Search results for 'A grandmother'

Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather

17 May

Mana kai babas mikrosThe most recent picture of my grandmother to resurface, with my father as a baby, she in somewhat less then the full-out finery of the photo at bottom with my grandfather included, but with her good sash and her mecidiyia around her neck and forehead in any case.

Probably the saddest of all the stories I got bombarded with while in Derviçani this time was one told to me by my cousin Chrysanthe, shown here in this picture with the Coke can (below) with her daughter Amalia and her two grandsons, cracking Easter eggs at the Monastery above the village on Easter Monday where the dancing takes place.  (See Easter in Derviçani” — the stunning young girl behind them is my niece Marina — click)  

Augaimg_0102As our house was pretty much just off the village’s main square, most of the afternoons my grandmother could be found sitting on the stone bench in front of the house watching people. Try to imagine her about forty years after the above photo was taken, but not quite as old yet as this last one we have of her. (click)

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Spiti DervitsianiOur house today (click).  Built by my grandfather with blood and sweat shed in the slaughterhouses of Buenos Aires.  The village collective confiscated it and allowed my grandmother to live in only one room, keeping hay and seed and agricultural implements in the other three odas.  It’s lain abandoned since her death.  But someone always burns a cross on the top of the doorway at Easter.  This year I got to do it myself.

My grandfather dead in some prison camp in central Albania, my father, the only child, in America, letters getting through the censors only every so often, she was lonely, despite the hordes of family she had to take care of her. People say she would beg to hold any baby that someone brought by: “I just want a baby to wet me,” she would say, “and let it be someone else’s.”

But around Easter my cousin Chrysanthe says: “She would tell us quietly to come inside, and she would open up a little sentouki [chest] she had with a pile of bright red Easter eggs inside.” This was in the mid-sixties, when Albania, recently aligned with a China in the midst of its brilliant Cultural Revolution, had prohibited any form of religion whatsoever and dyeing Easter eggs could land you in jail, even the parents of the child, in this case, if they knew and hadn’t reported it. “And I would say, ‘oooooyyyyyy Kako [auntie]*, can I take one?’ and she’d say, ‘No canım, we’re just going to keep them here and you’ll come and we’ll look at them and we’ll play with them and have fun and then we’ll put them back in the sentouki and you won’t tell anyone, ok?’”

This is what those systems wasted their energies on, in case you’re wondering how it is that they collapsed like a house of cards from one day to the next after destroying the lives of millions: forcing old women to dye eggs in secret. No one ever knew where she got the dye from or how she even got so many eggs together at one time. She probably denied herself the product of the chickens she was allowed to keep to have enough eggs for Easter. Soon after, they prohibited private poultry and confiscated bostania too (kitchen gardens), even if they were part of your house’s immediate property, and all food items had to be gotten from the village collective, but I think some local Party member with half a soul let her and a few other old people keep theirs.

There’s a partly satisfying coda to this story though. Below is my grandmother, Martha (Mantho) with her favorite sister Alexandra (Leço).

ManthaLechoTheir maiden name was Çames — and you can deduce for yourself what it might mean that Çam is also one of the major tribal sub-groups of southern Albanians, the ones who lived in what’s now Greek Epiros and were massacred and driven out by Greek nationalist forces during WWII for supposedly (and if they did, totally understandably) collaborating with the Germans. Their father, my great-grandfather GianneÇames** came to the United States in 1895 and opened a fruit store in Mystic, Connecticut (the willingness of these men to just up and go off to places that must have been to them the equivalent of Zambia to us has always astounded me). A few years later, he brought three of his sons over, my grandmother’s brothers, and during the summers he used to send them down to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a very understated, high-WASP resort on the far western shore of the state, to sell popcorn and cotton candy on the beach. But from these modest beginnings they eventually opened the Olympia Tea Room in 1916, which is still there and was quite the poshest place to eat in town for decades — and has suddenly become re-hip again. For better or worse, you know I’ve taken you seriously as a friend when I’ve dragged you down to Watch Hill to make you pay homage, as if it were my village; for my father, cut off from his own for most of his life, it was.  So the Çamedes ended up being people of some consequence in Derviçani; to have been given a Massios daughter as a bride, my great-grandmother Kostando (those who know will know what I mean), you have to have been, and their house was not just a prosperous one, but one always open to all, the “peliauri” – courtyard – where my father grew up, always swarming with women and children and guests and the whole mahalla coming in and out all day.

OlympiafrontThe Olympia Tea Room, “est. 1916,” Watch Hill, Rhode Island and general view of the town’s harbor below (click on both — I don’t know who took this Olympia photo but it’s great — thank you).

Watch_Hill_HarborYet my great-grandfather Gianne married off his two favorite daughters to two men without much wealth or property, my grandfather NikoBakos and my great-uncle MihoBarutas (Michales). And I think it was on their sheer reputation as outspoken men to be respected and feared – and in our parts, even today, you still have to be both – or, as men period, that he did so; my grandfather was tall and handsome but not to be messed with – “his word was law through all the villages of Dropoli” – I was told on this trip,*** and the Barutaioi are proverbially unafraid of anyone or anything.  Ex-Ottomans will know that the name itself means “gunpowder,” and that’s all you need to know.

KakoLechoLaloMihoBarutasMy great-aunt, Kako Leço (above) and my great-uncle Lalo Miho Barutas.  I wish we had a picture of them younger but no one can seem to locate one. (click)

Family(My grandparents and my father in what I suppose must have been around 1931 or ’32.  If you look carefully you can see that the photo is a Photoshop job of its day; my grandfather was photographed in Buenos Aires and the photograph later attached in Albania; it’s always been a metaphor of an inheritance of absent fathers for me.  My grandfather was known as Djoumerka, a high mountain range in southern Epiros because he was so tall (but see more on that below).  My grandmother’s outfit in this picture — all made possible by rich WASPs in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, early globalisation — was described to me once by a woman, my Theia Vantho, whose memory I would never dare to doubt: the vest and sash were a maroon-purplish velvet embroidered with gold thread, which would have looked most like this kind of work, but with a deepr, more puplish hue:

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(click)

The apron, green silk with heavy multi-coloured embroidery, the outer, mid-hip length vest, what was known as the “şita,” barely visible at the sides and mostly decorated to be seen from behind, was white woolen felt, trimmed in red and black.  The medallions embroidered on either side of the vest were not traditional and generally it was seen at the time as hubristically opulent, so much so that the kind of mean tongues that flourish in small communities like this attributed the misfortunes of her later life to her excessive pride as a young woman. Click, double if you wanna see the details.)

Of course these are not qualities that get you far in a totalitarian regime like Hoxha’s Albania, except blacklisted, sent to jail or into internal exile or killed. And that’s what happened to them. Both branches of the family and by association the whole network of related clans suffered greatly during communist rule and yet held together. The Çames gene is a strong one, and anyone who is from a big family knows how certain emotional “affinities” – in this case the love between the two sisters – end up being transmitted down specific threads through generational lines: my Kako Leço’s son, Vangeli, a first cousin of my father’s who my father barely knew, is my favorite uncle in the village: the Baruta patriarch now, he’s also a man to be respected and feared, who started from less than zero when the communist regime fell apart and is now a highly successful entrepreneur with a business that reaches Albania-wide markets. His daughters — especially one in Tirane, Calliope (she’s shown in the passing of the Light photo in “Easter in Derviçani,“) — are my favorite cousins, and one of Calliope’s sons, also Vangeli, named after his grandfather, and destined to be an equally formidable personality, is my favorite nephew.

My Uncle Vangeli spoke his mind as much as one could all during communist times and how he escaped harsher punishment during those decades is a miracle of sorts. But underneath the fear of the Party, older fears and structures of respect were still operating, I think, and that’s what saved them. One of the village informers, the usual squirrels in those systems who will tell on others for an extra ration of food — what in the Soviet Union was known as a stukach in Russian, a “knocker,” i.e., someone who comes and knocks at night to tell his superiors the information they want to know, or a sapo, a toad, in Latin America, another continent blessed with the necessary abundance of totalitarian experiences to develop such terminologies – had the misfortune of living next door to my uncle, and he would try to threaten them occasionally, but my uncle was unafraid of even getting into fistfights with him when necessary, so nothing ever came of it.

