Saturday, September 26, 2015


"And, burned because I beauty loved/ I shall not know the highest bliss,/ And give my name to the abyss/ Which waits to claim me as its own." Charles Baudelaire

"Do you remember that statue of Icarus that used to be at the Departure Gate of Melbourne Airport?" a friend asked me recently. "You know the one, you couldn't miss it. We would always stand around it. It's not there anymore. What do you think happened to it?"
I remember the Melburnian Icarus well, for he was the personification of my childhood longing for a land in which I felt I belonged, even though I had never stepped foot in it. In those days, travelling to Greece was an event of significant and the entire extended family would turn out tearfully to bid their loved ones goodbye. Congregating around the statue of Icarus, they would make cryptic comments about «αποδημητικά πουλιά,» (migratory birds) returning home, before reaching into their bags and springing last minute presents to be passed on to relatives, upon the only partially unsuspecting travelers. 
For my part, as an infant, I would circumambulate the statue of Icarus in dolorous fashion, wallowing in my own misery. Not only would I lose the company of my cousins for the next three months, but of all my cousins, I was the only one that had never been to Greece, and the prospects of my visiting the mythical land of my ancestors any time soon, where Greek sailors perched upon the rigging of brightly painted but decidedly rickety vessels, liable to break out in spontaneous song at any moment, were, according to my parents, inordinately dim. 
Looking up at the strong arms of Icarus, gazing rapturously up towards the ceiling and holding what looked like an elongated pair of Inuit snow-shoes rather than wings, I would variously imagine that a) I could climb onto his back and ask him to fly me to Greece himself, or that b) if they were not wings but rather (more plausibly) paddles, I could compel him to paddle me to Greece Arion and the dolphin style. This in my opinion, would most poetically symbolize the Greek migration story: arriving here via sea, returning there by air. Failing that, Icarus' wings/paddles could always be used to scoop up luggage from a distance, from the rotating luggage conveyor belt at Arrivals.
At some stage after this I was introduced to Greek mythology and began to appreciate the wisdom of the airport authorities choosing to afford pride of place in the Departure Lounge, a statue of the first ever pilot in human history. What seemed paradoxical however, was the fact that he happened to also be the first ever air crash victim in human history. Was this in fact a giant legal disclaimer? Was it connected to the renaming of the Hellenic Air Force Academy as the "Icarus School" and was this wise given the propensity of Greek fighter jets to fall out of the sky? Mentioning this to an aged aunt who was about to fly to the motherland, I received a clip on the ear as she spat at her breasts three times and crossed herself. «Σκάσε γρουσόυζικο,» she muttered as she tried to zip up her handbag over an electric blender, cursing me and telling me that she would hold me personally responsible should her aeroplane actually crash.
Being of neo-hellenic extraction and thus having absolutely no understanding of hubris as a concept, in my early teens, I could not understand the purpose of Icarus. Why celebrate a victim of his father's design flaws? Why were we told at school to bend and stretch and reach for the stars, if flying too far towards the sun would bring about our certain demise? Would not Perseus, with his winged booties that evolved over time to become Reebok Wings, have been more suitable? Would not Pegasus, an ungulate mammal capable of airborne locomotion have been more fitting? After all, it was his rider Bellerophon's hubris after killing the Chimera, not Pegasus' that caused him to attempt to fly to Mount Olympus. Zeus sent a gadfly to sting Pegasus, causing Bellerophon to fall all the way back to Earth, whereupon Pegasus successfully completed the flight to Olympus where Zeus used him as a pack horse for his thunderbolts, thus becoming the first ever aeroplane and fighter jet, all neatly combined into one.
