Saturday, February 18, 2017


“The theme of our encounter escapes me –
I thought I was your envoy to the gods.”
I have a theory that in poet Tina Giannoukos’ latest collection “Bull Days,” nominated for the Premier’s Award, the poet is a modern twist on the Ifigeneia, spirited away to Tauris (hence the bull). Unlike the young, innocent Ifigeneia of myth, the poet who inhabits the Bull Days is neither unwitting, sacrificial, or a conduit to the gods. Instead, with the modern prophetess, nothing is certain and all is ambiguous. She is weary, in pain, disillusioned, violently passionate, yet dictatorial, egotistical and aggressive (“This is cowardice, not tenderness. This is unhelpful. You know I can gore you…” she says in poem XIV). At the same time, she is multi-voiced, restrained in expression and immensely dignified. Furthermore, unlike the archetypal Iphigeneia, the poet, despite her travail, real or imagined, appears to have no need of rescuing, as she tells us in no uncertain terms: “What if I were to tell you that we arrived too late for all that might be?” A prophetess who defies her own prophecies then? Or possibly self-defeats them, in order to merge once more with the original Iphigenic prototype: “I’m back where I vowed I’d not return, decision once made unmade as if time unfurled…”
            On a second reading, I become convinced that the Bull Days is a parallel narrative to Solomon’s Song of Songs, itself considered an allegory of the love of God and his Church,  through the voices of two lovers, who praise each other, yearn, or each other, proffering invitations to enjoy. Bull Days seems to be the inverse, and it is perhaps not coincidental that Psalm 52 reads: “Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous, in burnt offerings offered whole; then bulls will be offered on your altar.” The priestess of Bull Days, on the other hand, informs us that: “The gods are cruel. They have an ill humour.” In her Song of Songs, there is no dialogue between lovers, only a multitude of voices that seem to emanate from the same source. Instead, we suspect we are witnessing the unraveling of a relationship that we are not quite certain has ever quite begun a relationship in which the parties are unknown and could likely be, manifestations of the multifaceted nature of the poet herself.
            Nonetheless, Bull Days is undoubtedly a love epic, one in which both the transiency but also constancy of love )”I trace my love for you back ten thousand years to days of honeycombed rooms and courtyards. My love for you makes me eternal”), its dominating (“Watch how I move, and move quietly into the ring to face me. I will lower my head for the kill”) and passive aspects (“A bride must serve papadums fried in sesame oil, if she’s to woo a lover”), its sublime desires, and deep loathings (compare the Song of Songs’ “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead,” with Tina Giannoukos’ brilliantly perceptive: “My lover is shitty eyed… He will not sit with my friends, whom he calls amoral, so he sits alone relishing his principles. Now he’s forlorn and a hypocrite, enjoying surreptitiously the wobbles of the waitress’s sallow breasts.”)   are artfully explored, through poems that seem to break down upon each other like disoriented waves on a Daliesque beach, threatening to shipwreck the inattentive or unempathetic reader.
Thus in poem XX, we are placed in an arena, and told: “Sex is not easy, but it is natural. I am your bull charging you and you, a working matador, show your control, drive the steel into my heart,” only to be returned to the same arena in poem XXII, wherein: “Your moment has come. Aim correctly, plunge the sword between my shoulder-blades… I am a bull and must die. That is the point.” In this world, love is locked within a perilous game that could prove fatal. In ways intelligible and incomprehensible, the prophet both as lover and as an ambiguous sacrifice, not so bloodless: “Blood drenches my mouth.”
Where Bull Days reach the apogee of their emotive power is in the expert way in which the poet negotiates the subtle shifts of power between the lovers, lending real depth to the multiplicity or singularity of the relationships forming the corpus of the work. Thus, in subtle incremental shifts, we go from Song of Songs-like images in X, such as: “These breasts are honey to your eyes. …This is the fire you want, the tremble you seek,” to “Her breasts are honey to my eyes… This is the fire I want, the tremble I seek. It’s too late, the time is past for loving too loose to count as song or praise,” in XII. Perspectives and power plays shift as the relationship flows and eddies, perfectly portraying the hard, gritty substratum of the work’s world.
            It is difficult not to admire the manner in which Tina Giannoukos refracts love through the cauterizing prism of the Bull Days, splitting it into parts constituent and dysfunctional. She does so by articulating her own “mellifluous alphabet of ache,” in tightly structured, jewel-like interpretations of the sonnet form, a form in which she displays extreme mastery. Abjuring the self-indulgence of configuration or expression, Tina Giannoukos’ style is austere, tightly wrought and classicizing. As a result, the emotions she evokes are stark, vivid and inescapable. They gore you in the shoulder.
            An intensely learned poet, Tina Giannoukos has her Bull Days engage in intertextual dialogue with Shakespeare (of course, as master of the sonnet) but also, more than sparingly, with Sappho, incorporating her thus: (‘Fragments survive’, ‘Is this the Sapphic line? O sweet! O love!’) and definitively providing her own understanding of Sappho’s famed γλυκύπικρον stance on love, noting: “Bittersweet lips angle me in sharp relief.” As a highly functional bilingual, it would be easy to make much of Tina Giannoukos’ Greek background as facilitating such references, but to do so would be to obscure the art and an intertextuality that transcends both language and genre.
Bull Days labyrinthine manoeuvring of intricate levels of meaning and its meandering, serpentine treatment of metaphors and images, as an exploration of antithesis is absorbing as it is awe-inspiring. In producing a work that paradoxically demands so much from the reader, while taking so little, the highly acclaimed Tina Giannoukos creates a work that is an antipode of itself, fitting for an antipodean writer. Truly, she exhausts superlatives.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 18 February 2017

