Saturday, April 28, 2018

ON BINSCABS AND LIBRARIES


Most nights, I read to my daughters from a rather tattered and worse for wear story book by Georgia Tarsouli, entitled: “Στης Μαμάς την Αγκαλιά.” It has been in my custody ever since my primary school days and holds special significance for me, for it was the reason why, in my early years, I came to bear the soubriquet, of “binscab.”
“Στης Μαμάς την Αγκαλιά,” was the first Greek book I discovered in my school library. A remnant of enlightened government policy that saw a gamut of multi-lingual books purchased for the needs of students who would never read them, I was so astounded and thoroughly gratified that my Anglophone world would pay so great a homage to my Grecophone one, that I borrowed it and the few other books occupying the shelf next to it, repeatedly.
One day, I arrived at the Greek section of the library, only to ascertain that it was no longer there. The surly librarian, even more purse-lipped than usual, refused to offer an explanation and I walked away despondent. I remained in that state all day, that is, until a friend informed me that an interesting array of colourful books had been discovered peeking out of the school dumpster. Without a moment to lose, I ran to the place of disposal, and without hesitation, launched myself within it, coming up for air, only after I had rescued “Στης Μαμάς την Αγκαλιά,” “Τα γενέθλια της Μομόκο,” and other childhood Greek language favourites from certain annihilation. 
So exhilarated was I with my act of ethnosoteric chivalry, that I was, in the beginning at least, oblivious to the rhythmic chant that began to emanate from the recently formed crowd of onlookers. Timid at first, preceded almost by a grace note of derision, it finally assailed my eardrums: “Binscab! Binscab! BINSCAB!”
I cared not. Instinctively, I was convinced that Greek was a sacred language and therefore, every book that contained it was a holy relic that must be protected from profanation and defilement. I bore my soubriquet with pride and though it was hurled at me often enough in the next few years, its wielders, seeing that it had absolutely no psychological effect upon me, ultimately desisted.
Having nowhere now to satiate my thirst for Greek literature, my parents pointed me in the direction of my local municipal library. For the next two decades, I greedily devoured all the children᾽s books, then the works of literature by great Greek authors, then the historical and folkloric works and the religious texts until one day, I came to realise that well-loved favourites, such as Takis Lappas’ series of books on the philhellenes in the Greek Revolution, were vanishing from the shelves, as were works of poetry. On a table, a few metres away, I spied a jumble of books with a piece of paper affixed to the wall above them bearing the stark word: “Sale.” There they all were: Cavafy’s collected works, Thrasos Kastanakis’ strange but compelling “Hatzimanouil” and a host of other tomes that had changed my life forever. Deeply discomposed, I purchased them all, for less than fifty dollars. Thus apprised that my local corpus of Greek literature was endangered, I would periodically return to the library and buy up the remainder of an unwanted collection that would otherwise be destined for the municipal transfer station.
These days, I no longer attend my local library. Its Greek collection has now dwindled to encompass only recipe books, translations of Mills and Boon romances, some lives of the Saints and a few rather sad, dog eared women’s magazines. Apparently, this is all that the Greeks of the area now want to read, a contention supported by the fact that the more erudite texts of the Greek corpus still, though in a sparser fashion than before, make their periodic appearance in the local second hand shops, as lots from deceased estates.
“The foundation of a community library fulfils a higher need. It constitutes the basis for our cultural evolution. It necessarily broadens the intellectual horizons of our community. It enriches and enlivens our one-sided lives and where there is a void – and we have many- it fills it with content.
Most importantly, it elevates us to the level of truly civilised human beings. It gives us depth, it grants us certainty. Because we have no need of gilded superficialities.
We therefore have no further need for endless discussions, interminable delays, or timid prevarications. We demand immediate and prompt action, before our primary enthusiasm, that motivates our first steps, evaporates.”
I never got to meet Yiannis Lillis, possibly the most talented Greek writer ever to migrate to Australian shores, and criminally forgotten, for he died before I was born, in 1967. And I was only able to read the above thoughts on the necessity of founding a Greek community library, which he penned on 25 March 1951, upon a chance discovery late last year, of a copy of Οικογένεια, a remarkable literary magazine which he edited, and in which they were published. Lillis was writing with the same fervour of certainty as Saint Paul, when he wrote of the immanency of the Saviour’s return. For him, a trilingual author, recently arrived in Melbourne and anxious to stimulate the intellectual and cultural life of a community in the process of inventing itself, the concept of a library, created and run by the community, for the community, was axiomatic. The question for him was not ‘if’ a community library would be created but when. 
Sixty seven years later and with the Greek language in terminal decline, its study having been ousted within a generation from the tertiary institutions in which the community fought so tenaciously to introduce it in the first place, Yiannis Lillis would most likely have been shocked to learn that despite some attempts, we have failed to create the community library he and so many others envisaged. Instead, we took the easier path, focusing all our expectations on the local and state governments, entities which, though they undoubtedly took their role of fostering multiculturalism seriously, justifiably diverted funds towards the satisfaction of the literary needs of other emerging communities at the expense of our own and when it was anodyne to do so, jettisoned the surplus burden altogether.
A community library would be more than just a place where Greek-Australians could read Greek books. It would serve as an archive for all Greek language and Greek-related literature published in Melbourne ever since the foundation of our community. It would act as a conduit for research into the impressive intellectual currents that have pervaded our community over the years, and thus, assist us to understand ourselves, not just in relation to our place of origin but also, in relation to the place of our ultimate acculturation, while also constitute a sounding board for analysis and reform. A library that evolves to reflect our own tastes, intellectual pursuits, preoccupations and perspectives, thus remains as an enduring repository of our complex and multifaceted existence, a constant touchstone ensuring that the stories of those that came before us, within our community are never lost. It is this aspect, of the perpetual evolution of memory and identity that so captivated Yiannis Lillis and my own youthful imagination, that is encapsulated in the concept of the library.
Most importantly, a community library, would be OUR library. It would exist not at the pleasure of others, but rather, as a product of our own will, and for as long as we should desire it. We would shape it in our image , keep it and preserve it, long after the vagaries of ever changing governmental policies have left its prototypes behind. We would become it and it, us. Significantly, it would emancipate us as a people, from a crisis of cultural dependency upon the motherland and permit us to assess ourselves within the context of the mighty corpus of cultural achievement we have attained, a process that is necessary if we are to endure as a relevant ethno-cultural entity within Australia, into the future. As such, the community library is, put simply, survival and it is imperative that even at this late stage, as community brotherhoods and organisations face their dotage, kept alive in their senility only via a mercenary interest in property, that the community at large once more consider taking this important step, to ensure its own longevity.
 
Jorge Luis Borges put it this way: “The library will endure; it is the universe. As for us, everything has not been written; we are not turning into phantoms. We walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence, reading the history of the past and our future, collecting our thoughts and collecting the thoughts of others, and every so often glimpsing mirrors, in which we may recognize creatures of the information.” If that sounds disturbing, consider that he then went on to say elsewhere, the following: “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Paradise at the Greek. Euphonious and benign, but most importantly, ours for the taking.

 DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 April 2018
 
 
 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

LARES

The image of the Three Hierarchs on the small oval icon can barely be seen. This is because the metal backing has begun to rust and the oxidization has spread to the front, obscuring the august Saints’ faces in a beige haze. Nonetheless, they gaze at me through the smog of time serenely, in their heavy bishop’s attire. If they could speak, I am convinced that they would pronounce: “Be at peace. We’ve got this.”

Ever since my grandmother handed it to me, this icon, measuring no more than five centimetres in height, has been my crisis icon. It was first entrusted to my father and, according to my grandmother, it was solely through its wonderworking powers that he completed his tertiary studies. Throughout the duration of that time, it hung on his bed head, though by the time its custodian passed it on to me, the cord that suspended it had long rotted away.
Consequently, when not afforded a position among our other household gods, the three hierarchs have resided mainly in my chest pocket. They have accompanied me to all of my exams, secondary and tertiary and I am ever compelled to extricate them from my pocket and place them in the tray of the metal detector when periodically attending court, especially when presenting tenuous or rather flimsy cases in which my preparation has been slight. On the odd occasion, a security guard will offer me a knowing wink. I shrug my shoulders by way of salutation and walk away, a common bond having been established in a few seconds. My gods, are his gods.

Custody of these household gods are shared with my sister. They have borne witness to her own anxiety over her examinations, though generally, after they have steadfastly ensured the continuance of her education and progress in her career, they have been restored to my care. Not so, however with the miniscule icon of Saint Nicholas, also entrusted to me by my grandmother during my first trip to Greece. His task is to protect us from harm during voyages and as a result, while on the job, he resides securely in my toiletry bag. These days, reeking of unknown quantities of shampoo and aftershave that have encompassed him at high altitude over the years, Saint Nicholas, also imbued with the beige hue of oxidization, is in the custody of my sister, who is much more peripatetic than I. It is solely through his intercession that the Kalimniou progeny have not befallen to any harm while travelling and no other equivalent icon can take his place for power, or for efficiency. A small painted icon of Saint Fanourios hangs from the rear view mirror of my car. When asked why it is there by the uninitiated, I reply laconically: "Sat-nav."

On my shelf at home, a small square icon of Christ gazes at me accusingly. There is no escape, no justification to be offered, no argument in mitigation to be provided, in order to alleviate its judgment. This icon bores into the innermost recesses of my soul and retrieves the contents therein for interrogation. This was my study icon, given to me by my mother as a young boy with the injunction: “You can fool me that you are studying, but you cannot fool him.” One of my friend’s study icons is of Panagia holding Jesus in his arms. Whereas my icon is ten centimetres in height, his reaches up to the ceiling and was installed in his impossibly small bedroom, by his father. “Whenever I was tempted to look away from my books,” he reminisces, “I would see her looking at me, half in pity, half in pain, and I wouldn’t have the heart to let her down. So back to the books I would return. She is the reason I graduated from university.” Whenever I looked up from my books, the Pantocrator would glare at me severely. Fearing retribution, I too, would return to my desk. I am convinced that it is only through his consent having first been obtained, that the Three Hierarchs were able to prove so efficacious. As I write, he looks down at me sternly, and I look away in guilt. He knows too much.

My youngest daughter, at the age of two, has adopted the Synaxis of the Apostles as her Lares. She carries them about her everywhere, kissing them periodically, and talking to them as if she is one of them. My eldest daughter on the other hand, acknowledges an old icon of Saint George as her titular deity, as she is heavily entranced by dragons and identifies with the princess, standing patiently in the margins, awaiting her rescue with fortitude. I try to tell her that burly men who know how to kill dragons and are infused with conviction make boring dinner party companions, but she will have none of it.

We all have Lares Familiares, the equivalent of the Roman domestic guardian spirits, who in times ancient, cared for the welfare and prosperity of a household. And right around Melbourne, many of us still have, lovingly tended, an equivalent of the Roman household's lararium, a shrine to the Lar Familiaris, in times ancient, usually placed near the hearth or in a corner of the atrium and in the case of the Greeks of Melbourne, most commonly, in the kitchen. The Roman lararium often had the appearance of a cupboard or a niche containing a small statue, a niche painted on a wall, or a small freestanding shrine. Our lararium is called an iconostasis and comes in various forms. From time to time, small wooden cupboards, often intricately carved, make their appearances in sundry second hand shops in my local suburb, their custodians having departed and their progeny, worshipping other, more material deities now. Sometimes, these lararia are still inhabited by their lares, and the countenances of forgotten and discarded saints, stained black by the soot of years of votive lamps being lit before them, gaze disconsolately at me. I purchase them all, because it is not fitting that any lares should be without a home, and adopt the gods of the households of departed compatriots as my own.
On one occasion, I immediately recognized the discarded lar in the dusty opp-shop as belonging to an old lady I once knew. The face that stared at me unobtrusively from behind a copy of a Little Richard LP, was unmistakably that of Saint Eugenios, the patron saint of Pontus. Its custodian’s father, an hagiographer, had begun writing the icon at the time of the Pontian Genocide and had perished before he had time to complete it. Disembodied, save for some drapery and an arm, Saint Eugenios accompanied the rest of the family to Greece and then to Australia, despite his impairment, a constant guardian not only during their many travels but also, a companion to their trauma, a family, as incomplete as the god that protected them. I redeemed the Lar interrupted from his captivity but did not keep him. Instead, I delivered him to his erstwhile custodian’s grandchildren, explaining why the Lar that brought them forth safely from annihilation, should never have been expelled from the hearth in the first place.

There is one icon missing from my lararium. An impossibly small, paper icon of the Resurrection given to me by my grandfather thirty years ago, when he explained to me that quite soon, he was going somewhere very far away but at some time, Christouli would come to raise him from his slumber and we would be reunited again. “I will sleep with one eye open, waiting for him, and for you, pappou,” I had replied. When my grandfather died, my father took the Resurrection icon from our home and placed it in the lararium on his father’s tombstone. It has since faded and diminished to dust, and yet every night since, I have lain, my one open eye fixed upon a space in a lararium now inhabited by other lares, and which no longer exists, waiting and waiting, and waiting, while the rest of the lares, mutely and mournfully, look on in the lamplight.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on Saturday 21 April 2018
 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

TIGHT-ROPE WALKING

Ακροβασία, renderable in English as “tight-rope walking,” literally signifies walking on tiptoes. In his recently released poetry collection of same name, poet Dimitris Troaditis takes the reader upon a journey through a world poised precariously upon a knife-edge, one in which one steps through unguided, at their peril.

 

Undoubtedly, the world of the text is a dystopian one, a world in crisis. We “discover the world through graves” (Tight-rope walking), this being a cosmos where: “troubles, pains, generous receptions, constitute incidents in our lives,” (The Uprooting), and where “murder [is] completed when the red of the sky become mauve and then black.” (As Blood),  imagery reminiscent of a bloody and bruised Stendhalian charnel house. Poised upon the ends of our toes, we walk “with chains….naked before slaughters/ at the dance of lies,” (Cohabitation).

