Saturday, February 24, 2018


When I was young, apokries didn’t exist in Essendon. Communal Greek celebrations back then consisted solely of the Greek National Day march to the Shrine of Remembrance, sundry dances and barbeques organised by various regional brotherhoods and the ubiquitous but now almost extinct, name-day barbeques.

I discovered apokries through my Greek school reader. An avid kite flyer, I was enthralled to learn that back in the homeland, there was a day called “Clean Monday,” when it was the custom for all young children to fly kites. The text was accompanied by respectable looking be-suited boys, all uniformly sporting the same low-fringe haircut, flying kites with their moustachioed fathers, on a rock which was identifiable as the Acropolis, as the ruins of the Parthenon loomed behind them. The text also explained that Clean Monday came immediately after the apokries, which was a time of festivity, the details of which remained unexplained. As a young boy whose sole dream was to behold the Parthenon in all of its Pentelic glory while wearing a suit, I thus longed to experience the apokries for myself, solely for its Parthenonic kite-flying conclusion.

 Around about the same time, I learned that the word apokries, meant “fasting from meat,” the word carnival having a similar meaning. In those days, no one I knew fasted, so this made no sense to me, until my friend’s grandmother, a lady who had been in Australia since the thirties, and whose diet consisted of lamb chops for breakfast, lunch and dinner, explained to me that in Greece, it was necessary to force everyone to fast from meat, because most people were poor and if they saw other people indulging in meat eating activities, they could become distressed and even violent. Apparently, there was a civil war fought just after the Germans left Greece, between meat eaters and those who had no meat. However, here in Australia, she explained, God had given us an abundance of meat and therefore, there was no longer any need to fast as we were now, all equal. According to her, τσικνοπέμπτη, the Thursday during apokries when it is customary to barbeque meat, was every day in Australia, kind of like Christmas in July. She also attempted to put paid to my Clean Monday proclivities by attempting to explain to me the meaning of the Australian expression: “Go fly a kite.” Consequently, she concluded, apokries, an event she described as being: “kind of like Moomba but without the birdman rally” were an irrelevant and superseded discourse for our Greek-Australian paradigm, unless one came from Patra, a place far from that of my own people, the Samians and the Epirots; the likelihood of my meeting such a person being as remote as experiencing the apokries in the flesh, in that fabled carnival city.

 Her prognostications notwithstanding and in complete contradistinction to the norms of cultural assimilation, which assume traditional customs erode over time, Greek Melbourne has, in the decades since, evolved into an Apokriatic town. Every year, in the weeks before Lent, a plethora of community organisations stage apokriatic events, each of them becoming more elaborate than that of the year previous. This current year, I have participated in four, the most brilliant being the Moorabbin carnival, in which the Manassis Dance Group, dressed in animal pelts, masked in ram skulls and girted by cattle bells, proceeded to shock, scare and titillate the pants of punters, enacting the apokriatic rituals of Northern Greece, to the tunes of gaidas and the samba.

 The annual Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, now a pre-Lenten fixture upon the community calendar, also purports to partake of the apokriatic spirit. During the two days of its duration, imported and domestic momogeroi perform Pontian carnevalic fertility rites, masked Genitsaroi from Naoussa jingle down the length of the street with their coin-sewn vests, accompanied by Manassis’ Icelandic heavy-metal nightmare beasts, while stylish stilt walkers loom benevolently over the awe-struck souvlaki-munching populace, tsiknopempti being a moveable weekend feast in our city. Considering that for much of the Festival’s history, its sole purpose was to celebrate Greek National Day and ourselves, the trend towards the carnivalesque is a palpable one.

 Even brotherhoods and community organisations with absolutely no apokriatic history are now “buying in” to the rediscovery of this tradition. Sometimes, however, it takes a few goes before one gets it right. Just a few years ago, I attended the first ever apokries dance of a regional club, in which fancy dress was compulsory. Sadly, the members of the club, most of whom had never celebrated apokries before, either in Greece or Australia, ignored that last injunction, which is why I found myself, clad in full authentic Bedouin garb, standing out among a long line of dinner suited and skirted members, waiting to pay at the door. As I waited, I could hear them whisper in full patois:

- Τι γυρεύ αυτός ιδώ;

- Δε ξέρου. Τι είνι; Κανένας αράψ πρέπ να᾽ναι.

- Κι τι γυρέυ ένας κωλοαράψ ιδουνά;

- Μήπους χάθκι;

- Για δεν τουν αρουτάς;

- Σώπα μη μας βάλ κι καμιά βόμπα αβδά κι μας ανατινάξ ολνούς…

- Μήπους ήρθι άπ᾽τν Αραπιά να αγουράσ᾽ του κτήριου;

Screwing up her courage, an old lady turned to me and asked:

“You spik Grik?”

- Καμιά φουρά, I responded, in her dialect.

Shocked, she replied: “You very good spik Grik. Where you learn et?”

- Απ´τουν μπαμπά᾽μ, I answered.

Frowing, she persisted: “And where you baba learn et thi Grik?”

- Απ᾽τουν παππού᾽μ, I informed her.

Puzzled, she shuffled away.

For the rest of the night, I had to endure dark and concerned looks by disturbed revellers. On the flip side, as rumours sped up and down the hall that I was an Arab sheikh looking to purchase the club building for a ridiculously overpriced sum, causing heated debates among the more socially active members as to how the profits would be expended, or rather, by whom they would be pocketed, the committee members acting as waiters, were extraordinarily solicitous. In breach of club protocol, our table was served even before that of the president, and the treasurer himself appeared in person to enquire as to whether the food served to me was halal.

- Μόνο η μπύρα είναι, I responded, αλλά χαλάλι σου.

 As drinks flowed, and mirth increasingly abounded, I was accosted by a particularly corpulent lady who, though she insisted that she was not wearing fancy dress, was eerily dressed like Carmen Miranda. “Get onto the dance floor and show us how to do a proper tsifteteli,” she whooped, her arms heaving.