And back to Easter eggs. By ’88 or ’89 things had started, like all over Eastern Europe, not so much to relax, but to show such obvious signs of cracking apart that, as my relatives put it, “the fear started lifting.”  The Barutaioi started dyeing their own eggs during Holy Week, though there was still no functioning church or any open observation or acknowledgment of the holiday.  But on Easter night, after the Resurrection, when they had cracked and eaten their eggs, they would take the shells and throw them over the wall into the Party snitch’s front courtyard…  Forget empty tombs and angels in white and “Τι ζητείτε;”****  How’s that for some “good news” on Easter morning? And being a Jungian believer that no symbolism is accidental, I can see the cracked red shells in my mind, like splatters of the blood this guy had on his hands — though this is a person obviously too much of a hayvani to have been affected much I imagine. For to be a Christian in a village like Derviçani, and have people throw Easter egg shells at you on Easter Sunday, and not immediately find a bridge to jump off of, or a quiet corner to blow your brains out, you have to have a fairly huge hole where your conscience or any sense of shame should be. He’s still around. They’re still neighbors. And my Uncle Vangeli smiles and greets him courteously on the evening passegiata in the village square.

And my grandmother’s hidden eggs have been vindicated.

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*”Kako”– aunt, and “Lalo” — uncle, are two of some of the Albanian words we use in our villages, though most people today just say “theia” or “theio” in Greek.  I’m the only one who still says Kako and Lalo and they all get a big kick out of it.  Ismail Kadare has a hilarious character named Kako Pino in his book about his native Gjirokaster, Chronicle in Stoneso I don’t know if it’s maybe a local usage only, or only a Tosk word (the southern ethnic/linguistic division of Albanians) because my nephew Vangeli in Tirane uses the Turkish “teyze” when he talks to his aunts.

** This is how we say (or again, said…) our names in the region: the first name, undeclined, attached as a prefix to the family name.  This is probably a left over from the day when there were no family names and only Muslim-type patronymics were used: your name and your father’s attached after.  So instead of “NikoBakos” I would have been “NikoFotos.”  Thus the oldest historical ancestor in my mother’s family, the Giotopoulos, was GioteStauros — his father Stauros is almost a sort of mythical character lost in time — and after GioteStauros, the family started calling themselves Giotopoulos, “son of Giotes.”  Women in this heavily gendered world were never known by their first names outside their immediate households, but by their husband’s name with a female suffix attached; thus my grandmother was “NikoBakaina” or even the more Slavic “NikoBakova.”

***My grandfather, it’s turned out, was quite the guy.  Absolutely fearless in a way hard for us to comprehend, he was a kind of village rowdy as a kid (the guys of Derviçani are known as such even today and their arrival in the cafés of neighboring villages in the evenings is said to be slightly unwelcome because it often means trouble; apparently they drink a hefty amount so they spend a lot of money and that’s good, but the local girls like them and that combination doesn’t always end well.)  And he would even engage in some occasional sheep rustling with a buddy of his — not for the material gain, but because it was a kind of male rite of passage in the region, as it was till recently in parts of Crete (see Michael Herzfeld’s The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village” — below; let’s not mistake this with resistance to Ottoman or Muslim hegemony, as people love to do with the banditry traditions of the Balkans; it was pure thievery).  But if there were some lira to be made in the process, that was no problem either.  His nickname Djumerka, may not have come from just how tall he was, but from the fact that under the hire of a certian Ismail Ağa from Argyrocastro (Gjirokaster), he and a buddy of his (this buddy’s grandson remembered the ağa‘s name) went down to the Djumerka mountains when they were teens and stole the flocks of another rich Turk, an enemy of Ismail’s, from those parts and brought them back to Gjirokaster for him.  Given the chaos of late Ottoman times in the Balkans, this is not entirely the superhuman feat we may imagine it to be, not in terms of law enforcement at least, but we’re talking a great distance of extremely rough, high terrain and it was impressive enough to have entered the village’s legend canon.  Then he up and went to Buenos Aires in his early twenties and worked in the slaughterhouses there; Argentina is on my list of “to go” places partly or mainly because of that; I would give anything to find out even the tiniest detail of what his life there was like.  And then when he came back, with no more than an elementary school education, I think, and his pure charisma, he organized and led the delegation from the Greek-speaking villages of Dropoli to the King, Zog, in Tirane, to protest the closing of their Greek-language schools.  The campaign was successful.  Elementary school education in Greek resumed and he soon after went to jail for the first of many times.

In the late 1950’s is when he went to jail for good and never came out and all we know is that he was buried in a mass grave somewhere in central Albania.  People in the village talk a lot about who snitched under custody on those occasions; neighbors and relatives were often taken together, so everyone would eventually find out.  If you could live with yourself afterwards, you could give false testimony about someone else and get off easier or be released or maybe just get the beatings to stop.  I turned it into a ritual questioning this time when I was there, of anyone I could, because I had to know: “Lalo, my grandfather never gave false witness against anybody to save his hide, did he? No.  Lalo, my grandfather never…? No.  Lalo…? No.”  When I got the third “No” from my Uncle Vangeli this time I was satisfied.

This is all hard stuff to live up to.  When they’re thrilled to have NikoBako come to Derviçani, I’m actually ashamed, because they really see him.  I’m just a cipher — a proud one, yes, but just a representative of someone I could never be.  Half of the time, with all my family on both sides, I’m living off of credit from my mother’s kindnesss and generosity and half the time off of my grandfather’s toughness and bravery and my father’s stoic bearing of the torch.  If you think it’s great to come from this kind of stock and have these kinds of tales to tell, think again.

**** “Τι ζητείται τον ζώντα μετά των νεκρών;  Τι θρηνείτε τον άφθαρτον ως εν φθορά;” — “Why do you seek the Living among the dead? Why do you lament the Incorruptible amidst the rot?” the angel asks the women who come to the grave on the day of the Resurrection, is my favorite verse of the Easter Canon.

Note: For those of you who made it this far with me on this post, thank you.  I hope it wasn’t boring or embarrassingly personal.  I thought a lot about whether I would ever get so deep into this stuff on this blog and decided to just go ahead.

Addendum: For the person who asked how my father can have been an only child and I can have all these hundreds of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews, that’s because in Greek every indirect relative of an older generation is my aunt or uncle (even if he’s not my parent’s sibling but third or fourth cousin), and anyone of my generation laterally is a cousin and any children of those cousins, who may be third or fourth or fifth cousins, who are of a younger cohort, are my nieces and nephews.  My father was an only child; but my grandmother one of eight.  So out of those eight branches come this plethora of kin.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ireland told-you-so: “I don’t think there’s any real support for violence, but you can see how quickly things can unravel…It’s very bleak, and it is something to worry about.”

21 Nov

New York Times piece about things coming to a head in Ireland: “Northern Ireland Is Sinking Into a ‘Profound Crisis’” :

As the standoff drags on, and polarization increases, people find it harder to envisage Northern Ireland as an autonomous entity. “We’re back to this binary situation where people either see it as a problematic part of the U.K. or as a part of united Ireland,” said Graham Walker, a politics professor at Queen’s University, Belfast.

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My previous Ireland posts, the top more Ireland-specific, at bottom a broader look at nation and minorities:

Is England ready for fresh Irish blood on its hands?

15 Sep

This is not a question I ask glibly or to be deliberately provocative.  In fact, I think I was a little too glib in my earlier opinions about the issue of Brexit and Ireland and I’ve been sobered up a bit.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017

And it’s The New York Review of Books’ excellent piece by Fintan O’Toole, Brexit’s Irish Question“, that made me think a little more carefully about the whole issue.

I suggest everybody read the whole article since it’s open to the public, but I think even it pulls its punches a bit too much and doesn’t realize the degree of danger this “question” poses.  This is not “Brexit’s Irish Question.”  This is England’s Ireland Problem.  AGAIN.  STILL.  A reversion to form.  Before 1999.  Before 1921.  So all parties, but especially England, not Britain, should tread very carefully.

A good if rather lengthy summary/call out are the following three paragraphs from the piece:

“The Republic of Ireland was one of the most ethnically and religiously monolithic societies in the developed world. Its official ideology was a fusion of Catholicism and nationalism. The anti-homosexuality laws reflected the dominance of the Catholic Church, which was also manifest in extreme restrictions on contraception, divorce, and abortion. While the vast majority of its population was repelled by the savage violence of the Irish Republican Army’s armed campaign against British rule across the border in Northern Ireland, most agreed with the IRA’s basic aim of ending the partition of the island and bringing about what the Irish constitution called “the reintegration of the national territory.”

“But the Irish radically revised their nationalism. Three big things changed. The power of the Catholic Church collapsed in the 1990s, partly because of its dreadful response to revelations of its facilitation of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Irish economy, home to the European headquarters of many of the major multinational IT and pharmaceutical corporations, became a poster child for globalization. And the search for peace in Northern Ireland forced a dramatic rethinking of ideas about identity, sovereignty, and nationality.