Thursday, February 16, 2017


I knew what a τσιμπούκι was from a very early age. After all, one of them took pride of place in my grand-aunt’s living room. Its cylindrical shaft was incredibly long, approximately two metres in length and it was covered in intricately fashioned patterns of translucent mother of pearl swirls juxtaposed against geometric designs. For reasons best known unto itself, it was green in hue and at its base there were two large circular protruberances, upon which the entire contraption rested. I was fascinated by it but apparently, it was very old and very fragile, so, I was forbidden to touch it. Instead, I would experience it vicariously through the viewing of the multitude lithographs of the τσιμπούκι-obsessed Ali Pasha in Greek history books, for that Albanian potentate seems to have done little else than put his mouth around one, thus, Ali Pasha reclining on pillows in a longboat smoking a tsimbouki on Lake Lapsista, Ali Pasha reclining on pillows in a longboat smoking a tsimbouki on Lake Pamvotis, Ali Pasha reclining on pillows in his harem in Ioannina, smoking a tsimbouki….you get the general idea, though I suspect that one of these lithographs bearing a tsimbouki weilding Ali Pasha, placed next ot a photograph of Ali Pasha’s bloody decapitated body as portrayed at the Vrellis waxworks in Ioannina, would serve as a grand Ottoman health warning against smoking.
The revelation that the term “tsimbouki” had connontations other than a long, Ottoman smoking pipe, came to me at my first attendance at an Australian soccer match, back in the days when soccer was ethnic and reflected the dreams and aspirations of disaffected, hen-pecked migrants across all social and racial sub-strata. At some key stage in the game, a group of mullet-headed youths began to chant: «Πω, πω, πω, τι τσιμπούκι είν’ αυτό.» As they did so, their eyes gleamed with unworldy glee and they clutched at their crotches in ecstasy. I remember asking one of them whether tsimbouki was in fact, some type of migrant patois for “goal,” and my interlocutor rolled up the sleeves of his flanelette checked shirt tightly over his biceps, thrust his face uncomfortably close to mine and shouted: “It’s a τσιμπούκι ρεεεεεεεε,” before rushing off in search of a light with which to light some flares, for he had come unprepared and was completely disorganised. On the way home, my attempts to vocalise my joy at being exposed to such exhilliarating surrounds and linguistic polyvalencies, through the chanting of «Πω, πω, πω, τι τσιμπούκι είν’ αυτό,» were met by my father unceremoniously, with a backhander. I surmised that my father was secretly, an Alexandros fan after all, this being how we used to refer to a team that now identifies itself as Heidelberg United.
Somehow, after a certain age, the word tsimbouki seemed to have widespread intellegibility among the students of my school, Greek or otherwise, along with other expletives such as pousti and malaka, which in our corner of Essendon, were ingeniously conflated by the Aussie kids into the compound poustamalaka, a kind of taramasalata portmanteau that makes sense when one thinks about it. Going to school and being told that one’s mum is a poustamalaka is a heart-warming experience that shows just how multicultural the melting pot of vital fluids actually is. Incidentally, up until the ninenties, when people returning from holidays in Greece began to ape the mannerisms of the ultramarine Hellenes, malakas was an offesnsive term. Now, not only is it a term of endearment, it is a compulsory linguistic addition to the beginning of each and every sentence, if one is to establish genuine Neohellenic credentials. As one recently arrived Neohellenic friend observed not so long ago:
«Βρε μαλάκα, εσείς οι Αυστραλοέλληνες είστε κρύοι και λιγομίλητοι.»
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is because we tend to move our hands a lot less when we talk.”

It would have been at this point that some of the more nationalistic Greek students in the school, decided to assert their ethnicity by means of scatology. I remember one notable soccer training afternoon, whereby, having once more successfully utilised my powers of advocacy in order to excuse myself, I hung around long enough to hear some of the Hellenic soccer stars of the future (for every Greek Australian boy that undergoes soccer training is a potential star player for Real Madrd in his parents’ eyes), ask our beleaguered Chinese language teacher cum soccer trainer:
“Sir, do you know Jim Boukis?”
“Jim Boukis, sir. Do you know him?”
“Didn’t he train about two years ago?”
“Ha, ha sir, I knew you would know Jim Boukis. You look like just the kind of guy who would.”
“What is he doing these days?”
Spasms of laughter ensued and this ritual was played out upon soccer trainer upon soccer trainer with the questions varying from:
“Hey Sir, do you know Mal? Mal Akas,” to do you know: “Michael O’ Tripper, Sue Benny,” or when imagination exhausted itself “Sue Vgeni,” until the time when one of the main protagonists, a boy who modelled his speech directly upon Jim Stephanidis of Acropolis Now fame asked a new blonde, haired blue eyed, Anglo-looking trainer:
“Hey sir, do you know Travis?”
“Travis? Travis who?”
“Travis Boutsas, do you know him?”
«Τον ξέρω.
Θέλεις να ρωτήσω την μάνα σου πώς τον ξέρεις κι εσύ; Τράβα τώρα,» came the snarling response. We stood around speechless, for the common consensus was that Travis Boutsas was the schoolboy pièce de résistance of Grecoscatology, a work of the highest expletive genius, now deflated and rendered redundant until the next season by someone who knew exacly what we were up to. This trainer was not only Greek, he was pure evil. He pushed us hard, refusing to accept my impassioned references to the Magna Carta as pretexts for my non-participation in training and though I did not ever learn to kick a ball straight at the end of his tenure, I fantisized about kicking his own, countless times. What is worse, he adopted the use of the term Travis Boutsas as a collective noun to describe all of us.
It is for this reason, that when I graduated and obtained my first job, being mentored by a particularly sadistic Greek lawyer, that I raised my eyebrows quizically when he asked:
“Can you come here?”
“Do you know Tom Poustie?”
“Seriously? You’re going to go down this path now?”
“Answer the question. Do you know Tom Poustie?”
“No. Do you?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I do. You want to see?”
Quick as a flash, he flipped his computer screen around to face me. There in front of me, an email from a colleague, who, and my chief tormentor had taken the trouble to look up his profile, was truly labouring under the applelation of: Tom Poustie. I glanced at the email and the look of sheer demonic delight on my torturer’s features. Shrugging my shoulders, I remarked:
“Βρε Tom Poustie,” as the rafters shook with my persecutor’s manical laughter.
Tsim Booky, the enigmatic taxi driver who appeared recently on the Commercial Networks, with that name, to comment upon the taxi driver’s protest against government policies must be viewed in the light of hallowed Australo-hellenic scatological tradition. The fact that he can convincingly pass himself off as an act of fellatio (which may or may not be symbolic of what he may believe to be the not-so-genuine efforts of the government to mollify his brethren and which could more likely be likensn to irrumatio instead), in multicultural Australia, proves that this man must be given his own television show or youtube channel, whereupon, tsimbouki in hand, he can comment upon the issues of the day. In this, and our continued delight in asserting our identity through smut and converting it into social protest, we ought to be immensely joyful.


