Saturday, April 24, 2021


Yiannis Gounaris is, at least in the popular consciousness, an obscure figure of the Greek Revolution of 1821. Hailing from Ioannina,  he was employed by Omer Vryoni as his official hunter and accompanied him to Mesolongi, which was besieged by Vryoni in 1822. Unable to overcome the town’s defences, Vryoni resolved on a night attack during Christmas, when it was expected that the defending Greeks would be at their most vulnerable. Overhearing the Ottomans discussing the plan, Gounaris was faced with a dilemma. His wife and children were being held hostage for his good behaviour in Arta. Should he keep quiet, thus maintaining his family in safety, or should he find a way to alert the besieged Greeks of their ultimate doom? Ultimately, he chose the latter. When the Ottomans sprung their “surprise” attack, the Greeks were waiting for them. The attack was repulsed and Mesolongi stood, only to fall four years later. 

It soon became apparent to Vryoni that the only person who could have betrayed the plan to the Greeks was Gounaris, who had, in the meantime, fled. Consequently, Vryoni had his wife and children killed and Gounaris, heartbroken, entered a monastery.  

Aspects of Gounaris’ story have inspired some of Greece’s greatest writers. In Andreas Karkavitsas’ short story “Sacrifice,” emphasis is placed upon Gounaris’ anguish at having to choose between patriotism and family. In Penelope Delta’s version, Gounaris’ grief for his lost family is emphasised. In both of these stories and in all of the accounts of the tragedy, the voices of the children are not heard, nor is their terrible fated described in any detail. 

Similarly, in his memoirs of the Revolution, Yiannis Makrygiannis describes how he prevented a group of Greek fighters from raping a young girl on the outskirts of Athens. In the conventional narrative about the key event of our modern ethnogenesis, we hear much about the exploits of the freedom fighters, much about the depredations of the enemy and increasingly more about the role of women in the struggle. It becomes apparent however that the experience of children has largely been written out of the discourse on the Revolution, even though the historical resource material indicates that children on all sides suffered privations, abuse, slavery and violence. 

Some, sold into slavery after the massacre of Chios ended up in unforeseen positions of power. Others, orphaned, traversed continents and found themselves in completely alien lands. And, owing to a lack of attention on the most vulnerable members of society, the fate of the majority is unknown, while the fate of Muslim children, killed during the massacre of Tripolitsa and elsewhere, is glossed over. It is time we critically examined this aspect of the Revolution. 

Tell a Greek that Mustapha Khaznadar is one of the most influential figures in Tunisian history and you will most likely be met with a shrug and raised eyebrows. Tell them that Georgios Kalkias Stravelakis was the Prime Minister of Tunis for thirty-six years and immediately their interest is piqued and their attention engaged. Stravelakis, born in Kardamyla, was five years old when the Ottomans perpetrated the massacre of Chios, and was one of the tens of thousands of women and children who were captured and treated as war booty, rather than as human beings, were sold into slavery. Stravelakis was sold to an emissary of the Husainid dynasty, a family of Turco-Cretan origin, ruling Tunisia on the Sultan’s behalf.  

Stravelakis, like the vast majority of Ottoman slaves, was compelled to convert to Islam, assuming the name Mustapha and thereafter, rather than being abused or mistreated, as was the case with many captured children, his owners developed a liking for him. Allowed to thrive within the Tunisian court, he gained the trust of the ruling family, acting as the crown prince's private treasurer before becoming the bey of Tunis’ state treasurer. From these lofty heights, he managed to marry into the ruling family, marrying Princess Lalla Kalthoum in 1839, was promoted to lieutenant-general of the army, made bey in 1840 and then served as Prime Minister. 

Stravelakis seems never to have forgotten his Greek roots. There are records of him removing the sum of ten thousand riyals from the state treasury in order to pay for his two Greek nephews education in Paris. 

Most children enslaved during the massacre of Chios were lost and never heard of again. Considered a commodity, there were periodical drives in Western countries and in Russia to raise enough money to redeem them from captivity, but their mortality rate was high and they could not always be located. For example on 29 July 1824, the men of Psara petitioned the Greek parliament for money to ransom their women and children held as slaves in Asia Minor. Only 10,000 piastres were granted and this was barely enough to ransom the wife and child of captain Constantinos Karatzas. Generally, slaves purchased by well to do families fared much better, especially if they showed promise and child slaves were highly prized because they could be trained and marketed more easily than older captives. 

