Saturday, December 09, 2017


My father strode up and down the trench I had just dug, hands in pockets, with the inquisitorial stride of a zealous building inspector, squinting all the while.

“It’s not square,” he commented grimly. He then turned his head sideways and frowned as he resumed his stride.

“It’s not level,” he observed.

As I pondered whether it was worthwhile for me to inform him that as my world view was generally skewed, it followed axiomatically that what I perceived as straight, everyone else saw as off kilter and vice versa, my progenitor pronounced final judgment with an air of resignation, as he rolled up his sleeves and assumed custody of my shovel: “Ατζαμής είσαι βρε.”

Save for the above incident, I have only been called an “ατζαμή” twice in my life. The most recent was over a decade ago when I attempted to assist a newly married friend who wanted to re-construct what he perceived to be a Helladic lifestyle, in wintry Melbourne. According to him, being Greek consisted of using expletives before prepositions in every second sentence and cooking gyros in his backyard on every available weekend. It was in the design and installation of an inordinately intricate contraption for the even roasting of a holocaust of meat, the complexity of which would confound even the designer of the Antikythera mechanism, that I was called upon to act as accomplice. Having miraculously, through copious amounts of prayer and misadventure to rotate, we ululated like ecstatic Trojan women as we impaled pieces of carcass upon the spit, only to have our revels interrupted abruptly by my friend’s incensed father: “Βρε ατζαμήδες, τι βλακείες κάνετε;” Apparently, in the obscure part of Greece whence he had come, it was common knowledge that one’s spit must turn clockwise for best results. He also directed some words of particularly derisive force towards my belief that gyros would taste better, medium rare. Sadly, our friendship did not survive this endo-familial rejection of my friend’s Hellenic credentials and his ensuing food poisoning at my hands.

The first time I was called an “ατζαμή” was when at the age of seventeen I was introduced to a wall-eyed gum chewing girl at a Greek dance, whose sole vocabulary seemed to consist of the words: “I’m bored,” punctuated by a “so” interposed between the first and second words on occasion for emphasis. As she appeared to be rejoicing in her boredom and resplendent within it, I felt it would be a crime to disengage her from it by means of a conversation employing the rest of the words in the English language she was not privy to, and thus left her to rejoin my companions. As I walked away from her, I noticed a ruddy faced man, the girl’s father, shake his head with incredulity and exclaim: “Καλά, δεν ξέρει ούτε να μιλάει”; “Συγγνώμη,” I heard a distant uncle apologise. “Δεν ήξερα ότι ήταν τόσο ατζαμής.”

Generally though, in my household, the word ατζαμής was applied to the description of incompetent tradesmen, which accounts for my firm belief that the etymology of the term was derived from the negative prefix α- and the word for glass, for only an ατζαμή would be so incompetent as to construct windows, without the glass attached. As it turns out, however, the term has deeper and more historical roots.

The word is Arabic and in its original sense, it signifies a non-Arab, or on who does not speak the Arabic language. Literally it has the meaning of "one who is illiterate in language", "silent", or "mute.” In this sense, it is the semantic counterpart to the Greek “barbarian,” though the root of the word ajami is said to have originally signified the act of “dotting,” that is, adding the dots that distinguish between various Arabic letters in a text, for the benefit of non-native speakers who would not otherwise be able to distinguish similar letters from the context. While in English, the act of dotting one’s i’s and crossing one’s t’s is laudable, it Arabic, it is a sign of the foreigner and the inept. The ancient Greeks on the other hand were decidedly uninterested in the describing the process of teaching barbarians to read and focused on the uncouth sounds emanating from their uncultured larynxes when coining the onomatopoeic term that denoted them as existing outside of the fold.

While both the terms ajami and barbarian stem from two respective people’s expansion from their original homeland and their coming in contact with hitherto unknown peoples, within the word ajami, a more sinister history is encoded. In Persia especially, Arab conquerors tried to impose Arabic as the primary language of its subject peoples, with the particularly harsh governor al Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ordering the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced with Arabic, sometimes by force, which including cutting out the tongues of Persian speakers, giving rise to the connotation of "mute" for the term. I assume that it is in this sense, deriding my inability to “chat up” my bored beauty, that my uncle referred to me as an ajami, so many years ago. After all, the Arabic verb ʿajama originally meant "to mumble, and speak indistinctly", which is the opposite of what I did that fateful night, for as my uncle informed me, my ineloquence cost me my chance at true happiness, since the girl in question went on to marry someone who is filthy rich and enjoys a fabled lifestyle. My several attempts to explain to him the flaws of his paradigm, mainly that the acquisition of such an oneiric fate was contingent not upon me marrying the girl but rather her husband, something that is rather impossible in these pre-plebiscite, pre-legislation times, have all been met with the inarticulate grunt of the classical ajami. 

In time, all non-Arabs in the Caliphate were referred to as ajamin, including Greeks, although the term is still primarily associated with Persia. As the subject peoples of the Caliphate gradually were converted to Islam, not only did they display an ignorance of the Arabic language, they also knew next to nothing about the Islamic religion and were clumsy, shoddy and incorrect in their observances of its rituals. It was in this sense, that of the rookie, the inexperienced, or the inept that the term entered the Turkish language and from there entered, not only our own, but Bulgarian and Serbian as well.

Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean, “aljamiado” came to denote the rendering of the languages of the Spanish peninsula in Arabic script while similarly, the Ajami script, is the use of Arabic to write the West African languages of Hausa and Fulani.

It is high time, we ατζαμήδες , no longer able to be distinguished solely by the barbarity of our tongues, adopted our own Ajamic script in order to record our own ineptitudes for posterity. I can think of not a few Greek politicians who do history a disservice by not embracing their identity in this fashion, especially when the logic of their argument is often as inverted and convoluted as the Ajami script appears to the uninitiated.

Two Christmases ago, rushing to perform some last-minute errands in the metropolis, I happened to park my car in a rather negligent manner. Returning to my mode of conveyance some time later, I found a note tucked behind my windscreen wiper. Unfolding it carefully, I read: “To the noob who doesn’t know how to park. Learn to park or next time I’ll smash your [insert something to do with copulation here] windscreen.” A noob in the vulgar parlance of course, is an ajami and I was delighted that finally my status would be confirmed by a defenestration that would render me literally without a τζάμι. In one single revolutionary act of destruction, west and east would linguistically meet.

Regrettably, it was not to be. Ever since, in pursuit of my goal, I have parked in the metropolis in ever increasingly flagrant and exaggerated manners. I have amassed a multitude of fines and yet, my defenestrator has saw fit to leave my windscreen intact. Time and time again, I breathe a sigh of disappoint as I try to extricate my side mirrors from the clutches of the parking meter and drive away, suitably listening to something oriental, something in the maqam, or musical mode Ajam, meaning "the Persian mode", corresponding to the major scale in European music, as I run red lights and weave my way out of the path, of oncoming traffic.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 December 2017


A while ago, when speculation was rife about Greece’s imminent ejection from the Eurozone, I suggested to a friend that in the aftermath, we should create our own zone, one in which we are the ones who make and break the rules and within which we are completely comfortable in being ourselves. I dubbed this prospective new zone, the Euzone, a zone of Epicurean peripatetic goodness, albeit regulated by Stoic ataraxia.