Saturday, February 11, 2017


The above, positioned above a photograph of John Laws holding a bottle of Valvoline motor oil is the caption from one of the countless memes with which I inundated social media in the lead up to the extra-ordinary general meeting of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria in order to obtain member approval for the sale of part of its holdings in Bulleen. My favourite meme however, is one I posted of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, grinning devilishly while saying: “A referendum for Bulleen? Even if you vote No, the result will still be Yes.”

The aforementioned meme proved to be not far off the mark. Despite strident opposition, primarily expressed via some sections of community radio, a whopping 92% of members present and entitled to vote, voted in favour of the GOCMV board’s proposal for the sale. As I stood in the immensely Andrianakos Centre, itself a product of the Board’s strategic engagement with previously unharnessed sections of the community, watching the crowds mill and discuss the proposal enthusiastically, I was taken aback by the frisson of excitement that pervaded the space. Here there was none of the fractious, acrimonious and combative atmosphere that generally characterizes the gatherings and deliberations of organized Greek communities in Melbourne. There was no breaking off into smaller groups, the famous «πηγαδάκια,» there to indulge in skullduggery and number crunching. No recalling of past favours, or marshalling of apparatchiks seemed to be conducted. Where there were once scowls, smiles abounded and an almost palpable buzz of optimism and goodwill was omnipresent.

Everyone I spoke with had a different interpretation of what they were voting for. Some thought they were voting for the construction of a tower, others, for the construction of an old people’s home with adjoining shops and one particular elderly gentleman labored under the opinion that he was voting for the construction of a more genteel counterpart to Oakleigh’s Eaton Mall. We are, after all, talking about Bulleen. When it was explained to them that the resolution they were called upon to vote for was for the subdivision and sale of part of the Bulleen property, this did not perturb them in the slightest, where only a few years ago, questions of: “And what will they do with the money? Why should we sell now?”would have left the proposal dead in its tracks. Indeed, so firm in their convictions were the attendees of the meeting, that they kept coming in droves, long after the meeting had started. Most were not interested in hearing the arguments for and against. Instead, they were there, as most of them put it, to vote for progress and change. As one voter put it: «Να κάνουμε κάτι επιτέλους.» For them, the GOCMV’s vision for Bulleen represents that change.

The fact that the Greek community can go from nitpicking profit and loss statements in order to trip up Boards about the unaccounted five dollars spent on postage stamps to placing their trust in a Board’s vision for a multi-million dollar development represents an important cultural and sociological shift in the way our community conducts is affairs, and I would venture to say, is of historical importance. Furthermore, the presence of leaders of diverse smaller community groups in the Andrianakos Centre last Sunday, all of whom felt that they had a vital stake in the deliberations of the GOCMV and were more than ready and willing to assist, where only a few years ago, they were excluded and had no hope of even getting close to the GOCMV, also represents a historic shift in the dynamics of our community: From a fragmented, dysfunctional mosaic, we can see disparate forces, while retaining still their own sense of identity, gradually coalescing around the central pole of the GOCMV. What is more, rather than being dragged, kicking and screaming, jealously guarding illusory privileges to the tombstone, they seem to be wishing to offer themselves to the GOCMV voluntarily and, with rapture.

The sale of the Orestias brotherhood’s club building and its subsequent donation of one million dollars of the proceeds to the GOCMV must be viewed in this light. Such a donation would have been inconceivable a decade ago and yet there they were, the committee members of the Orestias brotherhood, standing before the members at the extra-ordinary general meeting, received the acclamation that is their due. Soon after, the members, some of whom I know to be the most querulous, minutiae-delighting, community leaders ever to disrupt an election or undermine a committee, streamed to the ballot boxes also to give of themselves willingly to the GOCMV, in a docile and friendly fashion. I found myself scratching my head in incredulity. Looking up at the Board, seated at the stage above, I found myself asking: “Who are these people and what have you done with the real Greeks of Melbourne?”

The answer is simple. The GOCMV Board has presided over one of the most progressive, dynamic and productive eras in that institution’s history. By embarking on necessary infrastructure projects and successfully completing them, they have managed to galvanise a hitherto apathetic and disengaged community. By boldly and actively engaging with Greeks of all regions, political persuasions and religious affiliations, the GOCMV has transformed itself, in the space of a few years, from an insular, exclusive, ideological ghetto, into that which its founding fathers dreamed it should be: the all-embracing, inclusive, peak representative body of Greeks in Victoria. Any chance visit to the Greek Centre on any given day, but especially on Saturday, when its floors are bursting with children learning the Greek language in brilliantly appointed classrooms, or on a Thursday night, when all and sundry can attend lectures on Greek culture and history, speaks volumes about the historical revitalization of our community under the current Board of the GOCMV.

The Bulleen vote was thus more than just about Bulleen and its future. It was a ringing endorsement of the direction the GOCMV has taken under this Board and most importantly, given that the plan to redevelop Bulleen is subject to numerous conditions and circumstances falling into place, that rare thing for a Melburnian-Greek: a declaration of trust, that this Board, which has taken upon itself the task of re-imagining our future as Greek Australians and is proceeding to lay the necessary foundation to secure that future, will deliver on its promises and most importantly, has the capacity, to make a collective dream, a functional reality. The magnitude of that trust (92% of the vote), marks a historical turning point in the affairs of our community.

