Saturday, September 25, 2021



“People discovered within themselves a fragment of the Other, and they believed in this and lived confidently. People thus had three choices when they encountered the Other: They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.” 


Ryszard Kapuściński 


“I'm gonna build me a wall, I'll make it ten feet high. 

See ya later pal, bye bye. 

No one gettin' in so don't you even try. 

A ten foot wall..” 


Shrek: The Musical 



As a fourteen year old Assyrian refugee, my wife and her family crossed the Evros River from Turkey into Greece four times, paying people smugglers a small fortune to show them the way. Each time, they were caught by border guards and sent back.  Finally, in desperation, they paid the last of their savings to someone in Smyrna, who provided them with a leaky boat, packed them and thirty others in it, told them to steer towards the lights and to say they had come from Lebanon if asked. Not having driven a boat before, they found themselves off course in no time. A little while later, the boat began to sink and just as the water level had reached their chest, they were rescued by the coast-guard just off the island of Kos. Necessity, will always find a way. 


In the wake of America’s abandonment of Afghanistan and its re-conquest by the Taliban, Greece is bracing itself for a flood of refugees, akin to those that swept through the border in  2015 when nearly a million people fleeing war or merely seeking to emigrate, crossed from Greece from Turkey. As a result, it has recently completed a forty -steel wall, replete with surveillance systems, with which it hopes to stem the projected flow. The problem with walls of course is that they are finite. One may not be able to climb them, but one can go around them, under them, or indeed, render them completely useless by attempting another entry point altogether. 


The same dilemma was faced by the Greeks in ancient times, especially in relation to the fortification of the Isthmus of Corinth, which before the construction of the canal, constituted the only land route onto the Peloponnesian Peninsula from the Greek mainland. The necessity of securing the passage seems to have occupied the minds of regional powers from the earliest times, with  some archaeological evidence suggesting there may have been attempts to build a wall across the Isthmus during the Mycenaean era. 


In Herodotus’ Histories, we learn that when Xerxes invaded Greece in 480BC, a number of Peloponnesian city states were in favour of constructing a wall across the Isthmus, rather than opposing the Persians at Thermopylae, only to be overruled by Spartan king Leonidas. Given that the Greeks lost the Battle at Thermopylae, the matter was not settled and arose again before the Battle of Salamis. Nonetheless, Herodotus perceptively points out that any walls built across the Isthmus to keep an attacker out would be completely useless without full control of the surrounding seas, a perspective that modern Greek wall-builders would benefit from considering: “For I cannot perceive what advantage could accrue from the walls built across the isthmus, while the king was master of the seas.”  The matter was thus left in abeyance with subsequent rulers, such as Nero, concerning themselves with constructing a canal across the Ismthus, rather than any wall.  


It is not known to what extent early Byzantine emperors read or appreciated the musings of Herodotus, for when a massive incursion of Visigoths headed by the unspeakably vile sacker of cities Alaric pressed down upon Greece, the Emperor Theodosius II determined that the most effective way of deterring any future attacks and protecting the Peloponnese, was to build a wall. So seriously was the effort taken, so massive the enterprise constituted, that it is a little known fact that the wall is the largest archaeological site in all of Greece.  


In the tremendous effort to construct the wall, every significant structure in the region was plundered. The temple of Poseidon at Isthmia, which had been sacked by the marauding Visigoths was incorporated directly into the wall, while the ruins of the sanctuary of Hera at Perachora, as well as much of the statues of Corinth broken during the Roman sack of that city were burnt and converted into lime. So substantial was the wall, that by the reign of the Emperor Justinian one hundred years later, the wall boasted one hundred and fifty-three defensive towers and was seemingly impregnable. 


Except that it wasn’t. The wall was not able to prevent the incursions and settlement of Slavic tribes in the Peloponnese in the seventh and eighth centuries and the wall, known as the Hexamilion, named for its length, was largely abandoned for military use. 


Indicative of the desperation felt by the potentate of a declining power, the next attempt at rebuilding the Hexamilion wall took place in 1415, during the reign of Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos. At that time, the empire’s Peloponnesian province, the Despotate of Morea, was expanding at the expense of the occupying Latins and the Emperor feared an attack both by the Latins from the Duchy of Athens and the Ottomans to the north.  He personally supervised construction works for forty days, the cost of same causing unrest from local grandees. 