“We already have that,” my friend shrugged. “It’s called Oakleigh.”
In Greek of course, the term euzone signifies he who is well girt, kind of like Australia, vis a vis the Indian Ocean. Though the term conjures up in the Modern Greek consciousness, connotations of impossibly short-skirted males, possessed of inordinately gloomy countenances, resolutely goose-stepping around self-conscious pigeons and voyeuristic tourists, it is in fact, of antique provenance, being first attested in Homer’s Iliad and used thereafter for centuries, to describe a type of light infantry of unidentified equipment, probably used as a generic term to denote light infantry.

The word Euzone is, for the Modern Greek, synonymous with bravery. From the light skirmishers, mountain and border guards of King Otto’s time, the euzones participated in all of the wars that precipitated Greece’s expansion to its present borders and beyond. Operating independently on the vanguard or the flanks of the army during the Balkan Wars, they distinguished themselves for their fighting spirit suffering high casualties, especially among officers. An euzone battalion landed in Smyrna in 1919 and the euzones, fought valiantly in the mountains of Epirus against the invading Italians, pushing the fascist army out of Greece and liberating Northern Epirus in the process.

Adding to the lustre of the already resplendent reputation of the Euzones for heroism, is the romantic sacrifice of one of its youngest but most significant members, Konstantinos Koukidis. As the invading Nazi Army entered Athens, the Germans ascended to the Acropolis and ordered the euzone Koukidis who was guarding the flag post, to haul down the Greek flag and replace it with the swastika. The euzone hauled down the Greek flag, but refused to hand it over to the Nazis. Instead, he wrapped himself in it and fell off the Acropolis to his death. Or so it would seem, for recent research suggests that no person of that name ever existed, attesting to the enduring power of his myth.

Sadly, the noble image of the selfless eugenic euzone has been slightly sullied by the creation of the Collaborationist Security Battalions during the Nazi occupation. Sundry traitorous scum, not fit even to contemplate spelling, let alone to wear the hallowed foustanella, donned a version of the uniform and unleashed a murderous reign of terror upon their own people, in order to please the Germans. As a result, after the war, the euzones ceased to be a fighting force, and instead, were formed into a prestigious and elite, Palace and then, Presidential guard.
Interestingly, though the modern euzone uniform that is so iconic and gives rise to so many stereotypes of modern Greece is modelled on the clothes worn by the fighters of the Greek Revolution, perhaps implying that in that troubled part of the world, liberty is not a constant and must always be defended, the uniform of the first euzones, in 1933 was in the unpopular Bavarian style of blue trousers, tailcoats and shako. As light infantry, the Euzones were distinguished only by green braid and plume and it was only in 1837, that a prototype of the skirt that has become synonymous with Greek masculinity, was introduced. In homage to that ideal of manliness, which I can never hope to emulate, when I wear my own foustanella, at the annual Independence Day march, around the house, or at various parties, I do so demurely, below the knee.
Euzone skirts have been seen down-under of late. Notably, their visit to Sydney this year sparked howls of protest in Melbourne, as breathless fans, predominantly but not limited to the female of the species panted their indignation at our robust metropolis of Hellenism being left out of their itinerary. The allure of the eutrophic euzone is strong indeed, and this despite a veteran Melbournian foustanella wearer pointing out to his wife and I, as we eulogized about the symmetry of their bearing, proclaiming that euzones are an euphonic euphemism for eudaemonism, that: “real euzones are not six foot tall, but are grisly argumentative mountain shepherds. These guys are too clean cut.”

Consequently, the news that the Victorian State Government is co-sponsoring a visit of a smattering of eugenic euzones next year, coinciding with our community’s Greek Independence Day celebrations, to the tune of $30,000, has been met largely by our eurytopic community with euphoria. Yet the announcement in itself has also raised eyebrows among some skirt disparagers: Other than their eupeptic, sugary physical form, what possible reason could our euxenitic government have for expending such a significant sum for the transportation of skirt-clad euzones to our shores, especially when various organisations of our diverse community, especially in the welfare sector, could well make use of financial assistance of such magnitude, not to mention the stunted arts sphere?

Given our enthusiastic acclamation of our government sponsoring the visit of another State’s Presidential Guard to our city, are the fellow citizens of our eusocial abode justified in expecting similar subsidies for imminent visits of Her Majesty’s Buckingham Palace Guards, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the Turkish Janissary Guard and of course the Holy Father in the Vatican’s Swiss Guard? Will this also extend to fully funded virtual online visits by muscly Black Ops personnel of Call of Duty fame?

Furthermore, considering that as a community we have, over the past few decades, overseen the evolution of our Greek Independence Day March, from the formulaic, regimented, militaristic, Red Square May Day Parade in miniature, into a celebration of ourselves and our presence in Australia, with children dressed in a motley mix of traditional and modern garb parading haphazardly but always enthusiastically before their whooping, fist-pumping parents and giving scant regard to the largely ignored dignitaries golf-clapping politely on the side-lines, what do the euzones, who have played no part in our own festivities, to do with us? Is there no shortage of native born six foot Greek-Australians with great legs who can don the foustanella without us having recourse to the euzones, in the manner in which they have always done in Australia since the Second World War?

According to this point of view, the imminent visit of the euzones and our rapture at the reception of this news, seems to exemplify our cultural cringe and inability to articulate or stand by our own culture, without constant need of reaffirmation from a place of origin whose mores and culture is increasingly becoming different to that of our homes, or recourse to stereotypes created by the dominant culture in order to dictate to us how we should present ourselves to them. As a result, it could be argued that in such cases we consequently fall victim to the populist pamperings of those who purport to preside over our polis, knowing that they need only to pander upon our insecurities of identity, in order to have us eating out of the palms of their hands.
The presence of euzones out of the Eurozone is not necessary to our identity, nor does it add anything to the culture we have created and/or developed in the Antipodes, more often than not through attrition, trial and error. Nonetheless, the euzones are most welcome. We want to welcome members of an elite group that, throughout the vicissitudes of fate befalling Greece over the past two centuries, has largely remained, that rare thing: a constant, steadfast and relatively unsullied symbol of heroism and selflessness. This is a heroism that Australian soldiers in Greece during World War II experienced first- hand and it is with the euzones that an enduring Greek-Australian bond was forged.

In these times of crisis, which have forced Greeks not only in Greece but throughout the world to re-appraise their identity, the presence of the euzones on our shores serves not only to focus on our linear kinship but also to re-articulate and give greater emphasis to those elements of our identity and the myths that uphold it that could serve the basis for moving forward. Further, considering that a significant number of Greek migrants in Melbourne have served in the euzones or have family that has done so, our ties to the euzones are more than just symbolic. We have physically partaken in their legend and are entitled to do so again.
Next March then, seek me at the Shrine, resplendent in my flowing pleats, chasing, what else, a bit of ineffable and sublime, euzonic skirt.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 December 2017

Saturday, December 02, 2017


 From an aesthetic point of view, our religious architecture in this country is unprecedentedly novel. Save for the situations where former Australian churches built by other denominations have been adapted to Orthodox use, a proper appropriation of pre-existing structures that fit in with the local landscape, which already have a history and facilitate the formation of a truly Australian Orthodoxy, the church buildings constructed by Greeks in Melbourne, generally tend to look nothing like the traditional form of church existing in Greece, at least, from the outside. Most significantly, their exteriors are extraordinarily diverse, reflecting various layers of Greek settlement and acculturation in Melbourne.