We do not know the original name of Ibrahim Edhem Pasha, as in later life he tried to play down his Greek connections. His son, a noted archaeologist and painter claimed later that he was related to the Skaramanga family, and he was also enslaved during the Chios Massacre. Ibrahim Pasha had the good fortune to be adopted by the childless grand vizier Hüsrev Pasha. Lacking his own children, the Pasha ensured that Ibrahim, who showed a natural aptitude for studies, was educated in the best schools and later studied in Paris under an Ottoman state scholarship. There he was a classmate and, it is believed, a friend of Louis Pasteur. Not only did he become the Ottoman Empire’s first modern mining engineer, but also served a term as the Empire’s Grand Vizier. 

Raghib Pasha, who served as the sixth Prime Minister of modern Egypt was also a slave, having been captured on the island of Crete as a child and purchased by agents of the notorious Ibrahim Pasha, invader of the Peloponnese. Never losing his fluency in the Greek language, Raghib ascended the upper ranks of the military, becoming Brigadier General in 1846 and then going no to hold a number of responsible positions in the Egyptian cabinet such as Minister of Finance, Minister of War and Minister of Agriculture. His term as Prime Minister was a short one but it was notable in that it was the first in Egypt’s history to present to the public a comprehensive set of policies for implementation. 

The fascinating story of Lucas Miltiadis Miller is also instructive. Born in Livadia in 1824, he was orphaned at the age of four, when his father was killed in a battle and his mother died of typhus which was rife in Greece during the time of the revolution. Lucas was adopted by abolitionist Jonathan Peckham Miller, an American who served as a colonel in the Greek Army during the revolution and in 1828 was taken to Vermont. There, Lucas received an education, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1845, most likely the first Greek ever to do so in the United States.  

Serving as colonel of militia in the Mexican–American War, Lucas also served as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1853 and was commissioner of the Wisconsin Board of Public Works before being elected as a Democrat to the United States Congress in 1891, the first ever Greek Congressman. While he only served one term in Congress, his tenure there was noted by his proposal of a Constitutional amendment to change the country's name to "the United States of the Earth". 

Generally, however, most Greek children growing up during the revolution were not so fortunate. Many were killed by marauding Ottoman soldiers and there are accounts of the pro-Ottoman British consul of Patras, Philip James closing the door of his Consulate to women and children seeking protection. As a result, they were slaughtered. Charles Deval describes the harrowing experiences of children forced to haul logs of wood too heavy for them to carry at the slave market at Methoni and then being beaten when they slowed down.  

The disruption to agriculture occasioned by the struggle also took its toll on children. There was often insufficient food to support freedom fighters as well as the rest of the inhabitants of insurgent regions and children often went without. Lack of proper housing owing to destruction of villages or fleeing the conflict caused disease and decent clothing was also scares and the arrival of refugees into the regions held by the revolutionaries from other areas of Greece that had revolted such as Crete caused great pressure on children already exposed to parlous living conditions 

Scant evidence exists as to the psychological effects of the 1821 Revolution on children. The privations they endured, the violence and fear experienced as a result of the struggle would have created great traumas that would have undoubtedly effected both the outlook and development of children. Given how the voices of children are silenced or subverted to serve a preconceived national narrative of struggle and sacrifice, we can only speculate the effects of such traumas by examining the lives and inferring from the actions of those who came into adulthood directly after the creation of the first Greek state. 

The above notwithstanding, the Revolution served to emphasise to the new rulers of Greece, the importance of the Greek youth. Their proper upbringing became a matter of state importance, with the Peloponnesian Senate recommending to all parents on 27 April 1822, that they take care of the education of children of both sexes. Two years later, four of the largest monasteries of Athens took it upon themselves to establish schools for children, the girl’s school being housed on the Acropolis and named the “Parthenon.” A new era for the free Greek children had begun. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 April 2021

Saturday, April 17, 2021


Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. 