Despite all his efforts, Emperor Manuel’s efforts were futile, Ottoman governor of Thessaly Turahan Bey led a cavalry raid that smashed through the Hexamilion on 21 May 1423. He went on to ravage much of the Peloponnese. This however did not perturb the Byzantines of Morea, who recovered quickly and spent the next few years repairing the wall and bringing the entire Peloponnese under their control. Their success was not looked upon kindly by Turahan, who decided to embark upon a punitive campaign to stop Byzantine expansion. Against his 1431 incursion, the Hexamilion wall proved no obstacle: Turahan breached and destroyed the Hexamilion. The Byzantines of the Despotate of Morea, whose entire defensive strategy relied upon the existence of the Hexamilion, were now under the constant threat of renewed Ottoman invasion, clung on to a precarious independence only through continuous gifts and payment of tribute to a smug Turahan. 


Notwithstanding the manifest failure of the wall to provide much coveted security, in 1444, Despot of Morea Constantine Palaiologos, who would go on to become the last Byzantine Emperor, decided that it should be restored. The project, which was costly at a time when the finances of the Empire were virtually non-existent, impressed many contemporaries including the Venetian nobles of the Peloponnese, who politely but rather inexplicably declined to assist its funding. Indeed, many of the landowners of Morea fled to Venetian-held territory in order to escape being forced to pay for the wall, while others rebelled and had to be compelled via physical means to disgorge the contents of their money bags. Upon completing this task, he used the wall as a base for his attack on the Latins in the Duchy of Athens. Successful in that pursuit, and being renamed by one of his sycophantic courtiers as the modern Themistocles, Constantine raided as far as Thessaly, one of his governors seizing the Ottoman-held town of Lidorikion.  


It was at this moment that Ottoman Sultan Murad II, decided to put an end to the Byzantine Reconquista.  Accompanied by the ousted Latin Duke Nerio II of Athens, Murad marched on the Morea in 1446, with an army of 60,000. He was opposed by Constantine at the Hexamilion which, after superhuman efforts, he managed to man with 20,000 men. Unperturbed, Murad pounded the wall with cannon and reduced it to rubble. Crossing over with ease, he laid waste to the Peloponnese and reduced it to desolation, compelling Constantine to seek a truce, acknowledge Murad as his overlord and undertake to never again reconstruct the Hexamilion wall. 


By 1452, Constantine was Emperor and was valiantly attempting to fortify Constantinople against the inevitable Ottoman attack, this time by the aggressing Mehmet II. In order to prevent the Byzantines of Morea from sending aid to Constantinople, the Sultan ordered Turahan Bey to raid the Peloponnese once more. Turahan crossed the Hexamilion with ease, his attack being repulsed attack was repelled by the Byzantines further inland, a victory came too late to offer any aid to Constantinople, which fell after its walls collapsed in  the face of a devastating cannonade similar to that which had levelled the Hexamilion seven years earlier.  


In 1460, when the Ottomans finally descended to conquer Morea, the Hexamilion was but a footnote along their way and though of immense interest, rarely features today in the must-see itinerary of tourists. 


While knowledge that the Hexamilion would prove ineffectual for its prescribed use existed since ancient times, the fact that it was rebuilt time and time again speaks to the innate need of people to achieve security by purporting to shut others out of their realm of angst, ignoring its pointlessness. It is in addressing this psychological phenomenon, that Cavafy has the last word: 


“Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.
And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind…”



First published in NKEE on Saturday 25 September 2021

Saturday, September 18, 2021



In the aftermath of the First World War, humanitarian catastrophes abounded. The end of hostilities found Queensland-born, author, journalist and Quaker Relief Mission worker Joice Loch in Poland, assisting some of the three million refugees crossing and re-crossing that country in search of food and shelter. Described by Bellinda Kontominas in the Sydney Morning Herald as Australia's answer to the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Mother Teresa with a dash of Indiana Jones,” she would go on to become the most decorated woman in Australia and when she died in 1982, the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Oxford stated that she was “one of the most significant women of the 20th century.” 

Ethel Cooper, musician and daughter of the Deputy Surveyor-General of South Australia had spent the war in Leipzig, helping English and American tourists move to neutral countries. Nicknamed “the Pharaoh,” because of her insistence that she was a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian ruler, she claimed that she had eaten the elephant in the Leipzig Zoo. After a brief stint assisting the Quaker Relief Mission in Krakow, she met Joice Loch in Vienna, where both were asked whether they would consider assisting refugees from Smyrna in Greece. They were informed that no funds existed for a unit there and both immediately resolved to go. 