 

The poet’s blasted landscape of “polluted atmospheres,” (Faith), where “counterfeit unforeseen” dominate “rhythms and symbols” (As Blood), appears to be inimical to life itself. It is for this reason that the first poem of the collection “Tight-rope Walking” commences as a perilous journey and ends up as a manifesto: “Whoever doesn’t adhere to this poetry/ is buried alive/ by regimes of calamity/ in white posthumous circles/ with stones erected in the soul/ giving up the spirit in an unequal battle.”

 

Here then, in the “poetry of our bodies,” the interrelation of human beings, as defined by the poet, lies salvation. As a prophet of the chthonic and the urban, his are words of grit and gravel. Truths here are not to be discovered, but rather, to be constructed: “I want to construct a truth in my heart,” he proclaims in “As Blood”, “one I’ve been seeking for years now, in moments when I resignedly accompany my embrace.” There is no pacifism here. Even embraces are given and guided, rather than merely received,

 

Should we be deemed worthy to be initiated into the poet’s mysteries, he will “engrave [his] secrets on ..our body and all those revealed to [him] by the sun [he] will stamp, and all those revealed to [him] by the birds [he] will draw,” (My Secrets). The inference is that the poet’s insights are nothing miraculous. There are no novel revelations or original patterns of thought. Instead, his mysteries lie in the correct re-articulation of the cosmos, in all its proper constituent parts. Once this is achieved, a glimpse of a Lennonesque paradise is offered, where there is: “no more grief in the valley of thought/ no more souls in the feeble frost on sunrise.”

 

The main body of the poems were written prior to the poet’s arrival in Australia from Greece in 1992. Having borne witness to seminal political changes in Greece, the early poems are strident, self-assured and replete with revolutionary fervour. The poet’s confidence, seems to ebb away by the times we arrive at the poem “The Uprooting.” Here, any sense of a linear progression is arrested and in its place, a multitude of unanswerable questions are posed. Our perseverance may be imperishable, to paraphrase the poem, but what exactly is the product of such an endeavour? The former fervour of the early part of the poetic narrative, viewed in this disillusioned light, almost assumes the form of a cautionary fable. It is the “flame of a fancy which is extinguished after each awakening.”

 

Thus, in the next poem, “Terra Australis,” the poet, having left one reality for another, can only rail at is artificiality and especially that of those like him, who are caught between two ersatz cultures, the ontopathological issues of both not having been resolved, in a lament that is almost a fear at the failure of poetry itself: “So what is left of their own?/ A pruned apathetic language/ a fragmentary movement in infinity/ which also tends towards extinction?”

 

Where words defy or betray us, the old revolutionary, forged in the fires of of the Heimat’s political upheavals will, Mayakovsky-like, “break” the false reality on the “anvil of assimilation.” “And who is the one that will revolt, setting fire to the fast food of culture?” he asks. The problem is, we are also no longer certain that the poet considers himself to the the man for the job. Everything seems to new, too raw, too disconcertingly familiar, and the secret crypt that absorbs his kin, too painful and labyrinthine to traverse.

 

Nonetheless, the prophet, as a victim of the derailment of his own spatial and ideological journey, realises that there is no going back. Reality must be reconciled in the land in which he lives, not in an ambiguous state between the old and the new, for despite any official rhetoric about pluralism, in “On the Community” he observes that: “The flashes of our star/ are not dually voiced.” In such a condition, recourse to tried and tested customs or insights from the old culture are not only cacophonous (“the untuned instruments. Of paleontological orchestras”), but positively fatal as well: “The return to holy landscapes…like being hung from a belfry/ as a harbinger of doom.”

 

By the time we get to the final poem of the narrative, “Wandering,” what we are treated to is a recapitulation of where we have come thus far with the poet. His trials have taken their toll: “Something [has] broke[n] on the payment of our inner existence…/ it cut us in two:/ a slivered moon and a pale truth.” While the annihilation of the self is usually a condition precedent in many creeds for enlightenment, in this dualistic, shattered, sundered form, is the poet no longer able to guide us?

 

Or does he perceiving that we no longer need him, as he can no longer offer us any meaningful sense of direction? “What truth can we hide/ and which ship shall be board/… when the tremors of this night/ do not allow us to experience/ the joy of life’s overflowing glass?” Either the poet is admitting defeat or ultimately shifting responsibility for social renovation and the hope of a rosy dawn upon the reader. From our journey together, what we do know is that any further voyage in this direction will be anything but painless, for we called upon, albeit grudgingly to defer pleasure, for the greater good.

           

Citing Yiannis Ritsos and Tasos Leivaditis as his great influences, the poet’s own style is unique, bearing no relation to either. His words drench the page with the force of a torrent. Expresses, images swirl and eddy around each other, often incongruously, threatening to sweep away the reader upon their contrapuntal tides. In so doing, the poet is artfully conveying to us, the bewildering force of modern urban life itself, at assails us with all its “rains and hurricanes”  (My secrets), its contradictions, its injustices and iniquities. Indeed, he comes to personify that which he wishes to reform.

 

The poems that comprise this singular narrative, which are presented in the original Greek and in an English form rendered by me, a unique privilege, ultimately accept that the existential problems they seek to address cannot be solved by one person alone, nor should one expect a solution to emanate from any self-appointed guru. Instead, the poet, in keeping with his social philosophy, fully admits that it is only through the communal struggle of his readers that the requisite capacity can be achieved. In producing poetry of such force, refreshing candour and immense sensitivity, the poet’s approach to the fundamental questions of modern society are truly unique within Greek-Australian poetry.

 

DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 April 2018

Saturday, April 07, 2018

PAN-MAC PROBED


Interview by Dean Kalimniou with Chris Moutzikis, Chairperson of the Pan-Macedonian Association of Melbourne and Victoria.

Recently, the speaker of the Greek Parliament stated that among other organisations, Pan-Mac signed a letter addressed to the Greek government in which its members were threatened with death. How do you respond to that claim?

I think that the claim is a deliberate exaggeration. The letter urges the government not to compromise on the Naming Dispute. I accept it further states that the penalty for treason is death. We are not threatening to kill anyone. We are merely pointing out what the legal penalty is for a possible act, like saying: “Don’t park here, or you’ll get a fine.”

But the Death Penalty was abolished for High Treason in Greece in 2005. So how else is this letter to be interpreted? Did Pan-Mac obtain legal advice as to the applicable legal remedies before drafting the letter? Does this letter, which is factually incorrect, not damage Pan-Mac’s credibility vis a vis the Greek government?

We did not draft this letter. It was drafted by our sister organisation in America and it was signed by all affiliated Pan-Mac Associations world-wide. We signed to express solidarity with the world body, focusing mainly on our fervent desire that there be no compromise on the Naming Dispute. We were not aware of the legal issues, but I believe focusing on this small point takes attention away from fact that we are on the precipice of a “solution” to this issue that will be disastrous for Greece. This is what the Greek government should be concerned with. It needs to justify its actions to the Greek people.

Pan-Mac’s stance on the Naming Dispute is well known. Basically, you are against Greece recognising FYROM by any name that includes the word “Macedonia.” In the letter Pan-Mac signed, it is stated that such a compromise is tantamount to treason. What is treason in your opinion?

