Saturday, October 31, 2020


Here is an idea: If you have some left over footage, from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, for example, instead of discarding it, why not recycle, rehash and reproduce it as something original, say, in time for the Bicentenary of the Greek Revolution, or rather as the official merch calls it: “the 200 years from the Revolution.” 

This appears to be what our Helladic cousins have done, if their latest promotional film clip for the Bicentennial festivities is anything to go by. Rule One of the Youtube generation prescribes that if it takes longer than one minute to unpack, viewers have already moved to the next unboxing segment. Bizarrely, in the overly lengthy 2021 promotional clip, a full quarter of said moving image is devoted not to content, but instead, to credits, a miniscule list of unreadable names scrolling down a blank screen, an apt metaphor for modern Greek political culture and self-congratulation, if there ever was one. 
As for the content itself, it is quite mystifying. The relevance of a smattering of white-clad, socially distanced youth who at best, look as if they took the wrong turn at Nuremberg and thus missed the Hitlerjugend rally, so they have been offered a gig at the Panathenaic Stadium as a consolation prize instead, or at worst, are, without their knowledge, not in Greece but rather, in a Purgatory for unsynchronised and unco-ordinated Soviet bourgeois reactionary callisthenists, to the Revolution, except to ask the question: Is this what Androutsos was murdered for? is unfathomable. 
Indeed the setting is equally bizarre. As men prance down the Panathenaic Stadium banging the same drums that they did in the Athens 2004 Olympic opening ceremony, (again a worthy allegory for a discourse that has been repeated for so long it is now threadbare), do we look for a deeper meaning? Do we assume that the directors, influenced by Different Strokes, are trying to make a point about diversity and moral pluralism? (Now, the world don't move/ To the beat of just one drum,/ What might be right for you,/ May not be right for some), or have they merely made use of whatever they could find in the props cupboard? What does this manifestly Olympic setting have to do with the Greek Revolution? 
The Athens 2004 Olympic Games had a worldwide audience. It would have been natural and understandable for the organisers to employ certain clichés and stereotypes so as to render Greek culture intelligible to a broader audience. The celebrations for the two hundredth anniversary of Greek Independence however, is not such an occasion. No one is invested, emotionally or otherwise in this most important event, except for ourselves. Why then the need to resort to tacky western oriented stereotypes that, far from propagating a narrative, however narrow, of nationhood, achievement and pride, merely betray deep seated insecurities about identity, the past and by corollary, the future, considering that the producers can only express themselves in colonialist tropes, especially, if no one else is listening? 
The aesthetics of the production also give pause for thought. Directionless movement acts as a conduit for a seething mass of palpably contrived joy, overlaying self-conscious protagonists who apart from mindlessly miming the lyrics of a song Milli Vanilli style, are visibly uncomfortable. The puerile attempts at symmetry, the amateurish mobilisation of the masses in a failed homage to North Korean optimism and enthusiasm, the ambivalence of a dance routine that is indeterminately ballet or faux karate, causes the tableaux to fall decidedly flat, as if Leni Riefenstahl called in sick on her way to film Triumph of the Wills, rendering the whole production as charming, attractive and effective as the private videos of Goebbel's driver. You know, the ones he shot during his family vacations. 
One element that is particular arresting is the use of the Herm. Unlike Herms of ancient times, which were a sculpture with the head of Hermes above a plain, squared lower section, on which male genitals were also carved at the appropriate height, the Herms in this production are Janus-faced, that is, they have another head behind them facing the opposite direction. Does the fact that Janus is the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, frames, and endings, express the production teams conviction that Greek civilisation has run its course? Is this an oblique reference to Kazantzidis’ «Δυο πόρτες έχει η ζωή;» Or, most likely, have the script-writers not thought the motif through? I don’t think so. For significantly, the most important part of the Herm, the phallus, which the ancients would rub for good luck, is missing on the second Herm, implying that we no longer have the gonads required to be taken seriously as viable national entity.  
Does the young female dancer rubbing herself upon the phallus of the first Herm, while playing chasey with a tight-panted male, broadcast the message that when all else fails, we may as well rub our gonads for good luck? Is this a homage to a national pastime? Or is this a coded communication about the role of the patriarchy in determining the modern Greek discourse? One thing is for certain: when Alcibiades was convicted in absentia of vandalising the Athenian herms at the outset of the Peloponnesian War, the offence was a capital one. Which phallus chopping saboteurs the producers are suggesting are similarly responsible for Greece’s ills since the Revolution is difficult to discern. Whoever they are, they can shove it up their Janus. As an aside, there is an Aesop's fable makes fun of a Herm. When a pious dog offers to 'anoint' it, the god Hermes hastily assures his worshipper that this is not necessary. Criminally, there are no animals in the 2021 promotional video. There are also no Greeks Abroad, nor for that matter, members of any ethnic, cultural or religious minority. According to the Committee, all Greeks are youthful, sort of cute and able to bounce upon Herms. 
The “Strength through Joy” Hitlerjugend mouth the lyrics of Dionysios Savvopoulos’ famous song: «Ας κρατήσουν οι χοροί», which loosely translates as “Let the dances continue.” It is an interesting choice of ditty, especially considering that the first of its stanzas “Let the dances continue and we will find other alternative regional hangouts,” conjures a rural setting that has nothing to do with the Panathenaic Stadium. Indeed if you believe the whole choreographed extravaganza, the Greek Revolution must have taken place in Athens, for the benefit of Athenians. There is no visual reference point to any other place within Greek topography and the penultimate dance routine, in which the dancers coast around each other, arms outstretched in circles aptly portrays the omphalocentric perspective of the 2021 Committee. 
A token flashing of shadow puppet-like silhouettes of Greek Revolutionary Heroes to the cringeworthy accompaniment of cannonfire as the fun but frivolous lyrics of Savvopoulos’ song unfold, looking retrospectively, like an aged reveller past their prime, towards “a future form of Rock” instead of embracing and seeking the new, is a slightly unfitting tribute to people who sacrificed their lives and fortunes so that we may be free. These are not figures in a Karagiozi play, and their brief, decontextualised and irrelevant appearance upon the seats of the Panathenaic Stadium actually insult their memory, dealing with them in the flippant cliché ridden manner in which Savvopoulos attempts to summarise the sum total of our experience  (Kι είτε με τις αρχαιότητες/ είτε με ορθοδοξία/ των Eλλήνων οι κοινότητες/ φτιάχνουν άλλο γαλαξία)  suggesting a Commemoration Committee that is decidedly not across the meaning of that which they are supposed not only to celebrate, but to honour.  
The last two hundred years have not been easy. They have been full of as much pain as they have been about joy and they have caused Greek society to question and reinvent itself on numerous occasions. All this should be reflected in commemorations of the 2021 Revolution. This means that the protagonists of that Revolution should be afforded the dignity and respect they are due as we reflect not only upon the privilege of being free but also how easy it is for that freedom to be compromised. That is not to say that we cannot be jubilant and exuberant in the way we rejoice in our Bicentenary. However, that message we propagate needs to be broad, inclusive, embracive and nuanced, elements that are sorely lacking from the 2021 Commemorative Committee’s lacklustre new offering. Selections from Nobel Prize winning poet Odysseas Elytis’ Axion Esti, as set immortally to music by Theodorakis, would have granted any such meaning the poignancy that is its due. Instead we are presented with a packet of bald platitudes that we are expected to reassemble into a paean of resistance, as if they were an Ikea flat pack of suitable Hellenic values. 
The 2021 Committee claims, paraphrasing Savvopoulos that «στα 200 αυτά χρόνια η «σύναξή» μας ξεδιπλώθηκε, μεγάλωσε» (in these 20 years our gathering has unfolded and grown). It is more accurate to say that it has unravelled and to make light of the experiences that compelled hundreds of thousands of Greeks to leave their homeland, is highly insulting to the sensitivities of an entire worldwide diasporan community. If Kolokotronis was alive today, he would have had their Herms for breakfast. 
The Greek Revolution, and not the Olympics is the key common reference point of identity for the Greeks of Australia as is evidenced by the trouble we take over our 25th of March celebrations every year. As the Milli Vanilli-ites prance, prattle and pound their drums around a stadium constructed from funds donated by a diasporan Greek, let us, as Greek-Australians, pause to solemnly consider what the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution means for us here and how best we can express that significance through our own activities on a local level, even as we smile indulgently at our Helladic cousins’ effervescent efforts. After all, the 2021 Commemorative Committee would do well to remember that «Ας κρατήσουν οι χοροί,» can also mean to place dances on hold, a most suitable metaphor for an entity that ought to reflect a good deal more, before acting. Investing in a wardrobe might assist too. 

