Saturday, August 28, 2021



This year’s Census gave rise to an interesting cultural phenomenon: the perennial debate as to what our ethnos should be called. As debates go, it is rather baffling. Considering that we have been around for millenia, one would have thought that by now, we would have arrived at a broad consensus as to our collective nomenclature. Yet this is not the case.  

From the rugged romaic borderlands of Oakleigh came the cry: “Why is the Australian government calling us Greeks? This is an insult. We are Hellenes.” (Cue youtube clip of Canadian internet phenomenon Katerina Moutsatsos screeching “I am Hellene!” on a computer generated background of island whitewash here.) 

There are two reasons sundry the patriotic denizens of our ethnic enclaves in Melbourne feel affronted by the term ‘Greek’. The logic of the first is simple. It is not the name we call ourselves. Since we call ourselves Hellenes, so should everyone else. To impose a different name upon us is thus seen as cultural imperialism. Of course the fact that we Greeks have no problems in referring to those who call themselves Deutsch as Germanoi, those who call themselves Zhongguoren as Kinezoi, those who call themselves Hayer as Armenioi, those who call themselves Magyarok as Oungroi (and in times Byzantine as Tourkoi), those that call themselves Kartvelebi as Georgianoi and those who call themselves Bhaarateeyon as Indoi, either completely escapes us, or finds us totally indifferent at the inconsistency. After all did not one venerable ancestor opine: «Πας μη έλληνβάρβαρος»? 

The logic of the second reason is also straightforward. According to the erstwhile pre-lockdown patrons of sundry coffee shops in Eaton Mall and beyond, the term “Greek” is insulting because apparently it was imposed upon us by the occupying Romans and was used to denote an effeminate and weak race. Best stick to Hellenes which has always been the name of our proud and glorious conglomeration of tribes that acknowledge Pericles, Alexander the Great, Kolokotronis and Otto Rehhagel as our common ancestors.  

Except it hasn’t. From the Homeric epics, we learn of several appellations pertaining to our people such as Danaans and Achaeans. The Persians called us Yauna, after the Ionians, who colonized part of the coasts of western Asia Minor. This term was later adopted into Hebrew as Yevanim, and into Arabic, and strictly to describe the Greeks living in modern day Greece, by the Turks. The word also entered the languages of the Indian subcontinent as the Yona. The facebook etymologists who claim on this basis that the Greeks must have reached the southern province of China known as Yunnan, however, are mistaken. Yunnan means “south of the colourful clouds” and has nothing to do with the Ionians. Tantalizingly, in ancient times, the Chinese called the Greek-speaking kingdom that existed on its borders, “Da-Yuan,” that is, Great Ionia. Modern Chinese, conversely, refer to modern Greece as Xila, that is, Hellas, so they deserve a round of applause. 

It makes sense that a people would name a nation after the part of it that they historically encountered. The term ‘Greeks,’ merely reinforces this. Contrary to common prejudice, the term Γραικοίis not a Latin term. Indeed, the first use of the word as equivalent to Hellenes is found in Aristotle to describe a tribe living in Epirus. Homer, while reciting the Boeotian forces in the Iliad's Catalogue of Ships, provides the first known reference to a region named Graea, which is why the name Graecoi, whence ultimately the term “Greek” is derived, was given by the Romans originally to the Greek colonists from Graea who helped to found Cumae, a Greek colony in southern Italy where the Italic peoples first encountered the Greeks and then to all Greeks.  

“Graeculus” or “Greekling,” not Greek, was the term coined by Cicero and employed by certain Romans to belittle their Greek contemporaries who they considered much fallen and debased in comparison to their illustrious ancestors, engendering a form of orientalism that persists in the West until the present day.  Conversely, according to Rene Olivier, in the French language the word ‘grec’ is sometimes also used as an ethnic slur meaning fraudster, whereas ‘hellénique’ has no negative connotations and is euphoniously très chic to boot. Considering that the letter y in French is referred to as i-grec, we can best leave the French, who have adopted the name of a Germanic tribe, instead of their original Galloi (which we retain), to their own devices.  

Assyrians in Australia further reinforce just how nuanced and loaded with meaning the terms used to denote our people can be. They uniquely refer to the Greeks of Greece as “Yunaye,” (Ionians) but to the Greeks they have encountered in Australia as “Greknaye,” a linguistic phenomenon that does not exist anywhere else in the world and which serves to differentiate a diasporan community from its mother culture by adopting the ethnonym used by the dominant culture in order to define us. 

