Saturday, November 28, 2020


Recently, Hume City Mayor Joseph Haweil, who is of Assyrian and Greek descent has ensured that the significant presence of Assyrian-Australians in his municipality is reflected in the local topography by naming one of its streets after the capital of ancient Assyria, Nineveh. This is a significant morale boost for a beleaguered people that have no country, and who having suffered continuous persecution for the past two thousand years, are inordinately grateful to call Australia home. As relatively new arrivals to Australia, this link to their past will most likely give their pride in their heritage an Australian locus, grounding it within the streetscapes of our city. 

The Greeks of Australia, on the other hand, are not a new presence. Specifically, in Melbourne, according to Museum Victoria, we have been settled since the 1850’s, only twenty-five years after the founding of the city itself. During that time, our community has made transformative and permanent contributions to the social fabric and culture of our city, especially in hospitality and trading. 

While politicians of all stripes are fond of telling us, Melbourne is the largest Greek city outside Greece, it is more correct to posit that Melbourne cannot be understood or appreciated without its Greek community, which forms part of its unique identity. You would not know this from our street-scapes however. Our local topography is largely ignorant of our existence which is interwoven within the warp and the weft of the city itself, for there is scant reference to our community in the place names of Melbourne. 

In a recent article (15 July 2020), Neos Kosmos writer Dora Houpis provided an extensive list of monuments that dot Australian cities that have a Greek connection. In Victoria, she pointed to three public monuments, one to the late and unforgettable Father Nikolaos Moutafis, whose legacy in Oakleigh can still be felt to the present day, one to the late pioneering politician and activist Theo Sidiropoulos in Collingwood and one to King Leonidas of Sparta. To these can be added the statue of Lemona the Pontian refugee next to the statue of George Devine Treloar in Ballarat (a stretch) and the Lemnos Gallipoli Monument in Albert Park, which primarily commemorates the nurses and soldiers who served on the Greek Island of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 during World War One, but also the role of Lemnos in the campaign. There is also a Lemnos Avenue in the suburb of Pascoe Vale and a Lemnos Street in Red Hill. If we were to be sticklers for accuracy, we could also add the statue of Greek prime minister Venizelos in grounds of the Cretan Brotherhood building in Brunswick and the relief stele of Alexander the Great and Saint Dimitrios gifted to the City of Melbourne by its sister city, Thessaloniki, and which, letters fading and covered in graffiti, stands among the eateries, as a mute reminder of the erstwhile Greek precinct. 

What we notice about these landmarks is that they are all monuments, not street names. With the exception of the statues to Father Moutafis and Theo Sidiropoulos, who are both historically significant Greek-Australians, the other monuments have no direct link to Australia whatsoever. Rather than celebrating our history or commemorating our achievements as a distinct cultural group within the Australian polity, they instead celebrate people, places and events that took place in our country of ancestry. 

Part of the reason for this is our own cultural cringe. Reject a historical narrative that is founded upon our significant sojourn in Melbourne, we seek instead to construct an identity from around the places from which we derive in Greece (hence the statue of Leonidas in close proximity to the Pallaconian Brotherhood building in Brunswick), thus seeking affirmation from the motherland in relation to our own self-awareness. At the same time, we are also responding to a form of orientalism practiced by the dominant culture, whereby our modern manifestation is considered weak, degenerate and unworthy of praise, while the legacy of our ancient glorious ancestors is highly regarded and worthy of appropriation. This feeds an ontopathology that makes our sense of Hellenism dependent and largely determined by Greece (ancient), with scant reference to our experiences, institutions or the urban realities of the city in which we live. It is as we bear an extreme insecurity and sense of inadequacy about all that has transpired here as a community, rendering it unworthy of commemoration and celebration and facilitating the prioritization of Helladic points of reference in their place. Somehow, a Spartan king that died two and a half thousand years ago appears to us more relevant than the remarkable lives of Lady Diamantina Roma, wife of the first governor of Queensland, who hailed from Zakynthos and whose father was appointed a Poet Laureate by Queen Victoria, or Catherine Crummer, the first verified Greek woman to arrive in Australia, who was the daughter of Ali Pasha of Ioannina’s wife, and had met Lord Byron in Mesolongi.  

When one indulges in this type of self-marginalisation and self-effacement in the process of articulating their own identity in the mainstream discourse, it is unsurprising that local achievements remain unappreciated and unknown to the dominant culture. It comes as no shock, considering that we take no substantive steps to learn about and appreciate the stories of those who have come before us. In so doing, we run the risk of anchoring our identity to a place that is fast becoming merely a holiday destination for emerging generations, rather than construction a version of Hellenism that has meaning within the Australian context. We also trivialise our own existence within the matrix of a multicultural paradigm that is already beginning to unravel. 

