting legacy of the Greco-Serb cooperation during their respective struggles for Independence was the realisation by the leaders of both countries that they were natural allies in the quest to expel the Ottomans from the Balkans. Especially after 1823, intellectuals such as  Athanasios Psalidas and Macedonian freedom fighter Tsamis Karatasos persistently advocated for the Greek government to attempt to form an alliance with Serbia and Montenegro. That alliance, but most of all, the feelings of solidarity it engendered, persisted through the Balkan Wars and saw both countries almost double their territories. In fits and starts, that sense of brotherhood endures to the present day.


First published in NKEE on 28 March 2020

Saturday, March 21, 2020


If you are an average Greek Orthodox Christian in Australia, chances are that you will on average, take communion, only once a year, just before Easter. It seems therefore strange that the question as to whether communion as provided by the Orthodox Church, will facilitate the spread of the dreaded coronavirus has arisen within the Greek communities of Australia. Yet it is precisely because the virus is predicted to have already hit us hard by Easter, that the issue has become so divisive.
At the centre of the controversy, is the Orthodox Church’s contention that communion is the Body and Blood of Christ and thus, cannot, by its very nature, convey any form of disease. The prospect of churches remaining open during the epidemic to dispense communion offers comfort to some, but outrages others who consider it irresponsible and dangerous. Heated debates have taken place, mostly on social media, resulting in the alleged targeted bullying of at least one senior priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia.
The mainstream media are also paying attention, with a recent ABC article stating that: “Greek Orthodox churches across the country will allow congregations of hundreds of people to sip wine from the same spoon during mass because "the holy cup cannot carry disease." 
 Another article in the “Australian” newspaper quotes recently ordained Bishop Elpidios of Perth as affirming that “Where science ends, that’s where faith kicks in.” The same article refers to a so-called “Global Statement of the Greek Orthodox Church where it is considered that: “attending eucharist and communion through the common glass of life certainly cannot be a cause of disease transmission.”
That so-called ‘Global Statement’ is actually a statement by the Church of Greece, which is a State Church, of no ‘global’ reach. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia however, is subject to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Communique by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, while affirming Orthodox Doctrine on Communion, which it states is the “antidote to mortality: is far more nuanced, pronouncing:
  1. Despite the seriousness of the situation, prudence, patience, and the avoidance of panic are advised.
  2. The Church has and continues to respect medical science. Thus, the Church recommends that all the faithful adhere to the official directives of both the World Health Organization and the pertinent pronouncements and legal regulations issued by the civil authorities of their respective countries.
  3. The Ecumenical Patriarchate expresses its gratitude to all those working self-sacrificially within all health, medical, nursing, and research fields in order that this new pandemic be confronted and treated.
Compounding the confusion is the fact that the communion of Orthodox Churches, while agreeing on issues of doctrine, are free to adopt their own practices when dealing with circumstances in their own particular jurisdictions. Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarchate-affiliated Archdiocese in the United Kingdom, while warning the faithful to exercise prudence and discretion, has announced that its churches will remain open for the present. In contrast, the French Archdiocese has closed all its churches until further notice. The Primate of the Albanian Autocephalous Church, while confirming churches will now cease activity during the week and will only remain open on Sundays, has urged his followers to discharge their religious duties at home.

An official pronouncement has now been made by the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, Archbishop Makarios. While affirming church doctrine on Communion, he asks the faithful to stay away from churches during this time, while also requesting a cessation of clerical hand kissing. He identifies the focus both of the faithful’s fervour and the enraged’s ire as Communion, but also gives regard to the prospect of the virus being transmitted not via communion itself, but by other means, person to person, within the context of a church service, as prospective communicants line up to receive communion, asking the priests to dispense antidoron, the gift of bread at the end of the service, rather than allow parishioners to take it themselves. Significantly, the Archbishop asks that his pronouncement not be compared to those of other jurisdictions, as the conditions and legal and medical requirements of each region are specific to them alone. The announcement has been positively received by the community, as sensible, measured, prudent and responsible.

