Saturday, July 25, 2020


Even today, many people still have the idea that valuable or desirable things only come from overseas.” Xu Zhen
A toppled Corinthian column, just like those of the temple of the Olympian Zeus in Athens, is sprawled on the ground. It is not broken into its constituent drums. Instead, it loops and coils round itself like a pert temple snake, part obduracy, part infantile cunning. Suddenly its capital rises to reveal a yawning void of a mouth. It regards the viewer and then coyly follows their startled movements, in nuce, a python on the way to becoming a Pythia.

For the western viewer, ensconced within a classical discourse whose understanding of Ancient Greek culture is often monolithic, angular and linear, the fluidity of Chinese sculptor Xu Zhen’s Corinthian snake, entitled “Hello,” which forms part of an exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia: XU ZHEN ®: ETERNITY V EVOLUTION, is confronting and subversive. It challenges stereotypes and confounds pre-conceptions of the manner in which culture is appropriated, so as to reinforce a particular articulation of civilization.
For a Greek, cognizant of the central place of snakes within ancient Greek worship, they being symbolic of healing, knowledge, autochthonous power and the transition between the upper and lower worlds, the Corinthian snake provides an even greater conundrum. In vivifying a primordial archetype, does the snake, in Xu Zhen’s graven vocabulary, signify an evolution of understanding of the ancient Greek cultural heritage isolated from western power narratives, or is it emphasizing the enduring and eternal qualities of the irrational basis of the human subconscious, subverted first by the Olympians, as Apollo vanquished and assumed sovereignty over Pytho and then by the Western world at large? And how does the dichotomous but also synergistic dialectic between eternity and evolution impact upon our conception of our hybrid culture given that it is also based upon a biblical understanding of the snake as a symbol of perennial evil, and, in part upon an iconoclastic attitude to ancient art, prior to its re-appropriation? Furthermore, if Xu Zhen’s ambiguous Corinthian snake is both eternal and evolved, can it shed its marble skin and if it does so, what will ensue?
In an interview with Peter Johnson, National Gallery Curatorial and Programs Coordinator, available on the National Gallery of Australia’s website, Xu Zhen invites us to understand the connotations of “Western” culture from a modern Chinese perspective:
“Here, I’ve used a traditional thing and renewed it in some way. It also has a threatening aspect, like the imperial civilisations in the Greek tradition, of a power system over you, a bit like a shadow. It’s interesting because, in the West, such columns would be used in official buildings such as courthouses and banks, whereas they most often appear in front of public baths in China, or places where you can sing karaoke.”
The accuracy of Xu Zhen’s historical interpretation is not so significant here as his negotiation and inversion of stereotype and metaphor. His ‘Looking-Glass’ approach to the corpus of ancient Greek art and all it signifies is playful, irreverent and profoundly moving. Take for example his extraordinary “European Thousand-Armed Classical Sculpture,” a procession of a pantheon of deities, removed from their pedestals and positioned on our level. The litany is headed by the goddess Athena in full regalia, an aggressive snake, rigid, with head raised, ready to strike, at her side, providing an interesting dialogue with its gigantic, benign and fluxional Corinthian counterpart. The outstretched arms of the sculptures behind the daughter of Metis, remind the viewer of the many armed statues of the Indian gods and in particular that of Kali, each of whose ten hands traditionally holds a weapon or ritual item representing the power of one of the Devas. Here, the Devas constituting the goddess are not merely implied by symbols, they are portrayed, lineally. If anything, this is a goddess with depth and facets, and she gazes at us blankly, her arm and palm outstretched. Is that gesture to be interpreted as one of benediction, of supplication or of complete indifference?

The sculptures of the gods behind her, an array of Apollos, Zeuses, Poseidons and Heracles appear as if they are teetering and their arms are outstretched in various poses, as if frantically striving to restore their balance and stop themselves from falling. Towards the back of the procession, there are two version of a Christ-like figure, in the first, his arms and feet positioned in the usual manner when depicting the Crucifixion, in the second, as if in Deposition. Here though, there is no cross. The very conceptual framework that gives the usual meaning to this image has been taken away. This figure is but one of many that constitute the dimensions of Xu Zhen’s Athena. Behind that figure, significantly, are two portrayals of a secular goddess of the modern era, the Statue of Liberty. One of them appears to be trying to clutch at something. What are we to make of Xu Zhen’s agglomeration of the Old Gods and the New? Have our gods, or at least, our understanding and worship of them evolved over time, or have they in fact remained eternally the same in all of their manifold incarnations? Is Xu Zhen’s a conscious subversion of western sacred cows and what does that signify for a modern China articulating its own identity while engaging with the occident? Are we in fact being gently toyed with, as we were with the serpent previously? To Peter Johnson, Xu Zhen confides:
“When I play with cultural elements, they don’t carry the same weight as they do for others. It’s not a lack of respect but I feel I can be audacious with such forms because I have a greater distance from them.”