In his “Meteorologica” Aristotle refers to ancient place called Hellas in Epirus between Dodona and the Achelous river. According to him the land was inhabited by the Selloi and Graeci, who later came to be known as Hellenes. Homer refers to Hellenes as a small tribe settled in Thessalic Phthia and in order to unduly complicate matters,  the Parian Chronicle mentions that Phthia was the homeland of the Hellenes and that this name was given to those previously called Greeks, something which is reinforced by Spartan lyric poet Alcman, who in the seventh century BC, wrote that the mothers of the Hellenes were the Greeks. Both ethnonyms therefore, refer to tribes that lived alongside each other, or engendered each other. 

The confusion regarding ethnonyms is further intensified by the fact that in Hellenistic times,  the word ‘Hellenic” no longer referred to a nation but rather, to an attitude and a way of life. As rhetor Isocrates, declared in his speech Panegyricus: "And so far has our city distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood". 

This idea of a shared culture has been appropriated by the West, which continues itself the successor of ancient Greece, (not Hellas). As Percy Byshe Shelley wrote: “We are all Greeks. Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their root in Greece.” 

While in early Byzantium the term “Hellenic” came to refer to a pagan, it enjoyed a resurgence in late Byzantium. 

It should be noted as an aside, that just as there once existed a soccer team in Melbourne called South Melbourne Hellas, which dropped its ethnonym in order to be accepted into the mainstream. Perhaps we could do the same, signifying our assimilation into the mainstream by expressing our ethnicity via a lacuna in the text, or a silence, or nervous hum, where the word Hellas used to be. 

Yet for much of our modern recorded history, the Greek people called themselves neither Greek nor Hellene. Instead, they identified as Romans, originally referreing to their citizenship as subjects of Byzantium, which was the continuation of the Roman Empire. This state of affairs persisted until modern times, with one author writing how when in 1912 the island of Lesbos was liberated from the Ottomans, the local inhabitants, hearing the words “the Greeks are coming” were mystified, as they referred to themselves as “Romioi.” In the Middle East, the situation is even more complicated. There “Rum” is synonymous not only with the Greeks, but with the Orthodox religion. Thus, the Patriarchate of Constantinople is known in Turkish as the “Rum” patriarchate, just as they termed central Greece “Rumeli,” a term that persists today. The Orthodox in Syria refer to their Church as the “Rum” Orthodox Church and on the basis of that, which translates as “Greek,” some of them espouse a Greek ethnic identity. In modern Greek, the word “Romios” or “Romiosyni” still persists to denote a cultural identity that encapsulates the entire historical experience of the people in a manner that other terms do not. Pontians still lament their lost homeland as “Romania,” and while most modern Greeks refer to themselves as «Έλληνες,» they still call the Greeks of Constantinople: “Romioi of the City,” (Ρωμιοίτης Πόλης). 

Given this concatenation of names, signs and signifiers, do we get rid of the word “Greek,” when one of our greatest heroes, Athanasios Diakos, consigned himself to a horrific death all the while maintaining: “I was born a Greek and as a Greek I will die?” («ΕγώΓραικός γεννήθηκαΓραικός θε να πεθάνω».) 

Do we insist on the use of the word “Hellenes,” when the West associates our ancient civilisation with the term “Greek,” thus creating a rupture that reinforces prejudices which cast doubt upon the historical continuity of our people?  

Do we divest ourselves of the word Romios, when the term Romiosyni is still used to describe the quintessence of our ethnic identity, enshrined in such masterpieces as Ritsos’: “Don’t cry for Romiosyni? (Τη Ρωμιοσύνη μην την κλαις). 

Ultimately, the names we are called by others say more about the nations that come into contact with us, rather than just ourselves. Calling someone by a name establishes not only an identity, but also a history of cultural exchange. Viewed from this perspective, it matters little whether I am called a Greek, a Hellene, a Romios, a Rum or an Ionian because my people defy description and definition. 