John 15:13 




The conventional narrative on the Greek Revolution is generally dualistic to the point of being outright Manichaean. On the one side, representing the forces of light and goodness are the valiant, freedom loving Greeks, nobly struggling to free themselves from the oppression of the forces of darkness, symbolised by the blood-thirsty Ottomans, on the other side, with their murderous ways and propensity to engage in the wholesale slaughter of their Christian subjects. 


When one reads the memoirs of revolutionary heroes, however, one often comes across situations where Greeks were tipped off as to impending danger and even doom by concerned Muslim friends, who thought nothing of placing common humanity above religious affiliation. Yet, as this story of one of the most senior imams of the Ottoman Empire will show, the triumph and tragedy of human decency extended to the upmost echelons of the Ottoman Islamic hierarchy. 


In March 1821, as news of the Greek revolt arrived in Constantinople and rumours of massacres of Turks in the Danubian Principalities spread, the enraged Sultan ordered the arrest of seven prominent Orthodox metropolitans resident in the city. He also ordered the arrest of prominent Phanariotes such as chief diplomat, the Grand Dragoman Constantine Mourouzis, in the light of news arriving of the revolt in the Peloponnese. Considering, as it turns out rightly, that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory the Fifth was if not involved in the revolt then at least in possession of knowledge about its planning and execution, the Sultan accused him of complicity and because the Ecumenical Patriarch was responsible and answerable to the Sultan for the conduct of all Orthodox Christian subjects, he requested that a fatwa, or Islamic ruling be pronounced, allowing a general massacre against all Greeks living in the Empire. 


A fatwa could only be pronounced by the Şeyḫülislam, (Sheikh of Islam) the grand mufti of the Ottoman Empire and its most high ranking cleric. Performing a number of important duties such as advising the sultan on religious matters, legitimizing government policies, overseeing other imams and appointing judges, the influence of the Şeyḫülislam could be evidenced in the fact that he was also charged with the duty of confirmimg new Sultans, even though once the sultan was so confirmed, the Sultan retained a higher authority than the Şeyḫülislam. Most significantly, the Şeyḫülislam was charged with the power of issuing fatwas, which were written interpretations of the Quran that had authority over the Ottoman Islamic community.  


At the time of the Greek revolution, the Şeyḫülislam was one Çerkes Halil Efendi, a Circassian from the Caucusus in origin. Hastening to perform his master’s bidding, Halil Efendi duly issued the fatwa calling for a massacre against the Ottoman Greeks by pious muslims. No sooner had he issued the fatwa however, that he took the unprecedented step of withdrawing it. This is due to the fact that Halil Efendi felt that due process had to be followed and that he had erred in issuing the fatwa as he did not have enough evidence to support the proposition that all the Greeks in the Ottoman Empire had revolted. Further, he became aware that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V had condemned the insurgents and felt that he should consult with him before taking any precipitous action. 


To the fury of the Sultan, Halil Efendi asked his master for more time to confer with the Ecumenical Patriarch before re-issuing the fatwa. The content of the discussions between the two most senior representatives of the Ottoman Empire’s major religions is unknown, however, it is understood that Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V managed to convince Halil Efendi that the Patriarchate had nothing to do with the Revolution and sought his protection, knowing that massacres against the Greeks in Asia Minor were imminent. Further giving Halil Efendi pause for thought, Patriarch Gregory V, under pressure from the Sultan took the overt step of excommunicating the Greek revolutionaries. 


Knowing full well that plans for the massacres of the Greeks were in their final stages, Halil Efendi made perhaps one of the most significant stands on principle in the entire history of the Greek Revolution. Openly defying his master, he refused to issue the fatwa authorising the killings, on the grounds of Islamic law. In particular, he told an incandescent Sultan that according to the Quran a massacre could not be authorised against the Greeks because in the proposed fatwa sought of him, there was no distinction made between the innocent and the guilty, and a slaughter of innocents could not be sanctioned.  


Halil Efendi’s stance was particularly brave due to the fact that even though he was the highest ranking Islamic cleric in the Empire, the Sultan still had the power of life or death over him. Infuriated by his act of insubordination, the Sultan ordered him stripped of his position, the loss of his possessions and his exile after extensive torture to the island of Lemnos.  