Sometimes distances are bridged in the most surprising of ways. 
The base of the sculpture “Eternity” is eerily familiar. It is in fact, a replica of the friezes of the East Pediment of the Parthenon, a symbol of western cultural appropriation if there ever was one, given that the British broke them off the Parthenon, stripped them of their painted decoration, and suitably enwhitened, refuse to give them back. To this lofty foundation, Xu Zhen does something truly breathtaking: he removes the heads of the Greek figures and upon their necks, attaches inverted headless statues of the Longxin Buddha, the Cosmic Buddha, the Amitabha and the Vairochana. An entire fundament of Chinese culture is turned on its head and compelled to union with the archetypal symbol of the West. We can tell where one ends and the other begins, but the ensuing synthesis has a harmony all of its very own. Again, is this because certain truths, certain depictions in and of themselves are so authentic as to be eternal, or rather, are we witnessing the evolution of two societies in dialogue with one another into an altogether novel conglomerate, as by attrition, they come to resemble each other and reconcile with one and other, more and more? Or is on the other hand Xu Zhen suggesting to us that we are in fact, the mirror image of one another and that the hallowed symbols of our culture deserve to be interrogated, mocked and deconstructed once in a while, a point pertinent, give the latest bout of iconoclasm experienced by the western discourse, and China’s own legacy with a similar process, during Mao’s “Four Olds” Campaign?

On this process of reconciliation, the artist reveals in his interview with Peter Johnson: “When I create a work, I’m always trying to find some kind of contradiction. I don’t like it to be completely white or black. When people look at my works, they sometimes try to find the black part or the white part. Through that, there’s a kind of democratic aspect, a kind of balance you can find in it. After creating work for twenty years, I wonder if it might also be related to the Chinese tradition of the yin and yang. While my work might appear direct, when you really try to understand it, I hope the meaning becomes a bit more blurry in the end.”
As a refreshingly anachronistic and subtle means of assessing and subverting our own accumulated cultural baggage, the assumptions it entails and the emotions it evokes, Xu Zhen’s sculptures are masterpieces of psychology, their refined, impassive features adding ever so artfully to the increasing disquietude of the viewer.
XU ZHEN®: ETERNITY v EVOLUTION will be displayed at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until 13 September 2020, and can also be found online, at the NGA’s website.
Photos supplied by Antonis Piperoglou.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 July 2020

Saturday, July 18, 2020


From the Assyrian Christians to the Maronites, Cyprus has historically acted as a haven for those persecuted for their beliefs. In August 1898, 1,126 Doukhobors, fleeing religious persecution in Russia, disembarked in Cyprus, there expecting to settle and create God’s kingdom on earth. Their arrival  and brief sojourn in Cyprus is all but forgotten today, but at the time, it garnered great publicity, as it drew attention to the totalitarian nature of Tsarist rule, especially against religious and political non-conformists. Most significantly, the Doukhobors’ emigration was championed not only by the Quakers but also by Russian literary giant and religious reformer, Leo Tolstoy.

At some time during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a sect emerged in Russia that propagated the belief that as God's presence could be found in every human being, clergy and formal rituals were unnecessary. They rejected the secular government, Russian Orthodox priests, icons and all church ritual, holding that the Bible was the supreme source of divine revelation. Known as the Doukhobors, meaning those who fight “alongside the Spirit,” their practices and emphasis on individual interpretation as well as opposition to the government and church, provoked antagonism from the government and the established Russian Orthodox Church. As a result they received continued bouts of persecution.