In years to come, if such a cultural phenomenon continues, we will be appalled and dismayed that future Greek-Australian councillors in the city of Monash have never considered re-naming Eaton Mall Mykonos Mall, or created a Santorini Street, key points of reference and identity for modern Greek Australians. 

In the meantime, however, and considering that municipal council elections are nigh, it is worthwhile considering whether it is time that we seized control of our own local narrative and as a community, took concerted action to have our contributions to Melbourne’s streetscape. 

In the CBD, for example, early Greek settlers revolutionized the hospitality industry with their oyster bars, saloons and restaurants. If Melbourne City Council is serious about celebrating the long and significant Greek presence in its environs, we need this reflected in the local topography. 

A start would be to rename a lane in the City Lekatsas Lane to honour one of our community’s founding fathers and a remarkable early Greek Australian. 

Andreas Lekatsas arrived in Melbourne before 1851 and initially moved to the goldfields of Ballarat. He soon found wealth, and a return journey to Ithaca inspired his nephews Anthonios Lucas and Marino Lucas to also move to Australia. Andreas may have taken part in the Eureka Stockade uprising. 

The Lane would also honour his nephew Antonios who was a founding member of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and a prominent Greek restauranteur. He was one of the people through whose efforts the first Orthodox church was built in Melbourne and he lay the foundations for the further development and evolution of our community into what it is today. Visiting his grave in the Carlton ceremony, is a profoundly moving experience. 

The late Alfredo Kouris is another example of a significant Greek-Australian who deserves to have his memory immortalized by means of a street name. This was a visionary CBD trader who changed Melbourne’s culture irrevocably by his passionate campaign for the institution of alfresco dining and late night shopping, leading to the evolution of a Melbourne as a food and entertainment metropolis. Sadly, his contribution to Melbourne’s cultural evolution remains unacknowledged in our local streetscapes. A Kouris Court, would be a fitting tribute to the memory of this truly great man. 

Increasingly, prominent members of our community are realizing just how important it is both for us as a cultural entity and Melbourne in general, that our contribution to the life of this city is reflected in its place names and not just in oblique references to areas from which we are descended, or the odd monument. Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria Bill Papastergiadis has commented this week that this is a matter he will taking up with all tiers of government. Ultimately, as Michael Kimmerman states, public spaces are… “synonymous with a society that acknowledges public life and a life in public, which is to say a society distinguishing the individual from the state.” It is time we stopped being invisible and appear instead on the Melway, the Google Map, the GPS, for our Waze are many and deserve the honour that is their due. As always, the GOCMV is showing the way forward. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 November 2020

Saturday, November 21, 2020


I met Sanaz, now an ACT Government Solicitor, on my first day of Law School, at the University of Melbourne.  She was a new arrival to Australia. Having fled Iran with her Armenian and Persian parents, she had migrated to this country after a sojourn in India. Fluent in Armenian, Persian, Hindi and English, she expressed the desire to learn even more languages. In the weeks that followed, having become entranced by the tribal nature of the Greeks of Melbourne University and already favourably predisposed towards that tribe by her parents’ memory of a happy holiday in Greece in the pre-Revolution days, she resolved to study Modern Greek. 


It was a study which she pursued with dedication and passion. Lunchtimes (which consisted of sundry groups of Greeks sitting in the quadrangle in loose formation around the legendary NUGAS president Sasha Pete, regally draped with the Greek flag so you could not miss him), would be taken up with her persistent questions about abstruse points of etymology, points on pronunciation and detailed analysis of the most famous Modern Greek poets. As Greek-Australians, with the assistance of some of the most amazing lecturers, our study of Modern Greek at University changed our lives forever, extrapolating all we had learned in Greek school, exploding stereotypes and exhausting pre-conceptions. In this process, Sanaz, who already inhabited a number of cultural worlds simultaneously and was particularly adept at critiquing nationalistic discourses was not just a fellow traveller, but a companion and a guide, causing us, through her observations and comparisons with Persian literature, to view not only the corpus of Greek literature but also concepts of Greek identity with fresh eyes.  