Yet if I were to settle on one officially approved ethnonym to denote our polymorphous hypostasis, I would look no further than the word Georgians use to describe us: “Berdzeni.” Derived from the Georgian word “brdzeni,” it means: “the wise men.” Flattery will get you everywhere. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 August 2021

Saturday, August 21, 2021


According to tradition, after Patriarch Gregory and other Orthodox prelates were cut down from their place of execution soon after the outbreak of the Greek Revolution, the Ottomans ordered that the Jews of Constantinople dispose of the bodies. In Greek school books and beyond, the general narrative is as follows: the Jews, eager to revenge themselves on the Christians, gleefully dragged the bodies of the martyred prelates through the City, down to the shore, where they threw them in the sea. Historian and Prime Minister of Greece Spyridon Trikoupis recounts: “Then the Jews came to the executioner, and with his permission and after bribing him, tied the legs of the body, dragged it from the Patriarchate to the coast of Fanar mocking and swearing, and threw it in the sea.”   

Just how the historians of the age gauged the Jews’ intentions and were thus able to dismiss any element of coercion on the part of the authorities is unknown, and in the case of the popular discourse, is deemed irrelevant. After all, there is ample historical precedent to establish a mens rea. The very first book published by the short-lived press set up by Patriarch Kyrillos Loukaris was the “Short Essay Against the Jews” written by Nikodimos Metaxas in 1627. More subtle was Grand Dragoman Alexandros Mavrokordatos’ 1716 History of the Jews in Antiquity, used to surreptitiously target contemporary Ottoman Jewish communities. 

In the hagiography of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian, considered a forerunner of the Revolution, martyred half a century before its outbreak, written by his disciple, Zikos Bistrekis, the Jews, incensed at his preaching against Christians shopping from Jews on a Sunday, are held responsible for his death, having allegedly “betrayed” him to the Ottomans, ostensibly motivated by the desire to exact revenge for the financial damage he supposedly caused them. Such sentiments lie embedded within the Judeo-Hellenic discourse to the present day. For example, in the opinion of Professor Kalliakmanis of Aristotle University in Thessaloniki: “The damage to the Jews is obvious. This is probably why the Jews hated him and why they must have played a part in his murder.” 

According to the same Professor Kalliakmanis, the roots of the unquestioned by the narrative, animosity between Jews and Greeks at the time of the Revolution, can be ascribed primarily to factors of class and economics: “They were economically and socially more powerful and the Greeks were weaker. It has also been claimed that since they also acted as loan-sharks, they had brought a lot of people to the brink of despair.” Religious differences seem to be of lesser importance, although Professor Kalliakmanis states that many Greeks of the time were: “deeply upset by the dismissive attitude [the Jews] held towards the sacred figures of the Christian faith.” 

It is this mixture of opportunism and purported hatred that provided, in the popular consciousness, the supposed motive for Jewish involvement in the Ottoman reprisals against the Greeks of Naoussa and Salonika, where they allegedly plundered Greek houses and killed 3,000 Christians, according to French travel writer Francois Pouqueville: “I heard… [an informant says]… some time after these massacres, a Jew boasting that he beheaded in a single day sixty-four Christians.” Indeed, in the Greek consciousness, as chronicler A Koutsalexis relates, the Jews were considered the willing collaborators and enforcers of their Ottoman overlords: “The Turks did not condescend to slaughter the Christian Greeks. They assigned this task to the Jews. A tall Jew executed the command of the bloodthirsty authority. I saw with my own eyes this Jew having the blade ready and the naked victim waiting, on his knees and tightly ties up, to lose his head.” 

The first major success of the Revolution, the capture of Tripolitsa, saw the Greek insurgents engage in a wholesale massacre of its Muslim and Jewish population. According to one account: “For three days the miserable inhabitants were given over to lust and cruelty of a mob of savages. Neither sex nor age was spared. Women and children were tortured before being put to death. So great was the slaughter that Kolokotronis himself says that, from the gate to the citadel his horse’s hoofs never touched the ground. His path of triumph was carpeted with corpses. At the end of two days, the wretched remnants… were deliberately collected, to the number of some two thousand souls, of every age and sex, but principally women and children, were led out to a ravine in the neighbouring mountains and there butchered like cattle.” 

Kolokotronis was particularly incensed by Jews who fought alongside the Ottomans. When he came across an armed Jew among a group of surrendering Ottoman soldiers, he was outraged, shouting: “Bah! An armed Jew! That’s not right.” Indeed, while the Greeks reached agreement with some Albanian fighters to allow them to depart with their weapons, Kolokotronis stripped the armed Jew of his weapons and refused to allow the Jews of the city safe passage. 