First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 October 2020

Saturday, October 24, 2020


My grandmother’s prayers usually lasted over two hours. Before the end, listening to the whispered tones of her entreaties from my bedroom across the hall, while being pinned to the mattress by the weight of the heavy hand woven woollen blankets she had brought with her from the village  I would fall asleep. Through the crack of the open door, I would see the reddish flickering glow of the kandili in her bedroom, sending shadows galloping along the walls of the hallway. It was a long, undulating prayer, full of cadences that rose and fall, a constant ebb and flow of sussurated petitions as soothing as the waves of a moonlit sea. Here and there, the invocations were punctuated by my grandfather’s snores. And then…  

“Git, geliyorlar!” my grandfather’s voice would rasp urgently, as he began to thrash about under his bedclothes.  

“Saklan, seni öldürecekler!” my grandfather would cry, his voice quivering in terror. 

“Yere yat, kurşun sana yetişecek!” the rafters shook as my grandfather’s voice steadily crescendoed  into a roar of despair.  

Abruptly, my grandmother’s prayers would come to a stop. 

 “My God, Kosta, have you wet yourself, or something? The bed is dripping with sweat.” My grandmother was up now, removing towels and sheets from the wardrobe in my room. 

“No grandmother, I haven’t.” 

“I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to your grandfather. Listen. After all that, he’s snoring his head off again and I need to change the sheets. You go to sleep.”  

She passed her hand over my hair and stroked my hair for a second before recoiling in shock. “Good God, my boy. You are positively soaking in sweat. Tell me one attribute you didn’t inherit from your grandfather.”  

“Why does pappou always shout in his sleep, grandmother?” I wondered.  

