Monday, July 20, 2009


“Thence we came and hence we shall return,” goes the old adage and yet this and many others like it are defied by the fates of the diasporic Hellenes. Consider mute Olbia, Panticapaeum, Cherson and Odessus, colonies founded by diasporic Greeks in the Crimea. The ensuing glory Bosporan Kingdom, one of the richest and most powerful of the ancient world should be juxtaposed against its sorry and devastated state when the region was seized by Potemkin from the Ottomans in 1782. Potemkin found the region denuded of its Greek inhabitants and in homage to their memory, set about refounding towns in which Greeks could settle, such as Sevastopol. Today, after wars, social upheaval and the passage of time the Crimea is again largely de-hellenized.
It is trite that population and cultural movement is not a static phenomenon. It bears noticing though, that of all the historic movements of the Greek diaspora outside the motherland, however this is defined, none have achieved a viable permanency as Greek entities. Massalia, now known as Marseille, is a case in point and its gradual de-hellenization is exemplified in its coinage. Silver coins, sporting an olive-wreath wearing Artemis on the reverse and a lion on the obverse were gradually copied by the Celts as Marseilles’ culture became more and more diverse, until such time as the city’s coinage ended up sporting some abstract and unintelligible designs that truly bear witness to the effect of cultures intermingling within a multicultural melting pot.
This notwithstanding, most of my youth was spent in a psychological Hellenic enclave. We spoke Greek at home, partook of the deliberations and news exchange that is a prerequisite of membership of the ‘virtual’ village transplanted from the mother country and associated with other Greeks – mostly from our own region. On weekends, we would attend Greek dance after Greek dance in brotherhood buildings. Brotherhoods were formed simply because while their members acknowledged that they were generically Greek, they found it easier to relate and thus associate with people from their own region. These dances would be held in rapid succession because the said brotherhood buildings needed to be paid off so that they would remain: “for our children.” The assumption was always that the next generation would retain the social structure, language, ideology, attitudes and customs understood by the first generation as being tantamount to Hellenism, even though they could not always agree on what these were. I will never forget one particularly brave individual holding a placard at an Antipodes Festival a decade ago proclaiming: «Ε, τσοπάνηδες! Μπύρα και τσόπια: Δεν είναι αυτός ο πολιτισμός μας,» and parading up and down Lonsdale Street. This individual’s public accusation of the first generation, who see themselves as the arbiters and prophets of what is Hellenic, as being inauthentic in their emphasis upon the consumption of meat and alcohol (a supposedly “Aussie” and non-Greek pastime), is of intrinsic historical significance.
Our religion too was ‘Greek,’ rather than Orthodox and ecumenical because the first generation had learned at school that the Greek Orthodox Church was the bastion of Hellenic civilization. Recently, I read an interview given by a missionary to the editors of a religious magazine in Greece. Having concluded three years as a theologian in Sydney, he made a farewell speech in which he expressed the desire for the creation of Aboriginal converts to Orthodoxy and Aboriginal priests. He was and still is shocked by the parish priest’s response: “You shouldn’t have said that. Our church exists solely for Greeks.” The priest’s reaction is not unpredictable. As a minority group struggling to maintain cohesion, the first generation would and has employed as many means possible to keep us together, as they have to separate us into warring factions – again, another particularly Greek trait. Come the late eighties, and Nick Giannopoulos would introduce further novel innovations into one’s identity. We could no longer define ourselves as genuine article, first edition Greeks. Instead, we were collectively, ‘wogs,’ – that is heirs to a tradition and culture that we sometimes found oppressive, sometimes onerous but which permeated the way we spoke, dressed and acted. Being a wog was cool because we could distance ourselves from our parents with their archaizing and inconsistent conception of identity. At the same time, by adopting a few rudiments of their culture, we absolved ourselves of the need to adopt it wholesale and could thus occupy a facile middle position between a marginal minority enclave and an integrated group within broader society. Further, we found that we had so much in common with members of other ethnic groups also struggling with a first generation-imposed cultural hegemony, who we could also term ‘wogs.’ We were now English-speaking ethnics united by the oppression of a mother culture too difficult to espouse within the monolingual demands of an Anglo-Saxon world. Nonetheless, the first generation continues to persist in the perpetuation of social and community structures that do not acknowledge the vast cultural and linguistic chasm that exists between the generations, quite possibly in the vain hope that future generations will ‘come around.’