All in all, some 5,000 Jews are held to have been slaughtered at Tripolitsa.  While some modern historians, eager to deny any specific intent to harm the Jews by the Greeks ascribe their fate to ‘collateral damage,’ contemporary revolutionary leader Fotakos in his memoirs suggests otherwise, offering the following justification for the deliberate targeting of Jews: 

“The Jews of Tripolitsa perished along with the Turks, and were killed with greater hostility, because the Greeks despised this Nation from ancestral tradition for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and for their more recent insults to the Greeks in Constantinople… and for other things they did. In Koroni they committed ten thousand evils to the head priest of that place and his assistant and after they killed them both, they threw the dead bodies outside the fortress from the top of the wall and with great contempt and mockery, said to the besieging Greeks to take this meat if they have any need… These are the Jews, incompatible with the Christians.” 

In Vrachori, also known as Evraiovrachori because of its Jewish population, Muslims and Jews surrendered to the revolutionaries under negotiated terms. According to Trikoupis, some accounts maintained that while the Muslim population remained unmolested, “the Jews suffered the worst and most were killed without pity.” 

While the prevailing mores and prejudices constituted Jewish communities ‘fair game’ for marauders, there is no evidence for a master plan to cleanse the Greek lands of their Jewish inhabitants. Indeed, Pouqueville records occasions when leaders of the Revolution such as Dimitrios Ypsilantis attempted to limit or stop the massacres. Be that as it may, by the end of the Revolution, no Jews remained in the Peloponnese and few remained in Central Greece, primarily in Euboea, most fleeing to Volos, Smyrna and beyond. By 1833, there were less than a thousand Jews living in the Kingdom of Greece. 

In attempting to downplay the violence between Jews and Christians at the time of the Revolution, some historians have sought to draw a distinction between Sephardic Jews, emigrants from Spain, and the ‘native’ Romaniote Jews who are considered more sympathetic to the revolution, the Cohen and Crispi families from Chalcis being cited as examples of Jews who actively participated in the revolutionary struggle. While it is arguable that the realisation of a state of the Greek people inspired liberal Jews in Europe, as did also the Polish revolt in 1830, providing the precedent for the ultimate establishment of the Jewish state, there is a dearth of sources regarding active Jewish participants in the Greek Revolution.  

Massacres and mutual suspicion notwithstanding, from the promulgation of the Provisional Constitution of the Greek State in 1822, and even though being Greek is defined therein along sectarian lines, there emerges a distinction between citizenship and nationality that allows for Jewish people to considered Greek citizens. Thus, from a position of revolutionaries considering the Jews as ‘outsiders’ or as the ‘enemy,’ Greece becomes one of the first European states in the world to grant legal equality to Jews. Even so, Jews will often be met with suspicion and the accusation that they are acting against the interests of the Greek State, culminating in the 1847 Don Pacifico Affair, where the Athenian home of the former consul of Portugal, the Jewish Don Pacifico was attacked and vandalised by the mob after the government banned the annual Easter Sunday burning of the effigy of Judas Iscariot, for fear that this would displease Lord Rothschild, visiting Greece in order to discuss a possible loan. This proved the catalyst for a British naval blockade of Greek ports and for the slow and often tempestuous assimilation of Jewish communities into the expanding Greek State.  

Just how firmly the Jews of Greece identified with that State by the 1940s can be evidenced by the heroic manner in which soldiers such as Mordechai Frizis, veteran of the Greco-Turkish War, sacrificed their lives to defend the territorial integrity of their country. Such selflessness can be juxtaposed against the Greek government’s August 1949 announcement that Jews of military age would be allowed to leave for Israel on condition that they renounced their Greek nationality, promised to never return, and took their families with them. Today, the Jewish community of Greece numbers six thousand members. The mayor of Ioannina, a town with a historically important though much diminished Jewish community, is a member of that community. Although anti-Semitism persist in popular culture and among the extreme right, writers such as Misha Glenny have observed that Greek Jews have never “encountered anything remotely as sinister as north European anti-Semitism. The twentieth century had witnessed small amounts of anti-Jewish sentiment among Greeks... but it attracted an insignificant minority.” 

Highlighting the progress that has been made since 1821 and 1949,  the Greek Parliament has voted to restore Greek citizenship to all Holocaust survivors who lost their Greek citizenship when leaving the country, a fitting way to embrace a people that have made Greece their own for millenia. 