Nonetheless, the statue of Icarus became synonymous in my consciousness both with departure and also of being grounded, given my inability to go to Greece. This is because I observed that although Icarus seemed to take off for the heavens, the base of his statue, a remnant of the labyrinth in which he was imprisoned, was contriving to capture his legs and keep them firmly fixed upon the ground, causing me to identify with him completely and, at a later date upon learning that Icarus is an extremely important piece of Australian art, sculpted in 1971 by acclaimed artist, John Stuart Dowie, assistant to Australia's official war sculptor, Lyndon Dadswell and one of the Rats of Tobruk, to appreciate the artists' immense genius at such a subtle interpretation of the Icarus myth, especially so, considering that the very name Icarus means "follower," Dowie ensuring that his creation would prevent itself from doing anything of the sort.
There are many would-be Icaroi in world mythology but none approach Icarus for sheer patheticity. Jatayu, the Hindu demi-god was saved by his brother when flying to close to the sun and while his brother lost his wings, he got off unscathed. Etana, the Babylonian king was taken up to the heaven of the god Anu by an eagle, but unlike the brave and foolhardy Icarus, he became afraid while in the air and was returned safely to the ground. It is only when we get to the necromancer British King Bladud, who through his art of divination through raising the spirits of the dead, constructed wings for himself and to have tried to fly to the temple of Apollo in Trinovantum (London) only to die when he hit a wall, that we get anywhere near Icarus and even then, Icarus is far more sympathetic. He is the victim of the gravity that in its multifarious forms, afflicts us all.
Upon attaining the age of fifteen, I finally managed to get to Greece by means of a winter program. Though I remember glancing at the stylized wings on the Departure Gate, I gave Icarus not even a sideways glance, having at last been, at least in my own opinion, emancipated from my enforced solidarity with him. Somewhere within the ten journeys to Greece that I have undertaken since that time, the statue of Icarus was imperceptibly removed from Melbourne Airport and he remained unmissed and invisible to me until prompted recently by my friend's enquiry.
It transpires that John Dowie's Icarus is now housed in the Langwarrin Gallery and Sculpture Park. No longer enclosed within a terminal, Icarus is now free to gaze at the sun he so lusted after, his feet still firmly restrained by his pedestal, for Occupational Health and Safety reasons of course. These days, as life and its ancillary obligations have conspired to keep me from becoming airborne for an insufferably long time, I find myself once more identifying with and missing Melburnian Icarus terribly. One of these days, I will make the pilgrimage to Langwarrin and instead of reciting to him, Oscar Wilde-style: "Never regret thy fall,/O Icarus of the fearless flight/ For the greatest tragedy of them all /Is never to feel the burning light," I will pay homage to an old and dear friend by way of pouring him a libation, from an aluminum can of Red Bull, of course.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 September 2015

