Tag Archives: Alexandria

“Call Me By Your Name” — Wait, is there anybody who read the novel and DIDN’T think it was Jewish?

21 Oct

The trailer:

Jewcy article:

‘Call Me By Your Name’ Is Jewish

In case you missed it: Another side to the upcoming queer romance film.

By / October 16, 2017
 –

“You may have already heard plenty about Call Me By Your Name, the upcoming Luca Guadagnino film. There’s original music by Sufjan Stevens, Oscar buzz, and even some (misplaced) controversy. But you may have missed that this film is not only a queer coming-of-age romance— it’s a Jewish one.

“Call Me By Your Name is based on a 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman about Elio, a teenager in Italy in the 1980s who falls for Oliver, a young academic who comes to stay with his family over the summer. Both the family and guest are Jews, a minority in a very Catholic country.

“This shared bond is one of the things that brings Elio and Oliver together; Elio is enchanted by how Oliver wears his Jewishness on his sleeve (or literally, on his chest, in the form of a Magen David), and he tries to emulate him, despite the fact that his family describes themselves as “Jews of discretion.” Elio even wears his own Star of David (“My Star of David, his Star of David, our two necks like one, two cut Jewish men joined together from time immemorial,” writes Aciman in the original novel). In the novel, at least, this has a mixed effect for Elio:

Judaism never troubled [Oliver] the way it troubled me, nor was it the subject of an abiding, metaphysical discomfort with himself and the world. It did not even harbor the mystical, unspoken promise of redemptive brotherhood. And perhaps this was why he wasn’t ill at ease with being Jewish and didn’t constantly have to pick at it, the way children pick at scabs they wish would go away. He was okay with being Jewish.

“In the novel, despite his secularity, Elio understands his own sexuality through the lens of Jewishness:

I remembered the scene in the Bible when Jacob asks Rachel for water and on hearing her speak the words that were prophesied for him, throws up his hands to heaven and kisses the ground by the well. Me Jewish, Clean Jewish, Oliver Jewish— we were in a half ghetto, half oasis, in an otherwise cruel and unflinching world where fuddling around strangers suddenly stops, where we misread no one and no one misjudges us, where one person simply knows the other and knows him so thoroughly that to be taken away from such intimacy is galut, the Hebrew word for exile and dispersal.  [my emphasis]

“How Aciman writes Jewish characters is reminiscent of his personal essays about Jewishness; he treats the subjects with ambivalence and great poignancy. Aciman was born to a Jewish Egyptian family, living as a tiny minority until the family was forced to leave when the writer was a teenager.

“As far as the film is concerned, much of the cast is Jewish as well. Armie Hammer, of Jewish descent, plays Oliver, and Jewish-American newcomer Timothée Chalamet plays Elio. Elio’s father is played by Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man.

“It’s exciting that an Oscar film for this season is also a Jewish queer one. The movie doesn’t come out in wide release till November, but you can enjoy the decadently Sufjan Stevens-laden trailer in the meantime (see if you can spot the Jewish star necklace)…”

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If you haven’t, homework for Jadde readers is Aciman’s first novel, Out of EgyptIt’s one of the best — and earliest — English-language novels of the ‘Destruction-of-eastern-Mediterranean-cosmopolitanism’ genre.

Aciman Out of Egypt

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Another NikoBako I-told-you-so: Antiocheia, Idlib, Turkey and goddamn “referenda”

7 Oct

In a recent post (September 22): Do Kurds need to do this right now, just at this very moment?“, I re-examined some of the assumptions and hopes I had made and wished for in an older post from December 2015: Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

From just two weeks ago, this September:

“I hate, more than anybody, to look like I’m catering to Erdoğan’s peeves, but an Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence just at this time is a provocation for him that may turn out to be disastrous.  Erdoğan is already massing troops on Turkey’s southern borders, and though I doubt he’ll have the balls to invade what’s pretty much an American satellite, Iraqi Kurdistan, I don’t put it beyond him to send troops into the Idlib region in Syria — maybe even hold a “referendum” and annex it like the Turkish Republic did to the neighboring region of Antiocheia in the 1930s.”