Recent events transpiring within the Greek community are a case in point. A Greek organization in the Western suburbs has recently seen members of its youth elected to its committee of management. As part of their campaign to modernize and make their organization relevant, the committee has decided to put up its clubhouse, an aging, semi built, inconvenient and costly structure, up for sale. Their aim is to purchase a smaller, more central premises that will absolve them of the need to hold dance after dance in order to pay it off and permit them to host other activities that will convey regional culture and a sense of community to the latter generations. Unsurprisingly, the sale is strenuously opposed my aging members of the organization. As one remarked to me: “If they are frightened of paying it off, they should hold more dances and fundraisers until they do.” Another former president, responsible for the selection of the vast site, commented more revealingly: “This premises is ideal. We were to build a school, a theatre, a soccer ground and various receptions. We never did. But why should they sell it? We all agree it should be sold. But when we want to sell. Not when they want to.” Sum total: We must preserve and milk our sacred cows even after their udders are dry. Stay tuned for fireworks.
Juxtapose this against another function I attended recently, in which after two English language speakers, I spoke in Greek for two minutes, to an audience comprised mainly of Greek-Australians in their fifties. In the midst of my talk, I heard a member of the audience audibly whisper: “We don’t understand what the hell he is saying.” Switching back and forth between the two languages in order to make myself understood, I marveled at how the concept of the ‘second generation’ has now broadened to include those of middle age.’ Upon the conclusion of my speech, I was congratulated for my ‘good Greek’ (as if speaking your own language should be considered an achievement), by an elderly gentleman who said he was from Turkey (Constantinople) and who informed me in English that the Constantinopolitans spoke the best Greek of all. I answered all of his questions in Greek and yet not once would he switch from his broken, barely intelligible English to a more comfortable medium. Immediately afterwards I was approached by a grandmother who waxed lyrical about the fact that her grandson who was given a bouzouki for Christmas gushed: “Look at me grandma, I have a bouzouki! I’m a real Greek!.” The grandmother’s real pride over her grandson’s tokenistic approach to an identity that is manifestly foreign for him really brought home for an enclave-dweller such as myself, the total bankruptcy of the internecine squabbles of the first generation, safely ensconced behind their community constructs. After all it is easier to fight over the lean pickings of pretensions to rapidly diminishing power than to develop the foresight that will ensure that the non-Greek speaking generations will have more than just a tokenistic, kitsch souvenir, Nia Vardalos approach to their identity. A starting point could perhaps be that the complacency accompanying non-proficiency in the Greek language is socially unacceptable, with strategies implemented for the arrest of the current situation. It does not lie in waiting for self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ to emerge from the elite like the Messiah to lead us to the promised land of perpetual Hellenism or from engaging in dozens of fruitless talkfests. After all, talking is what we do best. Nor does it lie in parroting fallacious and intellectually stupid sacred cows such as ‘holistic,’ ‘united’ or ‘organised’ action, given that our community is more fragmented, diverse and composite than we would like to think. Further, it does not lie in our existing regional organisations that, in their insistence upon identity by region, inhibit the formation of a Greek identity and lack the sophistication to realize that in a post-modern age, people demand the right to construct their own identity. The future lies in a broadly based, grass-roots attempt to inspire members of the community to seek their own roots and define their identity for themselves through easy access to elements of Greek culture through direct access to Greece, cultural exchange and the re-establishment of the community as a friendly construct of solidarity, not of politics and self-aggrandizement. These tasks are not easy and are not for those who seek their five minutes of fame. However, they are vital. When I was writing the NUGAS column in this paper, almost a decade ago, I minuted concerns over the possibility of our becoming Poseidonians. As time moves inexorably on, I am ever more convinced that Cavafy was granted with unworldly foresight. Read his poem below and judge for yourself. He is right in all things save, I think, the melancholy. It’s time to act, now:
“The Poseidonians forgot the Greek languageafter so many centuries of mingling with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners. The only thing surviving from their ancestorswas a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths. And it was their habit toward the festival's end to tell each other about their ancient customsand once again to speak Greek namesthat only few of them still recognized. And so their festival always had a melancholy ending because they remembered that they too were Greeks, they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia; and how low they'd fallen now, what they'd become,l iving and speaking like barbarians, cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.”


First published in NKEE on 20 July 2009