 Thus, in a cursory drive around the suburbs of Melbourne, we are treated to a vast range of church buildings, some of which take surprising forms: resembling aeroplane hangars, sheds, multi-purpose gymnasia and, in one bizarre instance, a Buddhist pagoda. All forms of construction materials have been used in their erection, from the mission brown bricks of the seventies, to prefabricated concrete slabs and beyond. It could be argued that the strange character of these buildings reflect the circumstances in which they were constructed: hastily erected by a community still finding its feet in Australia and far from affluent, in desperate need of places to worship, with more thought given to function, than form. Furthermore, it has been argued, the architectural and construction skills necessary to build the traditional form of Greek church, which invariably is crowned a dome, have not been present in Australia, until recently, which is why the splendid Dormition of the Theotokos church in Altona looks Armenian or Georgian, with its strikingly Caucasian pointed roof.
This is a potent argument, but one which ultimately is refuted by the beautiful, traditional, domed Orthodox churches constructed by communities much smaller, or more recent in arrival than our own, such as the Serbian and Russian communities, along with the FYROMian community, though it should be pointed out that their church, though not its architecture, is schismatic. Of course, it is trite to mention that there are a number of Ottoman style mosques dotting the suburbs which also sport grand domes.

 There is something more intrinsic at play, in the manner in which Greek churches on Melbourne have departed so markedly from the traditional “norm,” than mere lack of money, or lack of skill. Saint Nektarios in Fawkner, for example, which was built decades ago, is possessed of a grand dome, spanning almost the entire breadth of the building. It is not an example of “traditional” Greek church architecture and not does it need to be. Compared with other churches in Melbourne, Saint Nektarios in Fawkner is architecturally significant because it is an Australian reinterpretation and adaptation of the Great Church of Saint Sophia in Constantinople, and its façade, reflects both the building materials and designs available to the community at the time, as well as the aesthetic of the community at large, which is why its strange round windows, trapezoidal porches and rendered exterior fit in well with what was, at the time the church was constructed, an up and coming, newly developed suburb. Someone has considered all of: the Orthodox tradition, the Australian urban landscape and the nature of the Greek community of the area very carefully, and has successfully married all these elements into an Orthodox church that belongs to and encapsulates its environment and its aspirations, in an unprecedented way.

 A few kilometres away, the Coburg church, also has a rendered exterior and a dome. Unlike the dome of Saint Nektarios however, the concrete dome of the Presentation of our Lord, is clumsy, and ill fitting. One also does not know how to interpret the two looming bell-towers at the front of the church, rounded by bizarre hollow arches. Here we venture into the world of the surreal. On a clear day, this church, which resembles the Coptic churches of the Nitrian desert, in the early morning with no one around, the dome and the arches look like a city scape from a De Chirico painting. Is this a reflection of the parishioners own sense of quandary in interpreting the world around them? If so, this endearing church is a potent focal point of an unravelling cosmos.

 If surreal is what one is after, one can go no further than the brilliantly breathtaking Saint Athanasius church in Springvale, which combines the Saint Sophia-style aspirations of Saint Nektarios, with the De Chirico qualities of The Presentation of our Lord. A small red dome, that looks like the top of a flying saucer, sits jauntily atop a roller coaster of arches and half arches of a complexity rivalled only by the architectural imaginings of a Dr Seuss book. One is in constant anticipation of a Lorax springing out from behind one of the columns and if the Grinch was ever to steal Christmas, surely it would be from here, that he would make his attempt. The overall effect upon the viewer is one of awe, derived from an appreciation of the church building’s immensity, complexity, but most importantly, overall harmony.

 Saint John’s church in Carlton, also sports a dome. It is squat, comfortable, and unlike the Coburg dome, un-selfconscious. The highly adorned exterior brickwork recalls but does not copy the decorative stonework of the late Roman and early Byzantine eras, while the metalwork in vibrant blues, yellows, red and grays reminds one of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The disconcerting blue trapezoidal porch and eaves are a novel interpretation of the traditional barrel vault. This hybrid masterpiece has something of the Gothic about its aesthetics. Instead of feeling enveloped by the heavens, one feels a vertical connection of ascent to them, granting a completely different ecclesiastical experience. This marriage of received and inherited architectural emotions and aesthetics renders Saint John’s a truly significant edifice.

 Saint Andrew’s in Sunshine, is a remarkable building, in that it reminds one immediately of a Roman basilica, the first type of Christian church, crossed with a martyr’s shrine of the type one generally sees in the Holy Land. Constructed of the light brown brick common to the homes of the surrounding area, it has a great gate for entry to its side, just like the basilicas of Constantine, and is a prodigious reinterpretation of the fundamentals of church architecture.

 With regards to their ability to interpret and adapt received religious architectural tradition, all of the abovementioned churches have their precedent in the first Greek Orthodox Church ever to be built in our city, the Annunciation. This church, constructed by Longstaff in 1901 to a design by noted contemporary architects Inskip and Butler, plays on motifs drawn from French and German medieval sources in order to situate the church within the context of turn of the century Melburnian urban architecture, without rendering its form unintelligible to parishioners, used to the architectural traditions of their homeland.

 It is this unique ability to enshrine the essence of Orthodoxy from the outset while also appealing to its parishioners’ desire to acculturate within the context of broader Australian society that has perhaps rendered the Annunciation church the most beloved and revered in Melbourne. Its interior, prior to its partial destruction by fire last year, was endearing though unastonishing, permeated as it was by the dark, close aesthetic of the neo-Baroque, so common to Greek churches of the nineteenth century. Its successful restoration will, no doubt, recall that style, for it forms an intrinsic part of the history of the formation of our own Greek-Australian design, with the restoration forming yet another layer in the edifice’s composite history. The manner in which the Greek community engaged in radical innovation of church architecture from its very genesis, in the Annunciation, has thus had profound influence in the interpretation and ideology of style, right up until the present day.

 One could say that a vernacular form of architecture specific to Australia has been articulated and if the work of architects like Angelo Candelapas who is currently completing an extraordinary ninety-nine domed mosque in Punchbowl, Sydney, and who has designed All Saints Greek Orthodox Grammar primary school, is anything to go by, that tendency will most likely continue into the future.

 Given the above, it is regrettable that a proper cultural and comparative study of the churches of the Greeks in Melbourne, one that examines the innovations and ideologies of adaptation, their cumulative effect upon the development of church architecture in Australia, how they respond to and interepret the Orthodox tradition and most importantly, what they say about the Greek of Melbourne themselves, has not been undertaken. Considering however, that church architecture is one of the few cultural elements in which the Greek community has displayed pronounced innovative tendencies, for the large part, divorced from the tastes and trends of the mother country, their evolution is well worth studying. Such a study, perhaps undertaken concurrently with the restoration of the Annunciation Church, will surely lead to an increased appreciation of the art behind some of our most utilised, but least aesthetically appreciated, community edifices.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 December 2017



The Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria building is now almost complete. It bears a depiction of Myron’s iconic discobolus, whose pose is said to be unnatural to a human, and today considered a rather inefficient way to throw the discus, but which, notwithstanding, as the great Kenneth Clark once opined: “has created the enduring pattern of athletic energy… a moment of action so transitory that students of athletics still debate if it is feasible, and he has given it the completeness of a cameo.” The moment thus captured in the statue, slapped upon the face of our community edifice is an example of rhythmos, harmony and balance – lofty ideals for an organization that is the mouthpiece of us all. We marvel, Clarkian style, not only at its beauty, but at the fact it was able to be erected at all.
Now a replica of the Parthenon Frieze begins to festoon the building like a bridal crown. When all portions of the frieze are installed, the effect will be truly striking. Admittedly, the choice of frieze subject matter originally evoked feelings of unease in me. Is a 2,500 year old frieze from one of the most famous buildings of the world, really the best form of decoration for a 21st century Greek-Australian façade? Would it not have been more suitable for a frieze to be commissioned, that while stylistically evoking the aesthetics of the Parthenon, actually provides a narrative centered around our own foundation myths, settlement in and acculturation to Australian society? What does the act of adorning our flagship building with what could be considered to be the most recognized cliché of ancient Greek art suggest about our identity, our ability to develop and interpret our culture here in the Antipodes and our negotiation of the Greek-Australian cultural cringe?