Meanwhile, that which Halil Efendi so valiantly strove to avoid began to take place. One week after issuing his excommunication, on Easter Sunday, Patriarch Gregory V was apprehended by Ottoman soldiers during the liturgy and hanged at the central gate of the Patriarchate, which has remained closed in protest at this act of barbarity. The Metropolitan bishops held hostage Dionysios of Ephesus, Athanasios of Nicomedia, Gregory of Derkoi, and Eugenios of Anchialos were also hanged, as was Constantine Mourouzis and other high ranking Phanariotes. The execution of these prominent members of the Constantinopolitan Greek community sparked a reign of terror where the new Şeyḫülislam Yasincizade Abdülvehhap Efendi, eager to avoid the fate of Halil Efendi, issued the sought after fatwa, encouraging fanatical Muslims to attack Greek communities throughout the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, janissaries and other irregular bands roamed the streets of the city, looting Greek churches and property and murdering whichever Greeks they could find. 


The Ottoman authorities specifically sought to deprive the Greek community of its leadership, deliberately marking for execution, prominent Greeks in government service, in the Orthodox Church, or members of prominent families. They also orchestrated the massacre of several hundred Greek merchants trading in the city. Despite the pleas of newly instated Ecumenical Patriarch Evgenius who repeated his predecessor’s act of excommunication against the Greek rebels, Ottoman fury did not abate. As late as July, public executions of Greeks were still a daily occurrence in Constantinople and on the fifteenth of that month, five archbishops and three bishops were executed. As the indiscriminate sackings, lootings, rapes and murders continued, four hundred and fifty shopkeepers and traders were rounded up and sent to work in mines. 


As the fatwa issued by Abdülvehhap Efendi was broad in application, massacres spread to other regions with a Greek population as well. In Smyrna, Ottoman troops awaiting transport to Greece in order to fight the rebels entered the city and acting in concert with members of the local Turkish population, they embarked on a general massacre of the Greeks of that city. A similar massacre took place in the town of Aivali, which was burned to the ground and its famous Academy was destroyed. Similar massacres were also perpetrated against the Greek inhabitants of Kos, Rhodes and Cyprus whose archbishop Kyprianos, as well as five other local bishops were killed. 



While it is true to say that the massacres perpetrated against the Greeks of Constantinople, Smyrna and elsewhere as a result of the fatwa did much to create outrage among Western societies and galvanise public sympathy of the Greek revolutionaries, one victim received no publicity at all. His body broken by torture and his health irretrievably compromised by the privations of his incarceration, Çerkes Halil Efendi did not live long enough to make it to his place of designated exile. He died as the Greek population of the Empire was being massacred, his noble and selfless gesture ultimately unable to prevent the bloodbath that ensued. 


There exists today in popular Greek accounts of the Revolution, rarely any reference to the courageous sacrifice of Çerkes Halil Efendi. No monument exists in his honour, while only the historian Dimitrios Kambouroglou, who died in 1942 has called for a Greek street to be named in his honour. In this age of identity politics, of increased polarisation and identity politics, the example of a true humanitarian, willing to reach across ethnic and religious divides, to take a stand against violence and hatred and to  pay the ultimate price for his support for the vulnerable and the disenfranchised ought to be appreciated and afforded greater prominence in our national narrative and in our community commemorations of the 1821 Revolution. 



First published in NKEE on  Saturday 17 April 2021

Saturday, April 10, 2021


«Ἤκουσα φωνῆς ἐρχομένης ἀπό τῆς ἄρκτου ἥτις ἔλεγεν οὕτω: ῾Ρωσία ἐξύπνησον οὖν ἐκ τοῦ ὕπνου….» Agathangelos. 


It matters not a bit that Theokleitos Polyeidis, the monk who composed a set of prophecies under the pseudonym of Agathangelos, predicting the rise and regenisis of the Greek people, probably meant the Germans, when he prophesied that the “blonde nation” would descend from the North to save Hellenism.  


In the popular imagination, the blonde Nordic saviour was Russia and it was to Russia, that Greeks looked for deliverance. Sure, the western world may admire Greece’s classical heritage and express the pious hope that a renascent nation would espouse the democratic and other ideals so revered by the West, yet it was from Orthodoxy that the vast majority of pre-Revolution Greeks derived their cultural identity and value system. As such, Russian philhellenism, which encompassed both the classical and Byzantine facets of the Greek experience was much more nuanced and balanced. 