I tried to explain to her that in my culture, only dedicated belly dancers were permitted to sway to the syncopated beats of the tsifteteli while drinking coffee under indigo tents in certain parts of the Nefud desert, but she was having none of it. Pulling me by the keffiyeh, she propelled me into the middle of the dance floor and proceeded to shake, rattle and roll, in front, behind and around my personage as I affected a look which I hoped conveyed lofty, rolling-in-money, sheikhic disdain.

Unsurprisingly, I did not win the “best dancer” prize but to my utter indignation, I did not win the “best costume” prize either, even though I was the only one in costume, simply, because the committee believed that the garb in question, was my everyday dress. When it was announced that no prize would be given owing to lack of participation, I abruptly rose and strode across the hall to the exit, two concerned committee members running behind me to ascertain what was wrong and to save a possibly endangered property deal. Curtly, I informed them that my helicopter was waiting. It was at that point, that they finally got it.

While we possibly not socially evolved enough to re-enact the traditional Phallus parades of Tyrnavos, in which giant, gaudily painted effigies of phalluses are paraded around town, (although several of my female friends argue convincingly that most committee meetings of Greek-Australian clubs serve exactly the same purpose), we have, as a community, managed to revive and in some cases, create new and exciting apokriatic traditions of our own. As a result, our communal life has become invariably the richer for it.

Cavafy, in his seminal poem: The Poseidonians, may have mused that: “The only thing surviving from [our] ancestors was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites… and so their festival always had a melancholy ending/ because they remembered that they too were Greeks… and how low they’d fallen now… living and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.” Our pre-Lenten apokriatic festivals in contrast, are vibrant, complex, and ultimately triumphantly exuberant interpretations of a unique Greek-Australian way of life. Καλή Σαρακοστή.


 First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 February 2018

Saturday, February 17, 2018


According to the tribes of North Auckland and the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, a mythological figure named  Kupe sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, after murdering  his cousin Hoturapa during a fishing expedition, and making off with his wife, Kuramarotini, fleeing with her in a great canoe, Matawhourua. During their epic sea journeys, they overcame numerous monsters and sea demons, including the great octopus named as Te Wheke-a-Muturangi. Arriving in New Zealand, Kupe returned home, recounted his adventures to his tribesmen and induced them to follow in his footsteps, in order to settle New Zealand.

The Pontic Greeks also preserve the outline of a founding myth that broadly involves a great sea journey. Jason of Iolcus in Thessaly, after some familial strife, commissions the building of a great boat, the Argo and along with a number of famous heroes of the day, set off on a quest to find the Golden Fleece. Along the way, like Kupe, Jason was compelled to confront various monstrosities, such as the smelly women of Lemnos, the six armed Gegeneis, whose name in Greek is now used to describe someone who is “native,” the Harpies, the Symplegades and  even, possibly the first robot in mythological history, the bronzed Cretan Talos. Unlike Kupe, whose wife was indirect cause of his journey,  Jason meets his wife Medea, at his destination, Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. Having defeated the dragon guarding the Golden Fleece and the Colchian king, Jason, like Kupe, leaves the newly discovered land and returns home, there to cheat on Medea and have her in turn exact revenge by killing his children and escaping home on a chariot, drawn by dragons, neatly closing a circle of motif. The Greeks, having learned of the new lands to the east through saga and song, slowly began to found colonies in the Black Sea region, which is why Pontic Greeks consider the trailblazing Argonauts to be their ancestors.

Both Pontians and Maoris, cultural entities that have a proud warrior tradition, are widely considered, to use the Argonautic term, to be γηγενείς, or natives to the regions where they historically resided. Yet their foundation myths suggest that purporting to claim “earth-born” status is elusive: our ancestors invariably, have always come from somewhere else and though we may pride ourselves by our connection with a particular location, we are in fact, as our own myths tell us, a conglomerate of the sum total of our collective experiences.

It is for this reason that the melding together of two distinct cultural traditions that have hitherto never been in contact, differ from each other greatly and yet share surprising points of commonality makes sense and is in fact, a masterstroke, in a country the vast majority of whose inhabitants derive their ancestry from somewhere else. Using the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival as a melting pot is even more apt because this is a Festival that is staged every year with the sole purpose of celebrating diversity, exemplifying how, when one appreciates and is able to look past the colours, smells and movements and reduces them to their original elements, we are all united by our surprisingly similar (and gloriously mundane) humanity.

Local Pontian dance Group “Akrites tou Pontou” is perhaps best placed to view Pontian culture in this light, because its very name Akrites, means those who occupy the uttermost edge, the margins. Local Maori group “Te Whare Tutaua O Te Ara Hononga Ki Wikitoria” on the other hand, translates as “The Maori House of Weaponry and joining pathway of Victoria.” Custodians of a proud warrior culture, it is their capacity to form “joining pathways” with Pontians who are able to view their culture from fresh and ever changing perspectives that permitted us to view something extremely special and of inordinate historical importance during this year’s Lonsdale Street  Greek Festival: the forging of these two diverse groups on the stage, through dance, song, music and shared stories, into something entirely novel, harmonious and gracefully coherent.

In sharing the stage and their lyrical and dance lineage, two heretofore completely isolated traditions, united in their cohabitation in our city, were able to provide an awe-struck audience with a multiplicity of narratives that though complex, exuded simplicity: the journey of the migrant, the imperative to stand up for one’s culture and protect it, the dignity of those who have suffered unspeakable loss and tragedy but abide regardless and the nobility that comes with welcoming all who would partake of a very human ritual of brotherhood. In order to collaborate with the Akrites of Pontus, their Maori counterparts insisted upon inviting them to a traditional tribal ceremony of welcome, inducting them into their hearths and hearts, not as Pontic Greeks but, as family. On stage, our cultural hearth, they welcomed the entire Greek community into their hearts, and we reciprocated with gusto, proving that filoxenia and filotimo are concepts common to all peoples.