Sanaz’s response when, as cultural co-ordinator of the Melbourne University Hellenic Students’ Association, I achieved what I thought at the time would be a triumph: Arranging for the renowned British historian of Modern Greece, Richard Clogg to give a lecture to our members, is indelibly etched in my memory. Only six students turned up, the rest unwilling to tear themselves away from their noonday cafeteriological pursuits. When Richard Clogg pointedly asked me whether we were expecting anyone else, Sanaz observed drily: “Probably not. After all we are all cloggs in the machines of our own historical paradigms.” Richard Clogg coughed in sympathy. 


Somewhere I have some postcards Sanaz sent me when she went to study in Greece for a summer. I kept them because I marvelled at the way in which she had become functionally literate in Greek in just three years. That trip almost never happened. Although her place was covered by a scholarship, her airfare was not and she informed her lecturer, the great Anna Chatzinikolaou, that it was not possible for her to accept the scholarship. Anna Chatzinikolaou would have none of it. Ignoring Sanaz’s protests, she purchased the aeroplane ticket for her, re-assuring her that she could re-pay her whenever she was able. Upon her return from Greece, Sanaz was reciting Homer, by heart and giving me her notes on the Byzantine ruins of Mystra, written in Greek, to edit. 


Soon after, we graduated. Sanaz moved to Canberra and I ensconced myself in the arcane and somewhat mystifying ways of legal practice. We caught up a few years later, when she made a special trip to Melbourne for a specific purpose: To find Anna Chatznikolaou and to repay her kindness and generosity. «Μεγάλη ψυχή η Άννα,» she commented, while flipping through her heavily annotated copy of my first poetry collection. «Θα την ευγνωμονώ ως το γιαγκίνι». I looked up and laughedThat was one of my own idiomatic expressions, adopted from my great-grandmother. It was also, the most fitting of ways to express the eschatological element of her gratitude. 


It was her concern at how we Melburnians were faring during lockdown that occasioned our last conversation, after a long hiatus. In passing, Sanaz mentioned how her nine year old son, a Perso-armenian Australian, was enjoying studying Greek at the local school. 


“We were holidaying in Greece, and my son was amazed when he heard me speaking Greek. “Are you Greek, mum?” he asked. When we returned to Australia, he was completely enamoured with Greece and the Greek language. I thought that it would be good for him to study a language that has a community of speakers behind it so he can understand the full depth and nuance of the culture that underpins it. Even though I teach him Persian, there are no Persian speakers outside the family that he can interact with. But he has now made the Greek community up here his own. By the way, did I ever lend you my copy of Ritsos’ Καπνισμένο Τσουκάλι? I’ve been looking for it for years. And have you kept in contact with Carl- Makarios?” 


Every year, a familiar figure approaches me at the Antipodes Festival. This is Carlos, who corrects me every time I address him as such, for ever since he converted to Orthodoxy during our University years, he has assumed the name Makarios. Of South American descent and possessed of an encyclopaedic knowledge of Patristics, Makarios was Sanaz’s classmate. He greets me in fluent Greek and we speak of old times, mostly of ridiculous things I once said, mercifully forgotten. I ask him how he knew the Festival was on and he pulls out a copy of Neos Kosmos. «Το διάβασα εδώ,» he informs me. 


The projected closure of the Modern Greek Studies Department at Latrobe University, the last tertiary institution to offer study of the language in Victoria, places experiences like these, where chance encounters and selfless teachers inspire life-long love affairs with the Greek language and create philhellenes, in peril. For Modern Greek studies were not introduced to the five tertiary institutions in which they were being taught up until the late nineties solely to cater to the linguistic needs of the Greek community or their concerns for self-perpetuation. Instead, their introduction was a multicultural imperative, given that Greek was, and for the moment still is, an important language within polyglot Australia, one whose evolution and relevance to the social fabric deserves academic study and furthermore, must be shared among all.  


This aspect has been largely ignored by both our community and the dominant social group because of the cultural apartheid enforced by Australian multiculturalism. Granted, the state accepts and even funds community languages, but these are considered the preserve of the communities themselves, of lesser status and prestige than the “major” languages of study, these being historically, the languages of World Powers, especially European ones, or of other aspirant states, willing to pay for the privilege. Because no resources have been expended and no meaningful activity has been taken to capture the interest of the mainstream in community languages and ancillary cultures such as that of Modern Greek, when the community itself no longer considers tertiary study in its own language important, the mainstream is quick to jettison it, at opportune moments. It does not help that for most of the community, studying Greek at secondary level has been seen primarily as a way of boosting one’s tertiary entrance rank. Once in a tertiary institution, it is thus considered useless and has not ever been adequately supported. 