Treason is where someone deliberately acts against the interests of their country, knowing that this is harmful for their country. We believe that recognising FYROM as Macedonia or any cognate of that term is harmful for Greece as it impugns the historical, cultural and ethnic character of that region, which is vital for Greece. We believe that the government of Greece knows that to be the case.

Pan-Mac is a Melbourne-based organisation, albeit with an affiliation to a world-wide body, which in reality, refers to America and a few other diasporan communities. It represents people who are domiciled in Australia. Why should the Greek government listen to you, on this issue?

If this was an issue of domestic importance, I would agree that we would have limited standing to express an opinion. However, this is an issue that transcends the borders of the state of Greece. It goes to the core of being Greek, affecting the identity of every single person identifying as Greek throughout the world. Any decision made by the Greek government does not only affect Greek citizens, but all of us. Given this is the case, I believe that Pan-Mac has every right to express an opinion and encourage the Greek government to adopt it. It is an opinion that we believe, is held by the majority of Greeks world-wide.

Pan-Mac is just one of many Greek organisations in Victoria. Why should the combined Greek community listen to you? Why should we be bound by the pronouncements or policies of Pan-Mac on the Naming Dispute?

Ever since the nineties, Pan-Mac has been at the forefront of this campaign. We have organised several mass community rallies, and never ceased our activism for the truth, even when this was not convenient or politically expedient. In the process, we have earned the trust and respect of the community. The outpouring of support we receive on a daily basis, especially lately from younger members of the community validates our standing. Furthermore, there is a convention among community organisations here in Melbourne, that we are the organisation that is best placed to formulate community policy on this issue, just as we respect the Cypriot community’s right to articulate a policy on the Cyprus issue. Pan-Mac, along with other community organisations, is an active member of the Australian Hellenic Council, which is the mouthpiece of the Greek community to Canberra on issues concerning our community. It has adopted our position on this issue.

And your policy is correct, whereas that of the Greek government, according to Pan-Mac, borders on the treasonous. Why are you right and why is the Greek government so wrong? Why is Pan-Mac so vociferously against compromise?

The word Macedonia is inextricably linked to the Greek identity. The government of FYROM, has over the years attempted to appropriate our historical heritage. It has also made irredentist claims against Greek territory. We believe that any use of a compound name that includes the word “Macedonia” merely reinforces their spurious claims. Because the name is already used by those ignorant of the history and context, we believe that for brevity, any prefix arising out of a compromise solution will be dropped and the word “Macedonia” will used, something that is unacceptable. This country must have a name that reflects its own heritage, not ours.

Given the above, why do you think that the Greek government is entertaining a solution that involves the use of the term?

Quite frankly, this is one of the most disquieting things about the issue. The Greek government has not told the people why all of a sudden it has become urgent to solve an issue that has been smouldering away for decades, nor has it explained why it believes it is necessary to compromise by using a compound name when it is clear the majority of the people would be against it. We don’t know what the Greek government thinks it will gain out of such a compromise because they simply are not telling us. We don’t know what pressure is being applied and by whom, or why and this makes us fear that Greek government is being compelled, for whatever reason, to act against the country’s own interests. We cannot sit idly by and let that happen, without voicing our opposition to such a path. It might be politically expedient for the present government, but it is disastrous in the long term of Hellenism.

Is this why you organised the rally as a means of expressing that opposition?

We organised the rally to express solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Greeks in Greece who also held rallies. That is why we felt that it was important to use the same format for protest as that used in Greece. We wanted to be part of a chain of protest all around the world, sending a strong, unwavering message to the Greek government that we are against their policy on this issue, but also, that we are one, we are united.

There are those who state that you only organised the rally because you felt threatened by the rally organised prior to yours by hitherto unknown members of the community. Specifically, that in the light of that rally, that Pan-Mac would look weak and ineffective if it did nothing, given that others had already seized the initiative before it.

I don’t accept that view. At the time, we were doing what we always do: deliberating with members of the community, obtaining a consensus for further action and also liaising with the world-wide Pan-Mac body, so that our actions had the requisite community support and were co-ordinated. In our experience, which is extensive, we feel it is important to gauge events and consider the outcomes of possible courses of action before committing to them.

And do you think you were successful? The number of people attending was, by all accounts, far lower than what was expected, especially compared to past rallies. Does this indicate a community crisis of confidence in Pan-Mac’s leadership on the issue?

As part of a co-ordinated network of worldwide protest it was very effective. It concerned the Greek government enough for it to attempt to downplay the world-wide movement and grossly under-represent the numbers of those protesting in Greece. Furthermore, I believe any comparison between the previous rallies and this one, numbers wise, is unhelpful. There are many reasons why people chose not to attend the rally, and they do not reflect in anyway upon Pan-Mac and its reputation, which if anything has become enhanced over the past few months. The fact that the Premier of Victoria recently, on more than one occasion, stated that: “Macedonian is as Greek as the Parthenon,” a statement which was first made by his representative at the rally, can be attributed to the climate of understanding of the Hellenic character, engendered by Pan-Mac’s activism.

So why did people stay away?

Well, times have changed since the nineties. People have less spare time and more weekend commitments. Some expressed concerns about possible violence from members of the FYROM-Australian community, a fear that was not unjustified considering the appalling way in which some of their members conducted themselves during their own rally. Others found the venue difficult to get to. Also, we need to understand that these days, rallies are not the only means of protest and comprise only one of many facets of our campaign. Compared with the nineties, social media also provides an important forum for activism. There were two significant things about the rally that have gone unnoticed and need to be pointed out. The first is that the youth predominated, a most reassuring sign of the vitality of our campaign. Secondly, that there were members of the Armenian, Assyrian, Chinese, Indian, Russian and Serbian community present to express their solidarity, showing that our outreach is truly a multicultural one. Unity is vital.

On the subject of unity, people in our community lately have commented on an increasingly intolerant attitude displayed by the Pan-Mac executive and members towards those who express different views on how the Naming Dispute should be solved. They state that there is a dualistic, us and them, with us or against us, patriots or traitors stance towards “dissenters” emanating from leading personalities within Pan-Mac. Are those who believe in compromise traitors?

I’m aware of this allegation and I believe it is disingenuous. We encourage debate and discussion because a free and frank exchange of ideas is important. At the same time however, we will not shy away from holding to our deeply-held to our convictions and articulating our point of view. In the lead up to the recent rally, Pan-Mac convened public meetings where a number of diverse views were expressed by attendees. Some of those views were diametrically opposed to our own. Nonetheless, we respect those persons’ right to an opinion and facilitated them being heard. Some of our members feel passionately about this issue and express themselves in a passionate manner. That is no way implies that others do not have the right to put forward a view. However, we also have a right to critique their views, if we think they are incorrect, or not in the national interest. Democracy and debate work both ways.

One of those persons who have articulated a position on the Naming Dispute that differs from that of Pan-Mac is Professor Tamis, of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies. What is Pan-Mac’s relationship with Professor Tamis? Has it been damaged as a result of the difference in opinion?

