Tag Archives: Albania

“What happened to the Turks of Old Greece?” 196 years ago today: the fall of Tripolica

24 Sep

On September 23rd, 1821, the city of Tripolica (Tripolitsa, modern Tripoli), the central administrative seat of Ottoman authority in southern Greece, fell to Christian rebels.  Its Muslim and Jewish populations were then subjected to a hair-raising orgy of slaughter and torture that effectively ended their presence there.  As similar massacres of non-Christians occurred throughout southern and central Greece, these regions were almost entirely cleansed of these populations.

That’s what happened, as someone once asked me, to the Turks of Old Greece (the Kingdom of Greece before 1913).  They went the way of Turks throughout the Balkans as soon as peoples there gained their independence.

Reposting an old post on a Skai documentary on the Fall of Tripolica and other taboos of Neo-Greek nationalism.  See “Diatribe’s” reposting of description of massacre and comments too.  Interestin re: “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing”.

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Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI

26 Jan

In my recent post Occitan and “endangered languages”, I wrote about the (mostly former) Albanian-speakers of central and southern Greece and how they had never posed an assimilation problem for the Greek state.  Quite the contrary:

“…Peloponnesian Albanians were already Greeker than the Greeks in their ethnic consciousness and had proven it by essentially fighting our war of independence for us; it seems that, historically, you give Albanians — Christian or Muslim — an incentive to go to war and they’ll become more zealous crusaders of your cause than you are yourself.”

Elsewhere I’ve written about Greeks and Albanians as practically co-peoples, such has been the extent of migration and intermingling over the past millenium.  This winter I read John V.A. Fine, Jr.’s six-hundred page The Late Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the late Twelfth Century to the Ottoman Conquest, which I know sounds like a joke about dry academic reading, but it was actually fascinating.  The chaos that followed the fall of Constantinople to the Franks in 1204 produced a bewildering number of Greek and Frankish successor states to the Byzantine Empire throughout the Greek peninsula, all constantly at war with each other and at a time when the Albanian highlands were suffering from demographic overload.  Thus, whether as mercenaries in the hire of anyone who paid best, or as shepherding nomadic clans who took advantage of the extensive areas of the peninsula depopulated by constant war or epidemic diseases, Albanians in huge numbers were constantly on the move southwards for the next two centuries if not more.  (I suspect that this is when their descent into Kosovo begins as well, filling in the gap as as the center of gravity of the Serbian nation moved northward.)  Further waves came after the Ottoman conquest in response to Islamization campaigns in recently conquered Albania, but this time not just south to Greece but westwards to Italy and Sicily as well.  And settling everywhere you could possibly imagine: Thessaly, southern Epiros, Roumeli (in the Greek meaning of the term), the Ionian islands, places as far flung and unexpected as the islands of Cythera or Ios!  My point, without having any Fallmereyer-an agenda — not because I disagree with his basic theses but because I don’t thing “race” means anything — is that regions of Albanian settlement in the past were likely far larger than the regions where we find the language still spoken in the early twentieth century, shown on these maps:

Pelopones_ethnic

Albanian-speaking areas in 1890 shown in pink above, green below (click)

Arvanitika map

This documentary that “shocked Greece” was produced by SKAI Television and called 1821 after the year the Greek revolution against Ottoman rule began and the reason it “shocked” is that it debunked long-held myths about the uprisings that eventually led to the establishment of the independent Kingdom of Greece; but really, that anybody was shocked at any of these revelations: for example, that the uprising was accompanied by the wholesale massacre of Muslims (and Jews) throughout the Peloponnese and central Greece;* that the Church anathematized it and did not support the movement (paid the price anyway with the execution of the Patriarch in Constantinople); that the “secret schools” where poor “enslaved” Greek youth were taught Greek in secret at night because the Turks had forbidden the teaching of Greek is a totally concocted fable (and such a projection of twentieth-century, nationalist, totalitarian policies back onto the Ottomans; there is practically not a single European observer of Ottoman life since at least the beginning of the eighteenth century that doesn’t comment on the quality and extent of Greek educational institutions in all Ottoman cities and even smaller towns and villages); that many if not most of the revolution’s “heroes” were Albanians, some who spoke no Greek at all; that the fustanella is originally an Albanian garment…and on and on — that any of these shocked Greeks in the early twenty-first century is just proof of how pathetically brainwashed and historically ignorant nationalism usually leaves a people.  And this is the point where the documentary pulls a very cowardly copping out — by claiming that such is the price of building a new nation; it has to create new “myths” of its own.  Why a nation — or a people preferably — is not stronger and better off if it knows the whole truth about its past is never delved into.  But it’s worth watching, and it has English subtitles:

In any event, such was the Albanian contribution to the struggle that one wonders if the Porte let go of the Peloponnese, not because it was so far from the center of imperial authority, not because it had always been something of a provincial backwater, not because of foreign intervention, but because of some tough-*ss Albanian warriors that the Ottomans felt were no longer worth resisting.  After all, they themselves knew the value of an Albanian fighter: favorite recruiting regions for the Janissaries in the classical Ottoman period had always been Albania and Serbia — not random choices.

There’s a beautiful song recorded in 1949 by Sophia Vembo, one of greatest Greek voices of the twentieth century, called “The Song of the Morea” (since at least early Byzantine times until the modern Greek state revived the clasical name, the Peloponnese was called the Morea) which is partly a homage to the role of the region in the struggle for Greek independence (ok, even as a New Territory Greek, I’ll grant them that.)  And the refrain says:

“Hail and be well brother Moraites, and health to your women too; Greece owes its freedom to your manhood!”**

And I have a deeply-loved but eccentric cousin, highly intelligent but an unrehabilitated nationalist dinosaur unfortunately and to whom much of this blog is indirectly directed — or one might even say dedicated — who is so profoundly moved by the blood shed by Peloponnesian and Spetsiote and Hydriote Albanians for the cause of Greek independence, that he thinks the refrain should run:

“Hail and be well brother Arvanites (Albanians), and health to your women too; Greece owes its freedom to your manhood!”