“There is nothing wrong with him,” my grandmother chortled nervously. “He is probably dreaming that he is back home in the village, herding his goats.  Now get up, I need to change your sheets.” 

To say that my grandfather was taciturn was an understatement. You couldn’t even get a word out of him with a meat hook, as his friends used to tease. When not ensconced in his garden, he liked to sit in a corner away from company, listening to the discussions of those around him in silence. On the occasions when he would be asked a question that he did not want to answer, he would cough, mumble something in Turkish and then get up to go back into the garden again. 


“Pappou, were you in the war?” I asked him excitedly one day after Greek school.  

“Which one?” he lifted his eyes from the newspaper and looked at me sardonically.  

“I mean World War II, the OXI,” I informed him. 

“Yes, I was,” my grandfather responded crisply and placing his hand on the text in front of him resumed his slow, syllabic reading.  

“So what did you do? Where did you fight? What heroic deeds did you accomplish? How proud were you that you were fighting for your country?” I peppered pappou with questions.   

“These aren’t appropriate questions for young boys,” my grandfather snapped. 

I froze. My grandfather had never spoken to me in such  stern manner before.  

“But it’s for our homework for school. Our teacher told us to ask our grandfathers…” 

“Öğretmenine sıçayım!” (I shit on your teacher) my grandfather spat and stormed out of the room. That night, grandmother woke both of us up, floating in oceans of our own sweat. 

It would have been about eight years after my grandfather had died, on my day off from university, that I received a telephone call from my grandmother.  

“What are you doing, my boy?” 

“I’m researching. I have to hand in an essay tomorrow.” 

“It’s Spiliani’s today.” 


“Today is the feast of Panayia Spiliani.” 

“Well, long may she reign.”  

“Go to church and light a candle.” 

“Ok, but I really need to finish this now.” 

“I’m telling you to go, because if it wasn’t for her, you would not exist and neither would your father.” 

“What on earth are you talking about?” 


“Listen and I’ll tell you. My pregnancy was a complete torture. As much as your father never gave me any trouble as a boy, he certainly made my life a misery while he was in the womb. As for the birth, it was hell. I was in labour for two days and your father seemed to have no interest in coming into this world. I was screaming in agony, the mid-wife had thrown her hands up in the air and my mother was crying and telling everyone to send for a priest. 

            In the midst of all this, your grandfather rushes into the room, ignoring the mid-wife and his mother in law, and as if it was the most natural thing in the world, stands above my head and says with a grave voice: 


“Wife, there is a burden on my soul and if I do not deliver myself from it, it will drag you down as well.” 


“What are you rambling on about?” I answered through clenched teeth. Is it really the time or the place to be discussing your soul? Get out of here.” 


But your grandfather did not move at all. Unperturbed, he sighed: 


“I made a vow to Panayia Spiliani that has remained unfulfilled all these years. But it is a vow that carries a curse.” 


“What are you raving on about now, you godless peasant?” 


“It was in the war. You already know how most of the story goes. All day marches in the mud to get to the front line, hiding among the forest trees to escape Italian aerial bombardments, and when we got to the mountains, cold like you’ve had never felt before. It would pierce your skin and shatter your bones from the inside. And we were so hungry. My hunger pangs would almost double me over and cigarettes were nowhere to be had. If it wasn’t for Yianni, I would have gone mad.” 

“Who is Yianni,” I interrupted the narrative. 

“Well, do you know theio Christo?” my grandmother explained. “The one who starts crying and hugging you every time he sees you because you have your grandfather’s name? Yianni K was his father. Your grandfather’s best friend. There were inseparable, even closer than brothers, because they had come across the water together during the Catastrophe as children. I have no idea what they saw or experienced, but they were always together, chatting and confiding in each other in Turkish. It used to drive me mad. “Speak Greek, like proper Christians,” I would scold them and they would laugh and continue babbling away….” 

“I was on a mountain,” your grandfather continued. “In Kleisoura, in Cheimarra, “I can’t quite remember where he told me.” “The bullets were falling down upon us like rain, vanishing in the thick snow. We had no idea how to protect ourselves. The only thing we could do is go forward. At some stage, Yianni, another soldier and I became disoriented by the artillery fire, the bullets whining past us, the smoke and the bombardments and were cut off from the rest of our detachment. We had no idea where we were. 

We reached a pass, by a large boulder, behind which there was a small, natural trench. A little further away, we spied two or three men crouching behind some rocks.  

“These must be our guys,” Yianni said brightly and he took a step forward. I pulled him back. The men started shouting “fratello, fratello,” and I realised they were Italians who were trying to surrender, or at least assure us of friendly intentions. I hesitated however. If they knew we were only three, they would shoot us. Therefore, I signalled to Yianni to remain where he was and leaned my head slightly to get a better look. Our inactivity had roused their suspicions and they began firing at us. A hail of bullets assailed us and we could barely move. It seemed as if we were done for. 

“Panayia Spiliani,” I prayed in terror. “Save me and I will light a candle for you as tall as I stand.” 

At that moment, a bullet hit my helmet. All time stood still as I felt it pierce the metal, enter and then exit on the other side. My face became filled with blood. Stumbling, I sprained my ankle and fell down. 