Sanaz, Makarios, and many others who I have had the honour of meeting over the years did not just learn a language when they decided to study Modern Greek at tertiary level. Nor did they just embrace a community that vivified an entire linguistic tradition. Instead, they entered into a complex discourse of identity that transcends borders and ethnicity, one whose narratives are constantly evolving and being questioned within the Australian context. Theirs was thus simultaneously a quintessentially and uniquely Australian and Greek experience. 


It is trite to point the finger at the Greek community for its lapse into smug bourgeois indolence and its criminal negligence of the Modern Greek tertiary programs in Victoria. It is tiresome to point, out Cassandra-like, that the demise of those programs is a barometer as to the future progression of our people as a linguistic entity in this State. As usual, we remember Greek language programs only when these are in peril. The more active among us engage in activism and the signing of petitions and the more well connected among us may even have high level meetings with even higher level stakeholders which for political reasons may even earn us a temporary retrieve. Of course few of us  are willing to actually fund these endeavours.  


In the lull that follows the storm of our ethnosoteric activism however, when we rest assured that despite the fact that there is no feeder mechanism within our community school system to encourage secondary students to enrol in Modern Greek at a tertiary level and indeed there are no community institutions that can commission or support proper academic research on topics pertinent to the Greek discourse in Australia and beyond, ότι σώσαμε τη Γλώσσα, as if our language is permanently on Death Row, eking out a shadowy existence until the unknown date of its execution, we forget that Modern Greek Studies at a tertiary level were never just about the language. Always, they were and are about the scientific study of the ever evolving nature of one of the most fascinating and stereotype-defying peoples ever to populate out planet. With the closure of the last Modern Greek program, how can we ever hope to record or study, let alone to share, the language as it has developed here, our unique customs, our own historically significant local literature and the history of our sojourn? We exist, a rootless people, in an eroding topsoil of our own lotophagy. 


The first time Sanaz and I viewed Christine O ‘Loughlin’s arresting sculpture “Cultural Rubble” on campus, she asked: “What do you see?”  “Fallen Olympians,” I responded. “How about you?” “Your future,” she mused, cryptically and as it turns out, prophetically. It turns out that I do indeed have Sanaz’s copy of Καπνισμένο Τσουκάλι, which so enthused us during our university years. Flicking through it, I notice she has underlined in thick red pen the following verse: «Ξέρουμε πως ο ίσκιος μας θα μείνει πάνου στα χωράφια». And further down, circled and covered in exclamation marks of acclaim, as if eerily aniticpating the present: «Ευλογημένη ας είναι η πίκρα μας /Ευλογημένη η αδελφοσύνη μας / Ευλογημένος ο κόσμος που γεννιέται». And it is to the latter that we owe, the building blocks of study and not the detritus and rubble of a failed past. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 November 2020

Saturday, November 14, 2020


Just before the commencement of the most important part of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the priest intones The Doors, the Doors, in Wisdom let us attend.” This is an injunction for the Doors of the church to be shut against the uninitiated, in order to allow awesome mysteries to unfold.  


Writer Dmetri Kakmi, in his recently published collection of short stories, The Door and Other Uncanny Tales,” operates in a similar fashion, ambiguously opening the door of his narrative to reveal hidden truths to us, while at the same time obfuscating these, releasing us when the pressure is too much, even as we come to realise that we have been trapped inside his discourse prior to opening his book. In Middle Eastern tradition, of course, the world is divided into various doors,” and it is for the reader to determine which of these worlds, if any the discourse is inhabiting. 


The characterization of the tales as Uncanny” is ironic on many levels. Described as not for the faint-hearted,” or in the tradition of Lovecraft,” they are in fact in keeping with an age old tradition that I call Balkan bleak,” a narrative lineage that presupposes the inimicability of both the natural and the supernatural to the human condition, one where moral compasses seldom point North and if even if they do, are unable to navigate one through the narrow backstreets of the irrational, or the cul-de-sacs of faith. In short, these are the tales our grandmothers would learn from their grandmothers, on those long cold winter nights before the fire, prolegomena that would provide them with at least some way of enduring, rather than understanding, the horrors of the real world, without. 


The Door”, the major story in the collection, is a case in point. A Greek-Australian gay artist paints an image of a door in his apartment. The Greek word for image, εἰκών, signifies a semblance, a likeness, or a phantom image. As the story develops that door and rather what lies behind it, an entire phantom world of repressed memories, trauma, rejection and despair, takes a life of its own. Inexorably drawn to that world, the protagonist finds himself trapped within it, as his doppelgänger emerges to take over his life.  