“These very questions had tormented Ireland for centuries and were at the heart of the vicious, low-level, but apparently interminable conflict that reignited in Northern Ireland in 1968 and wound down thirty years later. If that conflict was to be resolved, there was no choice but to be radical. Things that nation-states do not like—ambiguity, contingency, multiplicity—would have to be lived with and perhaps even embraced. Irish people, for the most part, have come to terms with this necessity. The English, as the Brexit referendum suggested, have not. This is why the Irish border has such profound implications for Brexit—it is a physical token of a mental frontier that divides not just territories but ideas of what a national identity means in the twenty-first century.”  [My emphases]

The passage’s conclusion pretty much says it all.  As the second decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, and as Ireland approaches 100 years of freedom from almost 800 years of English rule, Ireland will enter the historical record as having taken a step forward and England as having taken a step backwards.  Good riddance, to be frank, as I have to say so against some pretty deep Anglophile sentiments.  It took me till much too late in life to realize that the best thing to do to an irate lover who loudly announces he’s not talking to you anymore is to ignore him, but that is what the European Union is rightly and justly doing to Britain.  And Britain is doing exactly what the “irate lover” always does when you call his no-talking bluff: trying to somehow work his way back into the position where he can regain at least some of the power that he forfeited with his drama so that he can manoeuver a bit.  But it’s not going to work.  Europe is genuinely tired of the drama.

The issue here is that it’s unconscionable that England’s drama should again be made Ireland’s.  Here’s a political map of the past two decades of Northern Irish life:

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What the map shows really clearly is that, as the percentage of Protestants in Northern Ireland has declined, the two groups have actually — during almost twenty years of what we have liked to imagine was peace — grown further apart and polarized into staunchly Sinn Féin Republican constituencies and Protestant DUP constituencies.  As the Review article points out Sinn Féin supporters in a non-EU Northern Ireland will now be deprived of the ability to have either or both Irish and British citizenship, something to which I cannot see them taking to very kindly.  I also do not see supporters of DUP, a corrupt bunch of thugs that represents the absolute worse of the English Reformation’s traditions of Guy Fawkes’ Day, anti-Catholic hatred and racism (no, Catholics aren’t always the bad guys), easily giving up their attachments to London.

But that’s exactly what London has to do.  England left Ireland in 1921 with a sizeable chunk stuck between its teeth that, like a pitbull, it would not let go of and which is why we find ourselves where we are today.  It left India in 1947 like a teenager who sheepishly goes off to sleep at his girl’s after his friends have trashed his parents’ place while they were away.  It left Cyprus in 1960 exactly the same, a time bomb ready to go off — which did.  Under no condition should England be allowed to leave a similar mess this time.  Time for the international community to make the English clean up after themselves.

The international community and NATO more specifically did not support Portugal in its attempt to hold on to Goa after Indian independence.  That means the UK neither, obviously.  It’s now time for the world to tell the UK to entirely and finally Quit Ireland, its closest and perhaps most deeply brutalized colony.  I’m usually not so intransigent on these issues, but the historical record calls for a complete rejection of any attempts by Irish Protestants to keep England involved in Irish affairs by “protecting” them or their rights; complicated compromises only kick the can down the road.  The historical record calls for a complete rejection of even a syllable of their “position.”  The historical record calls for a referendum, which Unionists will lose, and calls for London to make it clear to them that they are being cut loose.  Let them keep British citizenship if they want.  Come up with a resettlement scheme for them if that’s what they want, immigrants that the English can live with since they can’t tolerate detestable, lazy, dirty Poles.  Otherwise, bye-bye guys…

But if Theresa May and her government of buffoni were ethical enough or had the balls to do something like that, they would have started that process already, instead of still talking gibberish about everything like they are.

This might end badly.  Let’s hope not.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion

13 Aug

26 plus 6 equals 1

Check out the Times article from a few days ago: “On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace“.

I was once dragged by force into a corner by a Lebanese friend at a party in Cambridge and told to never ask anyone Lebanese their religious affiliation, I guess because I probably just had done.  Of course, I still ask. Like I implied in my Turkish post a few days ago, pretend unity (that you’re a passionate Erdoğan supporter and I’m not, or if you’re Maronite and I’m third-generation Palestinian doesn’t mean that we can’t still be “unified”), can only become real unity if differences are acknowledged. (*1)

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I’ve had not dissimilar experiences with Irish folks if I’ve ever tried to talk about religion or Ulster or “the Troubles.”  I once asked a guy at an Irish bar in Queens who was from Northern Ireland if he was Catholic, and I got a blank and frankly angry stare in response, and with so much alcohol and testosterone in the mix, realized quickly I should shut up and look the other way or change the topic.  A female bartender who heard the one-sided exchange said to me softly: “not a good idea to ask people those things…”  Ok.

pPJAwhu n ireland religionMap of Northern Ireland with distribution of Protestants (red) and Catholics (green) according to age group, showing a clear demographic decline of Protestants.

I also hear Irish anger at what they think is an out of touch diaspora that funded continuing IRA violence when the Irish themselves on both sides were starting to get tired of the violence and the fences were starting to come down — though that’s slightly disingenuous — in the early days these diaspora funders were heroes — and, as a non-metropolitan Greek, immediately assuming that the “diaspora” is “out of touch” or stuck in a time warp is a seriously irritating train of thought; there’s lotsa ways we’re more in touch than you lot.

So I’m really setting myself up as an easy target since I’m not even Irish or Irish-American.  But I feel I can’t be silent as the English decide the future of any part of Ireland again.

I know that the Brexit vote came as a shock to a lot of Americans, as we were forced to confront the fact that the English are not all that smart, and can be as jingoistic, xenophobic, ignorant and proudly “know-nothing” as Americans can be.  And I say the English because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the European Union — in Northern Ireland, particularly, in percentages that would indicate a large number of Protestants voted to stay as well — and they should now be free to decide their own fates free of London.

Sometimes I feel that my views on the ethnic nation-state and minorities come across as selective and sort of random to readers, so let me take this moment to clarify a bit.  I am, of course, against the brutal assimilationist policies of the nation-state and a supporter of minority language and cultural rights.  On the other hand, I’m also against a minority holding an entirely polity hostage because it refuses to conform with the conditions of living in a state where they don’t hold numerical superiority.

There’s a great and frustrating passage in Rebecca West‘s beautiful Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where her Serbian (and half-Jewish) tour-guide is arguing with a Croatian intellectual in Zagreb; “but you are not loyal” says the Serb:

Croat: You treat us badly.  How can we be loyal?

Serb:  You’re treated badly because you’re not loyal.

Croat:  How can we be loyal if we are treated badly?

Serb:  If you were loyal, you wouldn’t be treated badly.

Croat:  When you treat us better, we’ll be loyal.

Serb:  As long as you’re not loyal you can’t expect to be treated better.

And on and on and on…

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(Rebecca West, who along with disconcertingly smart and honest, was clearly a real babe as well — broke a lot of hearts and refused to forgive when hers was…cool.  As Lauren Cooper would say: “Forgiving is for l-o-o-o-o-z-u-u-h-h-z-z!!!”)

Of course, we saw, during WWII, just after West’s second trip, and then again by the end of the last century, that Croatians had no intention of being loyal to Yugoslavia no matter how much bending-over-backwards to ‘treat them better’ Belgrade did.

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Or take Catalans again, in a state where as a minority they are treated exceptionally well.  Still, with full language and cultural rights, they feel Madrid is oppressing them and they want full independence, threatening to rip apart the fabric of a country that has made impressive democratic achievements over the past few decades.  And those of you who bought the public relations crap about how “hip, cool and Mediterranean” Catalonia is, and who spend your tourist money in Barcelona and the Balearics have only contributed to the discriminatory tendencies of Catalan chauvinism and the worsening crisis of Catalan separatism.  Try Galicia or the Basque Country if you want to see parts of Spain that are not part of the Castilian center, but where ethno-linguistic difference has made its peace with the Spanish state and society has agreed to co-existence.  Or if they’re too rainy and un-Mediterranean for you, go to Córdoba and Granada (skip Seville, too Catholic and bull-obsessed), poorer parts of the country that need your money and where you can buy the public relations spin of Edward Said instead, who once outrageously made the claim that 60% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, (or maybe the spin of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and wallow in Al-Andalus nostalgia.

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Even more and very closer to home: my father’s Greek minority village of Derviçiani in southern Albania.  My early-days romance with the village is kinna over and I feel free to express things that I’m angry at myself for not saying to the faces of people there earlier.