It is not the first time that the “Akrites of Pontus” have reached out to extrapolate and transform the basis behind their unique tradition of folklore. Past performances at the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival include collaborations with Australian Aboriginal groups and closer to the cultural home, Georgian choirs, a particularly fitting choice, since Georgia is the modern descendant of the ancient state of Colchis. Yet their perspective, offers something new to a Greek community that here in Melbourne has largely been so overwhelmed by the corpus of the Greek historical and folkloric legacy to be able to interpret it and place it into the context of our antipodean existence.

Up until now, we have employed ourselves mainly with rediscovering our traditions, which are so multifaceted and venerable that it is easy to become lost in such a weighty task, and attempting to reproduce them as authentically as possible. Consequently, we run the risk of ossifying or seeking to cryogenically freeze what we understand to be our ‘culture’ for the sake of avoiding contamination, a symptom of a deeper-felt identity crisis and cultural cringe. Nonetheless, by only re-enacting a rediscovered litany of unadulterated rituals that have their origins in rural Greece and have little to say by way of context to our urban existence in our multicultural metropolis, we run the risk of, like Poseidonians, retarding the evolution of our own distinct cultural tradition as Greeks in Melbourne and like them, through slavish repetition, driving that tradition to the point of irrelevance and extinction.

It is in the interpretation of culture, its extrapolation to inform and enhance our everyday lives that the strength of our community lays and this is where the Akrites of Pontus are forging a new and exciting path for us to follow. Recording and maintaining knowledge of our past is vital, as it informs the foundation of our existence in this country. Yet unless we are able to also make use of that vast corpus of ancestral lore in order to contextualize our presence in a country that differs greatly from that of our ancestors, we will never be able to form strong cultural roots in Melbourne. Instead we will remain dependent for cultural sustenance upon an increasingly remote and alien Greece, a country with diverging and distinct cultural dietary requirements of its own, neglecting the creative forces of our own unique and precious, version of Hellenism.

If Greek civilization has been able to survive and inspire throughout the millennia it is due to its singular capacity for openness, its almost post-modern multiplicity of perspectives and versions and its ability to embrace and assimilate the cultures of its neighbours. Rather than obsessing over the correct way to wear a zoumbouni, the Akrites of Pontus have understood that, as its director, Peter Stefanides observes: “living culture evolves. Art is freedom of expression and culture is the result of that development….our culture is not a a Mona Lisa that must be replicated.”

Had Socrates been present at their remarkable performance, he surely would have remarked: «Οὐκ Ἀθηναῖος οὐδὲ Ἕλλην, ἀλλὰ Μελβουρνιώτης», the first small, but unimaginably significant step, in the coming of age of our own Greek-Melbournian culture.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 February 2018

Saturday, February 10, 2018


“If you chance to be pinch'd with the colic, you make faces like mummers, set up the bloody flag against all patience, and, in roaring for a chamber-pot, dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing.” William Shakespeare, Coriolanus.

 Of all the Greek gods, my undoubted favourite would have to be Momus, the spirit of unfair criticism and irony. The son of Night (Nyx) via an immaculate conception, according to Hesiod, and twin of the misery goddess Oizys, his name is derived from the greek word μομφή, meaning 'blame', 'reproach', or 'disgrace.' Momus’ caustic wit proved to be too much for the Olympians. They decided to expel him from their company and Greeks have lacked irony ever since. Since the devil finds work for idle hands, according to the seventh century BC epic Cypria, Momus applied himself to fomenting the Trojan War in order to reduce the human population.

 A deity that has nothing good to say about anyone is one that should be feared. According to Aesop, while giving the breathtakingly beautiful Aphrodite a visual appraisal, Momus noted that he could not find anything about her to fault except that her sandals squeaked. In Lucian’s “The Gods in Council”, Momus takes a leading role in a discussion on how to purge Olympus of foreign gods and barbarian demi-gods who are lowering its heavenly tone, thus providing a perfect role model for Australian immigration minister, Peter Dutton.

 As a result of his outspokenness, from a mean, curmudgeonly figure, Momus gradually became a symbol of social criticism. During the Renaissance, Erasmus presented Momus as a champion of earnest criticism of power and authority, admitting that the god was “not quite as popular as others, because few people freely admit criticism, yet I dare say of the whole crowd of gods celebrated by the poets, none was more useful.” In Giordano Bruno's philosophical treatise The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, Momus plays an integral part in a series of dialogues conducted by the Olympian deities, as Jupiter seeks to purge the universe of evil.

 In England, a renewed interest in the classics saw Momus in Thomas Carew’s masque Coelum Britannicum of 1634, which was acted before King Charles I and his court. There, Momus and Mercury draw up a plan to reform the ‘Star Chamber’ of Heaven. The famous saying: “Tis better to laugh than to cry,” is attributed to Momus in John Dryden’s satire on sports, “Secular Masque.” Two centuries on, it was to influence Henry David Thoreau as he was preparing to write his seminal work ‘Walden.’

Over the passage of time, in popular culture, Momus became softened into a figure of light-hearted and sentimental comedy. Momus slowly took the place of the Fool on the French playing-card pack. The mummers, who are still to be found in England, France and Germany, so-called after the ancient Greek momos, a word derived from the god Momus, meaning mask, assumed the guise of masked or black-faced men, who between Christmas and Epiphany, enact, a set number of humorous or satirical plays, usually where two actors engage in a combat, and the loser is revived by a doctor-type character. Often, these mummers are associated with sword dances.

