Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MOMUS, MUMMERS AND MOMOGEROI


“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...”

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 February 2018

Monday, February 05, 2018

TRAITORS IN OUR MACEDONIAN MIDST



“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.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE online on 5 February 2018
 

Saturday, February 03, 2018

HELLENISM 2221: TALES OF DYSTOPIA


 
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.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on 3 February 2018

Saturday, January 27, 2018

PONTIANS AND AUSTRALIA DAY

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.
DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 January 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018

NAMESAKE

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.

 DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 January 2018

Saturday, January 13, 2018

TROY: FALL OF A STEREOTYPE

 
 
“The ancient Greeks,” my blonde and blue eyed Greek teacher from Thessaly, informed us in Year Nine, “were all blonde and blue eyed, like the Germans. The reason why most Greeks are not, is because they have been forced to mix with barbarous races like the Turks and the Slavs.”
“But aren’t there large numbers of blonde, blue-eyed people among the Slavs?” I had asked.
“Where do you think they got that from?” my teacher replied, without batting an eyelid.
 
The ancient Greeks on the other hand, rarely portrayed themselves with the tawny locks of Brad Pitt. From the time of the Minoans, to the Mycenaean period and beyond, Greeks have generally rendered their own images in paintings, in swarthy tones, with some famous painters, such as Exekias, portraying Brad Pitt’s alter ego, Achilles in the act of slaying the Amazon Queen Penthesilea (and apparently falling in love with her corpse) in ebony hues, though this was a convention of Attic back figure pottery painting.
 
Nonetheless, the concept of the blonde has always been present in hallowed Greek antiquity. The ancestor of both the Ionian and Achaean nations was said to be Xouthos, whose name is considered a variant of Xanthos, meaning blonde, though according to Liddell and Scott, as a colour, xouthos describes a tone as "between xanthos and pyrros" (i.e. between yellow and red), which means "tawny", or "dusky". This can suggest that his name can refer to either to his skin, his complexion, his hair - or all three characteristics.
 
No less a personage than the hyper-rational Aristotle extolled the virtues of blondeness, with reference to the animal kingdom: “Those with tawny coloured hair are brave; witness the lions. [But those with] reddish [hair] are of bad character; witness the foxes." The equation of blondeness with goodness or bravery is an enduring one. The many Greeks who believe in the prophecy of Agathengelos are still awaiting salvation at the hands of the “blonde race.”
 
When it comes to Homer, Gods and heroes are generally, but not consistently portrayed as golden and blonde-like. Thus, while Poseidon was described as having a blue-black beard and Zeus blue-black eyebrows, (with Homer attention to detail is everything), Aphrodite is described as golden haired (χρυσή), Menelaos, the king of the Spartans is, together with some other Achaean leaders, portrayed as blondies, as are Peleus, Achilles, Agamede and Rhadamanthys, while the blonde Odysseus is at some stage, transformed by Athena so that his beard becomes blue-black.
 
In the Hymn to Demeter, the goddess (or her hair) is twice described as “ξανθή”. Leto in the Hymn to Apollo is described as χρυσοπλόκαμη, or “golden-locked,” while Apollo himself and Hera are also occasionally described as blondes in the ancient texts.
According to D Pontikos, perhaps only 2% of Greek statuary provides evidence for blondness among the Greeks. Taking the genetic identity of Greeks to be fairly consistent over time, Pontikos argues that while there was a minority recessive trait for blondness present among the Greeks, the usage of terms such as ξανθή or χρυσή are more likely to have represented a darker pigmentation that is suggested by the modern term blonde. Nonetheless, it can be taken as accepted that for the ancient Greeks, as well as for a large proportion of modern Greeks believing in the goldenness of the Greeks, being blonde is being special, though in the moderns’ case, it is probably their imbibing of the orientalist, western propagated myth of the debased swarthy Middle Eastern Greek, fallen genetically far below their flaxen-haired ancestors (while the suitably fair-haired westerners are manifestly genetically worthier heirs to their civilization), that has led to the mass revival of platinum blondes via means chemical in the Republic of Greece.
 Given the above, it is unsurprising that sundry diasporan Greeks are up in arms, at the news that Netflix and the BBC are attempting to tackle the Iliad by means of a series entitled: “Troy: Fall of a City.” The reason for their outrage is the use of black actors in this attempt for a remake of a remake of a film based on the Homeric epic, including David Gyasi as Achilles and Hakeem Kae Kazim, as Zeus. For them, this is an insult and a criminal misinterpretation of what they deem to be “their culture,” for it implies that the ancient Greeks were black, this apparently being offensive to those aggrieved. One of the aggrieved even went so far as to assure me that “the Greeks were and always will be part of the Caucasian race.” The Caucasian race of course, is a biological taxon, which, depending on which classification is used, has usually included some or all of the ancient and modern populations of Europe, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Western Asia, Central Asia and South Asia.
 