Modern Greek scholars have made much of the fact that Tsar Alexander of Russia did not endorse the Greek Revolution. With Russia still recovering from the depredations of Napoleon’s invasion, the idea of a popular uprising was alien to his conception of the nature of autocracy of his empire and he abhorred uprisings based on national identity, fearing that if encouraged, especially among the many subject peoples of Russia, this would lead to the dissolution of the Empire. Such revolts Russia did manage to foment in Greece from time to time, such as the failed Orlov Revolt, seemed mostly to take place within Russian strategic action against the Ottomans, rather than intended to create an independent Greek state. Indeed, Catherine the Great’s “Greek Plan,” of conquering Constantinople and placing her grandson upon its throne envisaged, at its most audacious, a Greek people “liberated” under the rule of the Tsars.  


Yet it would be wrong to consider that all the Greeks constituted for Russia, was a pawn in their broader strategic aspirations. Catherine the Great not only gave colonies in southern Russia, newly conquered from the Ottomans, their ancient Greek names, but also encouraged beleaguered Greeks seeking equality and security, to settle there by offering citizenship, employment prospects and a ten year immunity from taxation. It was this influx of Greek migrants along with increased mercantile opportunities for Ottoman Greeks who after the treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, were allowed to sail in Ottoman waters flying the Russian flag, that created the requisite level of affluence among Greeks in Russia that led them to conceive of the plausibility of Greek freedom. 


It is for this reason that the Philiki Etaireia was formed in Odessa by three expatriate merchants, a fact known to the Tsarist Secret Police, which was also aware of the extent of funding it received by affluent Greeks in Russia, as well as the Russian nobility. Despite this, the Russians took no steps to dissolve the seditious group. Tsar Alexander was also aware of his foreign minister Ioannis Kapodistrias’ championing of the Greek cause, even though Kapodistrias constantly told would be Greek revolutionary leaders such as Ypsilantis and Mavromichalis that Russia could not openly endorse Greek independence. When Ypsilantis left Russia and crossed over to Moldavia in order to commence the Revolution, it was Kapodistrias who was asked to draft a declaration in Tsar Alexander's name denouncing Ypsilantis for abandoning "the precepts of religion and morality", condemning him for his "obscure devices and shady plots", ordering him to leave Moldavia at once and announcing that Russia would offer him no support. 


Notwithstanding Russia’s political stance, the Greek cause aroused great sympathy among all sectors of Russian society, with celebrated poets such as Pushkin penning verses in support of Greek freedom, staunch advocates of tsarist autocracy and liberal reformists all expressing concern for the plight of the Greek people. It was the suffering of the Greeks during the Revolution that caused Russian Philhellenism to assume the form of a humanitarian imperative. 

The catalyst for the relief drives, co-ordinated by the Russian government, and Church, proved the execution of Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V, a man revered in Russia. Horrified by the brazenness of this act and reports of the mass slaughter of clerics and Orthodox Christians in Constantinople and Smyrna that took place soon after the Revolution broke out, Tsar Alexander ordered Kapodistrias to draft an ultimatum accusing the Ottomans of breaking treaties and of threatening "to disturb the peace that Europe has bought at so great a sacrifice". The ultimatum ended: 


"The Ottoman government has placed itself in a state of open hostility against the Christian world; that it has legitimized the defence of the Greeks, who would thenceforth be fighting to save themselves from inevitable destruction; and that in view of the nature of that struggle, Russia would find herself strictly obliged to offer them help because they were persecuted; protection, because they would be in need of it; assistance, jointly with the whole of Christendom; because she could not surrender her brothers in religion to the mercy of a blind fanaticism." 

Russia subsequently broke off relations with the Ottoman Empire. 


Within weeks, over a thousand Ottoman Greeks fleeing the fighting and persecution were crossing the border into Russia on a daily basis. By order of the Tsar, the border was kept open, providing a refuge for tens of thousands, in a manner unthinkable in modern times. According to the research of historian Theophilus Prousis, in July of 1821, the Tsar approved the commencement of a subscription campaign in order to raise money for the Greek refugees, most of whom sought succour in Odessa and Bessarabia. Led by Prince Alexandr Golitsyn, this campaign organised housing and food for the refugees, as well as suitable employment. The Tsar himself contributed 150,000 roubles for this endeavour. 