Profiting from Tsar Alexander I’s encouragement of religious sects’ re-settlement in the rich steppe lands on the north shore of the Black and Azov Seas, around Melitopol in the Ukraine, the Doukhobors flocked there in their thousands between 1802 and 1820. In the 1826 however, Tsar Nicholas issued a decree intending to force assimilation of the Doukhobors by means of military conscription he decreed that all able-bodied members of dissenting religious groups engaged in propaganda against the established church should be conscripted and sent to the Russian army in the Caucasus while those not capable of military service, as well as their women and children, should be resettled in Russia's recently acquired Transcaucasian provinces. Some 5,000 Doukhobors were accordingly resettled to Georgia between 1841 and 1845.

Upon the advent of Tsar Nicholas II to the Russian throne in 1894, the Doukhobors refused to swear an oath of allegiance to him. As the practice of pacifism and non-violence was central to their beliefs, they refused to bear arms, on the evening of 28 June 1895, thousands of them gathered to burn their state issued guns, while singing of psalms and spiritual songs. As they did so, Cossack soldiers fell upon them, arrested them and beat them. Four thousand Doukhobors were evicted from their villages and required to settle elsewhere. As a result many died of starvation and exposure.

It was at this time that Count Leo Tolstoy, a vociferous advocate of religious minorities within the Russian Empire mobilised his worldwide network of contacts so as to put pressure on the Russian government to alter their policy of persecution. By 1898, the Tsar had, after international condemnation, agreed to let the Doukhobors leave the country, provided that the emigrants should never return and they covered their own travel expenses. Three thousand Doukhobors were ready to leave for America, but had only £4,700 between them. As a result, Captain Arthur St John, member of the Doukhobor Relief Committee, who had visited the Doukhobors and distributed aid to them on behalf of the British Quakers, considered Cyprus to be a closer and thus cheaper option. He met with the High Commissioner of Cyprus, Sir William Haynes Smith and put the Doukhobors’ case to them. He raised no objection, provided that sufficient land was made available for them to cultivate. Negotiations were then opened with the Cyprus Development Company, for the sale of 1,570 acres of land.
The British Consul at Batum, Georgia, where the Doukhobors were to embark on their journey, P Stevens, wrote to the Foreign Office welcoming the proposed re-settlement: “By their good behaviour, diligence, sobriety and hard working qualities, [they have] brought nothing but prosperity to the barren localities in which they were already settled.”
The Cyprus High Commissioner in turn wrote to the Colonial Office advancing the opinion that “the introduction of these people may be of advantage to the island,” provided they could be afforded proper housing, together with cultivable land and farm implements and could be supported until they reaped their first crop. He added: “The second essential is in my view that a proper school be established and the children taught…to speak English.” He did however express concern as to how the local Cypriots would receive them. According to him: “The Cypriot is intensely jealous of outsiders.” He then issued a proclamation, on 27 July 1898 prohibiting the landing of any Doukhobors until provision could be made for them.
On the same day, a three man Doukhobor investigation party, led by Prince Khilkov landed on the island. Singularly unimpressed, they left three days later, describing Cyprus as a “burnt-out stump.” They travelled direct to London to seek British assistance in relocating the Doukhobors to America. In the meantime however, fearing that permission to emigrate would be withdrawn, and having sold all their property, 1,127 Doukhobors chartered an old French ship and embarked at Batum for Cyprus.

The Doukhobors landed at Larnaca on 26 August 1898 and were immediately quarantined. They made a good impression, the Commissioner of Larnaca noting: “A quieter or more orderly set of people I have never yet seen.” Within a fortnight, the Doukhobors were settled in three separate colonies: 578 at Athalassa near Nicosia,  where date palms and orange trees grew, 445 at Pergamos and 100 at Koulia, which was planted with olives. Arriving at their new colonies, the Doukhobors set about building dried brick houses and clearing and ploughing the land. By December, when the rains came, they began to plant seeds provided to them by the Quakers. It was noted that the Doukhobors got on exceedingly well with their Turkish Cypriot neighbours, because they ate no pork, despised icons and many of them spoke Turkish owing to their sojourn in the Caucasus, while apart from two initially hostile articles on the Greek press, no antagonism was displayed towards them by the Greek Cypriots.
Sadly, however, the Doukhobors began to die. By December, seventy five of them had fallen victim to malaria and dysentery. The Doukhobors were not used to the warmer climate of Cyprus. Athalassa was situated in a hollow where the heat of the sun gathered and Koulia was in an area where fever was endemic. The change from a meat based diet, to a primarily vegetarian one in Cyprus proved a shock to the system. The dug-out huts in earthen banks many built as temporary accommodation, as they had also done in the Caucasus were washed away by the rains and as they were constructed close to latrines, this facilitated the spread of dysentery. Also, while malaria was a problem in Cyprus until the 1940’s, it appears that many Doukhobors had contracted malaria in Batum before leaving, and were already incubating the disease upon their arrival.
The death toll shocked the Doukhobors and the fact they could not live in one consolidated community also was a source of grievance. Through the Relief Committee they asked to leave Cyprus and be re-settled in America. Leo Tolstoy used the profits from the sale of his masterpieces “Father Sergei,” and “Resurrection” to pay for the expense of their relocation and prompted by an article written by anarchist thinker Prince Peter Kropotkin, the Canadian government was moved to invite the Doukhobors, both in Cyprus and those remaining in Batum, to re-settle there. The Doukhobors of Cyprus left the island from Larnaca on 18 April 1899.