Arriving in Thessalonika in May of 1923, Loch and Cooper were immediately faced with the plight of the refugees from Smyrna and the Asia Minor hinterland. Thousands were still arriving from the catastrophe in Asia Minor daily at Kalamaria. Added to these were Armenians fleeing the holocaust of Smyrna and White Russian refugees seeking refuge from the Bolsheviks. Barely housed, often starving or afflicted with malaria, many were perishing as a result of their ordeal. The Australians commenced work in the foothill of Mount Hortiatis, at the American Farm School, which trained Greek youths in basic literacy, agriculture and farm management. 

Loch described the desolate approach to the school in the following poetic terms: “An evil road for those who looked for evil, a heart-breaking road in the shadeless heat of summer, or in the winterwhen wheels could not be forced along it, and when the thick mud dragged boots from the feet…. When I first saw it, it was lined with the apparently dead, the incoming migrants, fallen by the wayside, overcome with malaria or blackwater fever. I found strange beauty in that road of exhausted nature.”  

After spending time in quarantine, Smyrnan refugees were moved to a tent city, until sites in villages could be found for them. They would then set off, helping government appointed contractors to construct their own houses. Along with the other Quakers, Loch and Cooper were tasked with providing medical treatment and distributing clothing, according to a strict card system that ensured fairness and stopped unscrupulous third parties from trying to profit from the clothing trade. 

In order to assist their distribution work, the two Australians acquired the services of two donkeys, which they renamed Menelaos and Agamemnon and astride these faithful steeds, they traversed the refugee settlements of Macedonia. In a land rife with lawlessness, they once encountered a battle between two armed factions. Agamemnon chose that spot to refuse to go any further, whereupon the warring factions abandoned their conflict and united to assist Cooper to get him moving. 

Having contracted malaria, Loch convalesced in Australia for a time, returning to Macedonia when her husband Sydney was appointed principal of the Farm School. Cooper, in the meantime, assumed charge of the relief unit, an appointment that grated with Loch who wrote that she: “had neither morals nor ethics.” However she was personable and got on well with both the Greek authorities and the refugees, Sydney Loch providing the following character sketch: 

“Except that she was probably a convinced pagan… she was suitable for that position, being liked by all members and popular with the Greek staff and refugees. Having learned a little modern Greek quickly, she was able to bluff her way through the rest of the language when words were missed and knowing how to put on an impressive manner when receiving distinguished visitors… she impressed many… [She was] cultured, humane and always aware of the human being under the national.” 

Heartily sick of the hymn “Marching to Zion,” which the Quakers were teaching their Greek schoolboy choir, the eccentric Cooper surreptitiously tore that page out of hundreds of the school’s hymn books. 

The Lochs, establishing a modus vivendi with Cooper, remained at the school for a number of years and also established a girl’s campus. Joice Loch took ten of the gambusia fish which the school imported from Italy to prey on mosquito larvae as an anti-malarial measure and placed them in a small pond for observation. They multiplied and were distributed throughout malaria-infested Macedonia. 

Through their careful management and diligence, by 1926, the school bosted a dam, pigs, cattle, gardens, vineyards, carpentry and blacksmithing workshops and an electricity generator. Although the community was a multicultural one, intercommunal strife was kept at a minimum, Joice Loch observing that it was: “the friendliest, least scandalous foreign community in the Balkans.” 

It was while spending the summer near Mt Athos in 1926, that Joice Loch discovered the edifice that would become her last home in Greece and with which her legacy is associated. This was the Byzantine tower of Phosphorion in Ouranoupolis. Erected by Emperor Andronikos Palaiologos in 1344, it had been gifted to Vatopedi Monastery and only cleared of monks in the previous year. Joice recorded her discovery in her memoirs, highlighting the desolate plight of the refugees: 

“The tower fascinated us from the first moment we saw it… Half the inhabitant were already there…and their houses – wretched, cement boxes – were waiting for them. It was an appalling place for anyone to settle, especially for people who had come from a much richer country. The land was decaying, granite, heavily covered with a thick thorny scrub. Here they were expected to farm.” 

While periodically returning to the school, Joice Loch and her husband were sufficiently moved by the parlous condition of the refugees of Ouranoupolis, many of whom were starving. They decided to settle in the tower and to provide employment for the inhabitants. A chance offer by a refugee rug-maker to weave her a carpet gave Joice the inspiration she needed to set up, in the face of opposition and disbelief by critics, a domestic rug-weaving industry, using local materials and purchasing looms and other equipment. 