We respect Professor Tamis for the brilliant work he has undertaken over many years in studying and promoting scholarship on Macedonian Hellenism. His research on the history of Macedonians in Australia is extremely valuable and will prove to be of enduring importance to the broader Australian historical narrative. We look forward to the development of his further endeavours in the field of historical research. As for his views on the Naming Dispute, I reiterate that Pan-Mac believes that everyone has a right to their own opinion.

The Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies has recently announced that it is seeking legal recourse against those persons/entities responsible for the atrocious acts of racial hatred committed against Greek-Australians, by some of the attendees at the FYROM-Australian rally, held a week after your own. Is this not something that Pan-Mac should be doing, or at least supporting?

I agree with you that some of the incidents of racial vilification and intolerance at the FYROM rally were unprecedented and deeply disturbing. Our rally was peaceful and we made sure that it was focused on the Naming Dispute, not against the FYROM-Australian community. There were no racial slurs, or pejorative sentiments expressed against that community. In contrast, with them, we witnessed the burning of the Greek flag, racist placards against the descendants of victims of the Pontian Genocide, derogatory slogans about the Greeks’ ancestry and even attacks on a Greek store owner. I am astonished that those responsible are so immature and given to hatred that they are willing to disturb the harmony of our multicultural and tolerant city and even make the streets of Melbourne unsafe, in order to pursue their goal. As a result, we have responded favourably to a proposal of mediation by the Victorian Multicultural Commission, in order to ensure that such terrible acts are never again repeated. We are currently engaging with this process, affirming our commitment to a peaceful and tolerant city.

There are many families in Melbourne that because they have either intermarried into both communities or come from regions where their ethnic identity is in flux, are experiencing significant emotional upheaval at the moment, as a result of the Naming Dispute. What guidance if any, has been provided by Pan-Mac to such persons, during this time?

You are right, this latest phase of the dispute has caused a lot of tension and has harmed interpersonal relationships and friendships. I’m aware of situations where family and friends have stopped speaking to each other because of this issue. I find that deplorable. To those who have come to us for guidance, and I need to stress that this includes both people that identify as Greek, and as FYROMian, we have urged them to put the dispute to one side and engage with one another, to relate to each other as human beings. We need to focus on the things that unite us. There are many. We share similar customs and traditions, our music is similar, we share the same religion and our histories are intertwined. This does not mean we cannot share our views on the dispute but if we do, it should be in a respectful and appropriate way.

Recently, the leadership of Pan-Mac has changed. You have been appointed chairperson. What are your aspirations for Pan-Mac moving forward?

Structural reform is necessary if Pan-Mac is going to effectively meet the challenges of the future and remain relevant to emerging generations. Currently, Pan-Mac’s structure does not address the fact that the vast majority of the Greek people, including those coming from Macedonia, no longer feel represented by small, regional brotherhoods. This needs attention, especially since we receive a vast amount of support from youth who are not represented or do not participate in the groups that traditionally constitute our Association. I would like Pan-Mac to be able to better utilise the tremendous groundswell of support it enjoys by people of all walks of life, making more of our extensive contacts within the academic world and especially in local, state and federal government. Greater attention needs to be paid to social media and modern forms of communication. New and novel ways to get our message across are already being trialled. We can always enhance our engagement with the broader mainstream community while also maintaining our close ties with our own community. The recent addition of the Thessaloniki Association as a constituent member of Pan-Mac both underlies the enduring relevance of our Association and acts as blueprint for the future.

Let’s assume that tomorrow, the Naming Dispute is solved. I want to moot two scenarios with you. Firstly, the Greek Government compromises and accepts a composite name. Here in Australia, the government has stated that it will accept any outcome agreed to by Greece.. What will Pan-Mac do? Will it ask the Australian government to go back on that commitment, which has been the focus of the Greek community’s lobbying up until now? Is there a contingency plan? Have feelers been made out to the relevant politicians in this regard?

There is constant communication with stakeholders, on all levels. We do not resile from our position and are prepared to campaign with greater vigour against any unfair outcome, should this prove necessary. We are already circulating a petition to the Australian government that we encourage everyone to sign.

I understand that petition is in response to a FYROM-Australian petition calling upon the Australian government to recognise FYROM as Macedonia. Why is it necessary if the government’s stance already precludes recognition of a name not acceptable to Greece? Isn’t that just duplication of the work already achieved by the Australian Hellenic Council and other community groups? And what if the response is disappointing? How will that reflect upon Pan-mac’s grasp of strategy and credibility?

Times and policies can change easily in response to pressure and expediency. We want to ensure this does not happen. To date, we are satisfied with the response and encourage all Greeks to sign the petition.

Let us assume that by some stroke of good fortune, the Naming Dispute is solved by means of FYROM accepting a name that does not include the term “Macedonia.” Does that make Pan-Mac redundant? Where to from there?

That outcome would be great. Redundant? Not at all. Our aim is to promote Macedonian Hellenism and make it relevant to the country in which we live. A solution to the Naming Dispute would enhance our ability to seek new and novel ways to make lasting contributions to the multicultural fabric of our society, as Macedonian Australians. What is inspiring is the interest we receive from younger, hitherto disengaged members of our community. Many tell us that it was through Pan-Mac’s work that they discovered the relevance of Hellenism to them. Periodically, we even have members of the FYROM-Australian community contact us because they are questioning the veracity of what they have been told by their community, through their reading of reputable historical research. We want to build on that.

Finally, I’d venture to say that apart from the pressing urgent domestic issues of poverty, economic crisis and institutional decay that plague Greece, there are other “national” issues of immediate importance to Greeks, such as the Cyprus issue, given that part of the island is occupied by a foreign army, or the crisis in the Aegean. In Northern Epirus, we have a large native Greek population living within Albania, that does not always have its human rights respected. In the case of Macedonia, we have none of these immediate problems. And yet Greek concern on these issues, save for those who come from these regions, is minimal. What is it about Macedonia that has been able to fuel the passions of the Greek people to such a great extent?

Possibly it is because Macedonia represents one of the greatest and most important period in Greek history. I’m not just referring to Alexander the Great and the enduring awe in which he is held by the Greek people. Rather, it is because it was only through Macedonia that the concept of Greek unity was achieved and it was only through Macedonia that Greek civilisation was able to engage as an equal with those around it and spread, creating the prototype for globalisation. It is this blueprint for a world-wide Hellenism, a Hellenism that transcends borders that is a relevant paradigm for us as a diasporan community. I think that this vision, realised by the Macedonians has been espoused by all of us and that is why Macedonia is at the core of our Greek identity. It is also why we react so strongly when it is threatened. That being said, you are right in stating that the other issues you mentioned are also important and we support and enjoy excellent relations with the Cypriot Community and the Panepirotic Federation.

 DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on 7 April 2018

Saturday, March 31, 2018

REVOLUTION UNHINGED

Towards the end of his life, the great scholar of what is referred to as the Greek Enlightenment, Adamantios Korais wrote: “The increase and spread of education in the French nation gave birth to the love of liberty.” In his mind, in order for the physical Greek Revolution to transpire, another, more spiritual one would have to precede it. 