 Meanwhile, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, far from the world of masques, literary criticism and mummers, the Pontian Greeks also developed a Momaic custom surprisingly akin to that of the western mummers; the Momogeroi. Like the mummers, the momogeroi emerge between Christmas and Epiphany. Like their western counterparts, they are generally masked, wearing animal costumes, or as elderly soldiers bearing weapons. Momus-like, they are tasked with spreading humour and sarcasm, enacting a set play whose origins appear to lie in a fertility ritual that marks the passage of the seasons. The set play revolves around the story of Kiti Goja, (a corruption of the Turkish for old codger), an elderly gentleman, possibly a personification of the god Momus himself, who assists an “Arab,” (in black-face) to claim his beloved as his bride, only to attempt to substitute himself as the bridegroom. The actors cover themselves in garlands of dried fruit, symbolizing the bounty of creation and of course, poke fun at old man Kiti Gotsa, the interloper who seeks to fertilise, when his realm is properly that of decay. The themes of life, fertility, decay and death, are all encompassed in the ritual, which views the cyclical nature of life as the sick joke of the gods, a gesture that the old god Momus, would undoubtedly approve of.

 The rituals of the momogeroi have not taken place in their land of origin, Pontus, since the Pontian Genocide. In Thrylorion, the village founded for Pontian refugees by the great Ballarat hero, George Divine Treloar, the ritual, transposed to the Greek mainland, began to die out in the fifties. However, it has of late, enjoyed a revival in the Pontian-settled villages of Northern Greece, to the extent where in 2016, a successful application was made to register the Momogeroi ritual with UNESCO as a part of the world’s cultural heritage.

 The old god Momus would find irony in the fact that in a far off continent which we call the Antipodes, but should actually be called Antioecia, because according to second century geographer Crates of Mallus, that is the proper name for the land mass presumed to exist in Australia’s position, while the Antipodes instead, denote South America, Pontian Greeks continue to enact his ritual, with the vibrant youth of the Central Pontian Association: Pontiaki Estia devotedly indulging in much mummery as they celebrate and vivify a heritage that was almost entirely lost, owing to human intolerance and humanity. Only Momus would appreciate the irony of the fact that despite their best efforts, the perpetrators of genocide not only did not succeed in effacing the descendants of Momus from the face of the earth but merely, served to egg them on to further mummery.

 At this year’s Lonsdale Street Greek Festival, Momus will make his presence known through the participation of Momogeroi from Kozani, Greece. These easternmost mummers, who are being brought to the festival at the expense and instigation of Pontiaki Estia and its sponsors, will indulge in momentous mummery, momogery and more besides as they munificently attempt to spread mirth and merriment among sundry Melburnians. Performing on stage, mingling with an unsuspecting crowd, they will invite us to seek enlightenment in futility, and in the tragic ironies, the bile and sarcasm of the human condition. Sir Francis Bacon knew this well when he observed: “Truth is a naked and open daylight, that doth not shew the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candlelights.” Let us therefore set forth to receive Momus and his devotees on Lonsdale Street, this Festival, with irreverence but plenty of awe, in the spirit of the great Anna Akhamtova:

“From childhood I have been afraid /of mummers. It always seemed / an extra shadow / without face or name / had slipped among them...”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 February 2018

Monday, February 05, 2018


“Cruel are the times when we are traitors, and do not know ourselves.” Macduff, in the Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

Apparently, Professor Anastasios Tamis is a traitor. If you believe social media, he is also scum and a few other choice expletives also apply to him. The reason for this invective is that he caused to be published on behalf of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies (AIMS), a carefully nuanced position on the naming dispute. That position, to paraphrase, opposed the inclusion of the word Macedonia in any  name for FYROM, but went on to state that if the word was to be used, it should be clear that it is used in geographical, not ethnological terms, and should be preceded by an untranslatable Slavic prefix, so no confusion with ancient Macedonia could ensue.

The fact that from the eighties, Professor Tamis, through AIMS, has been at the forefront of Australian research with regard to the history of Macedonia, has organized international conference pertaining to aspects of that history and was at the forefront of articulating a cogent Greek-Australian position on the naming dispute in the nineties is irrelevant to those possessed of few spelling skills but vast stores of righteous anger. Because Professor Tamis does not write in slogans, because he does not think in aphorisms of the Orwellian: “Four legs good, two legs bad” nature, because a lifetime of research into the issue grant him a unique understanding not only of the history but also the constantly changing international and domestic political context in which the naming dispute has evolved, because he does not jump up and down to wave a Greek flag, thereby to “prove” his patriotism, he is branded a traitor by contemptible keyboard warriors, the vast majority of whom have not even bothered to read, let along consider and understand his position.

These keyboard myrmidons are mostly absent from the life of the organized Greek community. One does not generally see them joining the diminishing ranks of those who annually protest the continuing Turkish occupation of Cyprus. They are nowhere to be seen during fundraisers for aged-care or cultural events. Instead, they lead a parallel existence of their own, more Greek than any other possible Greeks, emerging from the meandric fringes of their reality, comprised of putrescent facebook pages existing only to pander to the most repellent forms of racial intolerance and rabid jingoism,  to hurl invectives and impugn the loyalty of those who they do not know, or comprehend. When their paroxysm of patriotism is over, having successfully maligned, defamed and in some cases, threatened their quarry with physical harm, they retreat again to the outmost regions of cyberspace, virtually patted on the back by their hyper-patriot peers, for “outing” another subversive element, during their own two minute hate.

If one is to believe the members of our community who howled in derision when respected academic Dr Christos Fifis rose to address those present at the recent meeting at the Pan-Macedonian Association, he too is a traitor. Further, as one incensed patriot told me, wiping flecks of foam from his mouth as he did so, most academics hate Greece and are traitors, so this should be unsurprising. Dr Christos Fifis, a well respected academic who has devoted his life to teaching the Greek language, literature and history to younger members of the community and has spent countless hours trawling through Greek community archives in order to articulate a particularly Greek-Australian perspective towards our communal history, is a traitor because in his opinion closer ties between Greece and FYROM would benefit both countries and considering that the last letter in the word FYROM stands for Macedonia, stubbornly resisting a compromise solution should be viewed from the perspective that since the nineties, via tactical error, Greece has permitted FYROM to use a name that includes the contentions term. Dr Fifis was not permitted to expound his position. The howls and cat-calls from a crowd that heard one sentence, determined that it was nothing like the slogans it has taught itself to digest and regurgitate, became so intense, that Dr Fifis was compelled to bow before the might of the ochlocracy and exit the room, leaving his opinion only semi-articulated.