Here it is; the music and Vembo’s voice are beautiful even if you don’t speak Greek:

The song has always provoked a strong reaction in me as well, a testimony to the power of patriotism if it can move someone who finds nationalism as repulsive as I usually do.  But even that reaction is contradictory.  The 1949 date of the song is not insignificant; it was recorded in the middle of the most brutal period of the Greek Civil War and was actually more a call to unity and an appeal to brotherhood than a commemoration of the revolution of 1821.  Like many Greeks perhaps, my family suffered more losses in the civil war than they did in the Nazi occupation that had preceded it, and the opening lyrics of the second verse always make me tear up for a moment:

“Now that the earth sweats the blood of brothers, and Greece is drowning Greece in the hills..”

and then my heart goes cold again, because the next line is:

“Come out of your grave Thodoris Kolokotronis, and make all Greeks brothers again.”

…because it’s impossible for me to forget that Kolokotronis was the “hero” who boasted of riding his horse over Muslim corpses from the gates of Tripolitsa to its citadel, when that major city of the Morea fell to the rebels in September of 1821.

So I’d like to end this post with just a little bit of perspective, a reality check we all need every so often, because though the documentary mentions a lot of previously taboo subjects, it glosses over a few of them a little too quickly.  The following is taken from the blog of a Greek-Australian, and apparently fellow Epirote (though he seems to have Samiote heritage as well), Diatribe from a post called “Revolution Unblinkered.”  It’s foreigners’ eye-witness accounts of the Massacre of Tripolitsa, interspersed with some of his own comments:

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From “Diatribe”:

A month later, in September, a combined force led by Kolokotrones and Petrobey Mavromihalis captured Tripolitsa.  Historian W Alison Philips tells a horrific tale of mutilation and slaughter  “For three days the miserable inhabitants were given over to lust and cruelty of a mob of savages. Neither sex nor age was spared. Women and children were tortured before being put to death. So great was the slaughter that Kolokotronis himself says that, from the gate to the citadel his horse’s hoofs never touched the ground. His path of triumph was carpeted with corpses. At the end of two days, the wretched remnant of the Mussulmans were deliberately collected, to the number of some two thousand souls, of every age and sex, but principally women and children, were led out to a ravine in the neighboring mountains and there butchered like cattle.”

A Prussian officer described the incidents that took place after the capture of Tripolitsa by the rebels, as follows:

“A young Turkish girl, as beautiful as Helen, the queen of Troy, was shot and killed by the male cousin of Kolokotronis; a Turkish boy, with a noose around his neck, was paraded in the streets; was thrown into a ditch; was stoned, stabbed and then, while he was still alive, was tied to a wooden plank and burnt on fire; three Turkish children were slowly roasted on fire in front of the very eyes of their parents. While all these nasty incidents were taking place, the leader of the rebellion Ypsilantis remained as a spectator and tried to justify the actions of the rebels as,’we are at war; anything can happen’.”

Based on the accounts of one hundred European officers who were present at the scene, and did nothing to intervene, William St. Clair wrote:
“Upwards of ten thousand Turks were put to death. Prisoners who were suspected of having concealed their money were tortured. Their arms and legs were cut off and they were slowly roasted over fires. Pregnant women were cut open, their heads cut off, and dogs’ heads stuck between their legs. From Friday to Sunday the air was filled with the sound of screams… One Greek boasted that he personally killed ninety people. The Jewish colony was systematically tortured… For weeks afterwards starving Turkish children running helplessly about the ruins were being cut down and shot at by exultant Greeks… The wells were poisoned by the bodies that had been thrown in…”
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Although the total estimates of the casualties vary, the Turkish, Muslim Albanian and Jewish population of the Peloponnese had ceased to exist as a settled community after the early massacres. Some estimates of the Turkish and Muslim Albanian civilian deaths by the rebels range from 15,000 out of 40,000 Muslim residents to 30,000 only in Tripolitsa.   According to historians W Alison Phillips, George Finlay, William St. Clair and Barbara Jelavich, massacres of Turkish civilians started simultaneously with the outbreak of the revolt, while Harris J. Booras considers that the massacres followed the brutal hanging of Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V of Constantinople.  Finlay has claimed that the extermination of the Muslims in the rural districts was the result of a premeditated design and it proceeded more from the suggestions of men of letters, than from the revengeful feelings of the people.  St. Clair wrote that: “The orgy of genocide exhausted itself in the Peloponnese only when there were no more Turks to kill.”*
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There were also calculated massacres towards the Muslim inhabitants of the islands in the Aegean. This is because one of the aims of the Greek revolutionaries was to embroil as many Greek communities as possible in their struggle.  By engineering some atrocity against the local Turkish population, diverse Greek communities would have to ally themselves with the revolutionaries fearing retaliation from the Ottomans. In one case, in March 1821, Greeks from Samos landed on Chios and attacked the Muslim population living in that island. Among the Samian belligerents was an ancestor of mine, Dimitrios Kalymnios. When the Samians withdrew to the safety of their island, the Ottomans descended upon defenceless Chios and carried out an atrocity that horrified the rest of the world: the massacre of Chios.
[my, N.B., emphases throughout this last paragraph — just so that nobody is allowed to take something like the the Massacre of Chios out of historic context again…]