As does the way its leadership is perceived. The almost rapturous manner in which GOCMV president Bill Papastergiadis was received by the majority of members at the general meeting, the way in which large numbers confided in me on the day that they were “voting for Bill,” or that they “came here for Bill,” or that «οΜπίλληςξέρειτικάνει,» suggests that we may be witnessing the emergence of a charismatic leader in Hellenic Melbourne, a historic aberration for a people that both laments the absence of ηγέτεςand proceeds to defenestrate anyone displaying leadership pretensions, refusing to acknowledge their legitimacy. In the case of president Bill Papastergiadis, there appears to be a tacit, taken for granted acceptance among members that he is their leader, that his words carry weight, that his vision is true and that he is the appropriate person to represent us within the broader Australian social fabric and beyond. That, in and of itself, is truly remarkable.

From a sociological, cultural and even psychological point of view, the Bulleen vote, which by means of future hindsight will most probably be viewed as Chapter 2 in the process of our community’s redevelopment and reorganization, is thus of immense historical importance. Just how far that vision can be carried forward, depends, largely, upon our ability to maintain the unprecedented level of communal cohesion the GOCMV has been able to achieve, and ultimately, upon all of us.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 11 February 2017

Saturday, February 04, 2017


I want to introduce you to my friend Liako, a member of our community who is proudly of Maniot descent, and with whom all of Melbourne is currently well pleased. Twenty years ago, when I first met him at his parents’ house, I was immediately struck by his penetrating eyes, the simplicity of his demeanour and his acerbic sense of humour, which divest you of any pretentions to egotism you may harbor, even unwittingly. Over the years, we have argued passionately about almost everything, especially Greek politics and history, for in Liako’s world view, everything that needs to be done is settled and crystal clear, whereas for me, everything is nebulous, uncertain and untested. He exudes confidence where I exude doubt, conviction, in the face of my indecision. Liako articulates his views with firmness, unyielding, but always listening, appreciating, but never retreating from his deeply held convictions. Fiercely independent, devoted to his ideals and his family, it is his solidity and stoicism that mark him as true friend, one who with whom you can have an intellectually brutal argument over abstruse points of Byzantine history one minute in the small hours of the morning, and the next rely on him for absolutely anything, brushing previously spoken angry words aside, for this a person both of thought and action, a true elemental in the Olympian sense, who can melt the sum of human expression in the crucible of experience, reducing his relationship with people to their fundamentals.

I am unsurprised therefore that Liako, (known to the populace at large and lionised in the media as Lou Bougias), acted the way he did during the horrifying Bourke Street massacre, stopping his taxi and calmly and confidently attending to victims and those traumatised by what they had seen. For those that know him this is no aberration in behaviour: he acts in this way every single day of his life, for he is deeply imbued with a sense of decency and love of humanity that is expressed subtly and with deep humility. Consequently, to have had Liako not assist victims in the kind, and sensitive way he did, would have been perverse. When I spoke to him in the aftermath of the massacre, he was unchanged, curt and considered, though somewhat perturbed by all the publicity he has received and puzzled at the way people have made so much of what he deems to be a simple, logical and natural reaction to the circumstances he found himself with any in which he acquitted himself with such nobility . In an age of disquiet, when there are fears that community aggression and dysfunction are increasingly eroding our social fabric, unassuming but extra-ordinary Liako truly is an urban hero, a righteous role model and I am both proud and glad to call him a friend.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 February 2017