EpireDuNOrd1913

I’d love to ask: what the f*ck do you want exactly?  They have Greek primary and secondary education; they have Greek churches (a Church about which few of them know anything or take seriously in any way, or have bothered to learn about in order to address the consequences of four decades of enforced atheism, but they have them); the Albanian Orthodox Church itself — meaning not just Greek minority churches, but the Church of Orthodox Albanians — in fact, is headed, run and staffed by Greeks, (extremely enlightened ones, I have to admit), the way the Arab Orthodox Churches of the Levant were for so many centuries; they have, I believe, two political parties that have members who sit in the Albanian parliament.  If their villages are experiencing slow to rapid depopulation, it’s not the fault of Albanians or Tiranë; they were simply trapped — Greeks and Albanians together — in a Stalinist cage for fifty years and now are free to leave: the villages of Greek Epiros started hemorrhaging inhabitants soon after WWII, and neighboring Albanian villages, both Christian and Muslim, are also emptying of young people.  Still, they’re hostile to neighboring Albanians; still, they want autonomy for “Northern Epiros,” which for some of them stretches half-way up to the middle of Albania (I don’t care if “the stones speak Greek all the way to Dyrracheio/Durrës” — The. People. Who. Live. There. Now. Don’t. And don’t want to be part of a Greek autonomous region. 2**); still, they make Muslim girls get baptized if they want to marry any of their precious boys, μη χέσω (thank God Albanians still wear their Islam kind of lightly or these poor girls would be in serious trouble) and will ostracize any Christian daughter or sister who falls in love with and marries a Muslim; still, they get offended, even a hip, British-educated nephew does, if you visit the pleasant, well-watered, historical Muslim village of Libohovo — Albanian Libohovë — across the valley and you come back and say it was very nice and that the young people there don’t seem much different than ours.  Of course, this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the conversation from Black Lamb… above indicates, so that when you put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 on August 15th and the Albanian police has to come and take it down, then you’ll just end up on the bad side of the Albanian authorities and ordinary Albanians’ retaliatory instinct and the vicious cycle will just keep going.

neolaia derbitsanis flagA flag of the Youth of Derviçiani, which, just by wild and completely invented coincidence, happens to have been “founded” in 1914, the year there was a short-lived experiment in Northern Epirote autonomy, which was squashed by Italian objections, because Italy considered Albania within its sphere of influence.  Obviously not a sign of just the “youth” of the village — there was no Youth of Derviçani in 1914.  And if there are still any doubts, the Palaelogan double-headed eagle lays them to rest.

(Really, is there anything as idiotic as a flag?)

But back to Ireland.  I think Ulster Protestants caused enough “troubles” by acting — with the hypocritical support of England — like they were a besieged minority that couldn’t be part of the Irish Republic.  So if a majority of Northern Irish voters chose to exit the Brexit, that’s a golden opportunity just dropped out of the heavens into our laps to correct an egregious historical wrong.  The invasion and conquest of Ireland, its depopulation and the ripping to shreds of its society, culture and language did not start with the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century.  It started with the Normans and the Plantagenets, and then the Tudors and the Stuarts and, finally, Cromwell and his Taliban, and it was a grueling, vicious, murderous process, as violent, or more, as any of Britain’s other colonial wars and right on Europe’s front door, and the Plantation of Ulster itself and the rest of Ireland was a conscious colonial policy of appropriating land and settling poor Protestant Scots and northern Englishmen in the country in order to “civilize” it and break Irish resistance to English hegemony.

Ireland_Protestants_1861-2011

If the above maps seem to indicate that a large number of Protestants left the Irish Republic in the twentieth century because they didn’t feel comfortable without the English crown’s protection, that’s unfortunate (it was not so unfortunate in cases where the Anglo-Irish elite felt they had to flee when their expropriated land was re-expropriated) but that can’t be a justification for the continued amputation of the country.

It’s a classic strategic move, though.  Ulster Protestants are not a socioeconomic group comparable to the Anglo-Irish landowners; they were always as squire-ridden as their Catholic neighbors and are still pretty much on equal footing in that sense.

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the socially laissez-faire modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant, aggressively evangelizing, social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the c-ontemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.

White Mughals Dalrymple

Freedman_bureau_harpers_cartoonA Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 sketch from Harper’s Weekly.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 6.56.34 PM

Recent White supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — thanks to @JuliusGoat: “Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.”

The colonial power — or just the colonized mind — then disingenuously but actively seeks to right these wrongs and protect the embattled minority.  The results?  A Lebanon torn apart by Maronite phobias and Palestinian victim-entitlement; the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Franco; a Greece completely isolated from its nearest and closest — in every sense — neighbors; an India where British response to the Rebellion effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims (4 ****) — Dalrymple shrewdly locates one of the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism in that disenfranchisement and the Deobandi Islam it created 5 *****; the Ku Klux Clan and the murder of Emmett Till and Donald Trump; the vicious Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in French Algerians having to flee the country entirely to a France where they’re still a bulwark of reaction and racism, and the still bad blood between Algerian immigrants and natives in that country.

(I thought about adding Cyprus to that list, that’s going on forty-some years of division after the 1974 Turkish invasion, but didn’t, because Turkish Cypriots actually were an embattled minority, and Greek Cypriots have to do some moral self-searching about their terrorizing, or passively supporting the terrorizing, of their Turkish neighbors, before they blame either Turkey or the Greek junta for f*cking things up for them.)

I was against the Scottish independence referendum of a few years ago because I’m against separation and the putting up of borders generally.  But then the apparently stoned British electorate went and separated itself from the rest of Europe, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales even, or Cornwall or the Isle of Manx or Jersey and Guernsey for that matter, want independence from England now, England will have only brought that down on its own head.  If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the European Union then de facto reunion with the Republic will have occurred; I would just like de jure recognition of that facto too, so that there’s no more excuse for meddling in Irish affairs.  Irishmen have done a lot of genuinely hard work confronting the demons of their own past in recent years; today’s Ireland is a democratic, pluralist, morally progressive society where the Catholic Church’s death-grip has been broken.  That Ulster Protestants can’t live there in peace and security and without English protection is a ludicrous idea.

So let it happen, and if Ulstermen don’t like it — sorry to sound like a reactionary nativist — but they’re free to go back to Scotland where they came from.  Or if they want they can come here and join their distant cousins in Kentucky and the Ozarks.  I’m sure President Trump will consider them the “right” kind of immigrants.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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1 * It’s a little reductive, but I think it’s not outrageously so to see the Lebanese Civil War as essentially, or initially,  a conflict between Maronite demographic panic and paranoia (not entirely unjustified) and Palestinian entitlement of the oppressed (even more justified); every other group seems to then have had no choice but to choose sides.  Then add Israel — which arguably started the whole problem — and Syria to the mix, και γάμησέ τα.

2 ** Of course, Northern Epirote Greeks’ δήθεν innocent desire for autonomy is completely disingenuous — though we’re supposed to think that Albanians are too stupid to get that — and is really just a prelude and first step to independence and union with Greece, though they’re a demographically fast-dwindling percentage of the population of the region they lay claim to.  That’s not a deterrent, however; all you have to do is believe that all Orthodox Albanians are reeeeeeeally Greek and you’ve solved your demographic issue, since Muslim Albanians are just turncoat intruders in the region as far as Northern Epirotes are concerned.

The only obstacle that would then be left is to get Albanians to forget what happened to the Muslim Albanian Çams of western Greek Epiros (Albanian: Çamëria, Greek: Τσαμουριά Tsamouriá) during WWII, when they were subjected to massacre and expulsion in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greek right-wing resistance and had to flee to Albania.

Chameria_map2

I still haven’t figured out how, as Muslims, they escaped the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s; it would’ve been a more merciful fate.  I also haven’t figured out how the tsamiko, a dance of central and southern Greece, got its name.  Or else, what clues to a forgotten past the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name was Çames provides; almost all our last names are Albanian — with the Greek male nominative -s ending added to them — as in Bako-s — but as far as I know there’s no clan in our villages whose last name is actually the name of an Albanian sub-ethnic group.  See: (Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather“.

Scratch a Greek and find an Albanian, I guess…  Or a Vlach…  Or a Slav of some sort…  (See: Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI)

This kind of issue always reminds me of the Puerto Rican expression from a song of I dunno what period: “¿Y tu abuela donde está?” or ¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?“And where’s your grandmother?” i.e., before you get all high and mighty and Whitey on us, show us the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen.

3 *** This fetishizing of the Mediterranean as a region, a lost paradise of cosmopolitanism and healthy diets, drives me nuts.  Everyone is suddenly “Mediterranean.”  The big laugh, of course, is that Turks are Mediterranean.  Then comes the less funny one about Croatians being Mediterranean, whereas Serbs are clearly not — Croats wanting to have it both ways, and be Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean at the same time — even if they’re from neolithic Herzegovina and about as neanderthal themselves as their Serbian and Muslim neanderthal neighbors; Istrians have sealed their Mediterranean-ness by buying every Italian restaurant in New York City’s boroughs, and of course the largely Italianate Dalmatian coast seals in most Europeans’ minds the idea of Croatia as a country on the f*cking M-E-D-I-T-E-R-R-A-N-E-A-N.  Actually, the closest example to Croatians’ appropriation of a largely Venetian Adriatic is the Turkish appropriation of Greek Aegean imagery, in tourist and p.r. language, on both the Anatolian coast and in Imbros and Tenedos.