Saturday, September 19, 2015


Currently, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria have or are travelling to Greece, in order to seek refuge from the brutal war that has blighted their homeland, a war that has arguably been fomented by some Western Powers. Two hundred years previously, it was the Greek freedom fighters that sought to enlist the assistance of Syria in their quest for independence, through an ill fated campaign that had unforeseen consequences in the Levant.
As Islam tended only to distinguish between religions, nationality being an irrelevant concept in its worldview, the Ottomans considered all followers of the Greek Orthodox Church to form a homogenous unit. As such, with the onset of the Greek Revolution, all Greek Orthodox Christians were considered as potentially disloyal and the province of Syria, containing modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, did not escape Ottoman punitive measures. Fearing that the Orthodox (known as the “Rum” or Romioi) of Syria might rise up to join the Greek Revolution, the Sublime Porte issued an order that all Christians should be disarmed. In Jerusalem, the city’s Christian population, who were estimated to make up around 20 percent of the city's total were also forced by the Ottoman authorities to relinquish their weapons, wear black, and help improve the city's fortifications. Just as the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregorios V was executed in Constantinople, so too did the Ottomans order the execution of the Patriarch of Antioch as well. However, local officials neglected to carry out these orders. Finally, in the aftermath of a daring Greek landing in Beirut, various Greek Orthodox holy sites, such as the Monastery of the Panagia of Balamand, located just south of the city of Tripoli in Lebanon, an important centre of Orthodox spirituality, were subjected to vandalism and revenge attacks, and the monks of Balamand were forced to abandon their monastery until 1830.
The inspiration for a Greek landing in Syria supposedly came from a Lebanese monk who met with Montenegrin freedom fighter, Vasos Mavrovouniotis, one of the few guerilla fighters not to be defeated by Ibrahim’s Egyptian forces that nearly destroyed the Greek forces in the Peloponnese and imperiled the Greek Revolution. Tearfully, the monk outlined the various outrages committed against the Syrian Christians by the Ottomans and begged Mavrovouniotis to liberate them. The leader of Free Greece, Ioannis Kolettis, believed that, given the parlous state of the Revolution in Greece, a successful uprising in Syria could divert troops away from the Greek mainland and ultimately save the revolution. Consequently, he approved of the expedition, sending to accompany him, the Epirot captain Hatzimhihalis Dalianis, who was already in secret correspondence with the Emir of Lebanon, Bashir Shihab.
Bashir Shihab, was remarkable in that he was a Muslim convert to Maronite Christianity. Already a seasoned and wily diplomat, he had refused to aid Napoleon during his siege of Acre, and was the ultimate cause of his failure to capture Syria. A year prior to the Greek expedition, he had collaborated with the Ottomans in removing the rival Druze Jumblatt family from Mount Lebanon. Being beholden to the Ottomans for his position, it is unclear what, if any advantage a Greek rebellion in his territory would be to him, with scholars speculating that he possibly hoped that such a landing would grant him further aid against his Druze rivals.
On 18 March 1826, after first having landed in Cyprus in order to loot and pillage, so as to pay their troops, a flotilla of around fifteen Greek ships, led by Mavrvouniotis and Dalianis landed in Beirut. Their exploits were documented by the Smyrna-born British Consul John Barker, stationed in Aleppo, in a memo to British Ambassador Stratford Canning in Constantinople.   Barker viewed the landing more as an act of piracy given that Greek pirates were reknown for such types of raids in the Mediterranean. He reported that the Greek assailants scaled part of the defence walls, while ships cannonaded the town." Caught off guard, "in the absence of all regular military force" and with "a very scanty supply of firearms and ammunition," the fort that was supposed to secure the town from sea invasion "was as ill provided as the inhabitants." Resistance surfaced, however, thanks to a local mufti who "distinguished himself in instructing and animating the townspeople" to defend Beirut. The fighting resulted in casualties: "the loss sustained by the besiegers was in all 40 or so persons," while the besieged suffered "14 killed and 20 wounded." The town incurred damage "from 500 cannon balls, of which 2 struck the French consular house and 3 that
of the Austrian agent." Although rebuffed, Greek invaders did not immediately depart but took refuge near the seashore, occupying "a number of detached houses in the silk grounds, but that being chiefly inhabited by Christians," the Greeks "did not injure them." The attackers, according to one of Barker's sources, appealed to the Christians "to rise and join them."  He opined: “If so, they must have entertained a most erroneous idea of the number and power of the Christians in Beirut. It is also said they sent an invitation to the chief of the Druzes to unite his forces to the Christian standard.”

Seeking help from Bashir Shihab’s rivals seems to have fatally compromised the expedition. He immediately mobilised troops to dislodge the Greeks from their positions and they, having received no aid, retreated back into their ships. The landing however, had serious repercussions for the Christians of the region. A few days after the Greek withdrawal, on 23 March 1826, after the departure of the Greeks, an Ottoman lieutenant arrived with nearly 500 Albanian irregular forces and wreaked havoc among Beiruti Christians. According to Barker, "The inhabitants suffered more in their property from these undisciplined troops than the invasion of the Greeks had inflicted upon them, and the Christian part of the population, without distinction of Latin, Maronite, or Greek, was pursued and persecuted in a most merciless manner by the established authorities, while the Europeans themselves were not secure as well from the effects of the insolence and rapacity of the soldiery ... " A French merchant and an American missionary under British protection felt the direct impact of random violence when local troops forcibly entered their dwellings: "these gentlemen and their families were put in fear of their lives, maltreated, and robbed." Only with great difficulty did European consuls "repel" the "insolent attempts" of the attackers and "protect the rayahs in their service from sharing the fate of the other Christians, whose houses and silk plantations were confiscated, and all that could be seized were reduced to beggary after having been tortured for the purpose of extorting from them sums, which it was impossible for them to raise by the immediate sale of all their effects."