The presence of black actors in Greek-themed epic films based on mythology is thus considered by the aggrieved as a historical distortion, even though we are dealing with fantasy. The ensuing hysteria is related to the fact that while the rest of the world watches for the sake of entertainment and not information, we Greeks expect to derive from such offerings, a statement about who we are, one that must conform to the manner in which we have been told, since the Enlightenment, who we and our ancestors must be. When what we see upon the screen does not conform to the stereotype of the glorious, sagacious, blonde and beautiful Greek to whose civilisation one must pay the requisite homage, we tend to become a little distressed at the real blondes calling us out for our lack of blondeness.
 
Interestingly enough, the manner in which Greek-themed myth Hollywood fantasies have of late, increasingly assumed the form of Viking sagas, with the Olympians assuming the form of the denizens of Asgard and all Greek warriors looking disconcertingly like Thor, seems to cause our righteously angered historians no distress at all, possibly because their Nordic appearance makes them qualify as Aryans, underlying a stereotype of genetic superiority of which we are the chief exemplars, and which, as the present controversy proves, harbours inordinately repellent racist undertones.
We should have no problem with the use of actors of any or all backgrounds in remakes or “interpretations” of this ilk. The brilliant manner in which actors "of colour" have portrayed characters in the Shakespearean dramas on film, most recently Sophie Okonedo as Margaret  of Anjou, is a case in point. For in Shakespeare, and the same applies in Homer, it is not the appearance of the actor that is the primary consideration but rather the work’s words and what the actor does to vivify them, that is paramount. Having any actor, of whatever sex or background immerse themselves in Homer and entice us, by the skill of their art, into his world, is the ultimate compliment that could be paid to our tribe, much greater than any that could be paid by obtaining players who assuage our deep-seated phyletic insecurities and mask our western-imposed self-loathing.
What we should mercilessly object to however, where these exist,  are inane film scripts, replete with wooden, poorly delivered dialogue, implausible and ridiculous panderings to modern mores, blatantly bad acting, and gross disrespect towards our chief Bard.

As for our incensed compatriots, instead of lamenting how the West does not portray our classics faithfully, (and it is true that they do not), let us consider that it is he who articulates the work, that determines the discourse. In this case, elements of an ancient Greek epic are being adapted for entry into an English-speaking globalised culture. It follows logically that any such interpretation will have as its primary reference point, the contemporary culture of its viewers juxtaposed against but ultimately reconciled with views of the ancient world that were crystallised in the West at the time of the Enlightenment.
We on the other hand, the Aryan, Caucasian, pure-blooded descendants of Homer have never produced a film via which to assert a uniquely Hellenic perspective of Homer. The fact that we have not done so is paradoxical for Homer was revered and formed the core of Greek education from times ancient right up until the fall of Constantinople. Somewhere along the line, we have lost and no longer know how to articulate what Homer means to us, without having someone else articulate it for us. Instead, like Cavafy’s Poseidonians, we focus inanely on homage rituals, or the lack thereof, no longer understanding or being able to express their significance, or parroting the orientalist ideologies of the imperialists. And this, vis a vis the Bard who was arguably, the greatest of his craft, is criminal indeed.