Archbishop Makarios’ announcement notwithstanding, there appears at present, no common stance as to Communion taken by the other Orthodox jurisdictions within Australia.  Mainstream media reports, focusing on the Greek church, have largely ignored the existence of those other jurisdictions.
A priest in the Russian Orthodox Church has confirmed to Neos Kosmos that communion will be dispensed as usual, with instructions provided to include the traditional litany prescribed for times of pestilence in services.
A priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Church has confirmed to Neos Kosmos that communion will also be dispensed as usual, except that instructions will be given that the faithful not touch the communion spoon with their mouths, as communion is being dropped into their mouths by the priest.
Some traditional Eastern churches are considering changes to the manner in which they dispense communion in order to allay the fears of the faithful. The Syriac Orthodox Church (Miaphysite) recently published an announcement whereby it will revert to ancient tradition, dispensing the bread separately, it first having been dipped in wine.
It should be noted that during the liturgy of the Rite of Saint James, which is performed once a year by the Greek Orthodox Church on 23 August, the bread and wine is also dispensed separately, according to the tradition of the ancient Church but there has been no indication by any of the Orthodox Churches that there will be a reversion to that Rite.
The Assyrian Church of the East, which dispenses the communion bread separately but has all communicants drink the wine from the same cup, has also confirmed it will not change its practice in the face of Coronavirus.
An Orthodox priest has opined that one way to limit the amount of faithful taking communion is to insist on the strict practice of compelling communicants to have undergone confession beforehand. The same priest expressed fears that should the epidemic increase in its spread and severity, that the Orthodox Church will be seen as a scapegoat and that its affiliated ethnic communities could be subjected to attacks.
Father Chris Dimolianis of Saint Eustathios Church in South Melbourne provides a light-hearted, yet no less fervent perspective, emphasising personal choice:
“The heated discussion and confusion on social media lately regarding Orthodox Holy Communion and the Coronavirus, reminded me of the scene in the movie [ the Court Jester]  where they discuss whether or not "the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!"
No one wants "the pellet with the poison" and they're all searching for the "brew that is true."
Well, it seems to me that either you truly believe that Holy Communion is really "the brew that is true" (the Body and Blood of Christ), or you believe that it is "the vessel with the pestle" which contains "the pellet with the poison".
Put simply, those who wish to be (and wish to remain) in communion with Christ are welcome to come and receive Him. Those who are reluctant, afraid, unsure or even disgusted, may reject and refuse. Either way, we should not be judging or condemning one another. Let all, in good conscience, make their own decision!”


First published in NKEE


"Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise."
Albert Camus: “The Plague.”

A Melburnian friend tells the story of his grandmother’s eldest sister, who contracted Influenza during the deadly outbreak of 1918. Fearful of contagion, the family isolated their daughter in a shed and left food outside the door every day. One day, they found the food outside the door, uneaten…
Although our western bourgeois lifestyles of comfort tend to create cultural amnesia when it comes to all but a few carefully selected past experiences of privation, epidemics and contagious diseases form a significant part of the Greek historical experience. Greece was considered to have the highest prevalence of malaria among all European countries during the early twentieth century, with one of the largest epidemics, affecting 960,000 people, occurring in 1905. Indeed Malaria was endemic throughout the country up until the 1960s. Greek physician Hippocrates is considered the first to mention the term "Cholera" in his writings, and the last confirmed case of the disease was reported in 1993. Typhoid was also historically prevalent and it is considered that this was the plague (λοιμός) referred to in Thucydides histories.
Significantly, the Greeks were the first to consider the breakdown of social norms and sanctioned modes of behaviour as a result of epidemics. From selfishness, to apathy, to seeking scapegoats, the historian Thucydides, carefully recorded the fragmentation of Athenian society during the plague that afflicted Athens during the Peloponnesian War:

“Most appalling was the despondency which seized upon any one who felt himself sickening; for he instantly abandoned his mind to despair and, instead of holding out, absolutely threw away his chance of life. Appalling too was the rapidity with which men caught the infection; dying like sheep if they attended on one another;…When they were afraid to visit one another, the sufferers died in their solitude, so that many houses were empty because there had been no one left to take care of the sick…”

Byzantine author Procopius, who lived through the Bubonic Plague that swept through Constantinople during the time of the Emperor Justinian, in his sophisticated and nuanced account, recorded the manner in which the City’s inhabitants either abandoned themselves to despondency, allowed the most bestial part of their nature to thrive unchecked, or cleaved together in solidarity:

“At that time all the customary rites of burial were overlooked. For the dead were not carried out escorted by a procession in the customary manner, nor were the usual chants sung over them, but it was sufficient if one carried on his shoulders the body of one of the dead to the parts of the city which bordered on the sea and flung him down;…. At that time, too, those…formerly.. members of the factions laid aside their mutual enmity and in common they attended to the burial rites of the dead….. [T]hose who in times past… devot[ed] themselves to pursuits both shameful and base, shook off the unrighteousness of their daily lives and practiced the duties of religion with diligence…being thoroughly terrified by the things which were happening, and supposing that they would die immediately, did, as was natural, learn respectability for a season by sheer necessity.”
The parallel with the recent heart-rendering story of the Neapolitan stuck at home with his dead sister because no one will come to bury her, is compelling.

We could draw from the accumulated experiences of those who have had to address similar problems before us, if it were not for the fact that we are still in thrall to a narrative that has humanity in a constant state of progress, continuously improving and thus rendering history as a guide, redundant. Yet the panic displayed in the acquisition of ordinary household items such as toilet paper, the abandonment of all civil decency as people attack each other in order to obtain hitherto unimportant resources, the manner in which the need for such resources is exploited by those who offer them at a premium, much as the black marketeers did in Greece during the Nazi occupation all suggest that civilization, as it pertains to humanity, is constantly perched upon a knife edge. All that is required is unforeseen adversity for us to abandon any notions of civility and turn on each other. As Thucydides wrote: “...the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

The first victims of the paranoia accompanying such catastrophes are most often the outsiders. In ancient Athens, metics, traders and non-Athenians were blamed for introducing the plague from Ethiopia. In Australia, the manner in which Chinese Australians are accosted in streets, and portrayed as carriers of disease and vice, is disconcertingly reminiscent of portrayals of Chinese as “pests” during debates about the White Australia Policy at the time of Federation. It is remarkable and extremely disquieting to identify the endurance of the same racist discourses over the course of a century, and it is vital that, drawing on the past accumulation of experience, we come together to assist one another, avoiding the need for scapegoating.

Displaying initiative in social proactivity, the Greek community has cancelled its celebratory Independence Day march and the Greek Consulate General in Melbourne has cancelled its own National Day function. Greek society however, in seeking a scapegoating, is finding one in the Orthodox Church, centring its ire upon the act of Holy Communion and speculating that its dispensation will facilitate the spread of coronavirus.  Considering that Greeks generally take communion only once or twice a year, the focus on Communion exemplifies broader, perennial fault lines within the global Greek narrative. It remains to be seen just to what extent if any, given the interest displayed in this issue by the mainstream media of late, the Church will in any way be held responsible for the spread of the disease, should the epidemic worsen.
In Albert Camus’ seminal novel, “The Plague”, it is an unacknowledged past or an unexpected future that returns in the form of disease to plague the present:
“So you haven’t understood yet?” Rambert shrugged his shoulders almost scornfully.
“Understood what?”
“The plague.”
“No, you haven’t understood that it means exactly that— the same thing over and over and over again.”
When they do periodically arise, epidemics highlight festering sores, dormant conflicts and simmering schisms within the body politic. Without recourse to history, we can neither plan to address these or the predictably similar reactions of the populace at large to them, over the centuries. That is why an understanding of the historical context is so vital. Because in times of crisis, when society turns in on itself, the private citizen becomes public and the individual becomes political. As Camus explains:
“Without memories, without hope, they lived for the moment only. Indeed the Here and Now had come to mean everything to them. For there is no denying that the plague had gradually killed off in all of us the faculty not of love only but even of friendship. Naturally enough, since love asks something of the future, and nothing was left us but a series of present moments.”
Already the cultural life of our specific and the broader community in Melbourne is becoming circumscribed with the economic toll already been felt upon Greek businesses. As a prominent ethnic community, we are placed in a unique position to advocate for priority access to medical assistance for vulnerable or underprivileged groups such as Indigenous communities and the homeless and to share our historical memories. We can be proud of the fact that a member of our community, Jenny Mikakos, as Victorian Health Minister, has shouldered the weighty obligation of seeing us through this crisis and we must do all we can to assist her. Religious controversies notwithstanding, our tradition provides ethical teachings in the form of advice by Saint Cyprian of Carthage, also a plague survivor:
“But nevertheless it disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens… It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality..”