First published in NKEE on 21 August 2021

Saturday, August 14, 2021



A few years ago, at a meeting of Victorian Christian leaders in Parliament, the then Premier Ted Baillieu, an architect by training commented on just how intrinsic churches are to the skyscape and streetscape of Melbourne. “Wherever you stand, it is the spires of churches that you can see. These are the major landmarks of our city,” he observed. “It is from these that Melbourne takes its shape.” 

In his recently published study  “From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities,” Lecturer in Theology (Patristics) and Church History at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Doctor Mario Baghos takes up Ted Baillieu’s observation seeking to trace and analyse the manner in which the architecture of the Near East sought to establish, or reflect an axis mundi, that is, the line or stem through the earth's centre connecting its surface to the underworld and the heavens and around which the universe revolves and an imago mundi, an image of the world. 

According to Mircea Eliade's opinion: “Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all.” For the Greeks, the classic navel gazers of all time, this was the omphalos, the navel or centre of the world, but the need to establish such a place precedes this civilisation. Dr Mario Baghos takes us back to the earliest Near Eastern Civilisations, those of Mesopotamia, then Egypt, Israel, Greece and Rome to show how the idea of the Axis Mundi, expressed variously through ziggurats, pyramids, natural features such as Mount Ararat, the walled Garden of Paradise and beyond, permeates, informs and influences their understanding of urban planning and bolsters the claim to leadership of the ruling class over the rest of society, permitting such rulers to identify themselves with the Axis Mundi and, vested with such transcendental powers, to legitimise their supremacy. 

The enumeration of the elements of the title is thus intrinsic to an understanding of the author’s main contention. In relation to the loaded term King, the author suggests the evolution of a man into a symbol, a compound word comprised of the Greek from σύν "together" and βάλλω "I throw,” denoting a "throwing of things together," and thus an outward sign of meaning. Through this, a transcendent reality is mirrored, reflecting and implying the ineffable and the inscrutable. In turn, those visual indicators of deeper and universal truths are embodied in the structures of the fundamental component of civilisation: the structures of a city. 

It is no coincidence that the author has chosen to focus exclusively upon the ancient civilisations of the Near East. Arguably, the author could convincingly reinforce his point about the interdependency between power, faith and civic architecture, by also conducting an overview of similar conceptions of Axis Mundi existing in such disparate loci as the ancient architecture of the Mesoamerican civilisations, the temples of the Hindu world and Buddhist pagodas. However, in choosing to treat solely analysis the Near Eastern civilisations that have, owing to their geographical and cultural proximity, communicated with each other, borrowed from and influenced each other, the author is able to postulate an almost linear evolution in the manner in which power is interpreted as a symbol and then depicted in architecture. A “grouping” of those civilisations facilitates an analysis of their symbols as revelations of their innate religiosity. Having established this, the author can then proceed to elucidate his main contention: that through the evolution of those symbols, one can trace the gradual progression of the ancient civilisations away from polytheism and concepts of the divine ruler, towards Christianity. 

The evolutionary chain in the paradigm shift having been thus demonstrated, the author is then able to posit that this shift, through a thorough, erudite and refreshingly novel analysis of representations of Christ, as the “Master of All” (Παντοκράτωρ) culminates inexorably, in Byzantium,  in the gradual replacement of the pagan ruler cult,  inherent to city-building in antiquity, with the ruler becoming subordinate to Christ. The author thus provides an assessment of Christian Rome and Constantinople as typifying the evolution from the ancient and classical world to Christendom. Extending the author’s contention further, the reader is then able to surmise that the relationship between Emperor, Symbols and the city of Constantinople comprise the foundation of modern conceptions of urban architecture and planning and offer a coherent framework for the interpretation of the evolution of cities throughout the ages, accounting for changing values and shifts in dogma, of whatever nature.  

Dr Mario Baghos’ analysis is thus not only novel but also historically important. The relationship he painstakingly and cogently delineates as existing between Kings, Symbols and Cities in Byzantium, endured in various forms and permutations in Europe and in all lands dominated by Europeans, up to the end of the First World War.  The appropriation of  Byzantine conceptions of the relationship between the temporal and the sacred underlie the fundamentals of Soviet architecture and Fascist architecture, with the Deity replaced by the absolute power of the State, while even seemingly disparate architectural philosophies such as Brutalism whose relationship with power is underlain by requirements of formal legibility of plan, clear exhibition of structure, valuation of materials for their inherent qualities and coherence of the building as a visual entity, can also be said to ultimately derive from the Byzantine approach. 