The final word, if there is one, goes to Theodore Kolokotronis, who in his account of the fall of Tripolitsa, was unrepentant to the last: “When I entered Tripolitsa, they showed me a plane tree in the market-place where the Greeks had always been hung. “Alas!” I said, “how many of my own clan — of my own race — have been hung there!” And I ordered it to be cut down. I felt some consolation then from the slaughter of the Turks. …”

DEAN KALIMNIOU
First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 April 2013.
READ HIS WHOLE POST: “Diatribe” ; it’s very intelligent.
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Wow.  First thing I have to say is that if this guy is allowed to publish this kind of stuff in Melbourne’s “Neos Kosmos” English-language newspaper, then Greek Australia is eons ahead of Greek America in its sophistication on such issues.  I can’t imagine a single effing channel or venue of the Greek media in New York where someone could get away with writing or saying things like this.
Then, the irony is that these revolutionaries, Greek or Albanian, were probably not fighting for a Greek state, but fighting a religious-cum-tribal war out of which they were hoping to carve out little fiefs and principalities of their own, no different than the Ottoman pashaliks that had preceded them and the internecine chaos that followed ‘liberation’ is proof of that — so let’s not over-romanticize their zeal for the “cause” or exaggerate the degree to which they were fighting for the “freedom” of the “Hellenic nation.”  Finally, is the irony that many of the “Turks” these fighters were massacring in a place like Tripolitsa, were probably Albanians like themselves, only converts to Islam.
And one sad little detail I discovered somewhere else, though I can’t find the source for it:
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“European officers, including Colonel Thomas Gordon, who happened to be at Tripolitsa during the massacre, witnessed the hair-raising incidents there, and some of them later recalled these events in all their ugliness. Colonel Gordon became so disgusted with the Greek barbarities that he resigned from the service of the Greeks. A young German philhellene doctor, Wilhelm Boldemann, who could not bear to witness these scenes, committed suicide by taking poison. Some of the other European philhellenes who were extremely disillusioned, followed suit.”
The poor, idealistic, Werther-like German Romantic, come to fight and  liberate the sons of Pericles and Leonidas, kills himself out of disappointment…it just seemed to encapsulate the whole patheticness of a certain kind of European Helleno-latry.
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* Why isn’t that genocide?  A question for those who objected to my post on Genocide last November.
** Forgive me the crude translation of “leventeia” as “manhood;” it’s just too complex an attribute to go into in an already long post.
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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.

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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

Photo: Sarajevo gastra and börek…or Börek I

24 Aug

Börek gastra Sarajevo

(click)

These are börek in Sarajevo being baked in a gastra, a strange piece of High Ottoman technology that is still used in much of northern Greece, especially Epiros and the rest of the Balkans, particularly the western parts: Albania, Montenegro (where uniquely in the Serb-speaking world, they call börek pitta like in Greek), Kosovo and southern Serbia — regions, interestingly enough, where börek is a particularly strong regional identity marker and the object of a powerful cult of affection and snobbery.  Every and each börek in these parts is subjected to intense scrutiny; is there too much filling (major demerit points because you’re obviously trying to make up for the poor quality of your phyllo/yufka); is each layer fine enough, but able to both absorb serious quantities of butter and not get soggy, like a good croissant or a good paratha.  Finally, that you use real — and good — butter, which makes almost all commercially sold varieties not worth trying, since using good butter on a commercial scale would make a börek that is prohibitively expensive, and especially in a country of culinary philistines like Greece, store-bought versions are almost inedible, as is most product in Turkey these days too, Turkish street food having suffered a marked decline in quality even as the tourist literature on the country continues to rave about it.  But I have had good börek in Macedonia, in Mavrovo, and in Montenegro, in Žabljak, where the hotel made us a great cheese and a great cabbage one for a hike we went on.  And in a high-end restaurant in Jiannena too; but next to me was an Albanian woman, who first smelled it, pricked at it with her fork, counting the layers of pastry, and then after a few minutes of just staring at it, pushed it away in disgust.  Like I said, it’s an object of great snobbery.  And forget Old Greece.  It’s a standard rule of thumb that the further away in place and time a region of Greece is from the Ottoman experience, the exponentially worse the food gets.  No one south of Larissa can bake a pitta to save their lives, or make a decent plate of pilav for that matter.  Epiros is probably the only place you can still get a nice buttery mound of pilav — like the kind Turks make — with good yogurt.  Southern Greeks seem allergic to rice, and have friggin’ potatoes with almost every meal.  Maybe It’s a Bavarian thing — I dunno.

some really good borek

Reaaally good stuff, in Mavrovo, Macedonia (click)  (See post: Macedonia: Mavrovo, Dimitri and the Two Falcons)

But everything baked tastes better in a gastra, the same root as the word for “womb” in Greek (or “gastritis”): rice and lamb, even zeytinyağlı vegetable dishes.  It’s just incredibly tedious — and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing — to use.  It’s a cast-iron dome, suspended with a very complicated chain mechanism over a stone platform.  You first lift the dome and light your charcoal fire underneath it on the stone platform.  When the fire has been reduced to hot embers, and the cast-iron dome has also gotten nice and hot, you brush the embers aside, position your tepsi of food, lower the hot cast-iron dome, and then pile the still glowing embers on top of the dome.  Usually when they’ve cooled down completely the dish is done.  The picture above shows gastras at all steps in the process.