 To this effect, Korais maintained that the entire nation would have to be educated, as a condition precedent to any such a revolution taking place. Greek education would have to be aligned with that of enlightened Europe, in order for a newly emerged Greece to take its proper place among modern nations, via a process which he called metakenosis, or outpouring of one into the other.

 Such a process required, in Korais’ view, a return to fundamentals, that is, the writings of the ancient Greeks and it was for this reason that he produced edited editions of ancient writings he considered suitable for study. Such a revolution would not only grant the renascent Greeks access to the wisdom of their forefathers, but also allow them to regain their virtues as well. Having immersed themselves in the lore of their illustrious ancestors, Korais was confident that they would then, by means of immersion, acquire their military skills as well, or at least such martial valour as was necessary to defeat the Persians in the fifth centur and which would accordingly suffice, to defeat the Ottomans. According to Korais, these martial virtues were lost when the Romans conquered Greece, though mysteriously, he was unable to advance a theory as to how study of the ancient texts could guard against others overcoming the military valour of the Greeks gleaned from such hallowed texts, which probably explains why the German Occupation took place.

 Considering the parlous state of Greek education in the period immediately prior to the Greek Revolution of 1821, it would come as no surprise to learn that Korais always felt that the Greek people were not ready for revolution. In 1807, he argued: “Our people need at least fifty years of education.” In 1821, some months after the Greek revolution had been proclaimed, he mused: “the event has come too soon for our interest. If it had come twenty years later..” Assessing from his home in Paris how the product of the Revolution, the Modern Greek State had developed, Korais lamented in 1831: “the Greek rising was fully justified, but inopportune; the right time would have been 1850.”
The lack of the civilising effects of education upon the Greeks blighted and ultimately damned the Greek Revolution and the State it brought about, in Korais’ eyes. It is easy to understand why. Instead of the enlightened, modern, progressive nation that formed the subject of Korais’ aspirations, the Greek State was fragmented, convulsed by internecine strife that saw some of the greatest proponents of its independence imprisoned or murdered and completely dysfunctional. It was corrupted at its core by self-interested power brokers who did not shy away from provoking a civil war in order to further their grip on power, causing much suffering to an already war-shattered populace and was also manipulated by imperialist powers, to the extent where it was questionable as to whether Greece was truly either “free” or “independent,” as its rulers maintained. As Korais wrote: “That the revolution occurred before time was proved by the recklessness of the leaders of the revolution and by the continuing very foolish conduct of many politician within Greece, conduct that caused the flowing of a great deal of innocent blood.” 

Had the Greeks been cautious, had they been patient instead if impulsive and intemperate, had they undergone the requisite amount of spiritual preparation with dedication and a sense of purpose, then they would have been truly free, and not the colonial plaything of a quadrumvirate of word powers: “If the race had rulers adorned with education, as it certainly would have had if the Revolution had occurred thirty years later, then foreigners would have been inspired with such respect that the wrongs suffered from the anti-Christian Holy Alliance (ie the European powers) would have been avoided.”  
Almost two hundred years after the Great Revolution of 1821, with the image of the heavily moustachioed, amply foustanella’d klepht wielding a ponderous sword emblazoned deeply upon our consciousness as the ultimate harbinger of freedom, it is difficult to conceive of Korais’ preferred alternative revolutionary, a cravat wearing, quill brandishing intellectual, mincing down the mountainside in his spectacles, there to engage the enemy in endless philosophical disputation and textual criticism, until they are finally worn out and depart the land they have appropriated, in frustration. Viewed from this perspective, Korais’ vision is, though grand, ultimately, a utopian one.
Nonetheless, it is a utopia that has inextricably found its way within the narrative of the Greek Revolution, even as power brokers masquerading as freedom-fighters became self-interested politicians, even as those politicians set about running the State that was created in the aftermath of so much spilled blood, for their own benefit and that of their imperial overlords and continue to do so today. Though we extoll and exalt our freedom-fighting captains, though we liken them to the classical warriors that sent the Persians packing, somewhere in the back of our minds, Korais’ exhortation, to educated ourselves, cultivate ourselves and ultimately uplift ourselves, plays on our sub-conscious.

 Korais' call for enlightenment is deeply entrenched within us. It is the continuation of Saint Kosmas the Aetolian’s injunction that it is better to build schools than churches, and accords with visionary Rigas Pheraios’ celebration of reason. It is in fact, the culmination of the entire thrust of the Greek enlightenment, a johnny-cum-lately intellectual movement that was a complete derivative of the west, interpreting the corpus of our ancient legacy through alien, western eyes, but regardless, convinced that the complete espousal of European civilisation was the only pathway by which Greece could extricate itself, mentally, and then physically, from the morass in which it found itself. 

 We have never been able to live up to Korais’ lofty ideals. Surely, our diasporan community has internalised them, for he too was one of us, a Greek living outside Greece, who never saw his homeland again. The first generation of Greek migrant’s irrepressible imperative to educate their children, their drive to build schools and other cultural institutions, even their need to express themselves through poetry and literature and their equation of education with freedom, all comes directly from Korais. Though the Revolution has been gone, there is unfinished business to attend to, for we have not yet attained the goals which Korais has set out for us and which we have espoused. There is an unarticulated sense that as a people, we are not where we want, or set out to be. 

 The Revolution, as the cause of a deeply seated feeling of inadequacy harboured by many, if not most Greeks, is a concept, despite the rhetoric, the speeches, the marches and the flag waving we all rejoice in, tacitly accepted, but rarely spoken of. Yet when Greeks both within and without the State that it engendered, view it, blundering periodically from morass to morass, regardless of their level of pecuniary interest or venality within its paradigm, Korais begins to whisper in their ear: We can do better. We owe it to our ancestors to create the structures that will allow the Greek people to realise their full potential. We owe it to each other to bring out the best in one and other and we do this not through the ossification of culture and tradition, the purveying of prejudice, or the stifling of human endeavour, but rather, through celebrating knowledge, championing innovation and actively engaging with the broader global community.

“The education of a nation is the safest indication of its regeneration and of its political freedom,” wrote Korais. Articulating a particularly Greek approach to our past and to the corpus of global culture as means for the evolution of the modern Greece into a truly independent, self-sufficient State, able to make unique contributions to the world is an objective that lingers still and which has not yet been fulfilled. In many ways, the Revolution for us has somehow, become unhinged, or more likely, has not yet even begun.
 
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 March 2018
 
 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

MISSING THE BUS


Eaton Mall does not exist. It has never existed. Instead, if GPY& R advertising agency, on behalf of Public Transport Victoria are to be believed, the space occupied by one of the most vibrant and important centres of Hellenism in Melbourne, is in fact a Greek island.

The scene unfolds like a promotional map of the Mall: the perspective is from the South end of the Mall, facing North. In the foreground, on the right, the more perceptive viewer may discern the old bank which is now a Chemist Warehouse. The metal frame tree guides and the central light diffuser hint pay homage to the Mall, juxtaposing it against the beautifully rendered bus passing the Chester Street crossing. Meanwhile, just before that crossing, a sign bearing the legend: “Glyka” hints at the possibility that sweets are sold along this street. Save for a few passersby, the idyllic streetscape is sterile and devoid of life. The pavement and the buildings are whitewashed, as is, one could argue, the presence of the Greek-Australian community. We are not in Eaton Mall, but rather in Mykonos.