As such, in his polyvalent exposition, Dr Mario Baghos brilliantly opens up a whole new field for research and analysis. How were the Byzantine conceptions of Kings, Symbols and Cities appropriated by European civilisations and subsequently employed to support a discourse of colonialism and imperialism? How did such conceptions disrupt, alter or influence the native understanding of the Axis Mundi in Africa, Asia and America? Considering that Sassanid Persia was the main rival of early Byzantium, how did the evolving Persian conception of kingship and power under a supreme deity, specifically, Ahura Mazda in the monotheistic Zoroastrian tradition, influence or mirror that of Byzantium? Significantly,  to what extent can a connection be identified between Byzantine kingship and architecture, and the Islamic conception of the caliph as lieutenant or successor of the messenger of God. How is this relationship or conflicts arising from the interpretation of such a relationship reflected in Islamic architecture?  

Finally, in an age where in the West, the churches that according to “Kings, Symbols and Cities”  establish Christ as Axis Mundi, are increasingly being demolished, or converted to high-ceilinged accommodation and the urban streetscapes are converted into windswept wastelands dominated by ever taller skyscrapers, how do our new axes mundi and images mundi, surround their citizens by a vision of the cosmos in which, the sacred is revealed and exactly what does that revelation comprise? Does this axis continue to intersect the ancient three realms: the celestial realm, the earthly realm and the underworld, understood these days as the penthouse, the commercial retail space and the underground car park? 

An erudite and scholarly appraisal of the diachronic evolution of sacred architecture, “Kings, Symbols and Cities,” remains eminently approachable and digestible. It is a must read for all of those who seek to comprehend the complex relationship civilisations have to architecture and the celestial. 



From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium is available to purchase direct from the publishers, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, as well as general online retailers. 

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 August 2021

Saturday, August 07, 2021


According to tradition, in 16th century B.C, Cecrops, the mythical first king of Athens, conducted a census of his subjects. Each Athenian was compelled to provide a single stone and when these were counted, it was determined that the city contained 20,000 inhabitants. 

The 2021 Australian Census is much more complicated in that it asks questions about income, qualifications, education, hours worked, hours assisting those with a disability, hours expended looking after children and significantly, considering the purported multicultural nature of Australian society, questions as to ancestry and language. 

It is these latter two questions that give rise to concern. Firstly, there appears to be no question as to ethnic and/or cultural identity on the Census. There is an apparent lack of understanding by those conducting or commissioning the Census that ethnic identity is an issue separate, though ancillary to that of ancestry, in that one can be of diverse ancestry and yet identify ethnically in a different manner altogether, according to religious, cultural, linguistic or political factors.  

Even if one accepts this lack of appreciation as to the importance of ethnic identity in understanding the Australian population, and its incorrect conflation with ancestry, the ancestry question on the Census provides cause for grave disquiet. In scrolling down the various ancestries listed, ranging from the Anglo-Celtic, to Chinese, Italian and beyond, I was interested to note this time, the omission of Greek. While it is not expedient for a government to list every ancestral group on a census form, it would be interesting to know the reason for the omission of the Greeks, being one of the oldest, historically and numerically significant communities in this country. It may well be that demographic change has seen our numbers (as counted by a census which usually is conducted during a month when significant members of our community are traditionally holidaying in the motherland en masse) diminish. To diminish our prominence and important is quite another matter altogether, a cursory tale about the use and misuse of statistics in interpreting our multifaceted nature. 

There is something deeply disquieting about being compelled to participate in a Census in a multicultural country that involves scrolling down the prescribed list of ancestries and then having to choose a box labelled “Other.” Reinforcing to people of diverse ancestry that they are “Other,” tacitly conveys to them the message that they are considered to be not truly an organic part of this nation’s society, regardless of their citizenship status or place of birth. It would be infinitely more respectful then, if in future censuses, either all known ancestral groups were listed, or better still, that participants, rather than choose from government sanctioned ancestries, are permitted to merely record their ancestral affiliations themselves, instead of being officially termed outsiders and thus by implication, subversive. 