I dunno really.  Does it make that much of a difference?  Everything is better when it tastes slightly smokey or when a little bit of ash has fallen into it — like Turkish coffee made in hot ashes.  But it’s a ton of work and really impractical.  If, for example, the embers go out completely and you raise the dome and the food isn’t done yet, you have to start the whole process from the beginning.  Arthur Schwatrz, in his ever-best cookbook on Neapolitan food, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania — which, like most good cookbooks these days, is as fantastic a source of history, anthropology and ethnography as it is of good recipes — says that a lot of foods legendary for how long you had to cook them for them to be the “real” article, like a Neapolitan ragù (pronounce with a double “r” and a “g” that sounds like a light Greek “gamma” – “γ”) that should take at least half a day to simmer or no self-respecting Neapolitan would eat it, were never really cooked that long.  Rather, they were cooked on wood fires and braziers, which were constantly going out, had to be relit, while the sauce cooled off and took time to reheat, etc.  Of course, for certain sauces and stews, and the fatty, sinewy cuts of meat we like in “our parts,” this kind of cooking is ideal.  And not just the slow, long heat, but the cooling off and reheating especially.

Naples at Table

Ottoman mangal

(click)

It’s like that other piece of Ottoman high-tech (I don’t mean to make fun, but it wasn’t exactly their strong suit), the mangal home-heater or charcoal brazier. (above)  You’d pile charcoal into it; leave it out in the street until the carbon monoxide burned off, then cover the embers with the lid and bring the whole incredibly dangerous, glowing — and often very large — brass behemoth inside to warm the house, or one hermetically sealed room really.  Then, as my mother used to describe it, you’d get under the blankets or flokates, facing the mangal, so your face would turn all red and sweaty while your back was freezing, and hope you had fallen asleep before it started cooling off or that you had generated enough body heat under the blankets to last till morning.  There were countless stories about families being found dead in the morning, because in the rush to bring this silly contraption into the freezing house, the carbon monoxide often hadn’t burnt off entirely and people would die from poisoning in their sleep.  I can only imagine that their use was required because it was probably tricky to build chimneys in mostly wooden Ottoman urban housing — my mother only remembered them from Jiannena; in her village where the house was stone, there were regular stone fireplaces where you could keep adding wood because the chimney would let the smoke and gas escape — and I’m sure that many of the massive fires that consumed whole mahallades of Ottoman cities over the centuries and killed thousands on certain occasions, were probably caused by one accidentally knocked over mangal somewhere.

And whole neighborhoods would burn down and then be rebuilt in wood again, something I comment on in another post — Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski“:

This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).

More on the symbolics of börek and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the next post.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Jerusalem: “…if he cannot control her, he would rather see her dead.”

3 Jan

 

ISRAEL-superJumboJerusalem’s light rail trams, once a haven of normality, have come under attack in recent months. Rina Castelnuovo for The New York Times  (double click)

A line from an op=ed piece by

“Yet, with all their talk of Jerusalem’s indivisibility, neither side has a plan to enable everyone to live functional, productive lives here.

“Both sides profess their love for this city, but they love it as a violently jealous man loves a woman: If he cannot control her, he would rather see her dead.”

It says it all, and lends itself to a powerful explanation of why the fiercest nationalist is usually a male.  If I can’t have her, who cares.  Better yet, kill her, Stella-style.  This is what Venizelos was thinking when he embarked on his pipe-dream in 1919; this is what he though at Lausanne when agreeing to the Population Exchange — he had already run through several population exchange scenarios in his head with which he might seduce the Allies and bring himself glory; 1923 wasn’t the first time he had expressed such ideas.

This what Milošević was feeling when he abandoned Krajina’s Serbs to their fate and then again when he sealed the fate of Kosovar Serbs by thinking he would expel its 90% Albanian population.

This is what that other raging ego-maniac Jinnah was thinking when he convinced people to cut the heart out of Muslim India and create two dysfunctional wing statelets, one of which barely survives in horrible destitution, the other ruled by a series of some of the most hideous, corrupt, mendacious regimes in the world (see October 6: “It’s not even a country; it’s a fuckin’ acronym!”)

This is what the Messenger thinks when he starts shrieking from his Mussolini balcony: “And I don’t give a shit about Anatolian Hellenism or Politikes Kouzines or Loxandres!!! [.] I care about what’s good for Greece!!!”  Or when he stands ten kilometers from my father’s village “…where my ancestors held on tooth and nail to their land, their religion, their language, for centuries – as every other people have the right to — looks out over the valley of Dropoli and thinks out loud: “These borders could have been drawn to better advantage for us. All that was necessary would’ve been a few key population exchanges…”

The weird “contentlessness of nationalism” as I’ve said many times before.  It doesn’t matter what it is.  Or what it becomes.  It just has to be mine.  Or set a match to it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Upon escaping from Greece…

7 Sep

cp-cavafy2

How do you go through the work of the poet whose opus consists of the sharpest and most accurate analysis of Modern Greek identity, and find the poem that displays perhaps the most razor-sharp understanding of all of them? I’ve always known that poet was Cavafy, but I wasn’t looking for that one poem or anything, when, just leafing through his stuff a few days before I left Greece this past July, I came upon one of my favorites, the following. Please have a look first:

Going Back Home from Greece (an unbelievably clumsy translation of the Greek title)

Well, we’re nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems—that’s what the captain said.
At least we’re sailing our seas,
the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt,
the beloved waters of our home countries.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:
didn’t you too feel happier
the farther we got from Greece?
What’s the point of fooling ourselves?
That would hardly be properly Greek. 
 
It’s time we admitted the truth:
we are Greeks also—what else are we?—
but with Asiatic affections and feelings,
affections and feelings
sometimes alien to Hellenism. 
 
It isn’t right, Hermippos, for us philosophers
to be like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up! 
 
No, that’s not at all right for us.
For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won’t do.
We must not be ashamed
of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;
we should really honor it, take pride in it.

— Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Επάνοδος από την Ελλάδα

Ώστε κοντεύουμε να φθάσουμ’, Έρμιππε.
Μεθαύριο, θαρρώ· έτσ’ είπε ο πλοίαρχος.
Τουλάχιστον στην θάλασσά μας πλέουμε·
νερά της Κύπρου, της Συρίας, και της Aιγύπτου,
αγαπημένα των πατρίδων μας νερά.
Γιατί έτσι σιωπηλός; Pώτησε την καρδιά σου,
όσο που απ’ την Ελλάδα μακρυνόμεθαν
δεν χαίροσουν και συ; Aξίζει να γελιούμαστε; —
αυτό δεν θα ’ταν βέβαια ελληνοπρεπές. Aς την παραδεχθούμε την αλήθεια πια·
είμεθα Έλληνες κ’ εμείς — τι άλλο είμεθα; —
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις της Aσίας,
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις
που κάποτε ξενίζουν τον Ελληνισμό. Δεν μας ταιριάζει, Έρμιππε, εμάς τους φιλοσόφους
να μοιάζουμε σαν κάτι μικροβασιλείς μας
(θυμάσαι πώς γελούσαμε με δαύτους
σαν επισκέπτονταν τα σπουδαστήριά μας)
που κάτω απ’ το εξωτερικό τους το επιδεικτικά
ελληνοποιημένο, και (τι λόγος!) μακεδονικό,
καμιά Aραβία ξεμυτίζει κάθε τόσο
καμιά Μηδία που δεν περιμαζεύεται,
και με τι κωμικά τεχνάσματα οι καημένοι
πασχίζουν να μη παρατηρηθεί. A όχι δεν ταιριάζουνε σ’ εμάς αυτά.
Σ’ Έλληνας σαν κ’ εμάς δεν κάνουν τέτοιες μικροπρέπειες.
Το αίμα της Συρίας και της Aιγύπτου
που ρέει μες στες φλέβες μας να μη ντραπούμε,
να το τιμήσουμε και να το καυχηθούμε.

What gives this poem such pride of place as an analysis of Greek identity? For me, it starts with the simple joy both passengers feel as they’re arriving home – not approaching Greece, but leaving it. “Upon Escaping from Greece” would be my choice for the title’s English translation, because it’s clearly an experience of suffocation that the two friends have experienced that has started to lighten up for them as they cruise east through the breezy waters of the Mediterranean.

Cavafy has become an object of a resurgent cult in Greece, partly due to last year’s 150-year celebration (he was born in 1863), that’s a kind of an “emperor’s-new-clothes” phenomenon for me; not because his new clothes aren’t real, but I feel that few Greeks actually know what it is they’re suppose to be liking so much. I much prefer people who just say up front that they don’t like him. He’s “childish” they say, in response to his prose-like, early modernist experiments. These are the people who like their poetry with a capital “P”; they want it to rhyme: “φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό…” and they want it to have epic scale heroics and ‘the thousands dead under the axles’ and ‘the living giving their blood’ in the heroic deed of ‘making the sun turn,’ along with some myrtle and oleander and jasmine thrown in for Aegean effect. (What if you’re from Epiros and you don’t know from oleander and jasmine, just tsouknida and pournari?) Others only like a very emphatically stressed “some” of his poems: these are the ones turned off by his sexuality, but who feel they can’t say so openly in 2014 – or to me. (And the degree to which that whole part of his work, a good half, was ignored by the official festivities – they wanted only “Ithaka” or “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “The City” — was amazing.*) The Messenger for example, found a publisher for his paternal grandfather’s, my great-grand-uncle on my mother’s side, fascinating memoirs, which span the whole period from the late nineteenth century and the end of Ottoman rule to WWII. Except his grandfather met a Jewish guy who screwed him over when he was a young immigrant in New York in the 20s and he included the unfortunate phrase: “Hitler was right for doing what he did to them.”**  The publisher thought maybe that line should be cut. But the Messenger stuck to his cast-iron principles and insisted it be left as is, because it would be “censorship” to remove it.  Hardly an upholder of the most liberal sentiments on issues of that kind, I have a feeling that if the comment hadn’t been about Jews, he wouldn’t have minded the censorship so much. Just a few months earlier, for example, he hadn’t thought it was “censorship” to cut a slightly too homoerotic line from a Cavafy poem he read at his father’s funeral, for fear that our landsmen, our chorianoi, would be scandalized.

These elements and others: that Cavafy preferred the tragic dénouement to the epic climax; the unconsummated to the fulfilled; that he preferred the coded to the open and disclosed, and not out of choice; but learning to love what fate had made him, he learned to love the beauty of code – its poetry — the furtive touch over some cheap handkerchiefs; that he loved the ethnically and culturally and religiously mixed margins of Greek history and the poignancy of characters who had to straddle those margins and did not write a single poem about its Attic glory days (who are all these half-breed Egyptians and Parthians and Jews and other exotic anatolites he’s always making us read about anyway? Where’s Pericles and Aristotle?); that he understood life and humanity as fundamentally amoral, and morality as a convenient weapon to be used against the unfortunate few or often just a bad joke. All this did not do much to endear him to his contemporaries, along with the fact that he famously disliked Greece and especially Athens (the latter kind of unfair in my opinion: Athens at that time must’ve been at its most beautiful and charming), and the straight, homophobic white boys of the Generation of the ‘30s in particular, despite Seferis’ famous eulogy, had no time for him. The most vehement, Theotokas (unfortunately, one of my favorite Greek writers otherwise) scathingly declared Cavafy, in his Free Spirit, a “dead end” (a common trope, whether conscious or not: the gay man begets no issue and is thus fundamentally allied with death); that his modernism was an experiment that had been taken to its logical conclusion and that the Alexandrian was now a decadent (same difference), a point of departure for what Greek letters should move on from next and not a road open for them to continue down.