“Kosta, are you hurt? Stay there, I’m coming?” Yianni shouted. 

“Go! There are coming,” I rasped urgently. 

“Can you drag yourself here? I’ll give you some covering fire,” Yianni insisted as the bullets danced around us madly. 

“Take cover, you are going to get yourself killed,” I cried. 

Ignoring me, Yianni began to approach me. 

“Lie down ! You are going to get shot,” my voice steadily crescendoed  into a roar of despair. It was too late. Yianni was lying at my feet dead. A bullet had hit him square in the forehead, whereas in my case, it had only grazed my scalp. He died because when I made my vow, I didn’t ask Panayia to protect him, the boy who had dragged me out of the ruins of my family home in Aydin, who picked me up as I stumbled when the Turks were after us. I only thought of myself. That’s why I say it is a cursed vow. 

“A vow is a vow and you need to fulfil it. Now,” I urged him. Your grandfather sent to the monastery of Panayia Spiliani, near Pythagoreio, the candle was lit and your father came into this world. That’s why I’m telling you: Go to church, light a candle and receive her blessing.” 

The evening before my grandmother passed away, her face was bathed in an otherworldly light. Calm and serene, she grabbed my arm tightly when I leant forward to kiss her and whispered in my ear:  

“I’m going soon. I saw your grandfather in a dream last night. He was holding a broom and when I asked what he was doing, he said: “I’m sweeping a path for you.” Now listen. If for whatever reason the road takes you up those mountains, light a candle for the repose of your grandfather’s friend’s soul. Otherwise, only the Lord knows how am I going to bear your grandfather’s sighs and groans for an eternity…” 

“We buried them here”, old vavo-Agni pointed to a spot in her garden two months later, marked by a misshapen metal cross. “My father, that is. I was young. I merely watched. And he made us memorise their names so we can pray over them in secret. Twenty years in Burrel prison if you got caught doing that. They made the teachers ask us: “Do you have any Greeks buried at home? Do your parents pray at any particular point in the garden?” But I told them nothing. I still remember the names: Spyridon D, Dimitiros M, Yianni K…” 

My heart skipped a beat. 

“Wake up, wake up,” my wife is shaking me. “Did you wet yourself, or something? You are soaking in sweat. You are talking in your sleep again. What are you dreaming about?” 

“I don’t know,” I pant, sharply. 

“Do you know that every time you have a nightmare you cry out in Turkish?” 

I offer no response, for I have already resumed snoring, as the flame from the kandili flickers, before a photograph of my pappou. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 October 2020

Saturday, October 17, 2020


Simonides of Ceos was a man of many talents. According to legend, he was responsible for the invention of the Greek letters ω, η, ξ, ψ. If I had invented a Greek letter, I would want it employed incessantly, a point to which I shall return presently. Michael Psellos, the great Byzantine scholar accredited him with the saying "the word is the image of the thing,” inferring that using the wrong words or indeed composing those words incorrectly, is tantamount to iconoclasm.

Most famously, Simonides is held to have invented the Victory Ode genre and it is in this spirit that he supposedly composed the epigram for the tomb of the 300 Spartans that perished at Thermopylae at the hands of the Persians and their Theban allies. His verses: «Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι,» which sound to a modern Greek schoolboy like an exhortation to Spartans to have a scratch, are as poignant as they are enduring: “Stranger, tell them in Lacedaemon,/ That here, obedient to their word, we lie.”  The example of the Spartans who could have run away but did not, sacrificing their lives to delay the invader’s advance, is held up by modern Greek patriots as a standard of devotion and duty to the State worthy of emulation by all its citizens, as well as those of its male homogenes abroad, who  have prolonged their sojourn in the motherland for over three months.

It is for this reason that the Republic of Hellas, which this year has organised a series of formal events to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae has sought fit to commemorate the Spartans’ slaughter, by commissioning a commemorative stamp, which purports to feature Simonides’ immortal words. Except that they do not. Rather than κείνων, the Greek stamp prefers κοίνων, removing the concept of Spartan personhood altogether, and for πειθόμενοι, πειθώμενοι, a non-existent word, is substituted, either in homage to Simonides’ invention of the omega, or instead, because ever since the removal of ancient Greek as a compulsory subject in the Greek curriculum, standards have fallen. 

Personally, I blame George Soros and the Pope. It has been long rumoured that these two are colluding in order to impose the Roman alphabet upon Greece as a condition precedent to latinisation and domination of the orthodox peoples. Replacing the latin-style o with an omega is a clever ruse to confuse and confound the watchful, for it would lull then into a false sense of security, while at the same time erode their spelling skills. Let «ορθογραφία ή θάνατος» be our watchword henceforth, even as we consider that our Spartan ancestors would probably not have been offended. After all, they were largely illiterate. Still, if we follow Simonides, if we use the wrong words, we create the wrong image, and in this era of Instagram, image is everything.

Unlike the Victorian State Government, the Republic of Hellas has refrained from launching a parliamentary inquiry into the demise of the letters omicron and epsilon. The Prime Minister has not sought to restrict letters to a five kilometre radius, nor has it characterized postal staff as non-essential workers and sent them into quarantine. No collective decision making or high-ranking philatelic bureaucrat has been embroiled in a blame game of pass the parcel. Again, those in the know blame George Soros and the Pope for this. For it is well known that these two have bought up all the erroneously inscribed stamps, sending their value sky high, another blow to ordinary collectors, by the plutocrats.