In a letter of 12 May 1899, British Quaker John Bellows, who was instrumental in achieving the Colonial Offices’ support for the Doukhobors’ relocation, wrote to Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain: “I confess to a disappointment from this, which is more keen because for the impulsive action of some of the Russian sympathisers with these poor people, I am convinced they would have become acclimatised and have formed a really valuable addition to the population of the island.” It was his opinion that had the Doukhobors landed on the island gradually instead of en masse and had they remained there, they would have created a successful colony. In his report for 1898-99, the Cyprus High Commissioner concluded that: “These interesting people quitted Cyprus, leaving behind them the recollection of a singularly courteous and well conducted community.”
The Doukhobor settlement at Athalassa is now a park fringing a lake and there is scant local memory of the fleeting passage of this group, seeking a haven from persecution in an island that would ultimately come to be shattered by intolerance and violence. The Doukhobor communities in Canada, possessing a fascinating history of political dissent and activism of their own, (they perfected the art of arson and nudism as forms of protest) exist to the present day. Yet for a brief time, the sun-kissed island of Cyprus beckoned to them, as a plausible panacea for their traumas and a Gilead of re-genesis. How they would have been received by the Orthodox Church in Cyprus, how their continued presence as a ethno-religious minority would have influenced the demography of the island, and how this would have impacted upon the Cold War and the invasion of Cyprus will remain matters of perennial speculation.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 July 2020

Saturday, July 11, 2020


“The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectable way.” Honoré de Balzac - Le Père Goriot
Mention the name “Giorgios Averoff” to any Greek, and the immediate response is “benefactor.” A wealthy expatriate businessman, he applied his wealth to a number of institutional and educational projects  for the benefit of the modern Greek State, including  the founding of the School of Agriculture in Larisa, the construction of the Evelpidon Military Academy, a sizeable donation to the Athens Conservatory, another  donation for the refurbishment of the Panathenian Stadium where the first modern Olympic Games were held, funding the completion of the National Technical University of Athens, as well as a donation for the construction of a famous battleship of the Greek Navy, named after him. Businessmen of such standing occupy a hallowed position within the Greek pantheon and are collectively known as «ευεργέτες του έθνους», literarily “doers of good deeds for the nation,” hearkening back to a Hellenistic system of public philanthropy known as Euergetism, whereby the state specifically directed the public benefactions of the richest of its members while also providing them with official honours.

If you hail from the region of Epirus, you will also know that Giorgos Averoff, who was from Metsovo, constitutes a rags to riches success story that embodies the entrepreneurial values and aspirations of the Greeks of the region. Migrating to Alexandria at a young age, Averoff tried his hand at a number of business opportunities, took various calculated risks, such as cornering the Egyptian gold braid market at a time when gold braid was desperately required by the government to outfit its soldiers with new uniforms.  Participating in banking and real estate speculation, his riverboats, carrying such cargo as cotton and grain proliferated in the Nile and he came to dominate Egypt’s domestic and foreign trade. The Epirotes will tell you that despite his newly acquired wealth, Averoff never forgot his specific homeland, donating large sums for the construction of vocational training and other educational institutions in Epirus. They will also point to his progressive nature, funding early Greek feminist Kalliopi Kehagia’s project to reform juvenile prison institutions, and his presidency of the Alexandrian Greek community as best exemplifying the enormous potential of the Epirote migrant.