Well, the man’s deranged mind functions like clockwork.  Reuters announced a few hours ago that Turkish army operations in Idlib have already begun:

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that a major military operation was underway in the Syria’s northwest province of Idlib, which Free Syrian Army rebel groups earlier said they were preparing to enter with Turkish backing.

“There is a serious operation in Syria’s Idlib today, and this will continue,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in a speech.

Much of Idlib is currently controlled by an jihadist-led alliance of fighters. “We will never allow a terror corridor along our borders in Syria,” Erdogan said. “We will continue to take other initiatives after the Idlib operation.”

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The reason this is so dangerous a move is that it’s so blindingly easy for Erdoğan to justify it.  In case you’ve ever wondered why the Greco-Syrian city of AntiochΑντιόχεια, one of the three great urban centers of Greco-Roman Christianity, is today in Turkey and not Syria, it’s because in 1939, the Turkish Republic strong-armed the French Mandate of Syria (I don’t know how) into holding a plebiscite in the Sanjak of Alexandretta (see map below) in order to determine its future incorporation into the Turkish state.  And as with all such votes — like Putin’s elections, Puigdemont’s referendum — the response was overwhelmingly approving.  We’re supposed to believe that 90% of the population of this region, the hinterland of Antiocheia (Antakya), where a majority of the population were, and still are, Arab Alawites/Alevis (see second to last map at bottom) who already had a little-sister, special relationship with France like Maronites did in Lebanon, followed by Turco-Kurdish Alevis and a sizeable Arab Christian community (most of which has now long moved to İstanbul), had — even after almost twenty years of watching the vicious war the Turkish Republic had been waging against Kurds, the crazed massacres of Alevis in Turkey, and the Republic’s systematic campaign to either expel or forcibly assimilate its Christian population — voted in their delighted majority to become part of Turkey.

An independent Iraqi Kurdish state, with neighboring Syrian areas already under YPG, would only need Idlib (only 100 kilometres from Turkish Antiocheia) to connect it to the strongly Assadite, Alawite region of Laodicaea (Latakya) and give a something-like-a-Kurdish state access to the Mediterranean; it would certainly end Erdoğan’s dream of a Sunni-run Syria.  I don’t even know what to think or what predictions to make.  Hopefully Russia will say no.  Hopefully the U.S. and the EU will too and go for serious sanctions, by which I mean not bullshit sanctions, but the cutting off of military aid completely.  Erdoğan deserves a serious back-hander — not just German pissiness — from some-one, for eff’s sake, and I can’t think of a better one than to have the Turkish army, deprived of its fancy American toys, “eat its face”, as we say in Greek, against Kurdish peshmerga in northern Syria.

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Hatay, where the name comes from — Hittites, I think – Hittites who came from the Sun, I think — and how there’s been a Turkic presence in the region for forty centuries (were there even homo sapiens forty centuries ago? …hmmm…maybe that’s the point) are all contained in the sacred texts of Turkish nationalism.  Like I’ve said many times before, nationalism is always funny (if it weren’t at the cost of so much blood) but Turkish nationalism is hysterical, Star Trek as a SNL skit.  Check it out if you’re bored at work some afternoon: Sun Language Theory.

More maps:

1579px-Hatay_in_Turkey.svgThe Sanjak of Alexandretta — Antioch — “Hatay” province — little red corner of Syrian Mediterranean, that Turkey bullied out of French hands in 1939.

1024px-alawite_distribution_in_the_levantDistribution of Alawites/Alevis in Turkey (Antiocheia), Syria and Lebanon, indicating, clearly, regions of ALAWITE MAJORITY.

And Idlib governate below.