The arbitrary and unwarranted acts of reprisal against the Christians by the Ottomans as a result of the Greek landing destroyed the hitherto largely peaceful equilibrium existing between the various denominations in western Syria. As people of the region of long memories (the Shihab and Jumblatt families are still major players in the politics of Lebanon today), some have argued that this singular attempt to bring Syria into the Greek War of Independence sparked off a chain of events that led ultimately to the Lebanese Civil War, and possibly, the present conflict.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 19 September 2015

Saturday, September 12, 2015


On that day, ninety-three years ago this month, frightened, hungry and brutalized refugees massed on the quayside, frantically trying to save themselves from rape or murder by the crazed soldiers and irregulars who would pick them off from the crowd at random, strip them of everything they owned and attempt to satiate an almost insatiable lust for inflicting pain in unimaginable ways. Some of the refugees, such as my twelve year old grandfather, had already witnessed similar horrific scenes in their own villages in the interior and had already arrived at the sea after a grueling journey of many days made on foot and in abject terror, as murderous bands remained at their heels, bent on meting out destruction. My grandfather managed to board a boat and reach safety. Others were not so lucky. As Turkish soldiers and the mob engaged in slaughter and the city of Smyrna burned, the representatives of the western powers, their ships anchored in the harbor, look on dispassionately, and did nothing to intervene. As boats sunk under the weight of the multitude of refugees that crammed into them, seeking for salvation, the representatives of the western powers looked on and do nothing. It was only as the refugees, swimming now to purported safety, reached their ships that these representatives of the western powers, were roused from their torpor and sprung into action. They poured boiling oil over the sides of their ships in order to prevent the refugees from climbing onto the decks and when that failed to hinder the most resolute, in some cases, they shot at them and hacked off their outstretched limbs. This was ironic, because it was the western powers that had promised parts of Asia Minor to Greece in exchange for its involvement in the First World War. The ensuing internal debate as to the wisdom of such an endeavour ripped the country asunder, with two rival governments, both claiming legitimacy being formed and a national polarization and schism being created that would have its after-effects felt right up until the present day. When Greece finally entered the war and acquitted itself admirably therein, it was the western powers that sanctioned the occupation of the Smyrna zone by Greece, and having regard to the Wilsonian principles of self determination and the fact that the Greeks of Asian Minor needed a save haven in the aftermath of the Ottoman genocide of the Christian population. Nonetheless, these same western powers did little to enforce these arrangements and indeed, when the Greek people voted for a new government that was not to the western powers’ liking, some of these actively began to aid Kemal Ataturk and his nationalists in their murderous and racist campaigns against the minorities of the former Empire. Instead, they sat back and allowed a vast catastrophe to take place. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, the western powers did little to provide substantial aid to the million and a half destitute refugees that were forced from their homes. The brunt of their re-settlement was borne by an already impoverished and socially disintegrating Greek state. With the ensuing effluxion of time, this is a small but significant detail that tends to elude the popular consciousness. Between the refugees that drowned or were slaughtered at the quay of Smyrna while trying to flee from war and poor little Aylan Kurdi, who drowned tragically in Turkey while fleeing the carnage of Syria, there is the passage of almost one hundred years and the intervening deaths of millions of innocent victims of war. In 1922, during the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the League of Nations, founded in the aftermath of “the War to End all Wars,” as a mechanism for nations to resolve conflict through diplomacy and negotiation was still in its optimistic infancy. In 2015, the United Nations is in its venerable dotage, both institutions having failed spectacularly at preventing the wars that have created suffering of an unimaginable magnitude. In 1946, the League of Nations was dissolved at a time when the movement