It generally has not been a very good year for Hellenic stamps. Off the back of the Simonides stamp spelling debacle, the Republic of Hellas has also resolved to release a “Euromed” (as opposed to any other type of med) series of stamps, featuring “Greek food.” The result is a rather bland and tacky pastiche that looks like the weekly menu board at one’s local Souvlakiland, also known as Stereotype City, brought to you by Greece, the musical. The series’ only saving grace is that it pays homage to the age old question: Why is moussaka spelled with one ‘s’ in Greek and two in English? No prizes for guessing which sigma thieving plutocrat bent on world domination and Hellenic subjugation is responsible for that one.

The Euromed series is supposed to pay homage to Greek gastronomy, which is of course, a Greek term referring to the belching of oversatisfied punters while gazing at the stars during their package holiday in Santorini. Of course, the fact that the gyros/souvlaki, the food by which Greek-Australians have been known and identified from Federation to Plate of Origin (and who will forget the immortal words of our televisual gastronomic goddesses: “I’m rapt like a souvlaki,”) has been left out of the series, is a testament to the complete ignorance of our Helladic cousins both as to how to showcase or market our common culinary heritage effectively, and also of the fact that it is by the Greeks abroad that Greek food, whether that comprises dolmades fresh out of a can, hot pink taramosalata or carbonized meat, is generally known. All of a sudden, we are expunged from the narrative, as if George Calombaris’ advertisements for Dodoni Feta (he and I use no other), never existed.

Show me a Greek Euromed stamp that proudly displays a fried chiko roll and I will acknowledge its apodemic authenticity. Reveal a stamp that portrays the humble fasolada, the unassuming faki, the blushing bamia or the generous giouvetsi, provender that has sustained generations, and I will bow my head with reverence and awe. Depict upon your stamps, the glamourous gardoumba, the cocky kokoretsi, or the playful patsa and I will salivate with exuberance. Reissue the infinitely more aesthetically designed 2005 stamp celebrating the Cretan snack Dakos, including a food-porn depiction and description of its ingredients and I will nod approvingly. 

The only thing one will probably not be able to portray on a Greek stamp is that mainstay of Greek-Australian childhood cuisine: alphabet spaghetti and that of course, is because thanks to Those Who Must Not Be Named, half of the letters are now missing, the real reason why we Greek-Australians say: “I’m going with Niko to get a gyro,” instead of Nikos and gyros, the s having been appropriated by forces too dark and nefarious even to contemplate, let alone digest.

While we are on the subject, why can we not utilise Greek food stamps in order to make a few points about culinary appropriation and imperialism? Pizza, in its original form was a mainstay of ancient Greek cuisine. Lasagne comes from the ancient Greek lazanon, a dish containing layered strips of pasta. Macaroni comes from the Greek “makaros” meaning blessed, because in southern Italy aka Magna Graecia, this was the food prepared to commemorate the dead. Bouillabaisse, an iconic dish of French haute-cuisine, is derived from the no frills kakavia brought to Marseille by its ancient Greek founders. Is it not time we used philately to reassert our sovereignty beyond the culinary five mile boundary? Has not the moment arrived where all those who have been profiting by our genius without license or offer of franchise fee finally pay?

These are weighty questions and cannot be determined without due deliberation. In the meantime, I look forward next year, to the long anticipated release of the Malia philatelic commemorative series, the one when one is on a weekend bender with one’s mates chasing middle aged women from Slough and cough up one’s entrails all over the checked table cloth in the tavern, in a manner after Jackson Pollock, firstly because one was too paralytic to find the pub, secondly because the particular shade of blue on said table cloth reminds one of the Chelsea Football Club and thirdly, because in one’s quest to prove to one’s lads that the Slippery Nipple is a ladies’ drink, one has imbibed it and a pipeful of shisha through each of one’s nostrils.

Stranger, tell them in Hackney/ that here, obedient to the tour touters and the letter stealers, we lie. After all, all art, like philately, however indifferently it is spelled, is suffering.   Just keep the illuminati in the dark.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 October 2020

Saturday, October 10, 2020



“Wait a minute,” Mehdi said and hurried to his shop’s counter. A few minutes he returned bearing a glass of steaming Persian, cardamom tea. “I’ve put a strand of saffron in it,” he exclaimed proudly. “Its how we have it in Iran.” 

“That is awfully generous of you,” I gushed through the window, as I bowed in socially distant gratitude. “But what have I done to deserve this distinct honour?” 

“You are the only Greek I’ve met in Australia who doesn’t immediately mention the Persian War after first meeting,” he replied. 

And here I was thinking that I had earned my most refreshing brew because of my lengthy exposition of Sadegh Hedayat’s magisterial cry against political repression: “The Blind Owl,” wherein the main character contends that the presence of death annihilates all that is imaginary. In fact it was at the point where I had begun to mention that the word for owl in Farsi, “bouf” is the same as the Greek word μπούφος, that the gift of tea took place. 