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See “Alawite”, “Alevis” and then “Kurds” tags from other Jadde posts for more on this.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Durrell on Cavafy: “He was by divine choice only a poet…”

21 Sep

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Durrell with wife Nancy and a young Cavafy (below)

Durrell Nancy

Cavafy young

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Varoufakis, a dead Greek cosmopolitanism, and a Greece that now has nothing else

8 Feb

bdec44f200d445ceb018834ba071fe73_18(click)

From Al Jazeera by Iason Athanasiadis: The Greek Varometer: The irreverent, shaven-headed, motorbike-riding academic’s arrival is viewed in messianic terms.

I’m posting this for completely tangential reasons.  Because as I’ve said before, I’m not in the least capable of any political economic analyses, and, though I’m instinctively and emotionally happy about SYRIZA‘s victory, I really can’t tell how things are going to turn out.

(This Guardian article paints things as pretty dire, though of course that might just be more bullying and threat masked as “inevitability”: Tsipras favours Greek jobless over creditors in defiant policy speech:

The British chancellor, George Osborne, admitted the UK had already embarked on contingency plans in preparation for a Greek exit from the single currency. “This standoff between Greece and the eurozone is increasing the risks every day,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, adding that Athens’ departure from the bloc would not only send European financial markets into a tailspin, but cause “real ructions” in the UK.

Earlier, Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, said it was only a matter of time before the country left the eurozone. He said it was difficult to see why anyone would be willing to lend Greece more money and that without additional loans, the country would be forced to default and leave the euro.

“It’s just a matter of time before everyone recognises that parting is the best strategy,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. “It is not a decision where they are going to come to an agreement. All the cards are being held by the members of the eurozone.”

Greenspan also conceded that a Greek exit might trigger a meltdown in global financial markets: “I don’t think we have a choice.”)

But that’s not what was most interesting to me in Athansiadis’ article.  What was most interesting — and most gratifying, though it confirms a sad truth about the Greek statelet — is that Athansiadis chooses to portray Varoufakis as a product of a giant Greek Diaspora that the twentieth century, and twentieth-century nationalism, destroyed:

“He [Varoufakis] is also a kind of Greek largely eclipsed from the international stage since the 1960s; polyglot, adventurous, and hailing from a lively and vibrant Greek diaspora before it solidified into small-minded communities nurturing a parochial definition of Hellenism fossilised sometime circa 1950. Varoufakis’ father was born and grew up in Cairo’s fabled Greek community, directs a major Greek metallurgical interest, and maintains an interest in Hellenistic civilisation on the Mediterranean seaboard.”

and

“Varoufakis seems to hail from another Hellenism, the one defeated at the end of the 19th century when politics and circumstance conspired to ensure that the Hellas that entered the 20th century was narrowly defined by national borders, rather than the spread-out Greek-speaking cosmopolitanisms of North Africa, the Levant and Anatolia.

“Always a protectorate of the West, modern Greece was trapped by small-minded nationalisms (including its vendetta with post-Ottoman Turkey), resulting in the homogeneous and small-minded parochialisms from which the Golden Dawn impulse springs today.”

[my bold emphases in all of above]

Yes, thanks, Iasona…  For stating so clearly what the essential thesis of this blog is: that Hellenism was, and is, doomed in many ways since it contracted into an EBSN (ethnicity-based nation-state).  The sad truth is that the economic and cultural loci of the Greek world were always outside the Helladic peninsula (see my: Upon escaping from Greece… from this past September and myriad other posts) from early Classical times until the 1960s.  The modern Greek kingdom/state was always an economic basket-case from its beginnings and dependent on the Greek diaspora for its economic existence and, in fact, its cultural wealth and vibrancy as well.  There has rarely been a time that modern Greece was not teetering on the brink of insolvency or bankruptcy and the credit-backed 80s and 90s were simply smoke-and-mirrors that obscured that reality.