DEAN KALIMNIOU
 
First published in NKEE on Saturday 13 January 2018

Thursday, January 04, 2018

GREEK-AUSTRALIAN VASILOPITA

Greek New Year’s lore roughly accords with Anglo-Saxon traditions about the changing of the wind: If, upon the stroke of midnight in the New Year, one is miffed, quizzical, or downright perturbed, cosmic forces will mysteriously ensure that such moods will remain immutable for the duration of our planet’s revolution around the celestial orb.
It is for this reason, then, that I smiled, when Greek friends manifested themselves upon my doorstep, bearing, instead of the requisite vasilopita, a boxed Panettone, this particular version being, the Motta Colomba. Interestingly, this avatar is actually the cake served at Easter, that coming in the shape of a dove, symbolises a time of peace and reflection. When my friends invited me to insert my own coin within the confection, because, as they informed me, this vasilopita comes without one, I continued to smile, taking the time, in peace and reflection, to visualize their offering being ritually impaled upon a toasting fork and immolated within the fires of Vesuvius by enraged New Year’s kallikantzaroi, of the Orthodox persuasion, of course.
Similarly, I allowed my lips to express joy, goodwill and mirth when an acquaintance also apparated at our place of abode some time later, bearing what he maintained to be a vasilopita. It was in fact, a plaited tsoureki, manifestly frozen at Easter time, its decay suspended in time and space and now thawed out and proffered wholeheartedly. It was the words: Χρόνια Πολλά 2018, inscribed in texta on the outside of a clear plastic bread bag, along with the hole at its rear, where a coin had been manually inserted, that provided the logical basis behind my deduction. As things transpired, the said tsoureki-cum-vasilopita was of historical importance, since the inserted coin turned out to be a two-cent piece, withdrawn from circulation in 1992. Furthermore, I relish the idea of a versatile Greek comestible making itself available to a multiplicity uses, as being the Greek-Australian equivalent of bringing out hot cross buns just after Christmas. Apparently, many Greek-Australian bakers feel the same way, for their vasilopites also look, taste and feel suspiciously like tsourekia as well.
For this New Year, I chose to attempt a recreation of my late grandmother’s vasilopita, which was hard, dry and bread-like, and topped with walnuts whose shells were charred, for my grandmother was a purist and would not cover them with foil. In pursuit of this lofty goal, I attended my local Greek deli just before Christmas, in order to obtain the requisite ingredients early and give myself enough time to experiment. As I waited at the cash register, I was treated to this following conversation between the proprietor and what appeared to be a second-generation Greek-Australian:
“Ela re, how are you going palikari?”
“Gamiseta re. How about you? Busy?”
“Tis trelis mate. Gamiseta.”
“You taking time off?”
-“No way mate. Closing the shop only on the main days. Too busy. Gamiseta. What are you doing for New Year’s?”
“Going to my pethera's re.. Gamiseta.”
“Gamiseta re.”
“How's the missus?”
“Giving me strain re, gamiseta. Wants to go to Queensland.”
“What is it with missuses always wanting to go on holidays to Queensland re? Gamiseta.”
“Gamiseta, alright.”
Turning to me, the smiling proprietor enquired:
“Esy megale?”
“No I can’t,” I responded.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“ I can’t do what you are encouraging me to do.”
“Huh? Why not?”
“I’m fasting,” I informed him.”
Whereupon both my interlocutors chimed in unison: “Gamiseta!”

Apparently, the more you conflate the two Greek words into one, and the more you repeat them, the more Greek you are. My antiphon to the ritual chant appeared to grant immense cheer to the proprietor, for he would not let me leave without obtaining custody of one of his vasilopites, one of the tsoureki-looking types, gratis. 
“Ellada," the proprietor exclaimed, spreading his arms expansively as I walked away. "Only we Greeks understand the vasilopita. The rest of the world? Varvaroi vre paidi mou, gamiseta.”
I attempted to explain to him that both eastern and western New Year’s celebrations derive from the ancient Greek Kronia, the festival of Cronus, the god of Time, which involved selecting a "king" by lot, and then, the Roman Saturnalia. I added for good measure that the traditions surrounding vasilopita are very similar to western European celebrations of the Twelfth Night and Epiphany, the king cake of France and Louisiana and the tortell of Catalonia.
“Yes, the proprietor responded, "but there is one thing we have that they don’t.”
“What?” I asked.