Prince Golitsyn’s relief effort was particularly effective owing to the fact that he was able to make Greek relief fashionable among the nobility, to which he belonged. The Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna contrubted 15,000 roubles from her personal funds for the refugees, while Prince Adam Czartoryski, Curator of Vilna University not only provided 2,000 roubles but also organised fundraisers from university staff, students and supervisors. 


Prince Golitsyn also compelled the Russian Church to give generously, stressing its debt to the Greek people as it was from them, as he contended that the Russians borrowed: “the sacred learning of the Gospel, the teaching of love and mutual help.” 


To intellectuals, thinkers and magnates, Prince Golitsyn stressed not only the Orthodox connection, which was the element that most tugged upon Russian heart-strings, but also civilization’s debt to the Greek people: 

“Without a doubt, the success of such an… undertaking will justify the expectations of friends of humanity who desire to render help to the sons of that country which fostered enlightenment in Europe and to which Russia is even more obliged having borrowed from it the enlightenment of faith, which firmly established the saving banner of the Gospels on the ruins of paganism.” 


Refugee clergymen were particularly looked after, receiving monthly stipends, ranging from 45-75 roubles for priests to 170 roubles for Metropolitans. In February 1822, for example, the head of the local relief assistance committee in Odessa distributed 25,000 roubles to 441 Greek refugee clergy and nuns. 

Even Muslim minorities were co-opted in raising funds for the Greek refugees. In Georgia, the local Exarch gathered funds not only from the local clergy and army but also, from the sizeable local Muslim community. 

News of the Massacre of Chios in April 1822 and the mass enslavement of women and children in Kassandra and Ayvali galvanised all levels of Russian society. This moved the Tsar to order Minister of the Interior Kochubei and Prince Golitsyn to organise an Empire wide appeal so that funds could be raised in order to ransom the unfortunate captives from their slavery, guided behind the scenes by Kapodistrias and refugee clergyman Konstantinos Oikonomos. Prince Golitsyn in turn invited all Russians: “to extend a helping hand to our co-religionists who are saddled with all the despondencies of captivity and are threatened to be cut off from the Church of Christ.” 


There was a clandestine element to this operation. In a letter to Prince Golitsyn in November 1822, Oikonomos write of the wisdom of keeping knowledge of this “new deed of Ottoman benevolence” from the Ottoman government. Appeal proceeds were sent secretly to commercial agents in the Ottoman Empire, with confidential instructions to apply them for the ransoming of Greek slaves. Many of these slaves once ransomed, found their way to Russia. 

Attempts to resettle Geek refugees, such as that by Count Orlov-Denisov, permanently in southern Russia failed however. Although they were provided with clothing and shelter, the majority of these refugees were townsfolk who were unused to the farm work the Russians anticipated they would perform. Most did not want to settle permanently in the region and were merely biding their time until the war was over, while it was observed of those that did stay, that they had “a tendency to work in the Asiatic fashion.” 


As a result of monthly donations from the Russian Imperial Treasury, between January 1822 to August 1830, some 1.5 million roubles were transferred to local authorities for the assistance of Greek refugees. Although the Russian public remained concerned about the plight of Greeks and sympathetic to the fortunes of the newly constituted free Greek state, Tsar Nicholas, Alexander’s successor eventually terminated refugee aid in 1830, believing that the end of Ottoman-Greek conflict would permit Greeks to return to their former homes or to migrate to free Greece. 


The unprecedented manner in which public and state rallied around the Greeks at the time of the Revolution was considered a seminal event in Russian social history, with nineteenth century Russian historian Dmitri Bukharov observing: “Up until that time, not one popular revolt, no matter where it took place, aroused as much general attention and intense sympathy as the revolt of the Greeks.” 


Although Russia would thereafter play a complex and not always stabilising role in the fortunes of Modern Greece, Russian humanitarian aid at the time of the revolution cemented already existing ties of mutual affection between the two peoples. These ties of affection and indeed the generally unfulfilled expectation that Russia should or will always come to the aid of Greece, endure to the present. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 April 2021

Saturday, April 03, 2021


-  Ω Κώτσιο, a gravelly voice would resound in my ears. Without turning around, I would invariably know who was calling me, and so I would respond: 

-   Ω μπάρμπα Γάκη. 