The reality is that Greece itself has nothing.  And never did.  “Φτώχεια, καλή καρδιά”…and mostly γκρίνια…*(1)  Its dying agriculture doesn’t and never did produce anything that its Mediterranean or even Balkan neighbors don’t produce in greater quantity and often better quality.  (Even my mother used to buy Bulgarian feta when I was a kid.**[2])  Its industry was always rudimentary and not particularly competitive — certainly not for export — and has practically disappeared.  If Greece ever had the potential of becoming a regionally important service center economy, like Singapore or Hong Kong or, closer to home, Lebanon before its civil war, that potential has never been realized — except in Cyprus to a certain degree — for a whole panoply of reasons that I think I’m not qualified to get into.  And whereas the great Greek financial magnates and industrialists and merchants of Alexandria and Odessa and Constantinople and Smyrna and Bucharest and Constanța and Iași in the nineteenth century liberally poured their wealth into building the institutions of the new state,***(3) the Greek families that today control our one potentially and traditionally great economic resource, commercial shipping, largely choose to keep their wealth off-shore.

I’m sorry to say that I can’t see what could possibly change this picture.  More tourism?  Neither reforms of the the Troika or the SYRIZA type will change fundamental material realities.  I’m afraid that Hellenism only flourishes when it’s part of a larger regional political economic network and I’m not sure that Europe is that network.  But then who?  A Turkey we always choose to respond to with hostility****(4) — to which it obligingly reciprocates?  Or the Balkans, which we denigrate, while Turkey is busy building commercial and economic and cultural ties with Balkan Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo?*****(5)  Or the total basket-case countries of the Arab world?  Or Russia in its current pariah-state condition?

And yet those were the parts of the world where the most dynamic communities of Greeks always existed.  Modern nationalism destroyed them.  And not just Greek nationalism, of course.  But Turkish and Egyptian nationalism and that of everyone else in the region.  Every one in their own box.

I’m just afraid that that contraction cost us more than it did anyone else. 

And I don’t see how it can be reversed.

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*(1) The lyrics from a famous Xarkakos song: “Poverty, a good heart, and lots of kvetching…”  Here’s the great Bithikotses’ recording of it.

**(2) And being from a village and region with a largely pastoral economy, she knew her feta; but the Bulgarian product tasted more like the hard, fattier, well-brined cheese she was used to, as compared to the cream-cheese mush Greece used to export in those days.  Granted, the quality has improved greatly since then.  As has that of Greek wines.  Especially the whites.  Build an economy on that.

At some point in the late nineteenth century, the economy of the Greek kingdom was deeply dependent on one thing: black (often called “Zante”) currants.  Forget Cuba and sugar or the Gulf states and oil.  This was a mono-crop dependency that rested wholly on prayers that Brits would continue to use copious amounts of these currants in their plum puddings at Christmas and not find another source for them.  When they did, or when demand for them stopped for whatever reason, the Greek economy collapsed.

***(3) One of the most obnoxious traits of the Neo-Greek middle-class is their denigrating, mocking, condescending attitude toward what constitutes the Diaspora of today, mainly Greek-Americans and Greek-Australians.  The dynamics of cultural assimilation in both countries and in the modern world generally will assure that New York or Melbourne will never become a Greek Constantinople or Alexandria, of course.  But that Neo-Greeks choose to look at their compatriots that left the country in the twentieth century, not as tragic victims of the country’s material limitations and war-time chaos, nor as an incredibly dynamic and enterprising group of Greeks who left for foreign shores and “spun gold out of thin air” there, in Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s famous words, but as rubes and hicks to be made fun of, while they sat home on their asses waiting for a growing welfare state to feed them, is just one of the most infuriating manifestations of Neo-Greeks’ blinkered worldview.  Snobs in a way that only the truly provincial can be — which I always say.  Much more to say about that.

****(4) Of course, there is the phenomenon of the so-called “Neo-Polites,” the considerable number of young Greeks who, for economic, or intellectual, or historic, or cultural, or sentimental reasons, have recently started to migrate “back” to İstanbul — though the extent to which we can call this a reconstituting of Constantinopolitan Greek life is pretty questionable.  It’s much more likely that a Roman life of sorts in İstanbul will ultimately be given a new lease by the Syrian Christians who have moved to the City in large numbers in the past decades.  Also much more to say about all that.