Semi-articulation of opinion is no loss to an ochlos that is not interested in listening to any viewpoint that does not reinforce its own narrow prejudices. After over one hundred years in this country, we are still unable to relate to each other as humans, let alone kin. At the first given opportunity, a difference, not even of opinion, but of nuance, can cause friendships to rupture, and basic human respect to evaporate. When one ventures, or is seen to venture to make an utterance that does not accord with the Party line, then, in our community, sadly, this gives us the right to treat our interlocutors with complete contempt, absolving us of any obligation to have regard to their dignity. Once one splutters but a syllable in the wrong direction, their previous service to the community notwithstanding, this apparently allows us to denigrate them in the worst possible terms and cast them out of the fold. We may all love Greece, but it appears that we are experiencing an inordinate difficulty in loving Greeks.

The fact that our community has not evolved sufficiently to allow debate and criticism places all of us in peril. For it is in the clash of ideas and beliefs upon the anvil of human interaction, that plans are formed, defined and a sense of unity and commonality of purpose emerges that binds our community together. Parroting slogans in order to establish patriotic credentials is not tantamount to love of people or country. It is through doubt, questioning, analysis, criticism and planning that the best ways forward emerge. This however, requires humility, mutual respect and love and foremost, a mutual acceptance of the fact that all of us generally have the best of intentions when it comes to our community and our place of origin, that there are, painful as it may appear to some, no traitors, only people with differing viewpoints. Sometimes, those viewpoints may be challenging to our sensibilities, but we would do well to consider them, especially when they emanate from personages who know much more about the issue at hand, than we do. We need to learn how to listen. We need to learn to respect and give due consideration to those who have devoted their lives to our community. We need to understand that governance by slogan and invective stifles progress and creativity.

There is a much with regard to the Macedonian name dispute that our community, fixated solely upon appearing patriotic, is leaving unsaid and is not discussing or preparing for. What plan of action exists vis a vis Australian government policy, should the Greek government capitulate/compromise? So far, we have asked the Australian government
(successfully) to adopt whatever stance Greece does on the naming dispute. If Greece capitulates, will we, as a community follow? Will we differentiate ourselves from Greece? If so, in what way? Has a draft policy been drafted? Have preparatory consultations been made in the appropriate areas? If the Australian government decides to respect Greece’s position and not follow the recommendations of the Greek-Australian community, how will we deal with this? Given that in the past, during particularly sensitive times, acts of vandalism and violence were targeted against both the Greek-Australian and Skopjan-Australian communities, what steps is our community taking to minimise such occurrences? What consultations, if any, are envisaged with that community, or counselling provided given that many Greek-Australians have intermarried with Skopjan-Australians and times like these cause strain upon family relationships? What public relations plan exists to counter the likely negative criticism from the usual intolerant sections of the mainstream media, when as a united community, we pursue our protest against the Greek government’s possible compromise on the naming dispute  with vigour on 4 March? What plan of action exists once the 4 March protest is concluded?

None of these pertinent questions have been discussed, let alone raised for consideration, within a community for whom planning is often an alien concept and that appears not able to see beyond the staging of a rally as an end and the rooting out of imaginary traitors from its dysfunctional midst. Crowing patriotism is easy and absolves us of the responsibility of actually undertaking the constant hard work that is necessary to achieve a desirable outcome on both the domestic and international level. And when our lack of planning, consensus and foresight will cause us stumble, we can always, as we invariably do, blame the traitors in our midst.


First published in NKEE online on 5 February 2018

Saturday, February 03, 2018


An event of historic importance took place, within the annals of our community some weeks ago; the publication of John Vithoulkas' fictional story: "Hellenism 2221, Tales from the Antipodes. 'The Centre'" in Neos Kosmos. As far as can be discerned, this is the first time that the future of our community, as an organised entity, (as opposed to that of Greece) has been imagined and expressed through the prism of science fiction, a genre that is not generally employed in order to articulate matters pertaining neither to Hellenism, nor the diasporan community.

 This would appear strange: since the future is inscrutable, a resort to science fiction or fantasy to construct plausible versions of it, would seem to be a natural impulse for sundry writers. In the common conception of the panhellenion however, a high and noble destiny that has already been mapped out for it awaits, one of reclamation of the glories of the ancient past or, of a failure to do so, and consequently, up until now, we have been incapable of envisaging any other alternate of divergent path.

 Ostensibly, Vithoulkas' conception of the Greek community's future in 2221 is, (rather than a bleak dystopian de-hellenised wasteland where the few remaining male descendants of the current members of the community worship a god called Hellas in South Melbourne, cause domestic strife by insisting upon giving their first-born males the name of Ashleigh, or Xander because they were the names of their fathers, and naming one's offspring after their male progenitor is the last remaining 'Greek' custom, and the community, such that it is, is split between two rival groups, the Billists and the Papastergists, both paying homage to conflicting interpretations of the ideology of a legendary but by now historically obscure former Greek community leader who a century ago, achieved something herculean, except that no one can now remember what that was, since the archives have been lost), inordinately technologically advanced, breathtakingly organised and incredibly benign.

 A transport jet lands at the "Hellenic Centre" positioned at the 'Lonsdale Russell Hub.' By means technological and inordinately invasive, chiton-wearing 23rd century interested parties are treated to a continuous narrative of the twentieth century migrant experience, including the founding myth of ancestral migration, the fragmentation of the primordial community into a post-modern panspermia of regional organisations complete with a glimpse of their interminable dinner dances and its re-unification as a co-ordinated body. All the while, the visitors are immersed in slogans and buzzwords that assist to adhere the narrative to their consciousness: "transition" "educate and enlighten," "forever true," "enrich," "smiling," "grows" and "shines."