of refugees across the European continent achieved unprecedented proportions. In 2015, it appears we do not have the courage or are sufficiently disenfranchised so as not to be able to ask why the United Nations, at a time when again, refugees from numerous western provoked and abetted conflicts swarm across the globe in search of safety, do not do the honourable thing and dissolve themselves. Possibly, this may be because to do so, would require us to face up to a terrible realization: that in the one hundred years that have elapsed since the devastation of the First World War, we have become more deadly, more murderous and ever more violent, with the only difference being that in a tragic neo-colonialist twist, we now fight our wars in other countries, where the victims can be both unseen and dehumanized. My heart bleeds for Aylan Kurdi. It does so because my daughter is of a similar age and it makes his loss ever so more immediate and stark. It does so because my wife, fleeing a previous chapter of the same geo-political conflict twenty years before, was rescued while close to drowning in the same sea where Aylan perished, and yet her ordeal, along with Aylan’s appears to have been for nothing considering that steps are not being taken to stop the root cause of flight and the destruction of so many lives and families. Ninety-three year earlier, had my grandfather had the misfortune to board the wrong boat, it could have been him that perished. The traumas of living through such fearful times endure, making themselves manifest in the most unsuspecting of moments. Most of all, my heart bleeds for Aylan because all he is to the western world is a momentary bleep on its radar of conscience. “This one small life has shown us the way to tackle the refugee crisis,” proclaims “the Guardian” newspaper, as if human history is a tabula rasa, in which previous conflicts and the way the way they were mismanaged are swept clean from our memories, permitting us the blessing of an amnesia which is so necessary if we are to believe in the moral rectitude of our societies. Such comments are hurtful, because they efface the memories of the many refugees who, over the years have died while making perilous attempts to reach safety, in unspeakable conditions. They also efface the comments of a Polish dignitary that recently visited the island of Lampedusa and suggested to her Italian counterparts that they should merely permit Libyan refugees to drown in the sea, rather than rescue them and give them assistance. What exactly have we learnt now, that we did not know already?My heart bleeds for Aylan because he will be forgotten when the media of the world turn to the next inevitable incidence of human callousness and brutality. The western world will forget him, just as we forgot the photograph of the naked young Vietnamese girl running while burning with napalm, during the Vietnam War, the children with the blown-off limbs, victims of land mines in Laos, the bot-bellied starving children, first of Biafra, then decades later of Ethiopia, the skulls of the slaughtered in Cambodia and late in Rwanda, the haunting eyes of the Afghan refugee girl that became synonymous with National Geographic magazine. Most sadly, many of us, smug and secure in our own lives cocooned within our creature comforts and far removed from the existential fears that plague the more disadvantaged nations of the globe, will trivialize, compartmentalize and ultimately dismiss and dehumanize, the plight of Aylan and the millions like him. Some of us, will equate the current refugees to an “Islamicisation of Europe,” ignoring the fact that their countries have been well and truly destroyed and that many are victims of religious persecution. Few however, will ask and compel their government to answer why innocent people are permitted to suffer as a result of world-power self-interested intervention and masterly inactivity.Aylan, your parents brought you into a world that they were taught, as we were taught, to believe owed them something: decency, peace and safety. When the world denied them this, they persisted, believing that they were not entitled to this, then one day, somehow, you will be. That world has denied you, as it has denied so many other children like you, everything Your final photograph and all of theirs should be placed on the desks of all world leaders, next to the photographs of their children and grandchildren, because they have failed you and so have we. Rest in peace my poor sweet boy. May the same peace be denied to all of those who have brought about this catastrophe, along with those previous and those that are surely and inevitably, yet to come.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 12 September 2015