Talented photographer Ari Hatzis once related how, on a trip to Antarctica, he took with him a Greek flag. His plan was to unfurl the flag once on the icy continent’s surface and take a photograph of it, in order to immortalise the incongruity of that flag used to flying over a sunny land, now being located in the world’s most extreme icy wastes. No doubt he also wanted to send the message that Greeks crop up in the most unlikely of places. Sadly, in his excitement to follow in the path of the Hypernoteians, he left his flag on the ship and the coveted photograph was never taken.
It is in this vein that I view the latest controversial photograph that has so vexed Greek public opinion within that country, both in Greece and abroad. A group of Greek soldiers, of Albanian ethnicity, allowed themselves to be photographed in their military uniform. All of them have linked their outstretched hands in such a way, that when first viewing the photograph, I thought that the defenders of the fatherland were either very bad at affecting raper attitudes or performing the children’s song: ῾Μια ωραία πεταλούδα.᾽ However, I am reliably informed that they were in fact, forming a representation of the Albanian national symbol, the double headed eagle and it is this that has incensed and outraged the Hellenes.
Demands for the Albanian-Greeks court-martial and deportation abound. Apparently, forming the symbol of the double headed eagle is an act of treason, because it indicates that the soldiers’ loyalty is not to the country in whose army they serve. Pundits lamenting the state of Greece go further and opine that this type of heinous behaviour proves that multiculturalism in Greece does not work – that Greece must belong to the Greeks and that one cannot become a Greek, they must be born a Greek, simply because these so-called “Greeks” of diverse descent, cannot be trusted to have the best interests of Greece at heart, especially when they try to make images of avian endothermic vertebrates with their hands.
It is worthwhile wondering if the level of outrage and bile would have been any different, had the soldiers in question been of Serbian, Montenegrin, Russian or Karnatakan (in India) descent, for all those cultures use the double headed eagle as a national symbol. I would venture to say that it would not be. The real problem here, lies not, as the infuriated would have us believe, with soldiers of any race displaying an inability to cleanse themselves, by means of psychosocial colonic irrigation or otherwise, of their ethnic affiliations, this compromising their ability to serve the Greek state, but specifically with cultures or ethnicities that are perceived to be ‘enemies’ of Greece and thus, their presence within the Greek army is deemed to be a security risk and they themselves, as potential fifth columns. As such, despite the fact that they may be Greek citizens, their position in the Greek armed forces is considered untenable.
There is ample historical precedent to support such a view. The modern Albanian state was created, out of a form of Albanian nationalism that aped and was largely a reaction to Greek nationalism. Its creation compromised the right to self-determination of a large population of native Greeks in the south of that country, sparking the Northern Epirus issue, which is yet to be resolved, as successive Albanian governments pursue largely hostile policies towards the Greek minority. Further adding fuel to the conviction that Greek trained Albanians represent a fifth column, is the knowledge that most of the leaders of the Albanian independence movement were educated in Greece, specifically in Ioannina, and it was these leaders who went on to curtail the ethnic expression of the Greeks of Northern Epirus. Add to that the persistent irredentist policies of Albanian governments who have claimed as their own, territories comprising the entirety of Greek Epirus, the appalling manner in which the collaborationist Albanian government and the Cham Albanians, who were Greek citizens, firstly annexed Greek territory in Thesprotia and then proceeded to commit genocidal acts against its Greek citizens, the appropriation of Greek history in that, according to Albanian historiography, the ancient (and modern) Epirots are ethnic Albanians, and the fact that the Albanian government actively assisted Serbian Albanians to commit treason against their country of citizenship, violently rebelling against their government and creating the state of Kosovo in the process and one can begin to appreciate the roots of Greek paranoia.
Of course against these incontrovertible facts, one must balance many others: That Albanian speakers have existed within the bounds of the Greek state for at least a millennium, that Albanian speaking revolutionaries all over Greece fought as hard as any other fighter for the liberation and continued freedom of Greece, and that at least until the middle of the nineteenth century, serious consideration was given by all interested parties in the creation of a federal Greek-Albanian state. These examples however, serve only to illumine the sources of fear and suspicion where they exist. They do nothing to allay them.
It is quite plausible that many Albanians living in Greece harbour prejudices against Greeks commensurate to those harboured by Greeks against Albanians, created either by ‘history’ or by their experiences living within Greece. Some of those prejudices, related to me by them, appear eerily similar to those harboured by first generation Greek migrants against Australians. What the Australian experience should teach us however, is that petty prejudices of this nature seldom, if ever, translate to anything more serious. But then again, the Australian multi-cultural paradigm is built on a myth of its own, that of terra nullius, whereby all nations have the right to co-exist here, (as long as they acknowledge the ascendancy of the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture) because there were no competing nationalisms to contend with the ruling culture in the first place, Aboriginal cultures being conveniently effaced from the discourse. The success of the Australian multi-cultural model thus stems from the ability of the dominant culture to control and define the cultural narratives of the minorities it has permitted to settle within its sovereignty. This is markedly different from the experience of Albania, Greece and other Balkan states where nationalisms compete, collide, contend and overlap, continuously. It is of no benefit to gloss over the fact of this acrimony.
I don’t think we will ever know the motivation of the young men who assumed the butterfly position in the now infamous photograph. Were they, as I suspect merely highlighting the incongruity of men of Albanian background serving in the Greek army, given the known historical background of Greco-Albanian relations? Were they parodying competing nationalisms, or merely expressing sub-cultural solidarity with each other? Were they indeed, as many contend, setting out to insult the Greek state? It is impossible to fathom the inscrutable workings of their young minds. What is certain however, is that the ensuing hysteria, clearly is a product of a deeply felt insecurity about the changing face of Greece, where recourse to threadbare tropes of collective national self-indulgence no longer assist in any meaningful way to interpret the world around us.
No amount of wishful thinking will bring Greece to the almost ethnically homogenous state it believed itself to be, between the end of the Second World War and the downfall of the Communist bloc – itself a temporary aberration in two millennia of continuous population movement. Many of those population movements, such as those of the Avars, Slavs and Goths caused upheavals that directly threatened the security and existence of the Greek-speaking people. Yet despite the immense human cost of those almost continuous upheavals, eventually, over a long period of time, Greece was able to absorb those populations and make them their own, despite the state of insecurity it found itself in. Such a long view of history makes the hand gestures of little boys, pale into insignificance.
Ultimately, we cannot hope to know now, whether it will be government policy, or social attrition that will determine how ethnic non-Greek peoples will be accommodated as Greek citizens and what form any type of multi-culturalism, if any, will take. The social and ethnic realities of Greece do not bear any resemblance to those of western multicultural countries, created largely as a result of colonialism or de-colonisation and thus any comparison or translation of their ideologies is unhelpful. The pre-existing, though not-consistent practice, of not permitting “risky” groups such as Thracian Muslim citizens to bear arms with ammunition while serving in the Greek army suggests that the creation of distinct “classes” of citizens is a possibility, with all the implications for the bilateral relations between Greece and the target’s country of origin that these entail. This is especially so considering that over the border in Albania, the Greek minority and its politicians’ commitment to the Albanian state is called into question on a daily basis by the media and Albanian politicians, often, most crudely.
Of paramount importance therefore, is to keep ethnic and social tension from bubbling over, as the unique processes of dealing with the new social realities, resolve themselves over time. The best we can do to assist such a process is to exhort all concerned, little Albanian soldiers and Greeks alike, to keep their hands firmly in their pockets, where we can see them.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 February 2017

Saturday, January 28, 2017


“One of the worst things about being a young refugee in Greece, is the knowledge that your life has suddenly been paused, as if God is holding an immense remote control,” Nineveh, who in her early teens was a refugee in Greece in the mid-nineties, confides. “I went from being the top student in my class in Iraq, to just sitting around, waiting for nothing to happen. My parents could not work and I could not go to school. Every morning, I would watch the children in Peristeri, where we lived, go to school and I was insanely jealous of them. I spoke little English and very poor Greek and could find nothing to read in my own language.
To tell you the truth, Ι was bored out of my mind and completely demoralized. All of a sudden, my life no longer had any purpose or any structure. When you are at school, your whole mindset concerns the future: learning new things, progressing to new tasks, adding to what you already know. As far as I knew, not being able to go to school, I had no future. Not only that, not having anything to do makes you focus almost obsessively on things you would rather forget: the frightening experiences we had in Iraq, the traumatic way we left and of course, the terrifying passage to Greece in which we almost lost our lives. I had nightmares continuously.
Nonetheless, it was only when we arrived in Australia and I finally returned to school that I realized the full extent of the damage caused by two years of scholarly inactivity in Greece. I was extremely behind in all my subjects, had forgotten a large portion of what I knew and was no longer used to the discipline of study. Not a few of my friends, in the same situation gave upon on study altogether and went looking for menial jobs. Therefore, to deny someone schooling for even a short period of time is, quite plausibly, to compromise their future altogether.”