“They aren’t Ellines, re,” he crowed triumphantly. 'Even Agio Vasili was Greek."
I returned two days after Christmas, surmising from my experimental concoctions that my grandmother’s vasilopita recipe contained other secret ingredients I had not accounted for.
"How are you re? How can I help?" the proprietor asked, expending the last of his leftover Christmas cheer upon my insufficiency.
"Do you have mastiha?” I asked.

"Yeah re. Katse....Here it is re."
“Is that the Greek one or the Lebanese one?”
“ It’s the Greek one re, what do you take me for?”
Suddenly, he looked up at me, frowning. "Re, are you doing baking?"he enquired tentatively.
“Yeah, vasilopita.”

The proprietor shook his head in disbelief: "Seriously, re?"
"Yeah, why?"
Looking defensive, he hastened to confide. "Nah relax re. It’s all good. No judgment. Your secret is safe with me, re. Καλή χρονιά."
With the advent of the New Year, just before the vasilopita is served, it would be ideal to retrieve, from the depths of the cupboard, my invention, the Greek Australian board game for the holidays: ΠΑΡΕΞΗΓΗΣΗ. The object is to visit as many squares on the board as possible, which represent relatives' houses. If you wipe your hands on the tablecloth instead of using a napkin, go back three spaces. If you forget to gossip about your third cousin, go back two spaces. If someone makes a snide remark about your distant uncle’s Filipino girlfriend’s culinary prowess and you don’t join in, advance three spaces. If you fail to show appreciation for your newlywed investment banker brother-in-law’s new barbecue, go back one space. The object of the game is to get to the finish with the largest amount of relatives not speaking to you.
Extra points are awarded for:
1. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which of your relatives have deemed your Christmas presents unsuitable and have already surmised whence they were purchased and obtained a refund.
2. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which of your relatives know that you have deemed their Christmas presents unsuitable and have already surmised whence they were purchased and obtained a refund.
3. Guessing which new age relative will make the most outlandish New Year’s Resolution, including world peace, sustainable and ethically made yoga pants, the cooking of gluten-free lakhanodolmades and commencement of a communication embargo with their mother.
4. Guessing around the New Year’s Day table, which relatives will not be speaking to you by the end of the cutting and distribution of the vasilopita.

5. Referring to the cutting of the vasilopita as κοπή της βασιλόπιτας, and not κόψιμο της βασιλόπιτας, which is what happens when your vasilopita gives you the runs.
In keeping with the spirit of most Greek organisations, there is a rule book, but no one is expected to follow it. Sadly, since its invention, I have found no one within my social circle who wishes to play.
When my vasilopita emerged from the oven, it looked and smelled like a History Channel graphic re-enactment gone horribly wrong. Malodorous and hard baked on the top, it lacked structure and was soft in the middle, much like myself, really. The consensus being that it was not fit for human consumption, adhering to the strictures of hallowed custom required us to pull out the previously gifted tsoureki-vasilopita, upon which I chipped my tooth, thereupon discovering the ingenious insertion of the two-cent piece.
“Γούρι, γούρι,” one relative joyfully exclaimed.
“Don’t swear!” another advised, as I uttered nefarious idiomatic curses, clutching my mouth in agony. “If you swear today, you will be swearing all year.”
“That’s what happens when you play the fool and try to do a woman’s job,” a middle aged invitee observed darkly.
“What did you say?” I looked up, my eyebrows contorting like a Russian gymnast on steroids, in fury.
Τίποτα, τίποτα,” he retreated three paces. “Τίποτα, καλή καρδιά, καλή χρονιά. Και του χρόνου.”
“So you want him to chip his tooth again next year, do you?” an enraged aunt demanded.
“Όχι, όχι παρεξήγηση,῾he retreated a further two paces.
I sat back, mesmerised as I watched them play ΠΑΡΕΞΗΓΗΣΗ unwittingly, in a manner that exhausts superlatives, crumbs of tsourekovasilopita streaming from their mouths as they engaged in heated invective, my cheek muscles jerking my lips into a chasmic smile.
“That’s better, my overprotective aunt beamed, hurling a stream of pejoratives over the table. “Smile. Now you will be smiling all year round. Και του χρόνου.”


DEAN KALIMNIOU
kalymnios@hotmail.com

First published in NKEE on Tuesday 2 January 2018