Just as nicely condescending is the saying from some-where in the Iberian periphery that “de Madrid no se ve el mar,” “you can’t see the sea from Madrid.”  Supposedly a jab at Castillian casticismo, and inward-looking provincialness.  No, you can’t see the sea.  That’s why Castille is such a beautiful, high plateau, dry and bright and chilly and Romanesque and stunning in its emptiness and vastness.

A White Turk friend once dragged me to Sorrento on our trip to Naples and Campania, which I knew would be a mistake, because it would be and turned out to be a tourist-swamped, hellish Thomas Cook holiday trap because it was “on the sea.”  (but one makes concessions to one’s travelling partner’s fantasies.)  We cut out as soon as we could and headed to Ravello, up in the mountains away from the sea and she was blown away by how beautiful it was.

And what happens to Greeks like me? who are from a part of the Greek world that is clearly more Balkan in every way than it is Mediterranean?  What do we have to do to join the club?

4 **** William Dalrymple is a great historical writer who does what professional academics can’t do because they’re so specialized that they can easily say: “Sorry, I don’t work on that period” when you ask them anything they don’t know.  The breadth and depth of his knowledge on South Asia is truly amazing and he makes it all interesting and stimulating for the layman without dumbing it down.  When I first started this blog I wrote to him asking to reproduce some of the passages on the British destruction of Mughal Delhi contained in his book, The Last Mughal, and he immediately and generously shot back with an email that said: “Go for it.”  Thanks again.

So check out those posts here and here and here .  Better yet, buy the book.

5  ***** Worth reproducing here in whole:

“Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

“The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

“One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”

the-last-mughal

See also his magisterial The Return of a King on nineteenth-century Afghanistan, which I have a few issues with, particularly his conclusions, but which was a couldn’t-put-it-down one for me.

Dalrymple return

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion

13 Aug

26 plus 6 equals 1

Check out the Times article from a few days ago: “On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace“.

I was once dragged by force into a corner by a Lebanese friend at a party in Cambridge and told to never ask anyone Lebanese their religious affiliation, I guess because I probably just had done.  Of course, I still ask. Like I implied in my Turkish post a few days ago, pretend unity (that you’re a passionate Erdoğan supporter and I’m not, or if you’re Maronite and I’m third-generation Palestinian doesn’t mean that we can’t still be “unified”), can only become real unity if differences are acknowledged. (*1)

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I’ve had not dissimilar experiences with Irish folks if I’ve ever tried to talk about religion or Ulster or “the Troubles.”  I once asked a guy at an Irish bar in Queens who was from Northern Ireland if he was Catholic, and I got a blank and frankly angry stare in response, and with so much alcohol and testosterone in the mix, realized quickly I should shut up and look the other way or change the topic.  A female bartender who heard the one-sided exchange said to me softly: “not a good idea to ask people those things…”  Ok.

pPJAwhu n ireland religionMap of Northern Ireland with distribution of Protestants (red) and Catholics (green) according to age group, showing a clear demographic decline of Protestants.

I also hear Irish anger at what they think is an out of touch diaspora that funded continuing IRA violence when the Irish themselves on both sides were starting to get tired of the violence and the fences were starting to come down — though that’s slightly disingenuous — in the early days these diaspora funders were heroes — and, as a non-metropolitan Greek, immediately assuming that the “diaspora” is “out of touch” or stuck in a time warp is a seriously irritating train of thought; there’s lotsa ways we’re more in touch than you lot.

So I’m really setting myself up as an easy target since I’m not even Irish or Irish-American.  But I feel I can’t be silent as the English decide the future of any part of Ireland again.

I know that the Brexit vote came as a shock to a lot of Americans, as we were forced to confront the fact that the English are not all that smart, and can be as jingoistic, xenophobic, ignorant and proudly “know-nothing” as Americans can be.  And I say the English because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the European Union — in Northern Ireland, particularly, in percentages that would indicate a large number of Protestants voted to stay as well — and they should now be free to decide their own fates free of London.

Sometimes I feel that my views on the ethnic nation-state and minorities come across as selective and sort of random to readers, so let me take this moment to clarify a bit.  I am, of course, against the brutal assimilationist policies of the nation-state and a supporter of minority language and cultural rights.  On the other hand, I’m also against a minority holding an entirely polity hostage because it refuses to conform with the conditions of living in a state where they don’t hold numerical superiority.

There’s a great and frustrating passage in Rebecca West‘s beautiful Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where her Serbian (and half-Jewish) tour-guide is arguing with a Croatian intellectual in Zagreb; “but you are not loyal” says the Serb:

Croat: You treat us badly.  How can we be loyal?

Serb:  You’re treated badly because you’re not loyal.

Croat:  How can we be loyal if we are treated badly?

Serb:  If you were loyal, you wouldn’t be treated badly.

Croat:  When you treat us better, we’ll be loyal.

Serb:  As long as you’re not loyal you can’t expect to be treated better.

And on and on and on…

Rebecca-West

(Rebecca West, who along with disconcertingly smart and honest, was clearly a real babe as well — broke a lot of hearts and refused to forgive when hers was…cool.  As Lauren Cooper would say: “Forgiving is for l-o-o-o-o-z-u-u-h-h-z-z!!!”)

Of course, we saw, during WWII, just after West’s second trip, and then again by the end of the last century, that Croatians had no intention of being loyal to Yugoslavia no matter how much bending-over-backwards to ‘treat them better’ Belgrade did.

img_0973 BLGF worn

Or take Catalans again, in a state where as a minority they are treated exceptionally well.  Still, with full language and cultural rights, they feel Madrid is oppressing them and they want full independence, threatening to rip apart the fabric of a country that has made impressive democratic achievements over the past few decades.  And those of you who bought the public relations crap about how “hip, cool and Mediterranean” Catalonia is, and who spend your tourist money in Barcelona and the Balearics have only contributed to the discriminatory tendencies of Catalan chauvinism and the worsening crisis of Catalan separatism.  Try Galicia or the Basque Country if you want to see parts of Spain that are not part of the Castilian center, but where ethno-linguistic difference has made its peace with the Spanish state and society has agreed to co-existence.  Or if they’re too rainy and un-Mediterranean for you, go to Córdoba and Granada (skip Seville, too Catholic and bull-obsessed), poorer parts of the country that need your money and where you can buy the public relations spin of Edward Said instead, who once outrageously made the claim that 60% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, (or maybe the spin of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and wallow in Al-Andalus nostalgia.

spain_910_1492

Spain4 autonomous regions

Even more and very closer to home: my father’s Greek minority village of Derviçiani in southern Albania.  My early-days romance with the village is kinna over and I feel free to express things that I’m angry at myself for not saying to the faces of people there earlier.

EpireDuNOrd1913

I’d love to ask: what the f*ck do you want exactly?  They have Greek primary and secondary education; they have Greek churches (a Church about which few of them know anything or take seriously in any way, or have bothered to learn about in order to address the consequences of four decades of enforced atheism, but they have them); the Albanian Orthodox Church itself — meaning not just Greek minority churches, but the Church of Orthodox Albanians — in fact, is headed, run and staffed by Greeks, (extremely enlightened ones, I have to admit), the way the Arab Orthodox Churches of the Levant were for so many centuries; they have, I believe, two political parties that have members who sit in the Albanian parliament.  If their villages are experiencing slow to rapid depopulation, it’s not the fault of Albanians or Tiranë; they were simply trapped — Greeks and Albanians together — in a Stalinist cage for fifty years and now are free to leave: the villages of Greek Epiros started hemorrhaging inhabitants soon after WWII, and neighboring Albanian villages, both Christian and Muslim, are also emptying of young people.  Still, they’re hostile to neighboring Albanians; still, they want autonomy for “Northern Epiros,” which for some of them stretches half-way up to the middle of Albania (I don’t care if “the stones speak Greek all the way to Dyrracheio/Durrës” — The. People. Who. Live. There. Now. Don’t. And don’t want to be part of a Greek autonomous region. 2**); still, they make Muslim girls get baptized if they want to marry any of their precious boys, μη χέσω (thank God Albanians still wear their Islam kind of lightly or these poor girls would be in serious trouble) and will ostracize any Christian daughter or sister who falls in love with and marries a Muslim; still, they get offended, even a hip, British-educated nephew does, if you visit the pleasant, well-watered, historical Muslim village of Libohovo — Albanian Libohovë — across the valley and you come back and say it was very nice and that the young people there don’t seem much different than ours.  Of course, this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the conversation from Black Lamb… above indicates, so that when you put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 on August 15th and the Albanian police has to come and take it down, then you’ll just end up on the bad side of the Albanian authorities and ordinary Albanians’ retaliatory instinct and the vicious cycle will just keep going.

neolaia derbitsanis flagA flag of the Youth of Derviçiani, which, just by wild and completely invented coincidence, happens to have been “founded” in 1914, the year there was a short-lived experiment in Northern Epirote autonomy, which was squashed by Italian objections, because Italy considered Albania within its sphere of influence.  Obviously not a sign of just the “youth” of the village — there was no Youth of Derviçani in 1914.  And if there are still any doubts, the Palaelogan double-headed eagle lays them to rest.