Despite these negative memories of scholastic deprivation, Nineveh, who has gone on to enjoy a successful career in the sciences, waxes lyrical about the Greek people per se. “They were all so friendly and so sympathetic. We established lasting friendship and felt completely at ease with our neighbours, all of whom took a genuine interest in us.” A lasting legacy of the compassionate treatment meted out to her and her family by the Greeks of Peristeri, is Nineveh’s innate Philhellenism. In Australia, she deliberately sought out Greek friends so that she could preserve her rudimentary knowledge of the Greek language acquired during her sojourn and regularly attends Greek events of interest to her. She maintains a love of Greek popular music, or at least she thinks she does, for she deifies Notis Sfakianakis and fervently believes that his name is not semantically, the antithesis of what we understand to be music, altogether. In short, though not all of her experiences in Greece were positive, their sum total, where the compassion and basic humanity shown her outweighs the lack of opportunities afforded to her, has shaped Nineveh into a lifelong friend, both of Greece and the Greek community of Melbourne, as is evidenced by the fact that, by her own admission, she recently berated an Italian grocer for recommending Turkish dried figs over Greek ones. I didn't have the heart to tell her that I prefer the Persian ones. Incidentally, she also has the unfortunate habit of berating those of her Greek friends who choose not to send their children to Greek school.

The demented Golden Dawners who recently stormed into a school in Perama, Piraeus to disrupt a meeting being held by teachers and parents regarding the education of refugee children in that facility, would do well to cast aside their troglodytic primal urges and take heed of the stories of people like Nineveh. Though said Golden Dawners are fond of proclaiming their adherence to what they consider to be “pure” Hellenic values, it would be of benefit to point out to them, that one of the basic values that underpin Greek civilisation since the time of Homer, is that of Xenia, better known to the modern Greek as φιλοξενία, one of those terms for which, as the Ellinarades rejoice in telling us, like φιλότιμο, no exact equivalent exists in any other language.
Xenia, as ritualised guest friendship, thus embodies the ancient Greek concept of hospitality, providing a structure for the generosity and courtesy to be shown to those who are far from home. Accordingly, guests are to be provided with succour and protection, and even provided with a present when they leave. By reciprocation, a guest had to be courteous and also offer his host something by way of a gift. (Of course it was understood that the guest relationship was of temproary duration). That Xenia was central to Greek society can be evidenced that one of the greatest ancient epics, the Iliad, revolved around a violation of guest-friendship, when Paris abducted his host, Menelaus' wife, Helen. The Greeks therefore were required by duty to Zeus to avenge this transgression, which, as a violation of xenia, was an insult to Zeus' authority. Memories of Xenia could even create precedents that were a pretext for peace in such a world and transcend the generations. In the Iliad, Diomedes and Glaucus meet in No Man's Land. However, Diomedes does not want to fight another man descendant from the Gods, so he asks Glaucus about his lineage. Upon revealing his lineage, Diomedes realises they are guest-friends, as their fathers had practiced xenia with each other. They decide not to fight, but to instead trade armour to continue the ties of their guest-friendship. Similarly in the Odyssey, the Phaeacians, and in particular their princess Nausicaa stand out for their immaculate application of xenia, as Nausicaa and her maidens offered to bathe Odysseus and then led him to the palace to be fed and entertained. After sharing his story with his hosts, they even agreed to take Odysseus to his home land.

The latest Golden Dawn antics thus seem to underlie the ambiguity of the word ξένος, which, having been in use at least since times Homeric, can be interpreted to mean different things based upon context, signifying such divergent concepts as "enemy" or "stranger", a particular hostile interpretation, to host, and all the way to the hallowed "guest friend." For Golden Dawners, it seems, not only refugees but the vast majority of the population of Greece who do not support their world view seem to be classified as "ξένοι." All the more reason to afford them the courtesy prescribed by the ancients say I.

Ιn their plurality, the Golden Dawners have up until now, lived a comfortable life, in peace and relative affluence. They are in no position to appreciate, let alone comprehend the terrible psychological and physical toll of being uprooted from one's country, witnessing slaughters and losing loved ones, nor the travails of braving rapacious people-smugglers and attempting life-threatening journeys across perilous borders. They have not been sexually harassed or robbed in refugee camps, nor have they, like Nineveh, had to face the prospect of a completely pointless, paused life, owing to an inability to go to school. Instead, by begrudging young, traumatised refugees the opportunity to regain hope and meaning through some type of schooling as they wait to rebuild their shattered lives and by seeking to intimidate those who would proffer them such an opportunity, the Golden Dawners display the worst facets of Modern Greek society: exclusion, suspicion, racism and bigotry. In doing so, they directly contravene the hallowed ancestors who they supposedly hold up as their example.

The flip-side to xenia is that it is reciprocal. It creates strong emotional ties that endure. In the case of Nineveh, it created a passionate advocate for all things Greek and there are many others like her in Melbourne alone. For Nineveh, and thousands like her, her sojourn in Greece was a temporary aberration, and her family had no intention to remain in Greece. This is important to note, because Germany jhas ust announced it will be returning thousands of immigrants and refugees to their point of entry (thins being Greece) starting March this year, and Greece is already hard pressed to deal with its own social and economic issues. However, providing young refugees with dignity and compassion, in the form of the chance to learn and dream where it is possible to do so before they move on, given the limited means Greece has at its disposal, not only transforms their lives, providing them with an outlet from their daily uncertainty that could be channelled otherwise towards anti-social behaviour; it creates a relationship of friendship and gratitude that has the capacity to transform each and every refugee student into a potential ambassador for Hellenism. If this is not possible, then at least let us not intimidate them. Brutish discourtesy, as practised Golden Dawn in their 'raid', reinforces prejudices about the West within the already laboured minds of war-stricken refugees and creates lasting bitterness and enmity that benefits Greece not at all.