Not much actually, for the replication of the Parthenon Frieze, which is broadly held to be the defining monument of the High Classical style of Attic sculpture, and all that it represents, constitutes both a powerful manifesto and a symbol which enshrines a communal ideology of Greek-Australia, in a manner that is plain to see but which lends itself, as is the case with the original, to a multitude of competing and fascinating interpretations.

Thus, the first published attempt at interpreting the original belongs to Cyriaco of Ancona in the fifteenth century, who referred to it as depicting the “victories of Athens in the time of Pericles”. In our case, the viewer can thus draw their own conclusions as to which victories are being referred to and the identity of Pericles. Cyriaco’s view has been largely superseded, with most scholars now arguing that the frieze depicts one of the most important communal ceremonies of ancient Athens, that of the Greater Panathenaic procession from the Leokoreion by the Dipylon gate, to the Acropolis. During the Great Panathenaia, a special robe, the peplos, was made by the women of Athens for the statue of Athena, which was carried to the Parthenon as part of the procession. There was also a large sacrifice made to Athena, the hekatombe, literally meaning a sacrifice of a hundred oxen, and the meat from the sacrificed animals was used in an enormous banquet on the final night of the festival, the pannychis, or all-nighter. Considering that the replica frieze looks down upon the street upon which the most important Greek-Australian festival is enacted, one which causes the entire community to come together, to the sounds of much sizzling and the smells of a multitude of burnt offerings, perhaps the simile is an extraordinarily apt one.

Nonetheless, the contention that the original frieze depicts the festival for Athena is fraught with problems. Later sources indicate that a number of classes of individuals who performed a role in the procession are not present in the frieze, including: the hoplites, the allies in the Delian league, the skiaphoroi or umbrella bearers, the female hydraiphoroi (only male hydrai bearers are portrayed) thetes, slaves, metics, and the Panathenaic ship. If this is so, we would also have a problem with the replica, given the participation of the ancient themed Melbourne Hoplitikon and considering the vagaries of Melbourne weather, any number of umbrella wearers and women holding water bottles who also make themselves manifest in significant numbers in our own festival. Instead, scholars argue that the frieze is not a generic image of the religious festival, since no other temple sculpture depicts a contemporary event involving mortals.

Thus, John Boardman has suggested instead, that the cavalry in the frieze portray the heroisation of the Marathonomachoi, the hoplites who fell at Marathon in 490 BC, and therefore these riders were the Athenians who took part in the last pre-war Greater Panathenaia. Our frieze in turn, could diversely portray the heroisation of all those that devoted a significant portion of their life to fighting for multi-culturalism and the integration of the Greek community as a respected institution in Victorian society, or the heroisation of a number of Greek soccer players who took part in the last pre-A League finals, which destroyed ethnic soccer forever. On the other hand, several scholars have noted the Parthenon frieze’s similarity in style to the Apadana sculpture in the royal palace of Persepolis, which depicts a number of subject peoples processing to pay homage to the Persian king. The choice of style, it is argued, sends a powerful ideological message of democratic Athens counter posing itself to oriental tyranny. If we were to adopt this view, we could parallel democratic Athens with our own robust democratic culture within the GOCMV as well as its long historical tradition of being at the forefront of our community in campaigning for social justice.

Similarly,  J.J. Politt contends that the original frieze embodies a Periclean manifesto, one which promotes the cultural institutions of contests/games, (as evidence by the apobatai), sacrifices, and military training as well as a number of other democratic virtues. This would position the frieze as a site of ideological tension between the elite and the demos. As a corollary, our own replica would therefore constitute a potent symbol of the importance of communal institutions and activities, discipline, volunteerism, inclusiveness and anti-elitism, all important elements of the modern GOCMV.

The latest theory, that of  Joan Breton Connelly in her book “The Parthenon Enigma”, identifies the original frieze as the story of  the donning of sacrificial garb by the daughter of King Erechtheus in preparation for the sacrifice of her life,  one that is demanded in order to save the city from Eumolpos and the Eleusinians. Thus, the deities turn their backs to prevent pollution from the sight of her death. How that can be interpreted with the modern Antipodean context remains to be seen. A veiled reference at the sacrifices made by some at a time when the community was in peril? A cautionary tale about the virtues of proper governance? It is this multiplicity of meanings, connotations and symbols that renders the Parthenon frieze, by far the most suitable form of decoration, for the GOCMV building.

Most importantly, by choosing to adorn its edifice with the Parthenon frieze, a highly valued artwork that a) has been adopted as form an ideal basis for western art and b) has been not only appropriated stylistically by the west but also physically, given that it currently resides in the British Museum, the GOCMV is artfully making some clever points. Firstly and most significantly, that just like the easily identifiable and relatable original frieze itself, the GOCMV forms an integral part of both the Greek and Australian communities and acts as a bridge and conduit between both and secondly, its mere presence upon the building acts as an assertion of ownership and a mute protest against colonialism and a moral injustice visited upon the original. At the unveiling of the frieze, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy both made impassioned please for the return of the Marbles that this frieze replicates.

The replica frieze is thus not derivative or cliché. It is only beautiful but also, a thoroughly thoughtful sculptural summation of the values, aspirations, historical themes and fault-lines, running through what is a venerable and nuanced community, poised on the verge of making important inroads within the context of broader multi-cultural Victoria. It acts as a clarion call for all of us, to espouse and realise those lofty ideals that have ensured our survival thus far, far into the future.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 December 2017