(Really, is there anything as idiotic as a flag?)

But back to Ireland.  I think Ulster Protestants caused enough “troubles” by acting — with the hypocritical support of England — like they were a besieged minority that couldn’t be part of the Irish Republic.  So if a majority of Northern Irish voters chose to exit the Brexit, that’s a golden opportunity just dropped out of the heavens into our laps to correct an egregious historical wrong.  The invasion and conquest of Ireland, its depopulation and the ripping to shreds of its society, culture and language did not start with the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century.  It started with the Normans and the Plantagenets, and then the Tudors and the Stuarts and, finally, Cromwell and his Taliban, and it was a grueling, vicious, murderous process, as violent, or more, as any of Britain’s other colonial wars and right on Europe’s front door, and the Plantation of Ulster itself and the rest of Ireland was a conscious colonial policy of appropriating land and settling poor Protestant Scots and northern Englishmen in the country in order to “civilize” it and break Irish resistance to English hegemony.

Ireland_Protestants_1861-2011

If the above maps seem to indicate that a large number of Protestants left the Irish Republic in the twentieth century because they didn’t feel comfortable without the English crown’s protection, that’s unfortunate (it was not so unfortunate in cases where the Anglo-Irish elite felt they had to flee when their expropriated land was re-expropriated) but that can’t be a justification for the continued amputation of the country.

It’s a classic strategic move, though.  Ulster Protestants are not a socioeconomic group comparable to the Anglo-Irish landowners; they were always as squire-ridden as their Catholic neighbors and are still pretty much on equal footing in that sense.

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the socially laissez-faire modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant, aggressively evangelizing, social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the c-ontemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.

White Mughals Dalrymple

Freedman_bureau_harpers_cartoonA Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 sketch from Harper’s Weekly.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 6.56.34 PM

Recent White supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — thanks to @JuliusGoat: “Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.”

The colonial power — or just the colonized mind — then disingenuously but actively seeks to right these wrongs and protect the embattled minority.  The results?  A Lebanon torn apart by Maronite phobias and Palestinian victim-entitlement; the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Franco; a Greece completely isolated from its nearest and closest — in every sense — neighbors; an India where British response to the Rebellion effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims (4 ****) — Dalrymple shrewdly locates one of the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism in that disenfranchisement and the Deobandi Islam it created 5 *****; the Ku Klux Clan and the murder of Emmett Till and Donald Trump; the vicious Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in French Algerians having to flee the country entirely to a France where they’re still a bulwark of reaction and racism, and the still bad blood between Algerian immigrants and natives in that country.

(I thought about adding Cyprus to that list, that’s going on forty-some years of division after the 1974 Turkish invasion, but didn’t, because Turkish Cypriots actually were an embattled minority, and Greek Cypriots have to do some moral self-searching about their terrorizing, or passively supporting the terrorizing, of their Turkish neighbors, before they blame either Turkey or the Greek junta for f*cking things up for them.)

I was against the Scottish independence referendum of a few years ago because I’m against separation and the putting up of borders generally.  But then the apparently stoned British electorate went and separated itself from the rest of Europe, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales even, or Cornwall or the Isle of Manx or Jersey and Guernsey for that matter, want independence from England now, England will have only brought that down on its own head.  If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the European Union then de facto reunion with the Republic will have occurred; I would just like de jure recognition of that facto too, so that there’s no more excuse for meddling in Irish affairs.  Irishmen have done a lot of genuinely hard work confronting the demons of their own past in recent years; today’s Ireland is a democratic, pluralist, morally progressive society where the Catholic Church’s death-grip has been broken.  That Ulster Protestants can’t live there in peace and security and without English protection is a ludicrous idea.

So let it happen, and if Ulstermen don’t like it — sorry to sound like a reactionary nativist — but they’re free to go back to Scotland where they came from.  Or if they want they can come here and join their distant cousins in Kentucky and the Ozarks.  I’m sure President Trump will consider them the “right” kind of immigrants.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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1 * It’s a little reductive, but I think it’s not outrageously so to see the Lebanese Civil War as essentially, or initially,  a conflict between Maronite demographic panic and paranoia (not entirely unjustified) and Palestinian entitlement of the oppressed (even more justified); every other group seems to then have had no choice but to choose sides.  Then add Israel — which arguably started the whole problem — and Syria to the mix, και γάμησέ τα.

2 ** Of course, Northern Epirote Greeks’ δήθεν innocent desire for autonomy is completely disingenuous — though we’re supposed to think that Albanians are too stupid to get that — and is really just a prelude and first step to independence and union with Greece, though they’re a demographically fast-dwindling percentage of the population of the region they lay claim to.  That’s not a deterrent, however; all you have to do is believe that all Orthodox Albanians are reeeeeeeally Greek and you’ve solved your demographic issue, since Muslim Albanians are just turncoat intruders in the region as far as Northern Epirotes are concerned.

The only obstacle that would then be left is to get Albanians to forget what happened to the Muslim Albanian Çams of western Greek Epiros (Albanian: Çamëria, Greek: Τσαμουριά Tsamouriá) during WWII, when they were subjected to massacre and expulsion in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greek right-wing resistance and had to flee to Albania.

Chameria_map2

I still haven’t figured out how, as Muslims, they escaped the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s; it would’ve been a more merciful fate.  I also haven’t figured out how the tsamiko, a dance of central and southern Greece, got its name.  Or else, what clues to a forgotten past the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name was Çames provides; almost all our last names are Albanian — with the Greek male nominative -s ending added to them — as in Bako-s — but as far as I know there’s no clan in our villages whose last name is actually the name of an Albanian sub-ethnic group.  See: (Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather“.

Scratch a Greek and find an Albanian, I guess…  Or a Vlach…  Or a Slav of some sort…  (See: Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI)

This kind of issue always reminds me of the Puerto Rican expression from a song of I dunno what period: ¿Y tu abuela donde está?” or ¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?“And where’s your grandmother?” i.e., before you get all high and mighty and Whitey on us, show us the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen.

3 *** This fetishizing of the Mediterranean as a region, a lost paradise of cosmopolitanism and healthy diets, drives me nuts.  Everyone is suddenly “Mediterranean.”  The big laugh, of course, is that Turks are Mediterranean.  Then comes the less funny one about Croatians being Mediterranean, whereas Serbs are clearly not — Croats wanting to have it both ways, and be Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean at the same time — even if they’re from neolithic Herzegovina and about as neanderthal themselves as their Serbian and Muslim neanderthal neighbors; Istrians have sealed their Mediterranean-ness by buying every Italian restaurant in New York City’s boroughs, and of course the largely Italianate Dalmatian coast seals in most Europeans’ minds the idea of Croatia as a country on the f*cking M-E-D-I-T-E-R-R-A-N-E-A-N.  Actually, the closest example to Croatians’ appropriation of a largely Venetian Adriatic is the Turkish appropriation of Greek Aegean imagery, in tourist and p.r. language, on both the Anatolian coast and in Imbros and Tenedos.

Just as nicely condescending is the saying from some-where in the Iberian periphery that “de Madrid no se ve el mar,” “you can’t see the sea from Madrid.”  Supposedly a jab at Castillian casticismo, and inward-looking provincialness.  No, you can’t see the sea.  That’s why Castille is such a beautiful, high plateau, dry and bright and chilly and Romanesque and stunning in its emptiness and vastness.

A White Turk friend once dragged me to Sorrento on our trip to Naples and Campania, which I knew would be a mistake, because it would be and turned out to be a tourist-swamped, hellish Thomas Cook holiday trap because it was “on the sea.”  (but one makes concessions to one’s travelling partner’s fantasies.)  We cut out as soon as we could and headed to Ravello, up in the mountains away from the sea and she was blown away by how beautiful it was.

And what happens to Greeks like me? who are from a part of the Greek world that is clearly more Balkan in every way than it is Mediterranean?  What do we have to do to join the club?

4 **** William Dalrymple is a great historical writer who does what professional academics can’t do because they’re so specialized that they can easily say: “Sorry, I don’t work on that period” when you ask them anything they don’t know.  The breadth and depth of his knowledge on South Asia is truly amazing and he makes it all interesting and stimulating for the layman without dumbing it down.  When I first started this blog I wrote to him asking to reproduce some of the passages on the British destruction of Mughal Delhi contained in his book, The Last Mughal, and he immediately and generously shot back with an email that said: “Go for it.”  Thanks again.

