Saturday, January 27, 2024


Kevan, an Armenian from Iraq, was made a citizen of this country on Australia Day, a few years ago. The year after, he came by my house and happened upon me retrieving a small plastic Australian flag from my letter box, placed there, and in all the other letter boxes of the street by unknown agents.

“What are you going to do with that?” he asked.

“Probably leave it where it is,” I replied. “You don’t want to be the only house on the street that isn’t displaying the Australian flag. The neighbours will start putting their rubbish in your bins, or something even more dire like park on your nature strip during bin collection day.”

“Actually, I need your advice,” Kevan continued. “I need to know how to hold a barbeque for Australia Day. My understanding is that this is a compulsory thing and I don’t know what I have to do.”

“As far as I know, it isn’t compulsory.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite sure. My family has been here for seventy years and we have never, ever had an Australia Day barbeque,” I informed him. “However, we do religiously hold a Melbourne Cup Festival. It is especially romantic when conducted in the rain.”

Kevan looked perplexed. “But isn’t that what Australia Day is all about? To fly the flag and “gather with friends, family and their community to reflect, respect and celebrate..”

“What does the Australian flag mean to you, Kevan?” I asked. “Does it mean the same thing as the Iraqi flag? What emotions do these two flags stir in you?”

Kevan laughed: “The Iraqi flag had two meanings for us: Firstly, it was the flag of the oppressors, those who treated us as second-class citizens because of our religion. Secondly, it was a joke. It was the flag of the people that came to the land and enslaved its native peoples. We had nothing to do with it. It was not part of our story. And when they got rid of the stars and replaced them with the Arabic “Allahu Akbar” they reinforced that message even further. Simply: its not our country. We just live there.”

“What about the Armenian flag?” I inquired. “How does that make you feel?”

“The Armenian flag symbolises the rainbow, the promise God made to Noah never again to destroy the world. It fills me with hope and pride that even though so many nations persecute us and try to destroy us, we are here still. My heat stirs every time I see it.”

“And the Australian flag? What does it mean to you?”

“I respect it as the flag of the people who were gracious enough to provide my family with a home here. I feel I owe them something. What about you?”

Almost immediately I remembered a long departed Cypriot old gentleman from my neighbourhood who would shake his fist every time he would pass by the Australian flag that used to fly from our local council building and utter curses. For him, the presence of the Union Jack on the flag brough back memories of colonial brutality visited against him and his family during the nineteen fifities, a running sore that refused to heal.

I also remembered another neighbour, who had lost a brother in the Dekemvriana in Athens when British troops opened fire on Greek demonstrators from the Grande Bretagne hotel. To approach him on Australia Day was to be treated to a barrage of the spiciest expletives ever created. The presence of the Union Jack on the Australian flag was for him, a reminder of an overwhelming grief that coloured the way he saw his place in this country. “Remember,” he would say. “This country was created by violence and theft. It is not their country. It belongs to the people that they stole it from.”

I have none of those memories and harbour none of those traumas but I remember a time when a Russian friend attended a conference at which she met some Australian delegates. Delighted, and re-establishing vicariously a connection with me, she sent me a photo of the smiling delegates, holding, as she informed me in her email, “your flag.”  My immediate unconscious response was to scoff and to say to myself: “So what?” surprising myself at the vehemence of my reaction.

I also remember in my youth, all my classmates at Greek school vying to hold the Greek flag at commemorations and school events, with the Australian flag being considered by all to be a rather tawdry consolation prize, of dubious value and significance.

For though it is the flag of my country, I struggle to make any emotional connection to it. Any more than the Australia Day holiday is in any way connected with me. Despite friends in the armed forces reinforcing in me the fact that many Greek-Australians fought and died under that flag. Despite being born in this country, contributing to it and enjoying its privileges for almost half a century. When I behold it, though I render towards it the utmost respect, it speaks nothing to me, for it tells a story in which neither I nor my people living here have played a part, as much as I freely and proudly acknowledge and am grateful for the opportunities provided to us by those who invited us to live among them, under the aegis of the flag in question.

It speaks volumes for the place of minorities within the national narrative that all the major national holidays, such as ANZAC Day or the King or Queen’s Birthday, or Australia Day have absolutely everything to do with the peoples whose ancestry is derived from the lands symbolised by the Union Jack in the corner of the Australian flag and little to do with the peoples who have come to live in this country after the events the national holidays commemorate transpired. We must respect the attachment people have to those events and acknowledge their significance in forming this country. This does not necessarily mean that all of us can be touched by such events or symbols on an emotional level, for they took place before the arrival of many ethnicities, including our own on these shores and nothing, either in the flag or in the holidays that celebrate this nation touch on our people’s involvement in formulating Australian society.

Instead, the cultural memories I have inherited, those of the suffering of a colonised and conquered people, a people subjected to intolerance, discrimination, stolen generations and genocide cause me to sympathise with the original inhabitants of this land and to see justice in the adoption of their flag as the flag of this country. I parallel Kevan’s attitude to the Iraqi flag with theirs but even so, feel compelled to acknowledge that this flag too, however beautiful and symbolic is also not my flag for it does not tell my story, but rather that of those who were here ab initio and theirs is a story that should brook no appropriation.

“It is the flag of Australia,” I finally responded to Kevan, “and I respect it as such. It is futile to expect that a racially specific flag such as the Australian flag can inspire feelings of belonging in an entire multicultural society in all its complexity, just as it is futile to expect that a flag can ever be created that will encompass all the experiences or will be able to symbolise all those diverse peoples who live here. If anything, the current Australian flag is useful because it highlights just who controls and determines the national narrative, despite the pious noises often made by those suffering the pangs of a social conscience.”

That Australia Day, we celebrated in Sam Kekovitch style, with Kevan showing me how to prepare Khorovats, mouth wateringly tender Armenian lamb kebabs, while we both argued who truly invented the souvlaki and I extolled the virtues of the pork souvlaki instead. Agreeing to disagree, we then launched into learned disputation as to whether the tsoureki is derived from the Armenian choreg or vice versa, concluding in a lecture by me as to a history of the Greek community’s political activism in instituting multiculturalism in this country.  

As we conversed, I reflected that it is neither flags, nor holidays, nor symbols that make a country great or provide a sense of inclusion. Rather, it is the willingness of its people to engage with each other, to dispute, argue and share ideas, to be eager not just to tolerate each other but to revel in each other’s manifold identities, interests, opinions and backgrounds. Symbols may become ossified relics of the truth of those long gone, but we are never more so Australian when we have each other and are committed to listening to and respecting one another. It is in the pursuit of this ideal, the open-hearted engagement with any and all members of our broader community as practised by the Greeks of Australia, rather than a flag, or a particular day, that makes us all especially Australian. And to my mind, every day that we maintain that enthusiastic engagement and broad embrace, is Australia Day.


First published in NKEE on Friday 27 January 2024