Saturday, November 25, 2017


In my idle moments, I often muse that the latter day history of our community can be likened to the plight of Sisyphus. For his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness, Sisyphus was compelled by the Olympian gods to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him, repeating this action for eternity. We too, engage in Sisyphian pursuits. From: raising money to buy the club building, raising money to pay off the club building, raising money to maintain the club building, raising money to find a use for the club building, raising money to stop the club building from being sold, to raising money to create a Modern Greek program in university, to raising money to maintain a Modern Greek program in university, to raising money to stop Modern Greek from being abolished from university, it appears that we are constantly, to paraphrase the colloquial Australian take on Sisyphus, pushing excrement uphill.
That is why I find the front cover of Christos Fifis’ recently launched book “Greek-Australian Offerings,” so intriguing. Designed by Phrixos Ioannidis, it depicts a little silhouette of a man, standing atop a mountain peak, holding his boulder in a masterful way. Significantly, the boulder is behind him, signifying that Sisyphus is not about to commence his futile task. Instead, he has finally completed it. As he stands triumphantly upon the peak, holding the boulder that inclines towards him, threatening to commence another descent and take him with it, Sisyphus, for the first time ever, is able to view the horizon, beyond his bondage. This should be a liberating and inspiring moment. Instead, Sisyphus’ view is hemmed in by more mountains, enclosing a void. One can almost feel the boulder begin to roll as he hyperventilates in exasperation. Phrixos entitled his picture: “The vision of Sisyphus” and it is, I suggest, no coincidence that Christos Fifis has chosen it for his front cover. There is a powerful pictorial parable encoded here, one that is key to unlocking Christos Fifis’ psychological attitude towards the Greek community, one he has researched, as lecturer and academic and loved, as an activist, at an inordinately deep level. He who has ears, let him hear, as the Chief Parabolist once said.
Christos Fifis translates the title to his book, rendered in Greek «Ελληνοαυστραλιανές Αναφορές», as “Greek-Australian Themes.” From the outset, what becomes apparent is that while in the Greek, the two ethnonyms can be merged to form a hybrid but harmonious new compound word, this is not possible in English. Instead the two ethnonyms, even though they attempt to express a compound reality, are separated by a hyphen and remain apart, suggesting the writer’s conviction that while such a semantic merger is linguistically possible in Greek, it is linguistically impossible in the Anglosphere, unless the term Graecaustralian is used, one that achieves compound hybridity, but significantly, only through the mediation of another western language, Latin, and has not, nor will it probably ever be used. The inadvertent realisation by Christos Fifis that the Greek term «Ελληνοαυστραλιανός» is untranslatable in English is of profound importance to his book but more pertinently to the community (which is also a mistranslation of the term that we use to describe ourselves, «παροικία» which literally means a settlement on the fringes, with all that this entails for our place within the multicultural paradigm) purporting to call itself both «Ελληνοαυστραλιανή» and Greek-Australian. This ontopathology is subtly played out in Christos Fifis’ interviews and musings that comprise the contents of his book.
I respect the author’s use of the word “Themes” to translate the Greek «αναφορές.» However, I prefer a more literal translation, one that, I feel, goes to the heart of Christos Fifis’ purpose. "Anaphora" literally signifies a "carrying back" or a "carrying up", and so, can denote an "offering" In the sacrificial language of the Greek version of the Old Testament, the term προσφέρειν is used to denote the offeror bringing the victim to the altar, and ἀναφέρειν is used to describe the priest's offering up the selected portion upon the altar. This is exactly the practice that Christos Fifis is engaging in, through the writing of “Greek-Australian Offerings”; offering up, by means of interviews, articles and poems, a unique view of a century of Greek-Australian cultural and literary achievement.
Christos Fifis’ perspective is a unique one. In a community suffering from historical amnesia and generally unable to forge a collective identity based on a coherent narrative comprised of the sum of our lived experiences, we largely do not seek to possess any knowledge of what transpired beyond our parents’ generation, nor do we find this relevant to our own experience. A key exemplar of this is the fact that we tend to term those migrants arriving here in the fifties and sixties as the first generation, ignoring the half-century of experiences, struggles, achievements and ideological and social activism of the pre-war Greek migrants. Consequently, instead of being able, after an entire century of settlement in this country, to draw upon an unbroken lineage of experience and attitude so as to formulate a truly Australian version of the Greek identity, our sense of identity remains fractured and ersatz, psychologically dependent upon an increasingly remote and indifferent Greek metropolis, and increasingly defined by Australian government policy and social expectation, of course, without the involvement of the original owners of this country. Having no knowledge of what has gone before, we, like our ancestor Sisyphus, the archetype of the modern Greek-Australian, are doomed to push our communal rock uphill, if not until eternity, then certainly, until we become dust, as prefigured by Fifis’ inclusion in the book, of Aristeidis Paradissis’ last ever poem, about death, written on his death-bed in hospital, upon a serviette.
Through his offerings, Christos Fifis seeks to arrest this phenomenon. It is important for him that we understand the perspectives of early Greek social and political activists as Alekos Doukas, or the poetry of Kostas Malaxos, who arriving in Australia prior to the First World War, published his first book of poetry in English, in Athens in 1957. While the poetry of Nikos Ninolakis, Dimitris Tsaloumas and Aristeidis Paradissis has been widely studied and critiqued at length in both English and Greek and the book would have benefited from an analysis of other largely forgotten but nonetheless powerful writers with much to say about the construction of a hybrid Greek-Australian identity, such as the great Yiannis Lillis, Christos Fifis’ sensitive treatment of these historic personages, through the interviews he conducted with them over the years, lends their insights on identity and acculturation, an inordinate immediacy to the reader, offering them up as building blocks, through which one can construct a coherent narrative, with a sense of historic continuity, that will ensure our relevance to the future. In this vital process, Christos Fifis becomes our chief ideologue.
“Greek-Australian Offerings,” is the third deeply inspiring volume of a trilogy of historically significant musings about identity and historical continuity in Australia. In his first, “Where is the place for a village?” his poems pose profound ontological questions: “Australia of impatient departures and pleasant arrivals. Fifty years later, who are the dinky di Australians, and who are the migrants? Who are the New Australians? And what are the Aborigines who didn’t count, back then?” In his second tome, “From Our Antipodes” Fifis makes a broad and sophisticated attempt to place the Greek community squarely within the broader Australian social context. In this, the final volume, he takes up all the strands of enquiry considered throughout the trilogy and weaves them together. This, the sum of our experiences is who we are. Our identity is us, in relation to the place we live, in accordance with the memories of those who have carved a place for us, in this place. Our challenge for the future, is, in absorbing this hive memory, to avoid triumphalism and understand that identity is an ever-shifting, ever-morphing paradigm that constantly requires refinement, re-assessment and re-negotiation. Perhaps it is futile to expect to escape the fate of Sisyphus after all.

First published in NKEE on Saturday. 25 November 2017

Saturday, November 18, 2017


Every Saturday, a lady that I know, bundles her child into her car and drives the one and half hours separating Ballarat from Melbourne in order that her child attend a quality Greek school, in this particular case, the city campus of the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria’s Saturday school. Such commitment in these time-deprived days is rare however, even when the desire is there. For one thing, the institutions our community has created, largely reflect a demographic reality that no longer exists: that of Greek migrant communities living in close proximity to each other, in the Inner Suburbs.

Over the years, as the Greek community grew and became assimilated within broader Melbournian society, Greek-Australians began to move from the hitherto working class suburbs that still continue to define them and their identity, such as Brunswick, Richmond, Collingwood and Port Melbourne, to what were then, “new” suburbs, primarily in search of space and, most importantly, a garden. To a large extent, community institutions, in the form of churches, schools and regional social club followed them, which explains their proliferation in these areas.

Two generations later however, five important changes have taken place:

1. Greek cultural and social activity seems to have coalesced around certain Melbourne suburbs, at the expense of others;

2. Melbourne has expanded far beyond the traditional areas of Greek settlement and expansion;

3. The property boom has rendered hitherto affordable areas in which Greeks have lived, beyond the price range of younger Greek-Australians, resulting in them moving to outlying suburbs on the ‘fringes’ of Melbourne that have not had a Greek presence before and thus have no Greek churches, schools or clubs;

4. The “inner city” institutions of the Greeks of Melbourne have thus become remote, inaccessible and increasingly irrelevant to the Greeks of the outlying suburbs; and

5. As a result of geography, many younger Greeks of Melbourne who could benefit from such institutions are cut off from the organised Greek community, are unable to conveniently access Greek education or cultural and religious activities for their children and thus are displaying more rapid and higher percentages of cultural and linguistic assimilation.