 We can assume that the narrative of our antipodean history is neither lengthy or particularly interesting, which is why Vithoulkas relates that the rest of the visit to the "Centre" is devoted to an astounding sensory exploration of aspects of the history and customs of the Greek motherland, rather than those of its Melburnian imitation, including the tantalising opportunity to converse with such historical figures as Dionysios Solomos, Nikos Xylouris and Panagiotis Tountas.

 Part Westworld, part class-room, this virtual reality Hellenic theme-park has only come into existence via bequests by what appear to be long defunct Greek clubs, to an undefined, nebulous "Hellenic Foundation," whose unrevealed guiding principals apparently have the power to set homework.

 The genius of Vithoulkas' futuristic vision lies in how he masterfully cloaks his future dystopia in the type of self-delusionary, self-indulgent language and imagery that so characterises contemporary mores. For, beyond the sensory delights of an ersatz actuality, Vithoulkas' future Greek community is a veritable dystopia. We neither know, or in fact is it considered important that we know, what constitutes the blindingly brilliant, all pervasive "Hellenic Foundation," how it is governed, who it represents, or indeed, why it is the sole arbiter of Hellenism in Melbourne. We do not know what language is spoken by it. Instead, what is important is that we submit to its education, that we "thank them," and that our "love for Hellenism [at least the version of it propagated and sanctified by it] grows." 

 Just as monolithic is the narrative foisted upon the youth, clad uniformly in retrograde but ideologically acceptable gear. The myth of arrival, settlement, decline and then salvation through the miraculous intercession of the "Hellenic Foundation," from which all good Hellenic things derive, appears to be not so much history, than gospel. At no stage, are we told, that the Greek-Australians of the future will be able to have the means to assess their past, personal, ethnic and national, for themselves. Nowhere, it appears, is there room for dissent, discussion, critical re-appraisal and a multiplicity of narratives. Instead, according to Vithoulkas, our critical faculties will be massaged and numbed by "real life" forays into the distant past, with the interpretation, re-construction and presentation of that past being managed by the ubiquitous Hellenic Foundation. Thus, the boy who was set as homework, the weighty task of discovering Odysseus' Cave of the Nymphs, is not given the opportunity to assess whether the Homeric hero was a literary character or indeed, had a corporeal existence. Neither does it matter. What is important is that he accepts reality as imposed upon him by the Foundation, for this forms an integral part of his "enhancement lessons."

 Perhaps the most dystopian aspect of Vithoulkas' 23rd century Greek community in Melbourne is that in fact, it possibly no longer exists. There do not appear to be any "Greeks" living in the area and they have to be flown in from somewhere else. Even if it does exist in some other discernible geographic area, it has no vitality. The whole premise of Vithoulkas' insightful analysis is of a society so fixated upon the past, its re-creation (which is why the future reconstruction of community lectures and dinner dances as envisaged by the author, and to which dance groups could be added, is a masterstroke) and re-enactment, that outside of its role as custodian of a time-capsule of history and an Ark of culture, or high-priest of a cult of ancestor-worship, it has developed no identifiable culture or identity of its own. Instead, this is a community in crisis, where nothing of the hallowed past appears to have evolved organically through the centuries to meld with the local environment and as a result it exists as a entity completely separate and foreign to the understanding of the rootless community that is supposed to be its heir, requiring the intervention of others in order for the past to be "re-discovered" and in the process rendering it and the community, susceptible of gross manipulation.

 If ever there was a cautionary tale about ancestor worship and the consequences of crystallising the past rather than employing its constituent parts to interpret and vivify, rather than rarefy the present, then this is it. Significantly, Vithoulkas embeds within the text, with a virtual Cavafy shedding virtual tears "as he considered what he had passed." For this, if we do not heed the gentle author, is our future: That of Cavafy's ritualistic Poseidonians, stuck within an Orwellian time-loop in the Ministry of Greek Love, with a little bit of the Matrix thrown in for good measure.

 Vithoulkas ends his vision of a future Hellenism that shines brightly, flourishes, and enlightens by stating, ominously, that it sows, leaving it to us to imagine what will be reaped. What he has sown in terms of Greek-Australian literature is a remarkable way of gazing into the time vortex itself, unphased and, if we are not careful, re-Hellenised. May his successors and imitators be legion.


First published in NKEE on 3 February 2018

Saturday, January 27, 2018


The 19th of May is a public holiday in Turkey, for it is Commemoration of Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day. This day, made a public holiday by Kemal Atatürk himself and dedicated to the youth, commemorates his landing in Samsounta on 19 May 1919, which in official Turkish historiography, marks the commencement of what is referred to as the Turkish War of Independence.

Greeks also commemorate the 19th of May, for an entirely different reason. The day of the landing of Atatürk in Samsounta, there to rebel against the Ottoman government and establish nationalist Turkey, has been appointed as the day in which to commemorate the genocide of the Greek peoples of Pontus. The date is of course symbolic. The genocide of the Pontic Greeks had commenced years before by the Ottomans and though it would continue under the Kemalists, at whose hands the final extirpation of the Pontic Greeks from their homelands took place, the genocide itself did not commence on that particular day. Thus, when Turks celebrate youth, their national regeneration and vanquishing of the Greek Army, which they see as an invading force, Greeks simultaneously remember a protracted mass slaughter of innocent people, solely because of their religion and ethnic affiliation. One date, can, therefore, have diverse meanings and connotations for those observing its commemoration.