“Every time I meet a Greek, it’s either: “We beat you tyrants in the Persian War”, or “Alexander the Great conquered you,” Mehdi continued. “It’s as if it happened yesterday, not 2,500 years ago. I mean who knows where our ancestors were back then, and who rarely cares? It’s like an Italian meeting an Englishman and boasting about how Claudius conquered Britain. Ridiculous.” 

“Almost as ridiculous as the Shah of Iran staging an ancient Persian pageant at Persepolis in the seventies,” I quipped. “It cost him his throne, you know.” 

“That’s different,” Mehdi smiled. “We did that to ourselves, we didn’t impose it upon others. What was the first thing I asked you when you told me you were Greek?” 

“You asked me if I had heard of Giorgos Dalaras,” I responded. 

“Exactly. Music speaks an international language that unites people. I didn’t go on about how Alexander the Great burnt Persepolis or anything like that,” Mehdi complained. “But with you guys, it’s Marathon this, and Thermopylae that…. Do you know how many people have invaded Persia throughout its history? Hundreds. Scythians, Greeks, Romans, Indians, Arabs, Mongols, Turks… If we had to define ourselves against every single invader we would end up talking to no one.” 

“So whenever you meet a Mongol, you don’t mention the devastation of Samarkand, or how the rivers became black from the ink of the books thrown therein?” I raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t the legend of Sohrab and Rustem predicated upon Persian resistance to Turkish invasion?” 

“I’ve never met a Mongol in Australia,” Mehdi sighed. “And besides, everyone who came to Iran stayed. Our country is a conglomeration of tribes and peoples. Forty percent of our population is of Turkic background. Everyone contributes their own piece of the puzzle. But with you guys, there doesn’t seem to be any flexibility or acceptance of the other.” 

I reflected upon this as I sipped my scalding hot chai. The Persian Wars are seminal in the construction of the Greek identity because many (but not all) Greek city states united for the first time to resist and repel foreign rule. There was a sense of kinship prior to the Persian invasion but it took the agency of an “other” to foster co-operation. Also, the Persians did not stay. They left. Similarly, although the Ottomans remained in Greece for over four hundred years, the foundation of the modern Greek identity is not only that they were overthrown but that their very presence was removed from the country. In a series of events culminating in the Treaty of Lausanne, with the exception of Western Thrace, which occupies the margins of the Greek social discourse, Turks living in Greece, like the Persians before them, did not stay. They left. The Romans, who conquered Greece by exploiting the divisions between Greek city states and exacerbating internecine strife by contrast, did not leave. Their colonists remained and gradually assimilated into the broader polity, as the Greco-Roman civilisation they engendered evolved into the Eastern Roman Empire.  

Yet what is emphasized about that Empire in our historical narrative is that it was an albeit Christian, lineal descent of ancient Greece, inhabited by Greeks who for the one thousand years of the Empires’ existence, defended this bulwark of Hellenism from the inroads of the Persians, (every year in Orthodox churches we celebrate the defeat of the Persians by the Emperor Heraclius and his recovery of the True Cross), the Arabs, the Goths, the Avars, the Rus, the Bulgars, the Normans and the Turks. Our pride in our ancestors defeating the Italian invader and resisting the brutal German occupier rests upon those foundations. Consequently, our entire modern identity is, for these historical reasons, constructed around the concept not only of keeping others out but also delighting in doing so. 

 In contrast with Iran, where a succession of invaders settled permanently and had to be accommodated, there is no syncretism, no melding of cultures in our national mythology, which conflates time, as Mehdi so poignantly pointed out, so that a modern Greek can feel pride at the liberation of Greece from the Persians two and a half millennia ago, with an unconscious immediacy that confounds others that do not share that telescoped perspective of their own histories. 

The fact that the Greece feels the need this year, to celebrate what it considers to be the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Thermopylae and the naval battle of Salamis illustrates the ontopathology inherent within the construction of our modern identity. Why stop there? Why not celebrate the 3,000th year anniversary of the great victory in the Trojan War, or 4,000th anniversary of the liberation of the Athenian youths from the clutches of the Minotaur? Why not celebrate the 10,000th year anniversary of the triumph of the Olympians over the old gods in the Titanomachy? Good looking youths bearing sickles could parade the streets symbolically castrating members of the gerontocracy. Indeed, the whole affair reminds one of Roman Emperor Caligula’s celebration of his supposed conquest of Poseidon by ordering his soldiers to gather sea shells from the shore, as war booty. Acts replete with symbolism, but of little practical effect. And why does it evade everyone’s attention, that the first battle of Salamis, in Cyprus, was an unmitigated disaster of the Greeks? 

For some reason, Greece does not feel the need to construct anniversaries commemorating those aspects of our culture and history that have been of immense benefit to mankind and have thus justly been appropriated as the basis of modern civilization: the invention of democracy, the theatre, philosophy and the development of scientific inquiry. One could argue that had not the Persians been defeated, these benefits would not have been available to the rest of the world as Greek civilization would have crumbled under the crushing Persian yoke but the argument is specious: the Persian polity, even back then, was pluralistic and benign, allowing its subject peoples to preserve their culture and modes of administration, provided of course that they deferred to the local satrap and paid their tribute. Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that in Ionia, where Persian rule came first and where Greek philosophy was first invented, that the Persian yoke in any way inhibited its continued development. What we do know however, is that after the Persian Wars, right up until the conquests of Alexander, Greek city states allied themselves with or subjected themselves to Persia, in order to protect themselves from other Greek city states, with the “Great King” of Persia seen as the ultimate referee in all Greek city state squabbles.  