Speak to someone from Omdurman in Sudan however, and they have a different story to tell. At the time Averoff was making his money, Sudan was ruled by British dominated Egypt. According to historian Antonis Chaldeos, who has written extensively about the Greek communities of Sudan, Averoff was able to capitalize on the relative security offered by British colonial domination, in order to penetrate Sudan and gain lucrative contracts for the export of Arabic gum and ivory to England. He set up the centre of his operations in Omdurman and so significant were they, that the dock from which they were performed has entered into legend, with local merchants and indigenous Sudanese calling it “Aburoof,” ie. Averoff, after him.
Antonis Chaldeos’ extensive on the ground research with residents of Omdurman reveals another, altogether unsavoury aspect to Averoff’s trade operations. According to folk memory, Averoff, was involved in the local slave trade, as Chaldeos writes, “an activity that lasted for decades and made him earn a great part of his huge property.” According to British government reports, a number of Greeks of the time were accused of participating in the slave trade. Chaldeos places their activity in the following context: “In the late 1860s, more than 60,000 slaves were sold in the area of Bahr al-Ghazal and in the late 1870s, the Greeks of Kassala and Gedaref were blamed for extensive use of slaves on their cotton plantations. One of the main slave transfer points was Omdurman, where slaves boarded in ships besides the Nile shore and then transferred to Egypt. Nowadays, a few Sudanese believe that most of these ships belonged to Averoff.”
Here in Melbourne, we, being the offspring of a generation of migrants that did all they could to establish themselves in this country, we can see how, if Averoff did profit from the Sudanese slave trade, he and others like him were likely, a product of their time, their worldview shaped by a colonialist/Near Eastern paradigm that considered African people inferior to “whites” and thus a merchantable commodity. Averoff used whatever means at his disposal to “get ahead,” at the same time legitimising orientalist paradigms that justified colonial domination over Sudan by his participation in their socio-economic structure and its underlying assumptions about race and colour.
The recent bout of iconoclasm that has rocked America and the western world in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the defacement and destruction of statues and the renaming of public institutions and even music groups, has fueled a passionate debate as to how historical figures are to be commemorated, and how their commemoration can lead to the entrenchment of racist perspectives. It is a debate that Greek communities throughout the world have followed with interest but also, with a sense of detachment. After all, ours is a national narrative constructed around the motif of emancipation from the bonds of slavery, not of political or cultural domination. Although our modern incarnation is a product of the same western colonialist processes, our understanding of them is distanced from any complicity or involvement with the subjugation of others on the basis of race and culture. There is therefore a deeply held conviction that this is not our original sin.
The case of Averoff thus gives us pause for thought. How must modern Greeks deal with the legacy of a person who is universally lauded and held up to be a paragon of benevolence, whose donations have shaped the topography of Athens to the present, when the profits from which they were created may be tainted? Does the uncritical acceptance of the Greek euergetic discourse perpetuate racist stereotypes and colonialist domination? If so, how does that impact upon the prevailing narrative of the emergence of the Greek state as an emancipation from slavery itself? What do we do with the statues of Averoff, and the commemorative plaques that dot the Greek urban landscape? Do we topple these and erase his name? Do we further investigate this apparently seamy side to one of our nation builders and try to justify or explain his conduct so as to preserve his place in the pantheon and our enjoyment of the wealth he has bequeathed to the nation, or do we admit that Greeks too have availed themselves of the opportunities and institutions provided by colonialist powers in order to indulge in criminal behaviour, perpetuating human misery, in pursuit of profit? If we do admit such complicity, this would force a radical rethink not only of the mythology surrounding the foundation of the modern Greek nation but also, that of the Greek migrant communities worldwide, with far-reaching implications for the way we view our historical relationship with native communities in our place of settlement.
All this of course, is conjecture, for although British reports refer to Greek slavers in Sudan (slavery was abolished in Britain in 1833, although the British continued to buy products from businessmen who owned and used slaves in Africa), there is no documentary evidence directly linking Averoff to the trade. Yet one would have thought that given that the anecdotal evidence uncovered by Antonis Chaldeos in his publications: “The Greek Community in Sudan” and "Sudanese toponyms related to Greek entrepreneurial activity," implicating Averoff has been public knowledge for several years now, this would have sparked off a public debate within Greece, or by those outside that country concerned by the perpetuation of narratives of racial subjugation. The fact that it has not, suggests that the position of Greece within the socio-political apprehension of the parties now engaged in the iconoclastic debate within the western world, is a peripheral one, which in turn gives rise to questions as to the manner in which orientalist and racial stereotypes may be internalized by those who rail against them, in certain cultural contexts.
It is unknown to what extent, if any, Greece will engage with, or be compelled by external agents to critically assess its nation building myths in the light of the western legacy of slavery, or to what extent Averoff, with his Slavic-derived surname, will be maintained or dethroned from the Greek pantheon of heroes. One thing, however, is certain. Possibly for the same reasons, no one engaging in the debate seems to have realized that we refer to an entire group of people as slaves: the Slavs. This ethnonym, is taken from the Latin word sclavinae which means slave. Slavs were captured and enslaved first by the late Romans and then the Ottomans for centuries. It could be argued that the West and indeed the Slav peoples themselves, have, by employing this term of reference, encoded and embedded the tragedy of their enslavement within their own discourse. As the Slavs, especially Orthodox ones, feature only as an orientalist “other” or a subversive element in the various dominant narratives, none of the key stakeholders have realized that as they campaign for multifarious forms of equality, they are referring to millions of people comprising a multitude of nations, as slaves. In the radical, iconoclastic reassessment of those myths that we hold sacred, past and present, the words of Lord Byron ring truer that ever before: “Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 July 2020