January the 26th, Australia Day, is also another holiday in which there are encoded a multiplicity of meanings. Originally chosen to mark the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the First Fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, and the raising of the British flag at Sydney Cove by Arthur Phillip, it commemorates the proclamation of British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia. It is also one of the oldest public celebrations of white Australia, with records of celebrations on 26 January dating back to 1808, and with the first official celebration of the formation of New South Wales being held on that date in 1818.
In recent years, Australia Day focuses on celebrating the diverse society and landscape of the nation, with official community awards and citizenship ceremonies welcoming new members of the Australian community taking place on the day. The annual Lamb Day commercials, which portray all peoples converging upon an Australian beach in order to enjoy a lamb barbeque, commencing with Australian aborigines passively accepting the arrival of others upon their shores. The tacit message is that notwithstanding history, this country is home to all who reside in it, more things unite us than divide us (a trivial appreciation of lamb, for instance,) and thus, it is important for us to get along in an easy going, hospitable way, which is touted as being truly “Australian.”

Such an inclusive approach, celebrating multiculturalism and social cohesion, is a far cry from the 1837 celebration, which, whites born in Australia, sought to appropriate solely for themselves. In this, they had a sympathetic ear in the Sydney Herald: “parties who associated themselves under the title of "United Australians" have been censured for adopting a principle of exclusiveness. It is not fair so to censure them. If they invited emigrants to join them they would give offence to another class of persons – while if they invited all they would be subject to the presence of persons with whom they might not wish to associate. That was a good reason.” These days, the 26th of January is seen as an ideal day to celebrate unity within the part-mosaic, part-melting pot, that comprises the modern Australian community. In this way, it elides cleverly over the fact that the original significance of the date means nothing to the vast majority of non-Anglo-Saxon migrants to this country and their descendants, the Greeks among them being more likely to venerate the day Gough Whitlam won the 1972 election than any obscure landing of the British at Port Jackson. Whether we arrived in 1788, or in 1988, all of us have the opportunity to eat lamb.

The elision is logical and innocuous, save that it serves to obfuscate the significance of the 26 January 1788 landings. As a consequence of those landings, the original inhabitants of Australia were, over a long period of time, dispossessed of their lands, subjected to various bouts of physical and cultural persecution, culminating in the genocide of the Tasmanian aborigines, deprived of the right to govern themselves, deprived of their children in many instances, subjected to social discrimination and marginalization and until 1967, treated legally, as flora and fauna of Australia rather than as human beings. Viewed from this perspective, to celebrate Australia Day on 26 January could therefore be argued to tacitly recognize and legitimise the violent seizure of Australia from the aborigines by the British, to accept an Anglo-Saxon construction of history and the ruling class’ aboragation of the right to determine who and in which circumstance such people will arrive and reside here, without reference to the rightful owners of the land. Here in Australia, descendants of victims and the Pontian genocide are uniquely placed to appreciate the hurt that insensitivity to the psychological and social effects of catastrophes of this nature, can cause.

The intensifying campaign to re-locate Australia Day to another date in protest at the ordeal of the original owners of this land, is, not a new one. As far back as 1888, the centenary of British colonisation, Aboriginal leaders boycotted Australia Day celebrations. Petitions to the Australian and British governments in the early 1930s, for the recognition of Aboriginal civil rights were ignored or dismissed, As a result, on Australia Day 1938, a day of Mourning was proclaimed, via a protest march in Sydney. At the same time, because local aborigines refused to participate in an official re-enactment of the arrival of the First Fleet, the NSW government removed a group of Aboriginal men from a reserve brought them to Sydney. The men were kept overnight in the stables at the police barracks in Redfern and on Australia Day, were taken to a beach at Farm Cove, where they were told to run up the beach, to convey the impression that they were fleeing in fear from the British. Since that terrible day, which can be likened to Turkish celebrations of the past where the bones of slaughtered Greeks were paraded around certain areas, Aboriginals have continuously opposed 26 January as an appropriate day to celebrate Australia Day, just as Pontians are incensed at insensitivity of Turkey’s celebration of a date that was the catalyst for the completion of the genocide of their people.

The debate over the relevance on 26 January is thus symptomatic of a community that while on the one hand admits, via legislation, the wrongs done to Aboriginal people, socially, struggles to come to terms with those and enshrine them in their proper place within the national discourse. Thus, while the meanings and connotations of a particular holiday should, if they are to remain relevant, evolve over time and in the case of Australia Day have admirably evolved to embrace almost all of its inhabitants, such evolution comes at the expense of reckoning the harrowing effect of Anglo-Saxon rule upon aboriginal communities.
In the light of that experience, whether or not 26 January is deemed to still be an appropriate date in which to celebrate Australia, is ultimately an issue that must be resolved through community debate. Regardless, proper consideration of the negative experience of Aboriginal communities post 1788, must be awarded pride of place in any celebration of Australia and the Greek community, comprised of people whose ancestors have also undergone racial and religious persecution are perfectly positioned to play a leading role in facilitating such a discourse. Once Australia Day is able to encompass and pay homage to the sum total of our collective experiences, both good and bad, we will have something truly worth celebrating.
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 January 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018


When I was young, I had a friend with no name. At his birth, he was supposed to be named Pantelis, after his paternal grandmother. However, prior to his terrestrial corporeal manifestation, two other first cousins had been born and given the same name and for this reason, his mother, without the consent or knowledge of his father, named him Aristogeiton, for the purposes of the birth certificate, this name being that of her great-uncle, who reputedly died in the Sudan. My friend’s incensed father and his relatives refused to acknowledge the existence and validity of the name, insisting upon calling him Pantelis. His maternal relatives addressed him as Aristogeiton and it soon came to pass that his father’s relatives turned on the father, considering him soft, a traitor to the family and stopped speaking to him, though they still referred to his son as Pantelis.

            As a result of this dispute, Aristogeiton/Pantelis was not baptized as an infant. His father being of the opinion that it was at the baptism that one’s true name was conferred, he continuously delayed that event until such time as the intrafamilial naming dispute could be resolved. When Aristogeiton/Pantelis was in year nine, his father, an enterprising businessman, went bankrupt (this was the early nineties) and as a result, his mother took over the family finances and all decision making. She promptly had her son baptized as Aristogeiton, compelling her reluctant husband to attend the ceremony and it was with this name that my friend was known, until he entered university, whereupon, he changed his name to Trevor, by deed poll.