All this is lost however in the afterglow of the immortal words of the Spartan emissaries, Sperthias and Boulis to Hydarnes, the Persian commander of Ionia, when he enjoined them to submit to Persian rule: “You offer us this advice only because you do not have a fair and proper perspective. For you counsel us based on your experience of only one way of life, but you have had no experience of the other: you know well how to be a slave but have not yet experienced freedom, nor have you felt whether it is sweet or not. But if you could try freedom, you would advise us to fight for it, and not only with spears, but with axes!” 

The irony of course, that the Spartans also were approaching their negotiation based on their experience of “only one way of life,” should not be lost upon us. Nor indeed that subsequently, they entered into a treaty with Persia in 412BC, surrendering all of Greece outside the Peloponnese. In a subsequent treaty of 411BC, Sparta gave up all claims for the freedom of the Greek city states in Asia. Freedom therefore, however precious, is a negotiable commodity after all. Further, it was the Persian satrap Mardonius who reinstated democratic forms of self-governenance in the cities of Ionia. And of course, where did the great Themistocles, architect of the Persian defeat at Salamis end up? Working for the Persians, as satrap of Magnesia. V is for venal, as well as victory.  

Mehdi pierced the shield wall of my reverie with the following question: “Did you know that Vassilis Koukalani, (who is apparently an actor in Greece), has an Iranian father?” 

“No, I didn’t,” I countered, offering instead: “Did you know that Shah Ismail, founder of the Persian Safavid dynasty was the grandson of the Emperor John IV of Trapezounta?” 

“No,” he replied. “But did you know that Mithridates of Pontus was actually Persian?” 

“Did you know that Drypetina, his daughter, had a double row of teeth?” 

“I think her mother was Greek,” Mehdi laughed. 

When COVID is over, Mehdi has promised to create and purvey at his café, a Salamis Special latte, a fulsome brew containing saffron and ground pistachio, in honour of my people’s victory over his at that hallowed island. In consideration of him so doing, I have promised to eat a Persepolis Penitential, that is a  traditional Khoresht-e Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew of his own concoction, by means of apologizing for Alexander the Great’s burning of the palace at Persepolis and acknowledging the superiority of Persian cuisine. And therein shall be the peace. Or, from my perspective, a tactical truce. For I recognise over me the superiority of no other, at least not for the next 2,500 years, unless, of course, a satrapy is on offer... 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 October 2020

Saturday, October 03, 2020


 “Greece is both still Europe but also already the Orient.” Marc Chagall. 


At first instance, Modernist painter Marc Chagall’s relationship with Greece is not immediately apparent. Referred to by art critic Robert Hughes, as "the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century", Marc Chagall’s complex and diverse artistic works, comprising paintings, stage set designs, stained glass compositions for the cathedrals of Reims and Metz, as well as ceramics, are imbued with the Russian mysticism of his birthplace in modern day Belarus, and an innate, rather pronounced appreciation of and sympathy for his religious roots wherever he travelled. Though open to new ideas, and embracing many elements of the modernist style, of which he was an early proponent, the dreams and realities of his early life ever formed the core of his aesthetics. 


Chagall’s life was intense. Growing up in Tsarist Russia, he experienced the pogroms against the Jews at first hand and his early canvasses are steeped in suffering.  He also experienced the Russian Revolution and the ensuing bloody Civil War, eventually fleeing to France. Not long after, his work became caught up in the Nazi campaigns against so-called “degenerate” art, it being singled out for its portrayal of: "green, purple, and red Jews shooting out of the earth, fiddling on violins, flying through the air ... representing [an] assault on Western civilization." 


Chagall was fated to flee France after the Nazi invasion and ended up in the United States where it took time for his surrealist dream narratives to be appreciated, one critic observing that “contemporary artists had little in common with a folkloristic storyteller of Russo-Jewish extraction with a propensity for mysticism."  He was in America when his first wife, the writer Bella Rosenfeld died in 1944, around the same time that the full extent of the Holocaust was becoming known. 


Dealing with these traumas was not easy for Chagall, yet the liberation of Paris provided some hope for him, he stating: “Now, when Paris is liberated, when the art of France is resurrected, the whole world too will, once and for all, be free of the satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul—the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity.” Moving to Paris in 1946, he settled there and found new love and renewal in Valentina Brodsky, who he married in 1952. 


It was in the same year that French-Greek poet Stratis Eleftheriadis, better known as  Tériade suggested that to Chagall that he illustrate a new edition of the second century Greek pastoral prose epic Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus, a seminal text, given that it is the precursor of the modern novel, describing, through tortuous twists of plot, the discovery of love and loss of innocence, a fitting metaphor for the Chagall’s own life. 


Given that the young shepherd and shepherdess fall in love on the island of Lesbos, Chagall determined to visit Greece and get a feel for its history and mythological vocabulary. He visited what he termed “the land of the Gods,” on two occasions, fascinated not only by its antiquity but also, how the ambience of the landscape reminded him of the French Riviera, and his home in Saint-Paul de Vence, a perceptive association, given the history of ancient Greek colonisation of that area.  