So check out those posts here and here and here .  Better yet, buy the book.

5  ***** Worth reproducing here in whole:

“Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

“The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

“One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”

the-last-mughal

See also his magisterial The Return of a King on nineteenth-century Afghanistan, which I have a few issues with, particularly his conclusions, but which was a couldn’t-put-it-down one for me.

Dalrymple return

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Photos: Argyrocastro

14 Jan

This intersection of two streets with this beautiful black-and-white diamond kaldırım, form the commercial center of old Gjirokastër — though this was taken on a quiet New Year’s Day, in fact.  In my father’s memories of being taken to Argyrocastro as a child it always sounded like it was the Champs-Élysées.  In the gigantic Byzantine/Ottoman fortress that sprawls over the ridge above the city — seen in the upper-right of the top photo — my grandfather served several prison sentences.

Argyro kalderimi down kastro

Argyro kalderimi up

And, below, an old photo of Dropolitisses, with their trademark mandyli, on the same street, looking like shy, peasant women in the big city — one seeming to pull the edge of her kerchief over her mouth like some Indian women do with the edge of their sari to indicate modesty.

Dropolitisses

The city’s castle from the air, which is really the only way to get the whole massive structure in one shot — not the widest angle lens would do.

Gcastle_cp

It was used as a prison till the end of the communist period in 1990.  Mostly it was a processing institution for those political prisoners who were being given sentences in labor camps further north in the country, like my grandfather.  But he had served a few shorter sentences here before WWII for “un-patriotic” activities, I guess they were called.  See: Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather.”

A cell.

cell

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Arshile Gorky

19 May

A best friend of mine said the first photo on my grandmother post, reminds her of this work of the Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky.  It’s always made me think of my father and grandmother too.

gorky_imageprimacy_600Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother (ca. 1926–1936), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City.  Gorky’s mother died of starvation in Yerevan during the Armenian Massacres, after reaching that city from their village, Khorgom on the shores of Lake Van.

Mana kai babas mikros(See:”Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Alex Shams: “a quick look across cultures reveals how Western norms that emphasise dark colors for men and consider adornment feminine is not by any means universal, but a product of European fashion trends in the 1700s”

2 Feb

See me, in: Sifnos: a couple in the beautiful local dress, and on one of Greece’s most beautiful islands…

I’m always really jealous of South Asians, who still get to wear beautiful clothes in the 21st century, even if it’s only for special occasions, while the rest of us are all permanently trapped in the blacks and greys of nineteenth-century bourgeois guilt.

I mean check out my grandmother in her full dress kit. When will any woman I know ever get to wear something so lavish and glamorous? all velvet and gold thread, green silk and lace, and white felt with red and black embroidery? And in a poor Balkan village…

And: (See: Eid on Steinway Street, Astoria, 1433 (2012)“)

And for the rest of us, trapped in the aesthetics of nineteenth-century, false bourgeois humility and, now, its descendant, the fake hipness of charcoal and black, PLEASE keep wearing those clothes, and be enormously proud of them.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Are Turks really “Turks”, are Greeks really “Greeks”…in case you’ve got some spare time to waste

31 Jan

Below is a Twitter thread that you’re going to have to unravel or put in order by yourselves; from bottom to top helps:

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir· Guys, HOW exactly do these tests work? Are there GENES, actual DNA material that separates, say, Kurds and Armenians? Where is the biological material that separates Bosnian Serbs from Bosnian Muslims? How do you locate and identify it?

Onur Erpul@onurerpul · 19hReplying to @bradenris and @byzantinepower That’s not quite right. DNA tests are controversial not because of ethnicity but because of their potential use as paternity tests. France had (might still have) similar limitations too. You can order and use DNA kits for testing ethnicity in Turkey.

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir· Well, yeah, because “Roman” means “Greek”. There are no Hittites around anymore, so say that THEY’re your ancestors and you can relax.

Onur Erpul@onurerpul · 20hReplying to @bradenris and @byzantinepower The Islamified Roman identity is not very popular tbh. That said, most people recognize their extremely mixed heritage, including Balkan, Caucasian, and Pre-Turkish Anatolian ancestry. The 100% ethnic Turk idea is utter nonsense

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir· Instead of what Mark Mazower calls “the false continuities and convenient silences” of nationalism, I think the truth is much healthier and has the potential to bring us together rather than drive us apart. Hopelessly naive? So be it.Quote Tweet

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir · 52mThere’s a poem by Puerto Rican Fortunato Vizcarrondo: “¿Y Tu Abuela Dónde Está?” “So where’s you grandmother?” i.e. before you start acting so high and mighty and whitey here, let’s see the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen. Same applies to us all. https://twitter.com/jaddeyekabir/status/1223276365891457024

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir· There’s a poem by Puerto Rican Fortunato Vizcarrondo: “¿Y Tu Abuela Dónde Está?” “So where’s you grandmother? i.e. before you start acting so high and mighty and whitey here, let’s see the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen. Same applies to us all.Quote Tweet

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir · 1h How they could have ever looked in the mirror and seen an Uzbek and not a Greek or a Serb or an Armenian was always extremely irritating. Now it’s our turn to see the Hellenicized Slav or Albanian in our mirrors. https://twitter.com/jaddeyekabir/status/1223263274898272256

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir· How they could have ever looked in the mirror and seen an Uzbek and not a Greek or a Serb or an Armenian was always extremely irritating. Now it’s our turn to see the Hellenicized Slav or Albanian in our mirrors.

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir·…to the fact that they were the Islamicized and Turkified descendants of the populations that already inhabited Anatolia and Balkans. If they’re learning to accept it, that’s cool.

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir · 1h Oh, that bit about Turks being honest about their Balkan and Anatolian genetic descent and not Turanian/wider Turkic? No, I wasn’t being sarcastic at all. Turks used to exhibit a wildly defensive reaction…

Nicholas Bakos@jaddeyekabir · 2h Huh? About what? https://twitter.com/byzantinepower/status/1223155633899352064

Byzantine Ambassador@byzantinepower · 9hReplying to @jaddeyekabirU being sarcastic?

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Sifnos: a couple in the beautiful local dress, and on one of Greece’s most beautiful islands…

22 Jan

A couple in traditional dress, probably for a wedding, that people still wear in certain parts of Greece.

I’m always really jealous of South Asians, who still get to wear beautiful clothes in the 21st century, even if it’s only for special occasions (See: Eid on Steinway Street, Astoria, 1433 (2012)“), while the rest of us are all permanently trapped in the blacks and greys of nineteenth-century bourgeois guilt.

I mean check out my grandmother in her full dress kit. When will any woman I know ever get to wear something so lavish and glamorous? all velvet and gold thread? And in a poor Balkan village…

Comment:nikobakos@gmail.com

What nationalist nishtgutniks do when they don’t have anything else to do — which is almost always

21 Jan

Albanians have taken to spray painting over the Greek names on signs in southern Albania’s Greek villages like my father’s.

82442527_2827711980612505_7248918048386580480_o

I’m not sure what’s going on and it’s a little worrisome that this article should appear just now.  This has been going on for an eternity.  Because you can be sure that soon some Greek guys will come out one night and spray paint over the Albanian name of the village too.  Then they change the signs.  Then the same thing happens.

I would be a little more glib about it in the past than I am now, but tensions and violence between Albanians and Albania’s Greek minority have started to low-key increase in the past couple of years and it has made people a little more wary, whereas before it was considered part of the regular dodge-ball order of things.  Macron’s recent Western Balkans policy disappointed me, despite my adulation of him, not because I give such a shit about the political economics of Albania and Macedonia, but because I want minority rights to be protected everywhere and I want my landsmen*, who’ve suffered enough, to live in peace and prosperity.

It might be no surprise that the height of this kind of vandalism is Kosovo, where almost every sign has been defaced.  I was a teeny bit nervous going into Kosovo with a friend, but there were only a couple of occasions where we were the objects of even the slightest negativity, and that’s even with the Serbian cross I’ve got tattooed on my forearm.  People are brusque and unsmiling, but that’s par for the course since Albanians don’t really do smiling.  We got stared at a little when I got out of the car to take a photo of a demolished Serbian church.  Otherwise nothing much.