Conversely, in permitting the free expression of ancestry under the option “Other,” the government is allowing for a Pandora’s Box of affiliations to emerge. With a debate raging in certain sections of our community with regards to expressing our ancestry as “Hellenic” rather than “Greek,” which is considered by some to be a western imposed term, a course of action that is not recommended given that it will mystify the statisticians of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who presumably do not have training in cultural anthropology and hinder a true depiction of our numbers, the option “Other,” is also giving rise to a debate about the constituent parts of what it means to be Greek. Some people I have spoken to feel passionately about their Arvanite, Pontian or Vlach ancestry and wonder whether they should record this aspect of their “Greekness” in the census. How are we to interpret the ancestry of someone who claims that they are Cypriot? Do we not need to understand whether they interpret this as being part of the Turkish, Greek, Maronite or Armenian cultural world? Do we consider this as evidence of an emerging identity that contains all, or none of these components? This is precisely the reason why culture and ancestry must be addressed separately in the Census, and why not doing so is problematic, to say the least. 

While I was scrolling down the Census form, seeking to record my Greek ancestry, I noted mentally, the entries for English, Scottish and Irish (but not Welsh), the main ancestries for the dominant group within Australian society. I also noted the term Aboriginal and found this too, disturbing, in that the dominant group appears to be attempting to pigeonhole and compartmentalise a vast and intricately diverse number of cultural and ethnic groups under one blanket term that does nothing to highlight their own uniqueness and if anything, serves to obfuscate their existence. Whether intentional or not, this is a form of racism that should not have any place in any sector of modern Australia, let alone its governing institutions. 

To my utmost perplexity, below the entry for Torres Strait Islander, I discovered the term “Australian.” Given the previous entries for “Aboriginals” and “Torres Strait Islanders” what are we to understand from this term? Is it suggesting that our native peoples are not
“Australian?” Considering that all of us except for our native peoples draw their ancestry from outside the Australian continent, the inexplicable inclusion of this contentious term merely serves to highlight the dispossession of our native peoples and the appropriation of their sovereignty and affiliation to the land. Further, it again subtly reminds those who do not share the same ancestry as the members of the dominant group, that they are not “Australian.” The dysphoria and sense of alienation created by such a clumsy rendering of terms again reinforces the need for cultural identity to be distinguished from ancestry on future Census forms and raises questions about the manner in which our governments view our communities. 

As was the case in the 2016 Census, in its current iteration, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has made no provision in the question regarding which languages other than English the population speaks, for the possibility that some Australian citizens are multilingual and use a number of languages on a daily basis. Instead, participants may only choose to list one language other than English. This obscures and restricts the gleaning of a true picture of the linguistic heterogeneity of this country. For example, on any given day, my children will be speaking to each other and to me, in Greek. As they move from the kitchen down the hallway towards my wife, they call to her in Assyrian. My wife, on the phone to her mother, will be speaking to her in Arabic, so that the children will not understand a conversation relating to their grandfather’s declining health. Through the telephone, my wife will hear my father in law address my mother in law in Kurdish, so that in turn, my wife won’t understand what he is saying. Back on the other side of the house, I will be speaking to a client in Mandarin Chinese. Linguistic polyphonies of this nature form part and parcel of the polyglot reality of Multiculturalism and the reason as to why there is an official attempt not to capture this statistically is at best, incomprehensible. Furthermore, there is no follow up question as to the level of one’s proficiency in the language claimed to be spoken or indeed, as to which language is the primary language in use. These are both important aspects in interpreting the linguistic demography in this country.  For example, while someone may be fluent in English, which language do they use more often and when? How proficient is someone in the language they claim to speak, especially if this is the language of an important political or trading partner? Questions of these nature, vital for the creation of coherent language policy, are completely ignored, suggesting that despite the rhetoric, officials see themselves as presiding over a benign, monolingual monoculture. 

Ultimately, the Census says just as much about those who fashion it, as those who participate in it. It is difficult not to conclude that the carefully calibrated narrowness of the questions referring to culture, ancestry and linguistic identity, seem calculated to reinforce a narrative imposed and perpetuated by the ruling echelons of the dominant class. As such, we can be justified in harbouring a lack of confidence in the 2021 Census’ ability to provide us with an accurate depiction of the intricate complexities of our social make up and in being concerned as to the use made of any such flawed statistics, by legislators. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 August 2021