Absorbing the colours, smells and lines of his peregrinations, especially those of Delphi, Athens and Poros, Chagall spent the next four years creating a series of forty two colour lithographs to bring to life the ancient idyll, even as he was living his own. In so doing, he retains his signature inversion of landscape. Cities grow downwards into the earth, fish fly in the sky and animals intrude effortlessly everywhere. His skilled portrayal of Jewish lore here lends itself easily to the symbolic vocabulary and poetic references of ancient Greece. The lithographs thus retain the dreamlike quality of his previous works, which is fitting, given the highly psychological nature of the Greek myths and the manner in which the play upon, encapsulate and interrogate the sub-conscience.  


As opposed to his prior works, with their thick, dark, cloying colours however, the Chagall Daphnis and Chloe illustrations are positively numinous and we can attribute this to the artist’s experience of the Greek light. As the artist himself noted: “Down there, everything is light.” In his dextrous hands, this light becomes filtered and nuanced. Through the prism of his eye, it is split into its spectral constituents. It is his complex layering of colours, a pre-requisite of the process of lithography, that gives each composition its irrepressible effervescence.  

His process of rendering this light is reminiscent of that of the Greek painter Fassianos, although the style and artistic syntax bears absolutely no comparison.  


Each of Chagall’s lithographs is possessed of an endearing, whimsical quality, to accompany the light, naiveté akin to that of the Greek naive painter Theophilos, that accompanies a group of lovers who although assailed by everything evil that the world has to offer: murder, rape, looting and pillage, never lose their innate innocence and indeed, never appear to grow or develop as characters. It is this expert use of colour in order to uphold a mood and interpret a story that reinforces Picasso’s conviction, that when Matisse died, Chagall would be the only one who really understood what colour was, adding for good measure, that his canvasses were really painted, not just tossed together. 


Chagall’s exuberant engagement with the land of the Gods was not limited just to Daphnis and Chloe, although in 1957, he  designed the scenery for Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloe for the Paris Opera. 

 In 1967, he set out to illustrate an anthology of his favourite classical verse, evoking a Bacchanalian age of hedonism. Sappho, was one of his favourites. His composition, of two entwined, nude lovers reclining beneath a crescent moon, a randy goat, some sheep and a signature inverted bird, accompanies the Lesbian poet’s immortal lines: 

“Blessed husband you have the hymen 

that you wanted, and you have the desired virgin.”  


Chagall also went on to illustrate selections of the Odyssey. His haunting “Circe” transforms the chthonic potent sexual predator into an aethereal maternal, Madonna-like figure, a haven and a refuge, in a novel interpretation of the myth. His “Polyphemus,” where the giant is depicted languidly reclining as a stake is driven into his eye, is blindingly luminous, as if it is occurring, par the course, during an afternoon siesta.  


His Eupeithes, on the other hand, one of a few of Chagall’s mythological works that do not include a complementary Greek temple in order to set the scene, is a masterly exploration of ingratitude and vengeance. Eupeithes  was the father of Antinous, the leader of Penelope’s suitors. After Antinous was killed by Odysseus, Eupeithes rose in revolt against his rule. He was killed by Odysseus' father, Laertes, enraged that Eupeithes had forgotten how Odysseus had protected him against the wrath of the Cephallonians whom he had raided years ago. Chagall’s Eupeithes is a green headed and horned winged monster, which hovers before the suitors, threatening to take Penelope and Antinous away. The scene reverberates with tension, the malicious grins of all those portrayed heightening the enormity of Penelope’s plight.  


“Poseidon,” another temple-less scene has the god defy the briny and emerge shimmering and viridescent above the sea brandishing his trident, a beardless youth more reminiscent of Apollo, as the red-figured Odysseus is sprawled before him, part in defiance, part in supplication. The sly look on Odysseus’ face artfully subverts the terror of the tableaux. 


“Celebration,” appears to depict the scene where a hair-bunned Nausicaa finds the nude Odysseus washed up on the beach of Phaeacia, the paradigm of proto-civilisation. In this depiction, worthy of a Seferis poem, the obligatory Greek temple is schematic and ill defined, animals emerge from the seaweed, which also gives its hue to Nausicaa’s skin, while the single boat with the white sail on the dark sea bobs malevolently on the horizon. The whole conception of what exactly a haven constitutes is deconstructed before our very eyes. 


Unlike most artists, who come to the Greece, its myths and cultural legacy through the filter of books and western tropes of civilisation, Marc Chagall, after surviving the most heinous personal and social catastrophes, came to Greece through its light, enervating and pervading the sparse landscape with its surreal array of architectural elements betraying a broken past, and most importantly through love.  While critics may view this light as an epiphany, allowing him to view Greece as an integral pillar of western culture, hitherto obscured by the temple of Jerusalem, and while Greeks may note that that there is little if any of the contemporary Greek culture that marc Chagall was exposed to in his works, it nonetheless, through his unique appreciation and understanding of the natural topography, resonates with love. Ultimately, through the power of that love, Greece taught Chagall, how to make light breathe. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 October 2020