As the vast majority of our community institutions are organised around the principle of a common regional Greek ancestry, addressing the complex demographic changes on Melbourne and their impact on culture and language is not only beyond their competence, but also beyond their scope and save for funding initiatives in the outlying areas through the rationalisation of unproductive assets, (something that would be highly unlikely, if the recent directive of a northern suburbs regional Greek club, that it not advertise its events to the rest of the Greek community because it only wants “its” people attending, is anything to go by), they sadly have nothing to contribute to this issue.

The Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria on the other hand, is one of the few Greek institutions that can and is taking steps to assess and address the challenges faced by the Greek community owing to shifting demographics. In some respects, this should come as no surprise. While Alphington Grammar School and other Greek schools have been operated by the GOCMV for a considerable period of time, over the last few years, a conscious effort has been made by the board to invest resources into Greek education, in new and unprecedented ways.

The fruits of this endeavour include but are not limited to addressing the needs of newly arrived migrants and advanced native speakers who do not benefit from the constant downgrading of the standard of Modern Greek usually taught in Melbourne, through the institution of Advanced Greek campuses, the introduction of classes in Classical Greek, so that the unbroken heritage of the Greek language since times ancient can be comprehended as a whole, pioneering creative drama programs, pioneering Greek school holiday programs and, underlining how seriously the modern GOCMV takes education, the appointment of a full time education officer, in the person of Mr Manos Tzimpragos.

That the modern GOCMV means business can be evidenced by the fact that it is committed to the scientific study of the Greek community and its attitudes to Greek –language education. Despite our century old sojourn in this country, academic studies have inexplicably not been conducted, not only to determine our needs in this regard, but also to evaluate the current systems via which Greek language education is purveyed and taught. The modern GOCMV is now redressing this, via its partnership with the Department of Languages and Linguistics at La Trobe University, in offering a PhD thesis investigating parental attitudes to language learning in the Greek community of Melbourne. Such an endeavour, which also seeks recommendations for improvement of the current educational regime, is unprecedented in the annals of our collective history.

Given that despite out much vaunted numbers in Melbourne, only a third of school-age children of Greek ancestry in Victoria are studying the Greek language in day school or through after-hours providers, it is vital that outreach is made to targeted areas of Melbourne in which there is need for Greek educational institutions.

It is from this perspective that the recent announcement that the modern GOCMV is to open three new after hours Greek school campuses in the areas of South Morang, Point Cook and Narre Warren should be comprehended. These campuses were strategically chosen based on careful analysis of the latest census data and all three are areas in which the population of Greek-Australians, especially those with young families, is steadily growing, in full knowledge that location and convenience is by far the main reason why contemporary parents choose a particular Greek school campus, if any.

Choosing to locate the new after hours campuses in the above mentioned areas is a savvy move. Firstly, the campuses presciently anticipate future demand as these and surrounding suburbs continue to expand. Secondly, by reason of sheer presence and convenience alone, these campuses will capture a proportion of disengaged students and their families and re-induct them within the broader framework of the organized Greek community They comprise in effect, a focal point around which a local Greek community can emerge and coalesce, in connection with those already existing and this is why the modern GOCMV has pledged to allocate its most capable teachers to these areas, which makes sense, considering that these are the areas that have the most need.

Strategic planning is something that traditionally, our community has been decidedly lacking in. A good deal of heart, faith and hard work has always accompanied all of our endeavours but generally not, planning for the future. The GOCMV could, as others have, allow Greek language student numbers in Victoria to continue their declining trend, dolorously lamenting the loss of what once was. Instead, the modern GOCMV is bravely, methodically, responsibly and fervently committing itself to pro-actively reversing the current attrition.

The GOCMV’s new campuses on the fringes of Melbourne are therefore not just about expansion. They represent a turn-around in the way our community as a whole conducts itself and thinks about its future that is of considerable historical importance. The challenges facing Greek language learning in an increasingly monocultural and monolinguistic society, in which zeitgeist and attrition serve to disintegrate past communal affiliations, are legion. What we can take heart in, however, is that finally, someone, is willing to address these in a reasoned, calculated and committed manner. For this, the modern GOCMV deserves our full support and admiration.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saturday, November 11, 2017


According to a learned friend, there are two potential types of Greek clients in the legal services industry. The first, are the auxiliary lawyers who feel they understand all aspects of their case and are doing you a favour by granting carriage of it to you. They have read widely, or spoken to many people who have endured like circumstances, or have graduated from the University of Bitter Experience aeons before you were even a hint of glee in your progenitor’s eye. For them you are merely an instrument, to be wielded and manipulated by their expert hands. They enter your office breezily, demanding they be told by you, what you intend to do, for them.
The second type characterizes those who are not possessed of such knowledge. Instead, they approach you somberly, look deeply in your eyes and begin to tell you, with exacting detail, the story of their lives. In doing so, they will brook no interruption, nor will the interposed injunction that lawyers bill in six minute intervals serve to stem their verbal flow. For once proffered, in their estimation, that life story creates an unbreakable bond between lawyer and client that forever cleaves them together in a pact of mutual understanding. For as one elderly client once told me when I dared to offer the opinion that the details of his unrequited lust for his neighbour were not necessary for me to sue his glazier for damages: “How can you understand my case, if you do not understand me?”
When the client the subject of this narration entered my office, I had no inkling of which of the two he would be. Tall, muscular, sporting a distinctive buzz-cut that would have been de rigueur in nineteen-eighties US college football fields and decoratively draping a turquoise knitted jumper about his neck, he slung himself into a chair with the considered but effortless poise of a ballerina. All I could surmise, both from his gait, and the manner in which the squint of his left eye seemed intimately connected to the gradient of his upper lip, was that he appeared to be a recent arrival from Greece.
Wasting no time upon introductions, he began to interrogate me confidently:
“Who owns the Internet?”
“What?” I asked.
“Who owns the Internet?” he repeated.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I responded, bewildered.
“Καλά, are you really a lawyer or what? It’s a simple question. Who owns the Internet?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone owns the Internet,” I mused.
“Why not? Everything is owned by someone isn’t it? Someone has to own the Internet.”

Extending the tip of his right index finger, he lifted his dark, hairy hand to his lip. A hint of tongue made contact with the finger, providing it with a modicum of wetness. Raising the hand further, he then applied the finger to both his eyebrows, smoothing them lovingly. Those eyebrows were a masterpiece to behold. Thick and impenetrable, they were lovingly defined around their edges by someone who manifestly, was a master of the tweezer. As he lowered his hand, he winced in pain and it was then that I noticed the skin toned thermoskin carpal tunnel glove he was wearing.

“I’m not sure the Internet works that way,” I commented. “I think is a collection of hundreds of thousands of different computer networks that all link in to each other.”
“Yes,” he spat impatiently, “but who owns those links?”
“How do you mean?” I asked.
“Well the Internet is a net,” he sniffed contemptuously. “And a net is made up of various different filaments that link together. Each filament is separate but they all make up the net. Have you ever owned a net?”