The caption to Public Transport Victoria’s latest campaign reads “Discover a Bit of Hellas in Oakleigh.” This is marginally more neutral than its Footscray poster, which reads “A taste of the east in the west.” It is also in keeping with Eaton Mall marketing itself as “Little Athens,” provoking hoots of derision from newly arrived Greek migrants, who prefer to equate it with a square in a provincial Greek town, not Athens per se but still, a little bit of Hellas. The advertisement, exists in the context of seeking to exoticise areas of ethnic settlement in Melbourne, in order to promote transport use by equating it with a holiday. In doing so however, the commissioners of such a campaign have in fact, inadvertedly indulged in gross orientalisation and alienation of the ethnic communities they have targeted, including the Greek-Australian community.

By its very nature, to exoticise something, is to place it outside the norm. By exoticising Eaton Mall, the advertisement suggests to the mainstream Australian therefore, that Eaton Mall is not an organic part of the Melbournian landscape. It has no legitimate place within the local geography. It cannot be rendered in terms of at least seventy years of Greek settlement in the broader area. Instead, evidently, the advertisers believe that in order to be palatable to the dominant cultural market, Eaton Mall must be depicted as, or reduced to a stereotype, a laid back, sleepy, soulless place, the epitome of a western understanding of a Helladic tourist paradise. For the evocation of such a stereotype to be effective, Greek-Australians may not be afforded any role within it. That this type of activity, one which effaces an entire community, and in the case of the Footscray advertisement, effectively reduces a diverse population to “a bunch of food oriented occidental orientals,” can be indulged in four decades after the advent of multiculturalism as official Australian policy, is deeply disquieting.

Eaton Mall is not Mykonos. It is not even Greece. Instead, it is a lively hive of activity, frequented not just by people of Greek descent, but of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Had the advertisers or Public Transport Victoria bothered to contact or seek to liaise with the traders of Eaton Mall, for some of these were incensed at the lack of communication, they would have learned that the mall id far from the monocultural, ethnic ghetto that is implicit in the poster.Vanilla Lounge, for example, has a diversity policy, by which it employs people of different ethnic backgrounds and even sponsors their visa applications. Had they spent time in the Mall, they would have noticed the significant numbers of Middle Eastern patrons, coming to savour a social experience reminiscent of that which is common in their places of origin. Had they the perspicacity, they would have discerned among the crowd, Anglo-Australians, eager to explore, discover and enjoy a culinary and social tradition that embraces all and excludes no one. Most significantly, had they the sensitivity to do so, they would have witnessed a community that is neither Mykonian, nor Zorban, neither Athenian, nor Spartan, but unselfconsciously Greek-Australian. From the lovers who met and courted each other within the confines of the mall, to the tired and frustrated mother dragging her squalling children across the pavement, all the while managing not to spill a drop of her precious take-away frappe, to the nubile girl who has meticulously brushed every eyebrow lash separately and bronzed out the last remnant of cellulite from view, in order to look stunning and obtain the complements of her friends, to the cranky grandmother, yanking her grown son in a business-suit by the ear, to the svelte newly arrived Greek waiter who magically can appear in more than five places simultaneously in order to take one’s order, to the self-satisfied businessman with the protruding belly and the bejeweled corpulent fingers brandishing an unlit cigar, to the old man, sporting five days growth, smoking the seventeenth cigarette in the row, to the entire population, which is able to play people tennis in unison, turning their heads synchronously as pedestrians promenade down the Mall, in order to give “the glance,” the one from which one can discern the pedestrian’s entire life history, Eaton Mall and its patrons have no relevance to Greece. It is an Australian phenomenon and deserves to be portrayed us such in its own right, not expunged from the discourse.

In their seminal work: "From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos point out that one of the ways that the dominant culture secures and reinforces its position as legitimate owner of this country is by abrogating to itself, the right to determine the discourse of multiculturalism, defining the manner in which the ethnic communities it permits to reside alongside it, shall be portrayed, or shall articulate their own identity. As potentially subversive “eternal foreigners,” ethnic communities, no matter how long they have existed on Australian shores, must be placed on the margins, orientalised and presented, not as an integral part of modern Australian social reality, but rather, as the other, or effaced altogether. According to this paradigm, the reality of Eaton Mall and its people cannot exist. Instead, in Orwellian fashion, it must be replaced by something that does not challenge the hegemony of the dominant culture. This is certainly achieved by portraying the denizens of the Mall, not as Australians, but rather, as people who not only come from somewhere else, but actually, still live there.

The fact that members of our community not only accepted the advertisement but were flattered by it, suggests that we are still suffering from a derivative cultural cringe that does not let us assert our unique identity as Greeks in Australia and instead, makes us feel compelled to seek recourse to stereotypes in order to define ourselves and articulate our ethnic identity, or to employ these and accept these in order to gain the approval of the dominant culture. To these people, the insulted Greek-Australian traders of Eaton Mall ask: Why can we not demand that Eaton Mall be celebrated for what it is, a gritty, aspirational, thriving expression of a community that is inextricably interwoven within the fabric of modern Melbourne.

On the penultimate occasion I visited the Mall, a woman walking in front of me, remarked expansively to her companions, who appeared to be visiting from Greece: "And here are the Exarcheia of Melbourne." Now try depicting that on a Public Transport Victoria poster. Just make sure faithfully to capture the moment where the Molotov cocktail impacts with the bus, and bursts into flames…. Public Transport Victoria, we've got the hots for you.

DEAN KALIMNIOU


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 March 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018