No matter what happens in the future, one thing is certain. We must have the strength and resources to pull through with dignity, compassion and solidarity, for these are the hallmarks of a true community, knowing as Gabriel Garcia Marquez so eloquently put it in “Love in the time of Cholera,” that: “the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.”

First published in NKEE on 21 March 2020

Saturday, March 14, 2020


῾Σύρι σακάτ μιριά κι φέρι᾽μ του μαρκούτςαπ᾽ του γκαντούν᾽ my grandfather enjoined me.
Ἄντι, τι κάθισι κι κατσέρνς τς μύγις; Ιγκδά είνι,my grandmother added.
My friend from Greek school looked at me, mystified. “What language is that?
Twenty years later, while playing cards with my uncle, my wife heard this conversation:
  • Τς᾽ έχς τς ας;
  • Τσέχου.
  • Πουτς;
  • Νατς.
“What language is that?” she asked. When I replied “Greek,” she shook her head. “I know Greek,” she said. “I’ve lived in Greece. And whatever you are speaking, that is not Greek.”
We were speaking Samian, the dialect of my father and my native tongue. In various forms, it was spoken in Samos, and across the water, in Asia Minor, all the way to Aydin. The Greek alphabet cannot record the palatisations and nazalisations of its phonology, nor can it reproduce its extra vowels, and therefore it is seldom written, though Dido Soteriou made an eminently passable attempt at such a reproduction in her harrowing account of the Asia Minor Catastrophe, “Ματωμένα Χώματα.”

In my youth, it seemed like there was a Samian speaker in every street in Essendon. We formed part a linguistic continuum, oblivious, as children, to the existence of speakers of the other, for we generally only associated with our own kind. That is, until I started Greek school and in the process of describing working in my grandparents’ garden uttered the following sentence: “Πήρα του μπαγκράτς κι του γιέμσα νιρό.” The recently arrived from Greece teacher peered at me, horrified. “You did what?” she snarled. “Listen to me. Μπαγκράτς is a Turkish word. And I won’t tolerate you using those filthy words in my classroom. We speak Greek at Greek school.” At a family council that evening, we pondered which Greek word could possibly be used as a substitute for the offending Turkish one. Finally, the next week, my grandfather asked the teacher: “So what should he use instead of μπαγκράτς?” Looking at him incredulously, she affirmed snootily: “Κουβάς is the proper Greek word.” “You do know that that is a Turkish word as well don’t you?” my grandfather asked quietly. “So I’ll ask again. What word should the boy use?” She never again made fun of my diction.

Soon, I learned that if I spoke my own language to the others, the likes of whom I was coming across more frequently as my family and I discovered a Greek community living outside the confines of our transplanted village, I would not be understood. I learned to spell and read Greek words in a way completely different to the way I spoke at home. I also learned that to speak in one’s dialect outside the confines of one’s kinship group was to invite ridicule and aspersions of ignorance.

“You are a good boy,” one of my Greek school teachers told me when I was fifteen. “Your written Greek is excellent, but you have the most terribly heavy accent. You need to stop speaking like that or no one will take you seriously.”

“If you can’t speak like a normal human being,” my Athenian grandmother snapped at me later that year, on the bus to Omonoia, “then keep your mouth shut. I don’t want the neighbours thinking you are an uneducated yokel. Γιογιοοοοόγιογιοοοό,” she mimicked the way the a in Samian becomes elongated so it almost sounds like an o. “And you are supposed to be a good student. Just keep your mouth shut and don’t embarrass me.” And this from a lady who, while possessed of the most perfect Athenian patois, could let rip an unremitting barrage of the most multi-hued Epirote curses when she thought no one was within earshot.

And she was right. Boarding a boat to Samos from Athens, I listened in shock as the passengers, the majority of them tourists sniggered, while hearing a lady with a heavy Karlovassi accent hold forth in her mother tongue. By way of solidarity, I too began to declaim in Samian, hoping to establish a common bond. The effort was wasted. The lady formed the opinion that I was mocking her, and the passengers found the existence of a person too young to be speaking in dialect for the Helladic social reality, suspicious. I kept my mouth shut thereafter until I arrived on the island, my linguistic haven.