That right there is the grand and egregious error. Because Greek culture and identity – in a way that makes any sense to who we are today – simply didn’t exist until the Hellenistic (and then Roman/Byzantine) periods that Cavafy chose, almost exclusively, to write about in his historical poems. The conglomeration of Indo-European tribal units who all spoke dialects of similar languages and had started coalescing into larger city-state forms of political organization by the mid-first millennium B.C. have nothing to do with us. They may have started calling themselves “Hellenes,” but let’s not forget that the Iliad does not contain one, single, blessed mention of that holy word, and was compiled only a century-and-a- half or so before the Golden Periclean Age we’re so obsessed with.

It was because he was fascinated with the true origins of Greek identity, the cauldron of cultural mixture that Alexander created that later became condensed into a more distilled Greek-speaking, Orthodox idea, that Cavafy wrote about those periods so widely and studied them so deeply. And being from such deep aristocratic Constantinopolitan roots and an Alexandrian, how could he not have felt that basic idea on a gut level.

This is another reason the mention of the words “Macedonia” and “Alexander” makes my hair stand on end. The Macedonians (by which I mean Slav Macedonians) are ridiculous in their attempt to appropriate Alexander as a phenomenon of their own culture, though many observers have written about how this conscious policy of “antikvatsiya” (“antiquization”) on the Macedonian government’s part is, partly, a response to Greek intransigence on every other grounds. But you can see from how Greeks respond to Macedonian moves that Greeks don’t get Alexander either. Alexander is not a culminating point of Hellenic history, where the great hero brought Hellenic civilization to the “borders of India.” Alexander is not even a Greek herohe very early in his career quickly became déraciné, as Mary Renault keenly observed. Alexander is where Greek history starts. It’s all really the other way around. Alexander is what brought the East, and its incomparably greater and older civilizational achievements, to us. He drove us deep into contact with that wider world, cementing what had always been our bonds to those lands and those peoples he grew to love so much, and giving us as much in return, actually more, than what we gave them. He created the great creolized cultural space that a universal, cosmopolitan Greek identity was first born in and that later – when the name for “universal, cosmopolitan identity” changed, due to political circumstances, from “Greek” to “Roman,” – changed along with it, but which left the Helladic peninsula — or “the Hellenic” generally — behind permanently as a focus of any kind. Until the twentieth century.

Alexander Renault

Hermippos and his friend, Greeks going home to Antioch in Syria or Seleucia in Mesopotamia, can’t be Greek in Greece. It suffocates them. They don’t fit into that nonsense, antiquarian straightjacket. It’s “beneath” them, as Greeks, to reject the wider world that they’ve long been an intimate and inseparable part of. Greek means cosmopolitan to them and they can’t be Greeks without that quality. It would be the most provincial thing for them to do, to act like provincials who try to hide their “easterness”:

“…like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up!”

Eastern Mediterranean(click)

The nation-state is bound up inseparably with provincialness. And narrowed tribalism. And provincials hide. Not true Greek men. Cavafy’s “petty kings” are the Neo-Greek bourgeoisie, from the statelet’s origins down to our day, with their still immovable disdain for the East, who don their ancient fineries and try to make the world call them Hellenes and have no clue how ridiculous they’re being. Provincials dissimulate – not true Greek men — and that dissimulation has been the main thread of Neo-Greek culture since the late eighteenth century, so much so that all perspective has been lost. Hermippos and his buddy aren’t provincials. They’re Greek alright – from some of the richest, most sophisticated and Greekest cities in the world; but they understand the larger cultural context they’re a part of, and they’re too supremely secure in their Greekness to put down the Egypt and Syria that ‘flow in their veins.’ Greece tries to take that away from them. I imagine the Athens they had to go study at as a kind of tired old Cambridge, MA, still resting on its now dried-up laurels. But they’re too Greek to let Greece do that to them. Sorry to get repetitive. It’s an attempt to make the paradox – a wholly healthy and natural one – sink in.

Greece still tries to do that to you. And in the crisis mode it’s in today, it tries even harder because its sad inhabitants’ perspectives have become narrower and narrower to the point where they see nothing of the rest of the world and there’s simply very little language left you can share with them. “Η φτώχεια φέρνει γκρίνια,” the Greek says – “poverty makes for kvetching” — and though many people I know have faced the current crisis with the best kind of Greek dignity and humor in the face of adversity, too many others have lapsed back into ideological craziness, or just a frustrated lashing-out bitterness, or were always there but kept it hidden and now think that it’s more okay to express things openly; it’s hard to tell which.

One friend or relative has become a Golden Dawn apologist if not supporter: “What’s a young man who loves his country supposed to do?” I dunno; but half of Dostoevsky is about what to do with the unguided idealism of strong young men and phenomena like Golden Dawn wasn’t one of his answers; he strictly warned us against them, in fact. Another wants to take a DNA test to make sure he has no Albanian genes: actually believes such a thing exists – a chromosome for Albanian-ness and a test that will detect it. And this is one of those uncomfortable situations we’ve all been in where this is coming from the spouse of a good friend, so you have to keep your silence and you can’t just say: “That’s nice _______, Hitler and the Nazis were into that kind of thing too.” If I could I would’ve also asked if he wanted to see my DNA chart too, which is probably chock full of “Albanian-ness” and if he would then feel the need to maybe keep me away from his daughters. Another is still obsessing, as we go on twenty-five years since the break-up of Yugoslavia, on the “Macedonian issue.”*** And after hours of mind-bogglingly pointless conversation – “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift — you take a step back and realize that that’s all that’s ever mattered to this guy. The hundreds of thousands dead produced by the Yugoslav disaster, the millions displaced, the destruction of the last part of the former Ottoman sphere where there was still some hope of survival for a multi-ethnic society, the greatest bloodletting in Europe since WWII, right on our doorstep…  He doesn’t give two shits, nor has he let one blessed thought or idea on that series of calamities occupy even one of his brain cells for a second. All he cares about is the “Macedonian Issue.” Twenty-five f*cking years later. And he doesn’t find such narcissism the least bit obscene.  “The world is burning, και το μ**νί της Χάιδως χτενίζεται.”  I won’t translate.