Via a process of experimentation with local plants and careful consultation with the native inhabitants, Joice Loch was able to develop viable fast dyes. She also took a leading role in designing the rugs, ensuring that they told a story and were replete with symbolism. For example, her “Creation” rug, which is now exhibited in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, features a circular motif comprised of a double-headed dragon which is biting itself and exhaling evolving plant and animal life, a profound metaphor for renewal. As a result of her efforts, otherwise unproductive members of refugee households were able to find gainful employment, relieving their dire poverty and empowering them with a sense of self-worth. The carpets were generally considered by connoisseurs to be of high quality. One of them won an award and according to historian Hugh Gilchrist, one was even purchased by Adolf Hitler. 

Joice Loch, in absence of a doctor stationed at the village, also provided rudimentary health care to the refugees and during the devastating earthquake of 1932, she worked for 45 hours treating villages and even baking bread on the flotilla of British ships that arrived to assist, in order to relieve their hunger. Moving between the school and Ouranoupolis, Joice Loch continued her welfare work for many years. During the Second World War, she would go on to perform other heroic feats, such as masterminding Operation Pied Piper, where she saved a thousand Polish and Jewish children from the Nazis in Romania and arranged for their evacuation to Cyprus. 

Ethel Cooper remained at the school until 1928, after which time she travelled around Greece alone on a donkey, photographing the ruins of Corinth after the 1928 earthquake. The Quakers freely acknowledged the importance of her work: “The development of the Centre has owed much to her initiative, powers of organisation and knowledge of the Greek language.” Returning to Australia, she worked in Intelligence during the Second World War. 

By the selfless acts of kindness of two of Australia’s most remarkable women, thousands of shattered Asia Minor refugee lives were saved and thousands more given direction, purpose and dignity. While in Australia Joice Loch is celebrated more for her lifesaving work with Jewish children and Ethel Cooper is commemorated more as a musician,  both of these ladies compel the gratitude of the Greek Australian community. Without their philanthropy, we would be much diminished. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 September 2021

Saturday, September 11, 2021



I am convinced that if Kafka were alive today, he would be writing a novel about a man who, during the pandemic, has the distinct misfortune to call a Victorian government agency and then spends his life trying vainly to press the correct option on his telephone keypad, only to be put through, after an hour’s wait at being thirtieth in the queue, to the wrong department, and then being redirected to the original options again. On occasion, the phone is mysteriously hung up on the other end just as he appears to have gotten through, and other times, he is asked to enter a customer number which, though it appears on all his documentation, is registered as non-existent by the department. 

If said Kafka was extant and I knew him, I would suggest that he feature the telephone service at the Greek Consulate in Melbourne instead, at which Kafka would raise one of eyebrows at me quizzically and chide me for being obvious. 


At least so I mused the other day when on telephone to the State Revenue Office, in order to resolve a matter for a client for about half an hour, being passed from one servant of that august institution to another. It should be said that while waiting, I am actually in a state of rapture, for at least one can still, during the pandemic, call the State Revenue Office and engage with its personnel. The oracle that is the Land Titles Office on the other hand can no longer be consulted save via email.  

Eventually, I am put through to the relevant person who in a very pleasant manner, resolves my client's problem quickly, efficiently and with the minimum of fuss. 

The lady has a crisp, professional but very personable way of communicating and her diction wins my utmost admiration. It resembles the almost British enunciation of ABC radio announcers past, a cross between Lorraine Bayly and Cate Blanchette.  I refer her to an email I sent last week, which I hope has found its way to her and after a pause indicated that she is searching for the communication in question, she emits a gasp of shock. Praying that I sent her the correct email and not the one containing the joke about the Vicar, the Parlour Maid and the Health Department official I also sent a colleague, on the same day, I enquire demurely as to whether all is in order. And it is then that her accent slips. Then I get this, in Brunswick-accented pronunciation: 

- Re, are you Dean Kalimniou? 

- Yes. 

- The one who writes in Neos Kosmos? 

- Yeah. 

- Oh, no way re! That's sick! I read your articles. 

- Thanks. 

- Not all of them. Only when I visit my mum. 

- I'm sure that's more than enough for anyone. 

- Κοίτα να δεις ρε, I've got Dean Kalimniou on the phone. Oh my God, small world re..... 

- You know I couldn't pick from your name or your accent before that you are Greek, I tell her. 

She laughs. 