When my grandfather died, a rich linguistic repository died with him. With family ancestry from Asia Minor, his Samian was peppered with an amazing array of idiomatic expressions and completely alien sentence structures, placing the verb at the end of the sentence, like Turkish for instance, or using the nominative case where in Greek the accusative is used. My grandmother remained, and so, my Samian persisted, as the language of our relationship, the dialect in which my entire family history was conveyed to me, along with the context of the life of a village my grandparents never saw again and which has changed forever. It was a language of consolation, one of tenderness, its staccato rhythms rolling lazily off the tongue unhurriedly, the tongue falling like a guillotine over final syllables, slicing off redundant vowels without malice. Unlike the impatience and phonetic indulgence of Modern Greek, Samian is efficient, more laconic and susceptible to word play, a property that probably accounts for the infinitely more wry sense of humour of its speakers. Most of all, it was a language of continuity.

Yet I don’t speak Samian so much anymore, save with my father and my first cousin when we get together to reminisce about our childhood. On those occasions, my first cousin, who is older than I, will fill in gaps in my Samian vocabulary by supplying words that had become redundant within the family before I had a chance to be exposed to them. After my grandmother died, more and more migrants from the village followed suit. Suddenly, the pillars that held up my linguistic edifice began to crumble, and there were fewer people to speak to. Then, cable television arrived from Greece and gradually, the old grammatical forms and vocabulary began to be replaced by those gleaned from “Πρωινός Καφές” or “Καλημέρα Ελλάδα” and it was when I was accosted by an old ‘uncle’ with the cliched greeting: “Τι έγινε μεγάλε; ” instead of “Τι καν᾽ του Κουστάκ;” that I realised the end was nigh.

I still think in Samian and my natural inclination is to employ its phonology when speaking Modern Greek, often causing me to stutter, as the linguistic streams inevitably cross yet the truth is that it is a hearth language with an arrested development, unsuited and now unable to express concepts pertaining to the modern world. It would be pretentious and strange to employ that tongue to discuss Modern Greek literature, just as it would be out of place to discuss gardening in any other language than Samian, this forming the major context in which I learned that language in the first place.  My children speak Modern Greek, and I generally converse with them in that medium, for in a Samian community that, even among its elders is now primarily English-speaking, there now exists no social context in which to speak Samian, although I lapse into it continuously, especially in times of emotion.

 In a recent article by Aristeidis Rounis in Neos Kosmos, it was contended that over 30,000 members of the second generation speak the Pontian dialect on a daily basis in Australia. While this appears improbable, it is a fact that a large number older members of the second generation grew up in Australia speaking a dialect, one which they either discarded as the assimilated within the broader Greek and Australian communitie, or which they narrowly retained, restricting their ability to converse with other Greeks and leading to ultimate Greek language loss. We have never factored the use of dialects in planning for our Greek language education or assessing the linguistic background of our students. Most disappointingly, we have never formally studied the use of Greek dialects in our Australian diaspora, how they have impacted upon our social structures, our conception of identity and our linguistic development as a whole. This is a great shame as all of the Greek regional dialects spoken in Australia with the possible exception of Cypriot, are heavily endangered, with some, on the verge of extinction. Furthermore, it underlays a complete conceptual misapprehension as to the core of the hypostasis of our micro-communities and how they relate to one another, even as they diminish.

In “I, Claudius,” Robert Graves has the Etruscan priest Aruns predict the death of Etruscan within a generation. As a result, Claudius learns the language and embarks on a history of its people. No one will write the history of the dialect speakers, and if they do, it will be in a language not their own. Their unique perspectives, encoded in a language passed down the generations, through nuance, expression and experience, will be incomprehensible without an understanding of that medium. Lately, whenever I miss both my Samian and Epirote grandparents, I write stories in their tongue, wishing to once more hear their voice. “I stopped speaking Greek when my parents died,” the poet π.Ο once told me. “It made no sense to continue.” His words haunt me, as his poetry is laced with similar attempts to raise the dead, through dialect.