Whether or not they’re becoming more extreme or just showing their true colors more, it’s certain that I’ve become more radical – not in my ideological positions, which are what they always were – but in my inability to tolerate their stupidity and growing narrow-mindedness. I’m always ready to leave Greece when the time comes, but this time it had become truly unbearable. There were just too many people that it had become too uncomfortable to even be around. And stumbling on this half-forgotten Cavafy poem was no accident I feel.

And so I took that great big breath of relief that Hermippos and his friend took on the deck of their boat as the shores of Cyprus came into view when I myself left for Serbia back in July. I had to get out of this place – and disassociate myself from it and its inhabitants — if the fact that I’m Greek was going to continue to be to at all tolerable to me. I’ll always love arriving; with the new flight path south over the Attic midlands passing right over the town and beach — over the very apartment building — where I spent my childhood summers, I’ll always choke up a little at the sight of the brown hills of Attica. But when I’m ready to leave, I gotta go – and fast – and this year more urgently than any other.

And I can see myself spending more and more of my future time in “Greece” in Albania with my relatives – “deep” Greeks who don’t have the ball-and-chain of a nation-state tied around their ankles; in Istanbul – with smart young Greek and Turkish kids who are trying to do something intelligent and productive about our relationship; maybe in Cyprus – which Kosmas Polites called the last surviving remnant of his beloved lost Ionia and where I have friends to whom I owe long over-due visits; or just here in Queens — where every block and street corner and subway stop and church bears a piece of my Roman-ness.

Because Greece, man… Greece just cramps my Greekness.

Egypte, Alexandrie, le front de merAlexandria (click)

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* And the thing is, if you ignore his erotic poems, I find it hard to believe that most people can even understand, much less really appreciate, the rest — the historical poems.  Who understands the religious and cultural sociology of fourth-century Alexandria enough to have the proper context to apprehend all of “Myres: Alexandria, AD 340”?  Who the hell knows where Commagene is?  Or who Alexander Jannaios was?  Or what a handsome Jewish prince is doing with the name Aristovoulos?  Or why he was murdered and “those sluts Kypros and Salome” are now gloating in private?

** It’s amazing.  And disturbing.  Anti-semitism and the extent of its popularization and the accessibility of its language.  Not only can one accusation of unethicalness — and from a Greek at that! — be used to tar a whole people, but Jews are the only people with whom that one charge leads straight to the gas chambers so easily, in people’s minds and on people’s tongues.  Not “what a sleazebag.”  Or “what a nation of sleazebags.”  But straight to “Hitler was right…”

*** Yes.  Believe it or not.  The “Macedonian” “issue.”  More on that to come.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

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This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

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Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

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The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

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But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

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So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

Uranium piles

Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

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While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Philopomeon writes: “Easter in Derviçani”

30 May

To this April 25th’s post on Easter in my village,  Easter in Derviçani,” Philopomeon writes:

“Beautiful. It’s rare that we get a look of what is going on among Greeks in Albania without having to hear about ‘Vorio Ipiros’ and ‘Chameria’ back and forth.”

Yeah P., except for a few real old die-hards, that stuff is pretty much over, and most people, young and old, have very maturely and intelligently, gone on with their lives and accepted things as are.  The most striking example of that is that there are youth associations from each of the Greek villages in the region, with members in Jiannena or Athens or all over the rest of Greece or Albania or the States or Australia, but the old pan-Voreio-Epirotiko associations like MABH, with their irredentist discourses have pretty much dissolved.  The hate is gone too, which was the most heartening thing to feel: the on-going, still often fatal feud with the neighboring Albanian Muslim village of Lezarates is mostly personal at this point and not an issue of religion or ethnicity.  I know more infantile little fascistakia in Athens, with no relation whatsoever to our villages, who are more preoccupied with those old causes — and feel like they have a right to shoot their mouths off about them as well — than anybody in Derviçani is today and who probably are greatly disheartened by our indifference to our “national issues.”  You’ve never wanted to lose it on someone so bad as I do when your family has been through what mine has (see: Easter Eggs…”) and then have some snot-nosed Kollegiopaido  think he can lecture you on how you don’t live up to them and lack their “national feelings” and other such bull-shit.

The young people of my village, particularly, are a marvel, a youth that any society would — or should — pray to have.  They are fanatically in love with their village; they return every chance they get — dozens come from Jiannena on just a regular weekend.  They’ve organized a new panegyri (village festival on the village saint’s day) on August 15th, when the village’s population is the highest.  This has happened all over Greece; since most people go on vacation in August, depopulated villages that only fill up with returnees at that time often organize a second “unofficial” panegyri in August, along with the traditional one which could be at any time of year, to take advantage of the greater presence of chorianoiDerviçani, however, has never really had this problem, because this is a village with such a gigantic ego that no mere saint would serve; its traditional panegyri was Easter itself! culminating on Easter Friday — της Ζωοδόχου Πηγής — and always packed, then and now…   But, what can I say, it’s a party town.  The youth association pays for this summer festival out of its own pocket; they’ve put a stop to the stupid drunken brawling that used to go on, even though they themselves can pack it away for sure.  They do tons of volunteer work for the village: roads, squares, little beautification projects, football fields and basketball courts.  Natally bilingual, interacting with the “other” and crossing borders both figurative and literal all their lives, they have that innate cosmopolitanism and perceptiveness of the wider world that can’t be learned in any school and that no Northern Suburb çoğlani could buy himself with all the millions in the world or a thousand trips to Europe or New York.  They’re strong, attractive, smart, open, friendly, generous and whether they’re busting their backs at the hardest manual work in Greece or other parts of Albania, or acing it at universities in Greece or in Europe, they’ve built active, productive lives for themselves out of nothing.  I’m not ashamed to say they put me to shame in almost every way.