Ultimately, Xenia had at the heart of its philosophy, the idea that the gods walk among men and then to refuse hospitality to a god, would be the height of blasphemy. It is high time that we embraced such a humanistic and benevolent conception of mankind, affording each other the respect and mutual regard we all deserve, consigning the thuggery of the simian Graeculi who ape Hellenic attitudes without having the foggiest idea what they entail, where it belongs: The dustbin of history.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 January 2017

Saturday, January 21, 2017


When I was a lad, the way we distinguished the inner circle from the outer, was by discerning people’s ability to speak in the Greek tongue. Once in a while, we would come across a strange phenomenon, especially at school: Peers whose parents were Greek and yet they had no facility in their mother tongue. In our binary way of looking at the world such ersatz “Greeks” were a conundrum, for they defied classification. Our identity was therefore enclosed within the syllables of an arcane tongue, enunciated mostly within earshot of English speakers (otherwise we generally spoke to each other in English, which would invariably elicit, from our elders at Greek functions, the following command: ῾Μιλήστε ελληνικά,῾ sometimes suffixed with the appellation κοπρόσκυλα), thereby proclaiming to all and sundry, our perceived ties of kinship and cultural affiliation.

Several decades on, it cannot be disputed that the primary language of discourse among second generation and increasingly, many first generation Greek-Australians, is English. Similarly, increasing numbers of second and third generation Greek-Australians have little or no fluency in Greek. Despite earlier generations considering the maintenance of the Greek language to be one of the key pre-requisites to perpetuating a “Greek” identity, it appears that quietly and over a long period of time, subsequent generations have managed to develop their own ideology of identity, to which lack of knowledge of the language of the mother culture is not inimical.

Thus, in Melbourne it is de rigueur to consider oneself a passionate Greek, even when one does not use or is not fluent in the Greek language. According to this view, what takes precedence over prescribed cultural, religious and linguistic criteria as determining Hellenism, (which give rise to innumerable questions as to: 1. Who determines these? 2. Can they be changed to reflect changing values or experiences? 3. Why are these the criteria of Hellenism and no other?) is how one personally feels about their own individual ethno-cultural identity. Proving that the task of defining Hellenism has been a work in progress since times ancient, without any clear resolution, are the endeavours to establish the Hellenism of the Macedonian Kings in order for them to take part in the Olympic Games. In those times, religion and language, were the key determinates. Cavafy’s Poseidonians, on the other hand, occupy a middle position between the archetypal two approaches. Having lost their language, and not comprehending the significance or meaning of the traditions they had preserved, they still clung to these, regardless of the fact that their ostensible irrelevance caused them angst, because they still felt that they comprised part of their identity. Here, it is not language but consciousness, coupled with the perpetuation of practices, that formed the Poseidonian conception of being Greek.

For me, there is something counterintuitive in the widely and deeply held “Hellenism without Greek” approach to identity emerging within Greek communities of the Anglosphere. After all, language encodes unique cultural practices and perspectives in a singular way. In the case of the Greek language, it provides an unbroken continuum wherein three millennia of shared thought and experience that be expressed in a manner that can only be approximated by translation in other tongues. While it cannot be denied that non-Greek speakers can identify as Greek, it follows logically that such an affinity hangs of the tail end of the Greek speakers they have come in contact with or grown up around and is not plausible beyond a generation, simply because the lack of the ability to receive and communicate information in the language of the ethnic group to which identity is claimed, eventually inhibits participation and an understand of that group. The lesson we learn from Cavafy’s Poseidonians therefore, is that while they “felt” Greek, however burdensome that “feeling” was, that feeling did not endure and they were eventually completely Romanised.

It is in this context that Greek deputy foreign minister Terence Quick's recent controversial comments to Greek Americans in Tarpon Springs should be understood. At a recent gathering, he expressed his disappointment at the fact that all of his hosts were using English instead of Greek, despite the fact that the aim of the gathering was to seek the Greek government’s aid for Greek to be taught in schools in the region: “The Greek language should be a powerful reference point for the Greek Diaspora, as is Orthodoxy. Here in the US we have now reached the fourth and fifth generation, and Greek is fading. If you, the parents, and grandparents do not support the Greek language in your own gatherings, then Greek will be extinguished…. So, despite all the previous Greeks who spoke in English, I will speak in Greek, which is the mother of all languages. "

There is a certain irony in a person by the name of Quick chiding expatriates for not speaking Greek and exhorting them to do so. It goes without saying that Quick's own ethnic background would challenge many Greek-Australians’ conception of what it is to be Greek.

Quick’s contention, that it is ridiculous to seek assistance from a beleaguered Greek state for Greek language education while at the same time displaying a non-commitment to the perpetuation of that language and its relevance within a multi-cultural society by not using it in diasporan social contexts, seems logical and could equally be applied in Australia as well, where though much lip service is paid to the importance of maintaining the language, as an ideology, daily practice indicates other priorities. Quite possibly, the mere act of seeking Greek language education when one is not prepared to use the language, should be seen as yet another Poseidonian ritual. However, as a representative of the Metropolis, Terence Quick’s placement of the Greek language at the centre of his conception of the Greek identity, seems to suggest that what is Greek is truly in the eye or the consciousness of the beholder, or stakeholder for that matter. His revealing comments seem to suggest that we are entering a Meta-Greek era, an era where, given the increased distance and time spent away from the motherland, our experiences, priorities and attitudes towards our mother culture have diverged to such an extent that old constituent elements are being discarded and new identities formed that bear marked differences to the culture that spawned our original cringe. For example, among various Greek-Australian sub-cultures, such as the Pontian or Cretan, it is arguable that dancing has taken centre stage as the key component of ancestral identity.

In inclusive multi-cultural societies where a multiplicity of social realties exist concurrently but in reality the Anglo-Saxon one predominates, ethnic languages have proven to be the casualties of such identity reformation, coming as this does, off the back of postmodern cultural relativism. It will be interesting to see to what extent the anglophone Greek identity which has already emerged, will be considered as "Greek" by the denizens of the motherland, not known for their inclusive outlook, for a number of factors, language and geography chiefly among them, already preclude such an acceptance. It will be fascinating, to gauge as to whether or not such an identity assumes the form of a watered down, de-hellenised Greekness that is the penultimate state to total assimilation or can actually articulate the Greek-Australian experience plausibly down the generations and be the jumping off point for an entirely unique identity in its own right.