- Yeah I changed my name because I married a ξένο.....  

- Well, thanks for helping me out. I was beginning to think that I was getting nowhere.  

- No worries re! If there is anything else I can do, let me know alright? 

- Give me a remission in my land tax? 

- If I could, I would, she laughs. 


Since she appears benign and friendly, I start to confide in her about a film script I am working on. It features my alter ego, Spiro Spanakopita, a down and out Oakleighite whose gambling den in his charcoal chicken shop in Mulgrave is actually a front for clandestine meetings of purveyors of ethically sourced mail order vitamin supplements. 

I explain to my interlocutor, who intersperses my narrative with commentary containing the words “sick re,” “that’s mad,” and “omg pissa,” that the dialogue will be liberally sprinkled with stereotypes designed to denigrate socially unenlightened members of our community and to maintain our faith in the superiority of mainstream values, for the sole aim of capturing air time on our national broadcasters. 


The story commences seven years before the present, when, enmeshed in the throes of righteous anger, and while high on smoking livani, Spiro smashes the statue of Leonidas in Brunswick, as a protest against hot air produced at nearby Greek Brotherhood meetings contributing to Global Warming. 


Spiro Spanakopita’s world changes for ever when he meets Stella Suave, an emancipated Greek woman from Sterea Ellada who migrates to Australia to set up empowerment workshops for unappreciated Queen Ants and sells raffia lingerie on the Internet, on the side. After a whirlwind courtship, Spiro and Stella marry and set up a household in Thornbury. They separate five months later, when Spiro, having after a heady night of livani smoking, transferred the title to his shop and the Thornbury property to his spouse, finds out that she has sold his shop and fled to Greece with the proceeds. In the rather messy and convoluted court proceedings that follow, she ends up with the house as well, leaving the hapless Spiro with a large amount of raffia and little else. 


By this stage, Spiro has moved back with his widower father, his mother having died of nervous exhaustion during the divorce, and is rather depressed. His only consolation is that his father is old and it will not be too long before the six investment properties in the family trust (which Stella spared because her friends in Agrinio neglected to advise her to look out for such things, trusts not being de rigeur among the emerging Helladic bourgeoisie), will be his. Being single and being able comfortably to live off the rental income, Spiro looks forward to spending the rest of his days becoming a fixture in Eaton Mall and perhaps having a statue erected to his memory in the fullness of time. 


It is then that tragedy strikes. His father informs him that after GST and Land Tax is paid, there is not enough money to support either of them. In fact, his father informs him to Spiro’s absolute horror, if they are going to survive, one of them will have to be sold. In the interim, Spiro will have to get a job. 


The next scene presents Spiro as an employee of the State Revenue Office. Working his way around its various departments, he finally settles on debt recovery, where he makes a name for himself for the ruthless and merciless manner in which he terrorises elderly retired property owners for their dues. Yet all of this is a front. For when the time is right and enough trust is garnered, Spiro then launches his plan: He develops a virus that hacks into the Office’s debt recovery system and waives all land tax for Victorians that have Greek surnames in Melbourne. Owing to the fact that the algorithms embedded within the virus scan for surnames that end with s, the virus also waves land tax for Latvians, Lithuanians, a number of Lebanese and Spanish members of the community as well. As a result of Spiro’s endeavours, the State of Victoria is bankrupted and is about to be purchased at a fire-sale auction by an emerging world power that just wants to be our friend. 


At this point, my interlocutor lets out a raucous laugh and abruptly, her voice becomes Menzies era ABC again. 

- You realise this call is being recorded for training and evaluation purposes? 

I should add that no State Revenue Office employees or office furniture were harmed during the making of the film, I hasten to assure her. 


She giggles and switching to Greek, launches into a lengthy analysis of the office personalities and politics of her workplace, including who is claiming the credit for the other’s work, who is skilled at sucking up to the boss, and which person is pretending that they aren’t carrying on a relationship with one of the guys from Duties Online, after an inebriated incident at the 2019 Christmas Party.  

I scribble down these details furiously, knowing that they will lend my script verisimilitude. 

  • ΚαλάI ask her. You said that the call is being recorded for training purposes. Aren’t they listening? 
  • Άσε, she sighs. Δε μιλάνε αυτοί wog. Να πάνε να χεστούνε.  


Unrestrained mirth ensues from both sides of the telephone line. Little does she know that Spiro Spanakopita is listening, and is about to make a killing selling evaluation data to emerging world powers who just want to be our friends….. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 September 2021