“I don’t speak Greek,” a person I met recently, warned me as I switched to that language. Then, focusing my intonation, he asked: “Are you Samian?” For the next hour, we spoke in our native tongue, me substituting Modern Greek words where the Samian did not supply them, he substituting in English, but both of us, employing a medium that binds us down the generations to a remarkably hardy and ingenious people on the most beautiful island in the Aegean, and revelling in that common bond. As we remembered ancestors and a way of Greek-Australian life that has gone forever, taking the language in which it was lived with it, there were tears in his eyes. “It’s been so long,” he muttered. “It’s been so long.” For his sake, mine, and so many others like us, this month, when you speak Greek in March, speak it in dialect. And remember.


First published in NKEE on 14 March 2020

Saturday, March 07, 2020


“Yiota, who?” people in the crowd were asking themselves.
Γιώτα Νέγρα,” (the Negro) one of the Antipodes presenters, announced on stage.
I was viewing Giota Negka’s keynote Antipodes concert from the balcony of the Greek Centre. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance, reinforcing her already established reputation as a talented entertainer.

Looking down at the crowd, however, save for a few pockets of fans revelling in the broad gamut of musical genres encompassed by the performance, it was evident that Yiota was not able to carry the crowd with her, to the extent that other performers have in the past. I wondered out aloud, why this was so.

“That’s because the oldies are stuck in a time warp, and they only want to see the “big names” from yesteryear, while the younger generations are only familiar with the skyladiko trash that is churned out of the community radio stations. The Australian Greeks have a total disconnect with the musical scene in Greece. They suffer from bad taste,”  a member of the audience opined. It was an opinion I heard over and over again on the Saturday night, one that has also, in part, has been reflected in various community media.

“We need to get those Pontians, the Cretans and Manassis Dance Group to stop doing their own impromptu street performances,” another attendee observed. “They hold up the foot traffic and they divert attention away from the main act. People get attracted by the music and they hang around there, instead of proceeding to the main stage. There need to be rules about this.”

As far as I know, the proportion of younger generation Greek-Australians who obtain their musical education from our community radio stations is infinitely slight. Yet it is also true that “entexna,” the genre of music that encapsulates an intellectual, socially aspirational form of modern Greek music that is de rigeur among the Greek enlightened or progressive classed back in the homeland, fails to tug at the heart-strings of the apodemic crowds. Are we possessed of bad taste after all?

Far from it. Entexna, and modern Greek music is largely irrelevant to the Greek-Australian experience and apart from aesthetic appreciation by those so inclined, lacks topographical context. Instead, when seeking to negotiate with their cultural discourse, younger Greek-Australians generally have as their starting point, traditional demotic music, exploring its various regional variations and permutations, the instruments used to create them, the intricacy of the dance steps employed to accompany them and of course the form of costume worn to convey the full aesthetic effect. Over the years I have accompanied a good number of musical pilgrims on their journey to folkloric self-discovery, marvelling at the dominance of our demotic past in articulating our modern identity discourse. Is it in fact an attempt to enshrine a culture long gone in a time warp? Is our whole existence as a socio-cultural entity an anachronism?

Absolutely not. The youth of today, the Cretans, the Pontians, the Manassis dancers, George Kyriakidis and his Floriniote brass band, blowing a gale of festive Macedonian music down Lonsdale Street, and so many others who devote their spare time to rediscovering and reinterpreting the customs of our ancestors are taking as their focus, the most logical of starting points: the time when we, the migrant Greeks, branched off from mainstream Greek culture, by virtue of our arrival in Australia. Since then, we have evolved culturally in parallel, the trauma of our own urbanisation in pre-multi-cultural Australia made bearable by the preserved memory of our rural roots. It is those rural roots, the attitudes that they engender, the perspectives that they foster and the cultural legacies they create, that shape and give meaning to the music of our people. They are the key factors that have mitigated against total cultural assimilation with the mainstream until now. They are our lived and remembered family history. Significantly, they create authenticity.

Most of us and most of our ancestors did not live through the parallel modern Greek urbanisation and political upheavals that engendered contemporary Greek music. We neither share the outlook nor the experiences that give rise to their expression. Where those musical forms clumsily ape western forms we have already been exposed to by virtue of our sojourn within the Anglosphere, we dismiss them for the inauthentic, cringeworthy imitations that they are. Where these arise out naturally of the social context of a constantly transforming Helladic polity, we can readily appreciate them, but seldom do we feel them in our hearts. They is not our music. They are not our voice. We have nothing to say to them.