“My grandfather did,” I reminisced. “In those days everyone fished with nets here. I remember him coming back from the bay and hanging the nets in the backyard to dry. Of course that’s all banned now and what within fishing quotas…”
“Never mind all that,” he interjected impatiently. “Point is, I’ve proved to you that you can own a net, so why can’t you own the Internet? Seriously, what kind of lawyer are you? Its right what they say about you ellinakia here and your level of education. Year 12 here is the equivalent of Grade 6 in Primary School in Greece. I haven’t been here for five minutes and I’m already running rings around you. I’m not sure if you’re the right man for the job.”

“And what is this job?” I asked.

“It’s a pity,” he continued unabated, picking his teeth with his right index finger, again wincing in pain. “You stand to make a hell of a lot of money.”

“I don’t think I’m following,” I responded.

“Have you seen the film, “The Matrix?”

“Yes, what of it?”
“Do you understand its deeper meaning?”
“What, the power of self-delusion and the dangers of uncontrolled technological development?”
“No,” he snorted, leaning back on his chair, with his legs outstretched to reveal an unnaturally engorged crotch region. I suspected sport socks, but held my peace. “The fact that the Matrix was a network controlled by machines.”
“So you think the Internet is controlled by machines?” By this stage, I had stopped making file notes.
“No, silly, but the Internet is obviously controlled and owned by someone.”
“Well I want to engage you to find out who owns it.”
“I want to sue them. Believe me, I am going to bankrupt them, the amount of damages they owe me. You will take on the case no win, no fee of course but rest assured, you will make a pile of money. More than you can possibly imagine. And more than that, the publicity. You might want to consider hiring a bodyguard though,” he added as an afterthought. “The powers that be may try to kill you. But don’t worry, I know a place outside of Serres. They would never think to look for you there. We are going to bring down the Western world. Its going to be bigger than Wikitweets.”

“Wikileaks, you mean. And why do you want to sue the Internet?” I enquired.
“Well,” he raised his gloved hand. “They did this to me. I’m in agony every day.”
“Did what?” I asked.
“This, I have carpal tunnel syndrome, and RSI and arthritis in my arm and hand.”
“I’m not a personal injury lawyer,” I informed him, almost gleefully, grateful that I had, in my estimation, found a way to extricate myself from any further protracted intrusions by him into my workspace.
“No, you don’t need to be. There are higher principles at play here. Let me explain. I arrived here three years ago, knowing no one. My relatives were not interested in helping me. The bunch of goat-herders that make up your community were neither on my intellectual level not socially evolved enough to appreciate my company. Your women are all rude and ill bred. I found myself spending my spare time in my room on the computer and I discovered..,” here he lowered his voice conspiratorially, while simultaneously fluttering his unjustifiably long, for a man of his pronounced masculinity, eyelashes coquettishly, no mean feat. “Well, I discovered, τολμηρά sites.”
I knew what he meant, but I could not resist. “Τολμηρά as in risky? Your computer was infected with a virus?”
“Oh you Afstralakia,” he gasped in frustration. “No, τολμηρά means, well you know, racy, rude.”
“OK, so not so much risky as risqué?” I asked.
“Yes,” he ruffled his hair nervously. He must have been nervous, for this time he omitted to make the obligatory grimace of pain that concluded every lowering of his right hand.
“So you didn’t get a virus?” I asked again.
“No. Let’s just say that I got used to watching these sites. I couldn’t stop. I would spend hours and hours, night after night looking up these sites on the Internet,” he gestured plaintively, again without wincing.
“I’m sure that there are a number of organisations dealing with addiction that can help you,” I advised him softly. “I’m not sure how I can help.”
“But that is the thing,’ he raised his voice emphatically. “I did become addicted. And as a result, I’ve injured my hand. As I told you, carpal tunnel syndrome, RSI and arthritis. I can barely move my hand but my addiction compels me to do so. And for all of this the owner of the Internet is to blame. Τι τραβάω, τι τραβάω.”
“How?” I asked.
“Are you serious,” he spluttered incredulously. “Because he allows these dangerous sites to be placed on the Internet. Because there is no health warning when one logs onto the Internet. So I and everyone else like me gets onto the Internet blissfully unaware of all the health hazards. There is not even a disclaimer warning people to enter at their own risk. I’m telling you, there is a cause of action in this. Imagine how many other people are exactly in my situation.”
“You could run a class action,” I suggested.
“No,” he looked behind him suspiciously. “No. What are you an idiot? If you include others it will minimise the prize pool. Seriously, what a δικηγοράκος της δεκάρας you’ve turned out to be.”
“Anyway,” I said, standing up, hoping to end the interview, “I don’t think I can help you. Internet sexual injury compensation law is not my field of expertise.”
“No, I know that. I’ve already figured out you aren’t really very competent. I just need you to find out who the Internet is owned by and lodge the requisite papers to sue them. I’ll handle it from there. I’ve already got it thought out. We will ask for $500 million.”
“Why so much,” I asked.
“Punitive damages,” he responded with well thought out ease. “But as I said, don’t ask for money up front. You have to do it no win, no fee.”
“Sorry, I don’t think I can help you. For starters, I don’t believe the Internet has an owner, as I’ve told you and further, the whole thing seems far-fetched.
It was then that he reached out with his right hand and grabbed mine in a vice-like grip. As he proceeded to almost crush it, he expostulated through gritted teeth: “What the hell is wrong with you dense Afstralaki? Where do you get off throwing away the chance of a lifetime? Μαλάκας είσαι;”
In that split second, I had visions of pots calling kettles black and of Greek village donkeys calling roosters ῾κεφάλα.᾽ Managing to extricate my by now, porphyry coloured hand from his, I responded: “No, but I do subscribe to the philosophy of the stoics.”
“How do you mean?” he asked, as he adjusted himself.
“Ό,τι τραβάμε, δεν το μαρτυράμε,᾽ I murmured, as I gently showed him to the door, shutting with it, my once-in-a-lifetime chance of winning millions, forever.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 11 November 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017


What passes as a hunk in 1987 Athens, haunted by his family's expulsion from Constantinople during the 1955 pogroms, is organising an exhibition of the everyday life of the Greek community of Smyrna before 1922. He does so, during the Sismik crisis, when tensions are heightened between Greece and Turkey, and war is threatened. Byzantine in appearance, and dwelling in the past, his girlfriend, on the other hand, professional, unsentimental, calculating and completely indifferent to the fate of the Greeks of Asia Minor save as a topic of scientific study, she is a symbol of the "new Greece."

A chance encounter with a blood-stained wedding dress and a mysterious photograph in Izmir (for as his Turkish guide responds to him when he asks what remains of Old Smyrna: "Not much,") will set our hunk upon a train of enquiry that will see him: a) destroy his relationship with his girl and almost immediately forge another, after a chance encounter in an antique shop, b) uncover the inconvenient truths of a family that has up until now, preferred to have had these remain hidden. That inconvenient truth is one easy to foresee. The elusive Roza's secret is that she had fallen pregnant to a Turk, with tragic consequences.

The brilliance of the lavish film "Roza of Smyrna" is that even though the plot is basically comprised of bunch of cliché's strung together upon an extremely flimsy, implausible and yet predictable plot, both the scenario and characters are treated with so much affection that these implausibilities don't really matter to the viewer, neither will the film's many flaws, detract from what is a pleasurable viewing experience. From an artistic point of view however, this film, is a conglomerate of fascinating and inspired potentialities, whose flaws and possible lack of research, prevent from coalescing into the coherent and epic narrative it deserves to be.