Saturday, July 04, 2020


The photograph of the composite sign accompanying this text was taken by my own insufficiency while driving around the streets of Melbourne. It represents, better than any words ever could, the complex multicultural and linguistic reality of our city. The first half of the sign is in Italian. The second half purports to be in Greek and at first glance one is struck at how anomalous it is, with a capital V used instead of N in the word Νεκρώσιμη, presumably because lower case n in the Greek alphabet resembles a v, thus «ν», though here the lowercase is used as an Uppercase letter. Yet the incongruities do not end there. In Greek, «νεκρώσιμη ακολουθία,» refers to the funeral mass or service chanted by the priest within the Orthodox church. However, this is not an advertisement for Orthodox funeral masses. Instead it is an advertisement for a Greek funeral director. In English, “Greek funeral services” of which the Italian as well as Greek appears to be a literal translation, can thus mean either a funeral director or a Greek funeral mass. One takes their pot luck when entering those words into Google translate or any like application. In Greek however, the term for funeral directors is «γραφείοτελετών,» or «γραφείο κηδειών,» and thus this sign would make no sense to a Greek from Greece.
It makes perfect sense in Australia however. It illustrates the reality of Greek language maintenance and acquisition in this country. Presumably, the commissioner of the sign would have asked his parents or elderly relatives how to say “Greek Funeral Service” in the Greek language. Those parents or relatives would have arrived in Australia from their villages at a time when people buried their own dead and did not have recourse to the services of funeral directors. They thus would not have been able to provide the Greek equivalent, just as the early Greek migrants, adopted words such as φρίζααικουντίσιο, and καρπέτο for fridge, air conditioner and wall to wall carpeting, as these were items that they encountered in this country, with no prior experience of them or the vocabulary associated with them, in Greece. This sign, then, embodies a quintessential Greek-Australian experience: that of trying to render into a form of Greek, however incorrect by Helladic standards, concepts and terms encountered in the Anglosphere. Thousands of second generation Greek-Australians who flexed their intellectual muscles in ways most ingenious in order to render the term “Curriculum Day,” into adequate enough Greek for their parents to understand why they don’t have to go to school will know exactly the experience referred to herein. Viewed from this context, «Ελληνική Vεκρώσιμη Ακολουθία,» is an inspired translation and what is more, it is an effective one, because although it defies Helladic convention, it is readily understood by Greek-Australian Greek speakers. It signifies a singular dialect, under construction.
Undeniably, our sojourn in this land has changed the way we speak Greek. Yet arguably, the way we incorporate English terms into Greek grammar, Hellenising them along the way, represents a more authentic way of dealing with foreign loan words, than the modern Greek practice, which is to introduce English terms into Greek text, without even transcribing them, or where this is done, without recourse to Greek grammatical rules at all. How one can claim that «σοβατζής» (a Turkish loanword), is any more Greek than our own Greek-Australian «πλασταδόρος», (as depicted in the advertisement displayed herein) while also claiming that «μπούλινγκ» (which is the way the concept of bullying is rendered these days in Greece), is any more Greek than our own homegrown «πειράξying» is beyond the ken of most Hellenolinguists. As for the «ντιζάιν» of the «Λόντρι», in the accompanying advertisement, let us give thanks that the «ντιζάινας» was savvy enough to change the y in Laundry to a ιwhen transcribing the term in Greek-Australian, for as we all know, the word takes the neuter case, is preceded by the article το , and thus must, like all other neuter nouns, end with an ι. In Greek-Australian, consistent grammar is paramount.