St._Andrew_Church,_destroyed_by_Albanians_during_the_pogrom_of_Serbs_from_Kosovo_in_March_2004

And there was even some joking.  When I was in Naples last (one of my great city-romances for those who don’t know), I said to a friend that it’s clear Naples is the first Middle Eastern city you encounter coming from the West because it’s the first city where there are so many groups of twenty-something young men standing around in the street doing nothing; not by any means a judgement; in fact it’s a stark testimony to endemic unemployment and poverty that angers me.  You see tons of buddy-groups like that in Kosovo.  At one point we were looking for the Serbian village of Djakovica — a fairly large town actually; it’s hard to not know where it is, that should have been my clue — on our way to see the monastery of Dečani We pulled up to just such a bunch of guys who were hanging out by the side of the road: Gheg Albanians, all of them already 6’2″ and with that top-spike haircut that makes them look even more like roosters (“cock” might be more accurate), standing in the contraposto that means manliness in the Balkans.  We asked them how to go to Djakovica.  They all threw their heads back like they didn’t know.  (One serious bond across Jadde land is that the facial gesture for “no” looks like “yes”). “Djakovica?  Nope.  Sorry.”  Noticed a repressed slight grin on one of their faces, but “no… no Djakovica.”

Then I remembered that Djakovica in Albanian is Gjakovë.  And I said: “Gjakovë”?  And in perfect unison they all smiled, threw their heads back and let out a big baritone: “Ah!  Gjakovë!”  Now we’re talking!  And they walked up to the car to show us exactly where to go on the map and saw my American passport on the dashboard, said “Clinton good”, pointed us on our way, patted the roof of the car, we exchanged mutually smiling “fuck-yous” and off we went to Djako… sorry…Gjakovë.

96483_pristina-srpski-putokaz-precrtao_lsThere was only one more such incident and it was cuter more than anything else.  We stopped so I could take this photo, where all the Serbian place-names had been blotted out; we were on our way to Peć, the site of the Serbian Patriarchate (Pejë in Albanian) and in front of the sign was a ten-year-old boy sitting selling strawberries, who flipped me the finger.

Lord, let that be the worst that things in the Balkans ever get again.

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* “Landsmen”, if it’s not obvious enough for you etymologically, is Yiddish for someone from the same village or nearby town or general region that you’re from — my “homeboy” — but it’s almost always used only when one or usually both of the two parties are away from that common hometown and it usually has a tone of nostalgia and longing attached to it.  In that sense it has the same emotional feel of Greek ξενιτειά (xeniteia), you’ll see the prefix “xe-“ which has connotations of foreign and other and away and departed.  So landsman is like πατριώτης or χωριανός or κοντοχωριανός for a Greek.   As one of Greece’s perhaps premier emmigrating regions, I’d say one out of three of Epiros’ regional folk song repertoire deals with ξενιτειά (xeniteia), being away from your homeland and village and family.  Rocky, barren, difficult to access, what little arable land available, like my father’s region of the Dropoli valley, worked for Muslim landowners by Christian serfs — or maybe sharecroppers is a better word — it’s easy to see why.  It was pretty much expected that after marriage and a first child, an able-bodied young man would go off to more prosperous regions of the Empire or even beyond and do migrant work or engage in some other kind of enterprise.

Comment:nikobakos@gmail.com

Dormition — two old posts — one me snarky about modern Catholicism; the other Rebecca West on Dormition fresco at Gračanica

15 Aug

“Today is the Feast of the Dormition… ”

 

15 Aug

…the day that the Virgin Mary, a mortal woman, “fell alseep” — died.

Icon of the Dormition from one of the Churches of the Pecherskaya Lavra monastery complex in Kiev.

Marianism, which it would be absurd to argue doesn’t exist in the eastern Church (see “…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.”), has for many centuries been significantly more central to Catholicism than it has been to Orthodox beliefs.  The Orthodox Church either couldn’t (under Muslim rule) or didn’t need to (Russia) engage the challenges of Protestantism or modernity like the Catholic Church did.  That has led, in many Western eyes, to sterile ritualism and ossification.  It has led, in my eyes, to the freedom to remain a Church, and not a panel member at the Ethics Roundtable that most of Western Christianity has devolved into.

Catholicism met the first of the above challenges with the Inquisition and some of the most spectacular art in the entire human experience.  It met both challenges with a wave of renewed dogmatism.

In the case of the nineteenth century that meant dogmatism in the real sense of creating new dogmas (dogmas? dogmata?), all by itself, the way the Vatican has always done things.  One of those was Papal Infallibility.  And because, along with Phallus, Mother is perhaps the most exploitable symbol in the collective unconscious, the other two new dogmas were the Assumption of the Virgin and her Immaculate Conception.  Together with the miracle-ization of several Mary appearance locations in Europe, the new upgrade of these previously popular but unofficially held Catholic beliefs were intended to, and successfully did, provoke a hysterical wave of Marianism in the nineteenth century that I imagine the Vatican thought would keep its straying flock close to home.  (That’s why Concetta or Assunta or Fatima or Lourdes are more likely to be your grandmother’s or one of her friends’ names and not yours.)  The outcome of never correcting the hysteria created by that whole shameless propaganda strategy has manifested itself lately in a completely insane movement to have Mary declared Co-Salvatrix, or some such nonsense, with Jesus, which would just be heresy pure and simple to anyone concerned which such things.

The Orthodox Church has always assumed some kind of assumption of Mary into heaven — see above, there she is, already in her Son’s arms, in what are both swaddling clothes and a shroud, His mother and child at the same time — but has rejected officializing the belief.  It has vehemently rejected the entire idea of the Immaculate Conception, which refers to Mary’s conception, not Jesus’, as lots of people think.  The basis for that is that both ideas come dangerously close to deifying her — the Immaculate Conception especially because it pre-destines and pre-sacralizes her.  And that cancels out the essence of who Mary is: a brave and terrified Jewish girl who said “Yes” to God when He asked her to perform something unfathomable to any human mind, including her own.

So today is the day that girl died (there is no Greek or Slavic word for Assumption), which we commemorate happily because we know she’s in good hands (I know, that sounds a little glib…).  It’s the most important of the Virgin’s holidays in the Orthodox Church, probably because it’s in the middle of the summer and has long been associated with village festivals and, these days, with vacation time.  It’s a day when Athens is even emptier than it is at Easter, because practically the entire city is only one generation away from the villages they return to every year.

It’s also on the list-obsessed Catholic Church’s silly list of “Holy Days of Obligation,” which means you get a demerit if you didn’t go to church…because they just can’t let go of the idea that the way to “pack ’em in” is to obligate them.

Below are some photos of the exterior and unbelievably beautiful interior (I’ve never been so overwhelmed by the magnificence of an Orthodox Church in my life: “For this we know, that God dwells there among men…”) of the Cathedral of the Dormition in the Kremlin, Russia’s Westminster, where Tsars from Ivan the Terrible in 1547 till Nicholas II in 1896 were crowned. (click)

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Rebecca West, on the fresco of the Dormition at Gračanica in Kosovo

15 Aug

From her magnificent Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia:

(click)

“Across one of the walls of Grachanitsa is shown the Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary, the state which preceded her Assumption, a subject often treated by the Byzantines.  There is no man living today who, exploring his mind in the light of that idea, could draw out so much.

“In the foreground of the fresco is the Virgin lying on her bier.  By the lax yet immutable line is rendered the marvel of death, the death which is more than the mere perishing of consciousness, which can strike where there is no consciousness and annul a tree, a flower, an ear of corn.  Above her bier there shines a star of light; within it stands Christ, taking into his arms his mother’s soul in the likeness of a swaddled child.  Their haloes make a peaceful pattern, the stamp of a super-imperial power, within the angles of the star.  About them throngs a crowd of apostles and disciples, come hastily from the next world or from distant lands to attend the Virgin’s death, wearing their haloes as bubbling yet serene spheres.  On the edge of the crowd stand some bishops in their cross-covered mantles, rock-like with the endurance of the Church, which cannot be perturbed by the most lacerating grief, and still others, also in flowing garments but with bodies liquid with grief, and others, also in flowing garments but with bodies tautened by effort, low under the weight of the bier.  The background is full of angels as the Eastern Church loved to conceive them, ethereal messengers who are perpetually irradiated by the divine beauty and communicate its laws to flesh-bound man, a dream of perfect vision and unfrustrated will.

“The huge imaginative space occupied by this small fresco is washed by two swinging tides. There is a wave of such sincere and childish grief as children feel when their mothers die, that breaks and falls and ebbs; there is a rising sea of exaltation in the Son who can work all magic and cancel this death or any other, making glory and movement where stillness and the end seem to be ineluctable. The sides of the fresco are filled in with buildings, distorted with the most superb audacity in order to comply with the general pattern, yet solid and realistic in effect; we are amazed, as we all so often are during our lives, that our most prodigious experiences take place in the setting of the everyday world, that the same scenery should be used for the pantomine and the tragedy. Behind these buildings there is a firmament which evokes another recurrent amazement. It is the most astonishing of all the things which happen to us that anything should happen at all. It is incredible that there should be men and women, mothers and sons, biers and buildings, grief and joy; it would seem so much more probable that the universe should have as its sole packing empty nothingness. Existence in itself, taken at its least miraculous, is a miracle.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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