Rather than pontificating to the Poseidonians about their parlance, thus cutting them to he Quick, Terence Quick would do well to study the social and psychological conditions in which language loss came about in the first place. Further, if Global Hellenism, a concept that the Greek State has propagated, is to be plausible, it has to be sufficiently broad and sophisticated as to encapsulate the multi-faceted fabric of the societies in which it has arisen and respectful of the people whose daily lives are its constituent elements. It is a coalescing of historical processes that cannot be driven by the Greek state alone. Such a task requires a little less grandstanding and a good deal more introspection and collaboration, for in this game, that of maintain and developing unique Greek identities, there are no quick fixes.


First published in NKEE on 21 January 2017

Saturday, January 14, 2017


The diminutive old man with the care-worn, drawn cheeks and the aquiline nose kneels rhythmically as he lovingly lowers his ear over the mouth of the clarinet. Then, slowly, his eyes half closed in ecstasy, he takes an inordinately deep puff of his cigarette, the type that only the Greeks can describe as σέρτικο, sensuously drawing the smoke deep into his lungs at the same time that he draws the sonorous notes of the clarinet from its mouth, deep into his soul. With a flourish, this sprightly octogenarian allows a great sigh to escape from the abyss within him, and immediately leaps up, beating the dust from his τσαρούχι, as if banishing his cares and woes forever, twirls around and, without losing time to the inexorable beat emanating from his chest, loses himself in the epic masculine majesty of a tsamiko that is as much from the heart as from the clarinet itself. Indeed, it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. 
If a single man could personify the region of Epirus, then undoubtedly that man is the late Giorgos Konstantinidis, whose loss, just before Christmas left the Greek community of Melbourne so much the poorer. Small and lean, with a physique toughened and forged in the bleak, minimalist mountain landscapes of Konitsa in Epirus, there was no pleonasm of flesh or feature about him, save for his luxurious, upturned moustache, the likes of which would turn Stalin green with envy. Here indeed was a man, who, though cast in the mould of privation, was possessed of an inexorable zest for life.
A founding member of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, I knew him from my childhood days, marching with him at the annual Independence Day march to the Shrine. Back then, he would march proudly at the helm of a group of youths that included his daughter, nieces and nephews. He continued to do so throughout his life, showing no sign of slacking, as he marched proudly in step, turning his head sharply to the right, in order to greet the officials, one year resplendent in his foustanella, the next, in the μπουραζάνες that comprise the daily traditional costume of the Epirotes, the one constant in an ever-changing world. When we wanted to obtain an impression of what a traditional Epirot looked like or gain a few tips as to how the traditional Epirot comported himself, Giorgos Konstantinidis was our constant point of reference. After the death of my great-grandmother, when the pain of loss became too great to bear, I would seek refuge in his conversation, for he, like her was one of the last authentic repositories of the riches of the Epirotic dialect, the words falling of his tongue as mellifluously as the notes of the clarinet which he so adored. Giorgos Konstantinidis’ speech was chthonic. Having its origin in the land that according to legend was held to lead to the underworld, his speech emerged from the infinite chasm of the primieval Epirotic tradition, careful, considered and unconsciously idiomatic. It was the kind of speech that compelled silence and introspection, tying our generation, imperceptibly but inexorably, to the generation that came before. As such he was and even beyond the grave, still remains, a stalwart of the past, persisting in the present, in order to propel us forward to the future.

Ensconced every year since 2004 within the cultural tent of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia at the Antipodes Festival, surrounded by the various accoutrements comprising the re-enactment of a traditional Epirotic home, Giorgos Konstantinidis looked and felt at home, every part the image of an Epirot shepherd. Cheerfully treating passersby to some home made tsipouro, every so often he would grabs his klitsa and ring the cattle bells hanging from the tent emitting shepherd’s whistles and cries as he did so. Those who passed by, especially tourists, would view this wonderful phenomenon in natural habitat, that was, by virtue of his capacity to transcend time, in no way anachronistic, with awe and delight. Most were sufficiently moved so as to request to be photographed with him, or to drag their most often reluctant progeny, kicking and screaming, also to be immortalised with him in digital clarity. Within a few seconds of having his arms around them, they became calm and happy for this doting grandfather had a remarkable way with children.
A few minutes later, the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis would once more be on the move. The traditional Epirot musicians would arrive and he, naturally, would be called upon to lead the dance, doing so with remarkable gracefulness of poise and noteworthy agility. Artfully placing a cigarette in him mouth, he would throw his skoufo down onto the ground disdainfully, as if expressing his complete and utter unattachment to the accoutrements of this world and dance around it, a titanic, elemental Kazantzakian figure, if there ever was one. Moments later, he would cast a side glance at me, a bespectacled ersatz anachronism masquerading as an Epirot, that glance conveying a mute command for me to follow his lead. 
Satisfied that everything was then in order, his roving eye would scan the enthralled crowd of onlookers. Ultimately, he would zoom in on one Asian lady with a bemused and nervous expression on her face. Before she had time to realise the fact, the tsamiko predator had already pounced and instantaneously lured her into the labyrinthine circle of the dance, a potent symbol of life itself, there to be instructed by a true master of the art.
As a beloved and instantly recognisable figure at the Antipodes Festival, the unassuming and completely unselfconscious Giorgos Konstantinidis well deserved the appellation of Festival Mascot. If one was to put words in his mouth, then it is quite possible that he would rationalise his motivation for spending forty-eight hours straight in a plastic tent on Lonsdale Street every year, as a desire to exemplify and thus pass on tradition. Yet this would only be partially correct. He is did not set out to re-enacting a dead tradition. Instead he constantly endeavoured to find a way to articulate harmoniously, a way of life that he believed, forms the basis of our identity, which lived within him. As one of the few living links with that authenticity, he was a Festival highlight and was cherished as such, especially by those who half in horror, half in glee, sought to evade his roving klitsa, as well as his bespectacled sidekick.
This year, the spirit of the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis, who was accompanied to his grave by the laments of the Epirotic clarinet he so loved, will imbue everything that will transpire at the Epirus Cultural Tent at the Festival and in all endeavours of the Epirot community in Melbourne, for we cannot understand our communal life without him. Though without his corporeal presence we are much diminished, it is in the keeping of his values, his love of tradition and family which he understood to embrace the entire community, that we must seek to ensure his, along with so many irreplaceable others like him, place in posterity and so retain our sense of self, generations into the future.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 January 2017