Perhaps the younger generations that engage with the Greek musical tradition could be accused of an obsession with authenticity. Yet when one is part of a community that must locate the raison d’ etre of its existence thousands of kilometres away from the land that engendered its ontopathology, the search for its elusive fundamental elements assumes paramount significance. And we must not forget that it is those generations, not the older ones, the Demosthenis Manassis’s, the Nikos Papaefthimiou’s, the Joseph Tsombanopoulos’s , and so many others of our community who transformed what was a souvlaki and bouzouki fiesta, into a true Carnival, in the process, recreating a melisma of customs that had become extinct in this country, giving rise to an enduring Greek Australian tradition. Inspired by them, younger members of the community have reintroduced such instruments as the bagpipes and the kemenche into our mainstream community musical discourse, perpetuating a process of reinterpretation and adaptation of our musical heritage that began with Apodimi Compania’s exploration of Rebetika in the eighties. Were it not for them, the bout of Apokreatic functions that now dot the community calendar at this time, would not exist. These then are our game-changers.

Thanks to those ingenious and ever-resourceful younger generations, at the Antipodes Festival, elements of the Greek culture have been combined and juxtaposed against Maori, Aboriginal, Georgian, Armenian, Assyrian, Italian and so many other traditions in a way that older generations could have never conceived. The moving interpretation of our lost Asia Minor heritage by the Pan-Macedonian Association dance group evidences an emerging generation of Greek-Australians that is capable, again in ways that the older generations were not, to critically appraise and interpret concepts of cultural genocide, include hitherto ignored elements into our identity narrative, and relate these to a broader global discourse.

When Manassis grabs his bagpipes, and this year at least, having given the Epirote Folklore Tent a sabbatical, as I search for new and relevant ways to display all that it connotes in our own paroikia, I wear a goat hair cape, don a goat skull mask, and cattle-bell bedecked daughters in tow, skip, dance and bellow down Lonsdale Street, following the peregrinations of a Thracian hessian camel, and any number of masked, sword carrying dancers, all the time startling the populace with our Dionysiac yawps, we are not aping antiquated Thracian customs. In engaging with the irrational, such an important part of our identity, we are instead creating new experiences, fostering new memories and fashioning new precedents and pathways for future expression.

Similarly, when, in previous years Nikos Papaefthimiou roves down Lonsdale Street in a Datsun purveying watermelons and performing mock marriages, or the Street is blocked because the youthful Pontians and the Cretans are belting out folk tunes, drawing and ever absorbing the crowd in their maelstrom of dance and song, they are being far from obstructive. Passers-by are invariably attracted to them because of their energy, their youthfulness, their enthusiasm and most of all, their authenticity. These are not mindless minions, mechanically shuffling their feet to a number of predetermined steps by some demented dance teacher of yesteryear. Instead, having studied, absorbed and assumed the relevance the traditions of old, they present to a delighted populace, an exuberant, living form of music, which them becomes its own tradition grounded in the social context of our community. This is a key formula in the perpetuation of our hypostasis into the future, one we must embrace and encourage at all costs, not curtail.

Far from detracting from the “main act” the younger, “native” generations who are largely responsible for the cultural component of the Antipodes Festival, ARE the main event and it is the expectation that a concert by an artist from Greece while form the highlight of the two day celebration of Melbourne’s Greek community that is misplaced. Of course, we welcome, value and enjoy the contributions made by our overseas guests. We embrace them and enclose them within our collective bosoms. We do so in the knowledge, however, that we, the Greeks of Melbourne, and especially our latter generations have developed our own musical traditions, our own musicians and our own musical discourse that is complex, noteworthy its it its own right and equal to its Helladic counterparts. The nature of its mosaic is exemplified by the proliferation of various stages at the Festival, each presenting different performances but always acting in concert. It is a truly awesome phenomenon.

Yiota Negka was brilliant last weekend. The manner in which she was able to effortlessly glide between genres was astounding and as a quality performer, she deserved a more enthusiastic reception. Sifis Tsourdalakis, the Australian born Cretan performer who has challenged the way Cretan music is perceived both here and in Crete was also brilliant. The youthful members of our community, those responsible for making our Festival, the multi-faceted, multi-discursive manifestation of Greek cultural identity that it is today are also brilliant and they deserve our heartfelt appreciation, attention and a good deal more respect.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 March 2020