Or is it? Over time, our grammatical conventions change. Because the English language cannot distinguish between masculine and feminine cases, feminine surnames are masculinized (except for mine that is; my father arrived in Australia with my grandmother and the powers that be, unable to understand why his surname was Kalimnios while his mother’s surname was Kalimniou, duly changed his to Kalimniou, causing his feminized descendants vast amounts of confusion and not a bit of grammatical gender dysphoria). This masculinization is in turn carried into the Greek language and our community newspapers (especially the death notices) and sundry gravestones around Melbourne are full of references to such people as ΕλένηΠαπαδόπουλος, (instead of the correct Παπαδοπούλου). This grammatical aberration is employed by the Greeks of Greece to emphasise the foreignness of Greeks abroad. Thus Nia Vardalos is never referred to in modern Greek as Βαρδάλουbut as Βαρδάλος, even though this is ungrammatical. The incorrect case has become a cultural grammatical convention, one that is often internalized, as in the case of actress, academic and theatre critic Helen Tsefala who informally signs her correspondence under the name and style of Χέλεν.
In time, even the way we render the Greek language is prone to change, often as a result of entrenched error. The names of our departed relatives on their tombstones are often permanently marred by mistakes made by masons unfamiliar with the Greek language. At my local cemetery the most common mistake involves the substitution of Greek letters with English ones, thus ΠΑΣΗΑΛΗΣΧΑΡΑΛΑΜΡΟΣ, and ELENH. Greco-Australian alphabetical pastiches are not restricted to the dead, however. In the sign above the entrance to the church of St Andreas in Sunshine, the Greek P is rendered with an English R, to curious effect. Yet this too is representative of a common enough phenomenon among many first generation migrants: being semi-literate in Greek, and having spent the majority of their lives in Australia, it is quite natural for English letters to slowly penetrate their forms of written communication. My grandmother never learned to write in Greek. Her only form of education was the two years of Romanian school she attended in Epirus. For the rest of her life, she wrote Greek in Latin letters. A similar process has taken place among many Greek Australians and the documentary evidence they leave behind are a treasure trove for linguistic who trace the unique development and evolution of the Greek language as it is spoken and written in Australia.
Examining the way second and third generation Greeks write in Greek using the English alphabet is also a valuable pursuit because by employing a different alphabet, they are free of spelling conventions that mask the different ways that Greek is actually pronounced. Countless times I have, in social media, seen words such as πρέπειo r πόρτα rendered as brepei and borta, κήπος as gibo, παπούτσια variously as bappoutsha or papoucha, and even τικάνεις as di gangs, reflecting regional pronunciations that have either been lost or cannot be recorded adequately using the Greek alphabet. A proper study of these emerging and most probably ephemeral forms of communication has not been undertaken and that is a pity, for as Greek, in all its forms is inexorably replaced by English, the diverse and ingenious ways in which we in these antipodean climes have striven to express ourselves, often stretching linguistic convention beyond the limits of the permissible and exhausting the prescriptions of grammar, will be lost forever.
Before we, laboring under a cultural cringe of inauthenticity, deplore our misspellings as symptomatic of a gradually dehellenised people, let us consider that spelling mistakes appear in inscriptions of some of our most exalting buildings, such as the mosaics of Agis Sophia and before that, in Hellenistic floor mosaics. If anything, writing Greek “incorrectly” is proof of the Hellenic condition, a tie that inexorably binds us to the traditions of our ancestors, equally confounded by the complex rudiments of Greek grammar. Let us then rejoice in our profound linguistic complexity and celebrate, those who, like the owners of the transport company Fortigo sit astride the linguistic fence of two language traditions, hybridizing both, and boldly taking our tongue, where no tongue has gone before.

           First published in NKEE on 4 July 2020