-   Lavdi shqiptarit të madh Enver Hoxha! (Glory to the great Albanian Enver Hoxha!) he would proclaim.

-   Të raftë rrufeja (May thunder strike you), I would guffaw and we would both embrace each other laughing. 


Unionist,  Communist Party of Australian activist, historian, pensioner advocate, broadcaster and multicultural affairs doyen George Zangalis was from Northern Epirus, in Albania. My family was from southern Epirus and this was a problem because we were aware that the Greeks in Northern Epirus’ rights were being severely proscribed by the communist Albanian regime and that the “great Albanian Enver Hoxha,” who George so idolised, was actually a homicidal paranoid maniac with a penchant for torture and far from being a textbook communist, was actually a nationalist to the extreme. 


“The problem is, you are too doctrinaire,” George would comment, when we would discuss the issue. 

“No, the problem is that you have chosen a football team with an expiry date,” I would  

riposte, causing him to shake with laughter, a laughter that I would echo years later, after an epic trip to his homeland, where, in the aftermath of the fall of the regime, he struggled to find any monuments to his hero, since they had all been destroyed. 


“Do you still have those books by Enver I gave you?” he asked me, crestfallen upon his return. 

“Which ones?” I sought clarification. “ ‘With Stalin,’ or “Eurocommunism is Anti-Communism’?” 


“Yes,” I responded. “ ‘With Stalin’ is published on paper so coarse that it removes layers of skin when one attempts to wipe one’s posterior with it upon evacuation, while ‘Eurocommunism is Anti-Communism’ is so silky that one’s waste just slides right off, without friction.” 


Assuring him that I was joking (my posterior is too delicate a disposition to endure the thoughts of Enver), we would then launch into a heated discussion about global poverty, inequality and the labour question, both of us goading each other far beyond the confines of good taste. 


“I don’t know how you get away with it,” one of his friends once told me. “George never compromises on his beliefs.” 

Nor did he ever. But I was, by virtue of my ancestry, his compatriot, which meant that he could never bring himself to write me off, no matter how recalcitrant the views I purported to profess, actually were. Also, though we may, by virtue of our homeland’s proximity to the gates of Hades (the Acheron River, which was the entrance to the Underworld flows through Epirus), appear to others as humourless and morbid, when in natural habitat and among each other, we are masters of irony and deadpan, regardless of our political opinions. 


“You cannot detach yourself from the world,” George would lecture me, fervently, whenever I affected nonchalance or ambivalence. “You live in the polis, you must concern yourself with politics. You must have an opinion about what is going on.” 

“I haven’t had an opinion on anything since I was three,” I would affect an Oscar Wildean attitude. 

“Maybe that is for the best,” he would smirk. “Some people shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions.” 

“Your mob would like that, wouldn’t you,” I would snap back and he would roll his eyes in mock horror. 


My favourite moments with George were spent when he was not present. Every Tuesday morning, driving to work, I would religiously tune the radio to 3ZZZ to listen to his radio programme. There were three things that I found enthralling about his broadcast, the first being how he was able to constantly obtain interviews with such high ranking Labor politicians, the second, how he would interrupt them midsentence, question them, contradict them and treat them to a lecture in which he expounded his own views on the topic of the day, and the third, closely related to the second, how he would be able to expound his analysis for over fifteen minutes without ever drawing a breath. 


Once, while he was on air and (rare for him) was taking a musical break, I called him.  

Ναι;” he spoke into the phone, assuming that his caller was Greek. 

Holding my nose so as to distort my voice, I enquired: “What did Comrade Stalin say to the fifteenth plenum of the Central Committee about punctuation?” 

“…err…. um,” George’s voice stuttered at the other end of the phone. “What did he say?” 

“He said that omission of punctuation and failure to enunciate distinct thought-phrases is a counter-revolutionary act,” I raised my voice. 

There was silence for a while. “I’m not sure that I….” George began to say (meanwhile the music had stopped and there was silence also coming from the airwaves), only to realise exactly what was going on. “Hang on. It’s you isn’t it?”  