Saturday, September 05, 2015


I cannot miss the edifice in the photograph accompanying this article. It lies squarely within the path of my egress and regress to my home and I pass it frequently every day. In winter especially, when the rest of the faceless buildings of the suburb it dominates take on an ashen hue and seek to sink down into the depths of the earth, there to hibernate until such time as the gleaming light of summer can render it blindingly luminous, it stands as a symbol and a portent of the warmer weather to come. 
It is in the summer however, that this house comes into its own. The seemingly incongruous, when compared with the drab brickwork or dark render of the recently constructed homes around it, whitewashed walls, against the blue eaves and the terracotta tiles, all serve to temper the harsh Australian sun into something more palatable and intelligible. Where the Australian summer at its height seeks to reject or menace human habitation, here in Melbourne’s north-west, far from the sea, this house reconciles nature and mankind, in a way that only those who have sailed the Aegean Sea can truly understand, to any depth. It therefore serves as a seductive Siren song for the beauty of a land whose lure is irresistible.
I know this, for every time I drive past, I am assailed by the Siren’s song, which beguiles all of my senses, even the olfactory. Through the sealed cubicle of my mode of conveyance, which serves to isolate me from my surroundings, I see the mural of the sultry island streets skillfully depicted upon the studio doors, languidly beckoning. I can detect a hint of lavender and thyme. I can actually smell the salt on the breeze. I feel, instead of the brake and the accelerator, the crunch of beach pebbles against my feet and I arrive home, nostalgic for a postcard home that is not my own, renewed, but also, inexplicably disgruntled, muttering the following lyrics from Kostas Karalis, old song: Αν είσαι μια βραδινή βροχή στη θάλασσα/ αν είσαι ένας βαπορίσιος καπνός στο πέλαγος/ αν είσαι ένα παλιό εικόνισμα/ σε μια εκκλησιά/ πού θες να το ξέρω; intermingled with sundry Yiannis Parios Greek island song lyrics under my breath. Soon after, I begin to ponder why the introduction to Karalis’ song appears to be exactly the same as that of the Sugarhill Gang’s: Apache, and my yearning recedes gradually and imperceptibly, but never manages to go away entirely.
This house has a name of significance: Ἑλένη. This name is emblazoned in blue upon the property in blue polytonic Greek, not the modern monotonic variety, as if to denote the polymorphy of the house and the manner it is able to straddle a cross cultural divide. The aspirant before the E, at least in my opinion, denotes passion, as if one must pant, if one is to properly pronounce the name. More than a name, it is a manifesto, for it undoubtedly serves as a strident feminisation of its ethnic identity – it is Hellenic, and there can be no dispute about this, for everything about it, from the terracotta pots to the ancient shields on the walls, proclaims it to be so. In the area, one can find countless numberplates denoting a Hellenic place of origin, or even, zoomorphic tendencies (hence «AETOS» and the Pontian «POULIM») however apart from one other property, that bears the name of the Northern Epirot village «Kosovitsa,» I know not of any other property that so blatantly makes a statement as to its Greek affiliations, and its homage to its ancestry, for the owner has named it in honour of his mother.
This is suprising because our municipal area has enjoyed a sizeable concetration of Greeks since the fifties. In contrast to other municipalities, where Greeks rejoice in large numbers, our Greeks are not «in your face.» Save for two churches, and John Rerakis’ most brilliant Philhellene Restaurant, there exist no facilities or areas where they congregate, no way of distinguishing them from the rest of the populace, save for the tell-tale signs of olive trees planted on the nature strip or barely discernable notices warning Jehovah’s Witnesses away from their doorsteps and Palm Sunday crosses and bay-leafs tucked carefully within the latice of the security door. Miss these subtle clues and you could be forgiven for thinking that the Greek presence within the municipality of Moonee Valley was negligible. This property therefore, with its unmistakeable blue and white colour scheme, and its remarkable appropriation of the suburban landscape, serves as a clear, unequivocal rallying point and cultural sign-post for all those venturing within and without the municipal bounds: Here, (at least) reside the Hellenes, fearlessly, wearing their hearts upon their Lacedaemonian shields, and we can all pridefully crank up the Greek music in our cars as we drive by.
From what I have been given to understand, the responses to this architectural poem and beacon of diversity have not always been the most benign. Apparently, some local residents have not taken kindly to the translation of Greek island architecture to suburban Melbourne and on three separate occasions, have made complaints to the local council, requesting that they investigate alleged building code violations. Furthermore, it is alleged that the ingenious home-owner has been subjected periodically to anonymous hate-mail inspired solely by the appearance of their magnificent construction. The story goes that on the third time the council building inspector visited the property, it became apparent to him that the complaints received were motivated primarily by racism and thus, refused to investigate further, indicating that while there is a price for seeking to assert one’s identity through architecture, ultimately, purity of intention may ultimately result in justification.
At a time when the architecture of Melbourne is increasingly becoming dominated by faceless and anesthetic box-like constructions that exude unfriendliness and a desire for non-communication, this home, the work of a true artist, exudes the exact opposite: an extroverted desire to communicate, to assert personality and welcome the passerby. In short, it has character and as such it is an invaluable asset to the municipality in which it proudly erects itself. It is also forms an extremely important part of our own social history and it is high time that studies of the way we express our ethnic identity through architecture cross-generationally are undertaken, before assimilation of taste and mainstream pressures similar to that apparently experienced by the owners of this remarkable abode, inevitably impose upon us, a drab conformity that completely silences our Sirens and replaces our constructive exuberance.

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 5 September 2015