SPEAKING ENGLISH IN THE IDES OF MARCH


On the morning of the Sunday of the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, I was ensconced in the Epirus tent, clad in full Vlach regalia. As pedestrians were rather light on the ground, I decided to amuse myself by playing jazzicised versions of Epirot folksongs on the violin. Five bars into: «Δεν μπορώ μανούλα’,μ», a heavily accented voice asked:
"Χαλό, γιου Κών;» It was an elderly gentleman, clad in a suit and wearing an Athens 2004 Olympics cap.
«Ναι,» Ι responded in Greek.
«Γιου δε γουάν σπίκ ον δε ράντιο;» the old man persisted in broken English. He spoke slowly, haltingly, the words stumbling across his tongue and escaping his mouth with perceptible difficulty.
«Ναι, παρουσιάζω το Ηπειρώτικο πρόγραμμα,» I informed him, again in Greek.
«Άι λίσεν έβερυ γουίκ. Γιου βέρυ γκουντ. Άι λάικ βέρυ ματς,» the old man persisted.
«Μιλάτε ελληνικά;» I asked.
«Οφ κόρς ρε. Γιου στιούπιντ;» the elderly gentleman inquired incredulously. Slowly, sonorously, over the course of the next minute, he intoned: «Χάου άι λίσεν του γιου μπλάρρυ ράντιο ιφ άι νο σπικ Γρήκ ρε;» 
«Δεν θα ήταν πιο εύκολο για όλους μας αν μιλούσατε στα ελληνικάI asked him, with a view to facilitating a speedier and somewhat more comfortable discourse.
It was at that point that for some inscrutable reason, the old man lost his temper.
«Ά γκε φάκ!» he exclaimed and walked off. I picked up my violin and shaken, played Waltzing Matilda in a minor key, as a tsifteteli, instead.
Sometime later, my daughter joined me in the tent. An elderly woman passed by the tent and noticed her.
«Κόρη σου είναιshe asked me.
«
Ναι
«
Να τη χαίρεστε«Να’στε καλά.»
Turning to my daughter she asked: «Χάβαγιου ντάλι μου;»
My daughter responded with a blank stare of non-comprehension.
«Γιου γκουτ;» the old lady persisted.
“It’s easier if you speak to her in Greek,” I advised. “Her English is still not that strong.”
«Γιου γκο του δα σκούλ;» the old lady inquired.
Silence from my daughter.
«Ουατς γιουρ νάιμ ντάλι;»
«Μιλήστε ελληνικά,» I advised her again.
«Δεν σας καταλαβαίνει
«
Ουάι γιου νο σπικ; Γιου σάιthe old lady persisted, smiling.Having received no response, she gave my daughter a pat on the head and walked off, whereupon my daughter mystified, turning to me, asked: «Γιατί δε μιλούσε η κυρία ελληνικά;»

It is widely held that grandparents are the chief repositories of Greek language and culture within our community. This is because they are the ones that have largely experienced that language and culture in its native context and it still forms the primary medium of their daily discourse. However, of late, a convention has evolved within the community, whereby, while Greek can be and is used as an intra-generational tool for communication and even as an inter-generational mode of communication, this does not extend to the third generation, especially when addressing members of that generation that do not belong to one’s family. Instead, it is customary to address such children in English, regardless as to how bad the speakers English actually is.

In some bizarre cases, as the first dialogue herein suggests, members of the older generation persist in speaking English to their younger interlocutors, even when it is apparent that both speakers are fluent in Greek and that communication would be a good deal more convenient in that language. I remember one particular elderly gent who attended my office in order to seek legal advice. His English was parlous and despite my constant efforts to encourage him to speak in Greek, for the sake of brevity and so that I could understand him, he persisted in speaking a close to unintelligible form of garbled English. Having pleaded with him to speak in Greek and even appealed to his hip-pocket by informing him that most lawyers charge in six minute intervals, so that it would be cheaper for him to speak in Greek, he blissfully ignored my ministrations. At the end of the excruciatingly long consultation, I asked him: “Why didn’t you speak Greek? Wouldn’t it have been easier for both of us?”
“Because English is your language, not Greek, you smart-arse” he snapped. “You were born here.”

Circumstances like these suggest that on the odd occasion, the Greek language or its non-use is wielded by native speakers as a tool of exclusion, against other generations. For reasons of their own, they may feel threatened by members of the younger generation and the only way to preserve a feeling of ascendancy, is by creating a language dichotomy, whereby the ‘legitimate’ language is reserved for use by ‘legitimate’ speakers, while those deemed to be upstarts or not worthy, are directed to speak in English, a language, in this case, of disempowerment. Over the years, in pursuing my own literary endeavours in the Greek language, not a few well-meaning members of the Greek community literati have suggested emphatically that I cease writing in Greek. Apparently, being Australian-born, the only language I am authorized to write in, is English.

Generally however, and especially when it comes to the third generation, the convention of employing English in inter-generational discourse does not come from a desire to exclude, disempower or marginalize. Instead, it seems to derive from the opposite: a deeply held assumption that the latter generation has lost the Greek language altogether, and so, to address a child in Greek, would form a barrier to communication, or indeed, in some instances, cause trauma. This comes in marked contrast to the practices of a generation ago, where grandparents were considered the main point of contact between younger generations and the Greek language, and their use of the Greek language as a means of communication with grandchildren and as a method of ensuring cultural continuity, was unquestioned.

Nowadays, many elderly Greeks, will, when questioned as to why they speak to younger generations in English will not only state that it is because they assume that most of them do not speak Greek but also because it is considered rude to do so. The social transgression here apparently comes in the form of unduly exposing a child’s ignorance of the Greek language, if one speaks to that child in Greek, and the child does not respond. Apparently, this is a social transgression identified and excoriated as such by the second, ie. parental generation.

On most mornings, when I take my daughter to school, we sit in the playground while she tells me her favourite vampire stories and tales of Greek mythology, in Greek. An elderly lady sits nearby and smiles. She holds her grand-daughter in her arms and speaks to her in broken English. A few days ago, as we were discussing whether skordalia could be plausibly used as a vampire repellent, she commented:
“It’s good that you speak to your daughter in Greek.”
“Well, we are Greek, what else could I do?” I responded.
“My grand-daughter doesn’t speak Greek. Her mother isn’t Greek,” the old lady offered wistfully.
“My wife isn’t Greek either,” I told her.
“So how does she learn Greek? From her γιαγιά;” the old lady asked.
“From all of us,” I responded. “The family, the community, even from you right now.”
“My son and my daughter-in-law have told me not to speak to my grand-daughter in Greek,” the old lady confided sadly. “They say that it’s going to slow her down at school and that its going to make her feel inferior to the other kids.”
“Do you agree with that assessment?” I asked.
“Well,” the old lady mused, “I brought up my kids speaking Greek. I didn’t think that was a problem. We all thought it was natural that we should pass on our language to our children. But somewhere along the line, we discovered they don’t feel the same way. They don’t want to pass on the language. They speak to their kids in English. In the beginning, I told them: “let them at least learn Greek from me, whatever they learn can only benefit them,” but they told me categorically not to speak to the kids in Greek. What can I do?” she shrugged. “I brought up my kids in the way I thought was best. Now they are doing the same. And even in families where the parents are homogenous, they are not teaching their kids Greek anymore.”
When the bell rang, the grand-daughter was balancing precariously upon a bench. ῾Μη,” her grandmother shouted spontaneously. ῾Θα πέσεις. Σλάουλυ, σλάουλυ.᾽ And she looked up at me and beamed.
Once the last of the first generation of Greek speakers is no longer with us, a tangible linguistic and cultural link of continuity with our place of origin will be sundered. Depriving the latter generations of the rich repository of memory, shared tradition, perspective and outlook that can only be transmitted through the ancestral tongue, even before the demise of the generation that can pass it on, is tantamount to committing cultural suicide. Considering that among native born Greek Australian peer groups, social interaction in the Greek language is by convention rare, contact with native speakers is vital if our community is to retain the Greek language into the future. For this reason, this March, let us encourage the elderly members of the community to defy and ultimately smash pernicious convention and speak to our youth, unashamedly and unhindered, in Greek. And let us actively seek out ways in which we can harness and support their linguistic expertise, tying it to such key concepts as family, connection and community, in order that our emerging youth may contextualise that linguistic expertise to their lived existence, thus ensuring our linguistic survival as a distinct and relevant part of the multicultural fabric of Victorian society, well into the future.

DEAN KALIMNIOU






First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 March 2018