“Hear, hear,” I switched to English, this being George’s favourite acclamation when a politician in his programme espoused one of his opinions or better still, quoted him. 

“Good God, what am I going to do with you?” he sighed. 

“Finally changing sides, are we?” I remarked snidely. 


Religion was a topic that would exasperate George. “I can’t understand why an educated person like you, born in Australia, believes all that garbage.” In turn, I would try to explain to him that to harbour the belief that mankind, by means of its own will and that of Marx could transcend its flawed nature and bring about paradise on earth was an act too optimistic to be undertaken by a true Epirote, the tribe being ultra-pessimistic at the best of times and that my belief system was thus a result of my DNA. 

George would have none of it. After misquoting scripture a few times, he would then launch into the narration of a series of stories about salacious and venal priests, causing me to stop him before he arrived at the punchline, for I had heard these all before, having been the person that had originally related them to him in the first place. 

“What a loss to the revolution you are,” George would lament. 

“No, just a loss,” I would affirm. 


After years of banter, I relayed to George, through a friend that I had finally seen the light and had become convinced that in Marxism lay the salvation of mankind. George was sceptical at first but somehow, became convinced of the veracity of my revelation. He was overjoyed and we arranged to meet. When he arrived at the preordained rendezvous point, he was greeted by the sight of me guiding the great Christos Tsirkas through Leon Trotsky’s “History of the Revolution.” George, as orthodox a communist as ever one could find, shook his head sadly and walked on. 


When we were not trying to provoke each other, we would have deep and lengthy discussions about our place as Greeks in Australian society. I admired his devotion to his beliefs and his unwavering commitment to making the world a better, more equitable place. Through him, I realised that it is imperative for our community to take part in the Australian political process and that as a communal entity, we bring to the party our own unique perspective and narrative that demands to be taken seriously. Most of all, I learnt through him, that any rights or privileges we have earned from the dominant class have been wrested only through activism and the struggle to retain them is a constant one, for the nature of power is centrifugal and it eventually draws all privileges away from its recipients, towards it. 


George was also a proponent of true multiculturalism. Not the multiculturalism propagated by governments which boxes ethnic communities in compartments for easy reference and prescribes the manner in which they will define and present themselves on the margins of mainstream culture, but instead, a society where all languages and peoples are afforded equal status and authority. It was this ideology that informed his passionate activism for the teaching of Modern Greek in all state schools. I disagreed vehemently with him, believing that since the State’s agenda was different to our own, our community should be controlling our own Greek language education to suit our own needs, while also professing scepticism as to the viability to the mainstream of his paradigm of ethnolinguistic parity, given how many cultural groups currently call Australia home. 

“It doesn’t matter,” George would say. “You should never accept the status quo. Especially considering how inequitable it is. Challenge the mainstream. Unravel the edges. Shift them from their comfort zones. It is the only way.” 


That was the guiding philosophy of George’s life. Bold, unafraid and ready to surmount any obstacle, he was formidable and uncompromising whether campaigning for pensioners’ rights, workplace relations or the welfare of ethnic communities. As late as November last year, I was seeking his counsel as to the best way to tackle the imminent closure of the LaTrobe University Greek Programme. And that was one of the most endearing things about George. He was always on hand to give advice, to suggest a course of action or to lend assistance. 


The last time I spoke to George was on his ninetieth birthday, earlier this year. During that conversation, I was able to tell him just how pivotal he has been in forming my community consciousness and just how much I loved and respected him. His last words, punctuated with pauses as he struggled for breath, were these: “You must never step away from the fight to make the world a better place. You must fight injustice in all its forms. I remember you telling me your ancestors were from Souli. Well, what did the Souliotes do? They travelled to all parts of Greece and fought to liberate the downtrodden wherever they went. So do that. It’s in your DNA.” I was in tears. 


 A few days after George died, I was sitting with his daughter Vasso at the Greek Centre, reminiscing and sharing our grief. Vasso began to explain her ideas for some vital community projects involving the institution of Greek story-telling in municipal libraries. As she spoke about deliverables and outcomes, unconsciously the inflection of her voice and her facial expression assumed the tones and form of her father.  

“Don’t mourn for George.” I told her. “He isn’t gone. He lives in you.” 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 April 2021