The most satisfying feeling and identification I shared with them though was the sense that they knew who they were: Derviçiotes, Dropolites, Epirotes, and Greeks  — and that they have absolutely no need for the Neo-Greek nation-state as a reference point to bolster those identities.  Greece never did anything for them anyway except make their lives difficult when they got there in the nineties or provide leftist intellectuals to tell them that life in communist Albania wasn’t that bad or little Athenian pricks to mock them as “Albanians.”  (As opposed to the Church of Greece, however, which I’ve always found to be an abominably reactionary institution, but has really helped a lot of Greek kids from our parts find their way in life and adjust: learn trades, increase their Greek literacy skills, get them into universities, etc. — recognition should be granted when it’s due.)  They get tired of explaining to Neo-Greeks that they’re not Albanian, but ultimately they don’t give too much of a shit: one, because they don’t think being Albanian is an insult and, two, they know they’re Greek — in fact, they know they’re Greeker.  Their generational cohort in Greece would not want to hear their opinion of most of them.

They love their Church, they love their music and they love their dancing.  Here are two videos of the early twenty-somethings, “Manastiri 1” and “Manastiri 2” (age groups and families take their turns) dancing up at the Monastery over the village on Easter Monday. My camera work on my brand-new little pocket Cannon is atrocious, but their spirit will come through.  I was astonished by how down-packed and completely internalized they had the traditional gestures and body language of the regional dance tradition — though I think dancing with open beer bottles is a new innovation and by the second video you can see they’re getting kind of sloppy.  There’s this one kid, FotoDretso, with the cartoon cowboy t-shirt, at the head of the line in the first video with the beautiful statuesque girl in the white sweater that no one can identify (“maybe she’s from another village…” the phantom beauty who showed up at our panegyri…), who is the son of GianneDretso, a village character out of Djilas’ Land Without Justice  with a fearsome reputation for leaping across borders and mountain tops like some cougar — a good rep to have around there.  Foto is also shown turning his spitted lamb in the Easter in Derviçani” post.  He seems to be something of a village youth leader, but the reason I couldn’t get enough video of him that day is, not just that he has my father’s name, but he dances exactly like my father did.  At times it was chilling.  Watch in that first video at around 1:35 when he takes lead of the dance.

IMG_0093FotoDretso, buddy and animal at the Monastery, Easter Monday 2014 (click)

In one of Misha Glenny’s books on Kosovo, Glenny asks a female Albanian politician in Tetovo, the unoffical capital of Macedonia’s some twenty to twenty-five percent Albanian minority: “Do you still dream of a Greater Albania? Where all Albanians can live in one state?”  And he got nearly the identical answer from her that I got from an Albanian guy I was talking to in the restaurant of our hotel in Tetovo: “Well…of course.  I guess we all do.  But those years are over.  The point now is not changing borders.  The point is making the borders not count.”

This is what most of my chorianoi — my “landsmen,” for New Yorkers, the rest of you can use your context clues, as we used to say in ESL — young and old seem to feel these days.  They live productive, happy as possible lives, where the border is practically a technicality and only promises to become more so as the years go on and the general integration of the region continues — a process that I see being halted only by those ideologues who get hard-ons at the thoughts of borders and nation-states and playing with little tin soldiers and tanks to defend them with.  But they’re a dying breed, unlikely to ever again reach a critical mass with which they could make a difference, whether they know or like it or not.  And the sooner the better.  So we can all get on with our lives.

Below are the kids dancing from my crappy footage.  But I have FINALLY found THE documentary video that captures the ethos of the whole music and dance tradition of Epiros as perfectly and deeply as possible but I’m thinking of the right way to set it up for readers.  In the meantime, enjoy.

This third video, ΔΕΡΒΙΤΣΑΝΗ 2013 ΧΟΡΟΣ Ι.ΜΠΑΡΟΥΤΑ,” is taken at the August dance, all generations participating.  The woman dancing at the head, Agathe Baruta — what relation to my Barutaioi I don’t know — is a stunning dancer (and a beautiful woman), and displays the precise, stylized seriousness that’s considered both beautiful dancing and proper elegant comportment for a woman.  (The kerchief is a remnant from a time when a man and a woman never touched publicly, even if related; the tall, handsome man she’s dancing with is her husband and is a member of the Greek Presidential Guard.  But some things are traditional formalities while the realities, obviously, change; one song from the new repertoire says: “Join the dance later and hand me a note with your cell number on it.”)  You’ll get a better sense of the communal joy this simple to-and-fro incites in people from this video because it’s more ordered than the kids’ dances above.  What you see here goes on, literally, for hours, till it induces an almost trance-like state; it starts at around eight in the evening and goes till dawn — for three nights in a row.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to capture in my videos above — nor is there a point here — a moment where the musicians slow down the tempo and the dancers get even more excited.  (At the end you get a fast number that really reminds you of how Balkan and Klezmer traditions are often connected.)  If you can, give it some time, because it needs time to build, time that we all have so little of; this whole tradition is the antithesis of the quick high and fake fun that characterizes our civilization: “Play it sweetly boys, sweet and slow, to heal the sickness I have in my heart”:

IMG_0182Meanwhile, back at Easter, some of the adolescents, watching the dance respectfully till it’s their turn.  (click)

IMG_0185The older guys, below, on dance break (click).

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Some nephews of mine being bozos; every time I lifted the camera at them they would put their hunk of meat down and pose, so I asked them to be natural and this is what I got. (click)

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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