            Though his paternal relatives still call him Pantelis, on the rare occasions that they have contact with him, about a decade ago, Trevor experienced a profound spiritual and personal crisis, at which time, he converted to Buddhism. Now he is known as Dorje, which means “something indestructible that can cut through anything,” in Tibetan and is constantly in a state of admirable placidity, convinced as he is, that there is no self and thus, identity is irrelevant. 

            Aristogeiton/Pantelis/Trevor/Dorje provided his friends with hours of activity, as we all scrambled to find suitable names for him. My cruel sobriquet for him was “Macedonia,” as his circumstances were eerily reminiscent of the broader Balkan naming dispute that saw all of us whipped to the most aerated froth of nationalistic frenzy in those early, heady days of its post-Cold War resurgence. Interestingly enough, we never sought to ask our friend which name he preferred for himself. This is because we were too busy debating with each other the proprieties and social consequences of assuming either of his names, in his absence.

            The country we refer to as FYROM is also awaiting its official baptism. Since the re-genesis of the naming dispute almost three decades ago, however, the vast majority of countries around the world, officially, and unofficially, refer to it as ‘Macedonia’. They do so, not because they are laboring under a misapprehension about the ethnic identity of Alexander the Great, or because they are ignorant of the fact that Slavic peoples first migrated to the southern Balkans in the seventh century AD. Neither are they particularly interested in the manner in which Bulgarian nationalists first coined the phrase “Macedonian for the Macedonians” as the first step in a strategy to grant Macedonia autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, as an ancillary step towards the region’s annexation by Bulgaria. Furthermore, they seem strangely unperturbed when informed that the very fact that a country is calling itself by the name of an ancient kingdom it has no links with, constitutes evidence that that country has territorial designs on its neighbour. To put it simply, the world doesn’t care about history or our pride in it. In a post-modern zeitgeist where no words have no objective meaning and identities are fluid, the vast majority of the world addresses FYROM by the name it wishes to call itself, and looks dourly upon our righteous indignation, as being bad for business. In the meantime, two generations of children have been born in independent FYROM, espousing a state-driven “Macedonian” identity.

            Whether or not the Greek government agrees to end the naming dispute by recognising FYROM by a compound name that includes the word “Macedonia,” it is likely that the rest of the world will, in normal, as opposed to official usage, continue to refer to the country and its people as “Macedonia,” and “Macedonians,” because brevity is always adopted in language use and the ethnonym is already familiar. Here the case of South Sudan, which, being recently separated from Sudan, has its people always being referred to as the South Sudanese, with no possibility of confusion with the Sudanese of the north, is the exception that proves the rule, because it is a new country, whose ethnic appellation had not, at the time of coinage, entered world consciousness to the extent that the term “Macedonian” has.

            Though much of the rage directed by Greek people at the thought of compromise is, as was the case of my friend Aristogeiton/Pantelis/Trevor/Dorje’s relatives, a reaction at “losing” against what they consider to be a “lesser” foe, the toleration of an ahistorical name-grab by the community of nations and their indifference and insensitivity to history is manifestly unfair. Such indifference, as entrenched by the 2011 International Court of Justice ruling preventing Greece from using its veto to prevent FYROM’s entry into NATO, compromises the Greek people’s faith in the international institutions that are supposed to bring about just outcomes.

            The above notwithstanding, much as in the case of the hapless Dorje, the “freezing” of the status quo for three decades, rather than assisting in achieving compromise or the successful prosecution of an outcome favourable to Greece, has merely served to entrench in the popular consciousness, an association of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with “Macedonia,” much in the same way as the illegally created republic of Northern Cyprus by Turkey, while not officially, is tacitly recognized by most major world powers, for the purposes of all substantive relations outside the United Nations arena. Keeping an issue “on ice” in the pious hope that somewhere within the future, a panacea for all ills can be found, a la Walt Disney, merely serves to harden the resolve of all sides and trap them into positions where compromise is almost impossible. In this case, the effluxion of time, has, as in the case of the Cyprus issue, not been favourable to the Greek cause.

            The Greek people have invested  a good deal of time and emotion into the “Macedonian issue” at the expense of other, possibly more vital humanitarian issues such as the plight of the Greek minority in Albania, the continuing occupation of Cyprus, or indeed the social and humanitarian crisis within poverty stricken Greece itself. They more they invest, the less the powers that be seem willing to listen. The issue is now at the stage where the FYROMian foreign minister, is parroting and parodying Greek arguments, stating that the term Macedonia is a geographical one and thus does not belong exclusively to any nation, all along knowing that the world has accepted it, via attrition, as an ethnonym for his people. The fact that machinations to resolve a decades-long naming dispute have intensified at a time when Greece is politically and economically at its weakest point since the restoration of democracy, should not be ignored. If it is time for the Greek people to accept that they cannot win every battle, and cut their losses in this matter, this should be done by their elected representatives graciously, honestly, strategically and with full disclosure to the Greek people as to why such a compromise is necessary, or beneficial. If it is to be done, it must be done in a manner that avoids nationalistic hyperbole but highlights the iniquity of a global political system that has not evolved since the time of the imperial colonialist powers. If the last Greek referendum, whose result was overturned by Greek government at the bequest of foreign interests is anything to go by, the Greek people deserve at least, that much dignity.

            Aristogeiton/Pantelis/Trevor/Dorje is fond of quoting this line of Lord Melchett’s from Blackkadder: “As private parts to the gods are we, they play with us for their sport,” and he does so with an air of resignation that only the ill-used can affect. It is time to get their hands out of our pockets, if not for good, then at least, just this once.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 January 2018