In this masterfully crafted fable, an exploration of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where the Door’s Orestes Gallanos betrays his mother and is then set upon by the Furies of his own conscience, we are never able to separate myth from reality, nor are we given the opportunity to assess the authenticity of either world. How true” is a person who wallows solely in memories and injuries passed or imagined?  Similarly, how true” is he who shuts himself from that past to live solely in the present and what is “betrayal” are questions that are raised but deliciously unresolved, since the entire conundrum purportedly exists within the unreal. Embedded within the text, though, are biographical elements that form the secret, unspoken of histories of many migrant families in Melbourne, adding to the sense of unease. How did the writer come to discover, let alone reveal our family apocrypha? Like Pandoras Box, there are doors that best remain shut. 


Kakmis choice of a doppelgänger is also inspired. The motif of the malevolent twin has been present within Greek folklore since  Euripides’ Helen, whose eidolon, idol or icon, is the one that leads Paris astray and causes the Trojan War. Narcissus’ doppelgängers, his own reflection, also leads the hapless beauty to his own destruction and it is perhaps here that we could view elements of “The Door” as a cautionary tale against self-absorption, albeit without a moral, even as the process is inevitable. 

Perhaps the most harrowing and absorbing of all the tales in the collection is that of “Haunting Matilda”, which reads as an Australian retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Philomela. Raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, Philomelas tongue is cut off, in order to ensure her silence. She thus weaves a tapestry bearing witness to her crime, setting off a chain of events that will see her sister kill her child with Tereus and serve it up to him as a meal.  


The pre-pubescent Matilda too does not speak but neither can she weave tapestries. Her parents belong to a cult where it is believed that sex with Matilda will act as a conduit for ushering in primeval forces into the world. Consequently, they abuse her and allow others to do the same, cutting off her tongue so she does not speak and her fingers so she cannot write of her suffering.  


As Matilda is invested with chthonic powers that will enable her to wreak revenge upon her tormentors and regain the use of her lost appendages, again we are faced with the writers conundrums of amorality. Given that the restoration of Matilda by the supernatural beings is contingent upon her luring would-be abusers, killing them and stealing their appendages, thus perpetuating a cycle of molestation, we are removed from our Judeo-Christian world of righteous deities, to an Olympian and pre-Olympian world of jealous, malicious immortals who do nothing to protect the little girl and merely weaponise her suffering. Is her ability to control her defilement tantamount to redemption? Or, is she like Medusa before her, (and Matildas supernatural tentacles resemble Medusas serpentine hair), a captive tool of the gods?  


Just how whole can Matilda become when she assimilates the tongue and hands of the abuser? Indeed, how can we negotiate our place in such a seemingly unprincipled world, whose moral code, if one exists, is completely alien to us? It is in the raising of these insistent and cloying questions, carefully creating a climate of curated intellectual dysphoria, beyond the creepy that the writer reveals himself as a master of his genre, even as he exhausts elucidation of the term. 


The writers sensitivity to the liminal position occupied by children with regard to identity, time, or society is exemplified by the ghost’ stories The Long, Lonely Road,” and The Boy by the Gate.” In the first, partially told from the point of view of a dog, we are immersed in a world unable to determine whether a child belongs’ and is thus considered a recurrent threat. In The Boy at the Gate,” in an inversion of traditional social mores, the narrator learns at her cost that kindness to children is harmful, rather than beneficial. That is, if what we are dealing with, is in fact a child… 


If there is any redemption, however uncanny in the world of the Door,” surely this is to be found in the story “Light in Her Eyes”, a profound account of a woman seeking to come to terms with recently having an abortion through a stay in the country. In an ingenious manner, reminiscent of modern Orthodox icons depicting Christ gathering the unborn to him, through the intercession of a departed practitioner, a concatenation of extramundane forces coalesce to set her suffering at nought and then some. The unassuming manner in which the story begins, ill prepares the reader for the sharp swerve into the sphere of the numinous, heightening the emotional effect, when the main character by means of an act of absolution, which she as much confers upon herself as it is conferred upon her, is made bigger than her own suffering self, a remarkable re-working and exploration of the Annunciation story. 


We would do well to attend Dmetri KakmiThe Door” in wisdom. His firm, muscular prose, finely honed and polished with precision has a mellifluous, hauntingly resonant tonality, even as the master composer takes us through a number of key changes. Steeped in complex and timeless ancestral lore but propagating a topos all of its own, in which social hierarchies are reversed, continuity of tradition is uncertain, and fluid, malleable situations that cast doubt upon the future emerge, the Door is a perennial parable of the tribulations of the condition humane. As such, it must be read.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 November 2020