A few basic incongruities are indicative of this regrettable lack of attention to detail and yet rather than infuriate, they entertain the viewer, which is why this film abounds in charm:

Firstly, and this is my favourite, all of the motor vehicles appearing in the film present themselves as being waxed to a brilliant shine, as if they had just been driven out of the car detailers, quite an interesting juxtaposition to dusty, perennially water-deprived 1987 Athens and for that matter, 1987 Izmir.

Secondly, if Ismail, the main protagonist's lover, spent the years between 1922 to 1987 desperately trying to find Roza, the mother of his child, and had no idea of her whereabouts, (even though he is an extremely powerful man and could have plausibly obtained professional assistance in order to track her down), how is it that he could send her letters, which she was able to receive and keep unopened?

Thirdly, how is it that Roza, who has changed her name, can receive letters addressed to her old name, care of Athens Greece, with no suburb, or street name and number supplied. Is the inference that there existed at the time, dedicated Greek postal detectives who, nimbly and silently tracked down those to whom letters were improperly addressed? More importantly, what has happened to these selfless individuals?

Fourthly, while the film makers take great pains to explain to us the plausibility of Ismail signing his letters with the Greek initials Ι.Σ (which is silly because his name being Ismail Kulaksiz, his initials should be I.K), by having Roza launch into a lengthy and a rhythm disrupting explanation that many Turks used Greek letters because the Ottomans of the time used the unwieldy and difficult to use Arabic script, they present Ismail's first letter to Rosa as having been written in 1922. That letter, the text of which can clearly be seen, is written in the Modern Turkish alphabet, with Roman, not Arabic letters. And yet, the new alphabet was did not come into effect in Turkey until 1929, some seven years after Ismail's letter. Either Ismail was an early linguistic prophet, or some serious lacunae in the research have developed.

Fifthly, according to the film, in order to efface her sexual transgression, Roza is married off to a willing Greek, in exchange for a financial benefit. The wedding we are told, takes place after the Greek troops evacuated Smyrna. We know that this took place on 8 September 1922, that the Turkish army entered the city that evening, and that massacres began almost immediately. We also know that at this time, the Christian inhabitants of the city began to flee for their lives. Is the film maker's contention therefore plausible, that a wedding would have taken place during these circumstances, let along one where the guests are dressed in their finest clothes, completely disregarding the fact that marauding Turkish soldiers and irregulars are contemporaneously roaming the streets trying to kill them?

Sixthly, Ismail relates how he entered the church while the wedding was in progress and during the confusion, Roza's father was shot dead, neatly explaining how blood stained her wedding dress, one of the film's supposed key 'mysteries.' He states that he entered the church with the purpose of disrupting the wedding as he did not want to lose his love, or his child. However, after Roza's father is massacred, he is shown placing her on a horse, giving her a tiny knife the size of a letter opener and letting her go. Considering that at this time, massacres were raging all around Smyrna, how can Ismail's professed love of Roza be reconciled with his willingness to allow her to venture, unprotected, into the midst of a raging genocidal mob, knowing that her rape or death was almost a certainty? And what purpose does the penknife have, except as to act as a silly and irrelevant symbol of who knows what, when at the end of the film and her life, Roza throws it into the Bosphorus, a stretch of water that has absolutely no significance for her?


One aspect of the film I found enthralling was this: Roza's granddaughter, who I suspect is a parody of Audrey Tautou, is a struggling artist with no recognition of her talent. When it is revealed to her that the only reason why her art is being recognised, purchased and exhibited in Istanbul is because her patron is actually her grandfather, Ismail, who has arranged for this to be so out of his own pocket, she barely bats an eyelid. If this was an Anglo-Saxon film, this revelation would have caused her immense self doubt and to question her talent and artistic value. In this film, directed towards a Greek audience, none of that betrayal or loss of validation is explored, presumably, because nepotism is so entrenched within the modern Greek psyche, that the thought doesn't even occur to her, or rather to the film makers who lack the insight to explore this aspect of the scenario they have created. Roza herself, provides insight into entrenched nepotistic values. While she is fully cognisant of the hunk's designs on her grand-daughter, she treats him with exaggerated consideration, when she forms the opinion that he is behind her grand-daughter's turn in artistic fortunes. Thus, in the case of both Ismail, an abductor, murderer and person willing to allow the object of his love to venture into a massacre, and our hunk, money, and favours, can buy you love.

Just as intriguing is the film's attitude towards to Ömer, who our hunky protagonist meets in Izmir. In their lame and clumsy attempt to trace the conversion of a racist hunky Romaic intellectual consumed with hatred into a modern, humanistic hunky European intellectual, the film- makers have the said hunk treat his Turkish companion appallingly. Stereotypes abound: The Greek is impulsive, effusive and passionate. The Easterner is accepting, passive, stoic and kind. As the relationship thaws to the point where hunk is comfortable enough to reveal that he speaks Turkish, we are led to expect that this is a seminal moment in their relationship. Paradoxically, however, the effect of this revelation is completely rendered irrelevant by the pair continuing to converse in English. Furthermore, the portrayal of the reputedly more intimate friendship is puerile: At all stages hunk acts as a western colonialist, rather than a friend. Even as the relationship warms, instead of being treated as an equal, Ömer is portrayed by the film makers as an errand boy or a trusty sidekick. Tellingly, he is conspicuously absent from the exhibition at the end of the film, one which could not have been held without his intervention. His absence, renders hunks public recantation of hatred and espousal of inter-ethnic love, presciently hipsterish.

In like fashion, the denoument, where after needless prevarication, Roza scurries to Ismail's deathbed, witnesses him succumbing to a heart-attack, throws his knife into the sea and then dies on the pier is mystifying. Grandmother and granddaughter are close. By this stage, Roza is at least eighty years old. It stretches credulity to believe that Roza would have been allowed out at night in a strange country without supervision, let alone be permitted to perish romantically upon a pier, just so the flim-makers can reference the romance of Layla and Majnun. (Note to the film-makers: Majnun was killed by Layla's husband. There is little or nothing to parallel their story to this one, except for an inept attempt at a little orientalist exoticism. Still, ten marks for trying).

While the movie successfully builds up suspense and creates mystery around the circumstances of Roza's secrets, their revelation is emotionless and the retrospective scenes do not succeed in allowing us to feel her pain or sympathise to the extent that we should, partially because they are not plausible but mostly because they are told by others and we do not get to understand them through her eyes. As such, her character remains criminally underdeveloped. This is because the film-makers, in spending time cramming as many disparate and interesting elements into the early part of the movie in order to build suspense, have forgotten the most important rule of narrative: Show, don't tell. This is a pity because the character of Roza gives rise to immense opportunities to fully showcase the ambiguities of moving within and transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. Perhaps the film-makers could have taken a leaf out of Alexander Billinis' brilliant: Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, where similar secrets are treated in a historically plausible and nuanced fashion.

The above notwithstanding, the endearing Roza of Smyrna has the makings of a thoroughly evocative and enjoyable movie, one that invites thought and consideration, a feat in itself. Its cinematography, more a paean to a lost, confident PASOKian past that to Smyrna, is lyrical and elegant. It is worth a look, not just only, to trace what could have been, an epic masterpiece, had the film-makers the patience and the skills, to delve into what is, a fascinating amount of detail.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 October 2017