*****(5) Now, many Greeks in Albania, who are strikingly uninterested in Greece, have started to extend commercial and manufacturing networks into the rest of the country from the small pocket of territory they inhabit in the south; I have close relatives who, out of nothing, have built a phyllo/yufka manufacturing company, based in my father’s village of Derviçani, that sells throughout Albania and is looking how to expand into neighboring countries as well.  How far that will go is also to be seen.

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:

Poutouria220px-Teslacirca1880(2)

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:

VI2M8774.TIF

**** 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

“…the innocent boy of seventeen…”

12 May

Though it was only incidental to the previous post, the image of Erdal Eren has haunted me for the rest of the night; perhaps it’s the photo of him and its painful youth and innocence; obviously the terrifying quote: that he looked forward to his execution in order to avoid thinking of the torture he had witnessed; maybe it’s that hanging has always struck me as a particularly obscene form of capital punishment’s obscenity (the setting looks prison-like, like he’s actually entering the gallows chamber there…)

Then the eerie reminder of the Cavafy poem: “27 June 1906, 2 p.m.”

27 Iουνίου 1906, 2 μ.μ.

Σαν το ’φεραν οι Xριστιανοί να το κρεμάσουν
το δεκαεφτά χρονώ αθώο παιδί,
η μάνα του που στην κρεμάλα εκεί κοντά
σέρνονταν και χτυπιούνταν μες στα χώματα
κάτω απ’ τον μεσημεριανό, τον άγριον ήλιο,
πότε ούρλιαζε, και κραύγαζε σα λύκος, σα θηρίο
και πότε εξαντλημένη η μάρτυσσα μοιρολογούσε
«Δεκαφτά χρόνια μοναχά με τα ’ζησες, παιδί μου».
Κι όταν το ανέβασαν την σκάλα της κρεμάλας
κι επέρασάν το το σκοινί και το ’πνιξαν
το δεκαεφτά χρονώ αθώο παιδί,
κ’ ελεεινά κρεμνιούνταν στο κενόν
με τους σπασμούς της μαύρης του αγωνίας
το εφηβικόν ωραία καμωμένο σώμα,
η μάνα η μάρτυσσα κυλιούντανε στα χώματα
και δεν μοιρολογούσε πια για χρόνια τώρα·
«Δεκαφτά μέρες μοναχά», μοιρολογούσε,
«δεκαφτά μέρες μοναχά σε χάρηκα, παιδί μου».

“27 June 1906, 2 p.m.”

When the Christians brought him out to be hanged
the innocent boy of seventeen
his mother there near the scaffold
was dragging and beating herself in the dust,
under the sun, the savage noon-day sun,
and now would screech, and now would howl like a wolf, like a beast,
and then exhausted the martyred woman would keen
“You only lived these seventeen years my child.”
And when they raised the boy up on the scaffold,
and passed the rope around his neck,
the innocent boy of seventeen,
and his body swung hideously in the void
wracked by the spasms of his black agony
the beautifully made youthful body,
the martyred mother rolling in the dirt
was no longer keening of years,
“Seventeen days only” she keened,
“Seventeen days only did I enjoy you, my child.”

(my translation)

Erdal Eren

Cavafy wrote the poem in remembrance of the 1906 Denshawi affair, one of Britain’s unfinest hours.  Apparently some British military personnel were returning from Cairo to Alexandria and, near the village of Denshawi, shot some pigeons that belonged to the locals.  A scuffle ensued; a rock was thrown that hit a British soldier on the head and, though he died of what was later proven to be sunstroke, like a delicate E.M. Forster memsahib, five of the residents of Denshawi, including the seventeen-year old of the poem, were imprisoned.  Fortunately, there was such a public outcry after the execution of the young man that the other four men were released, though not till two years later in 1908.  The episode still remains disgusting and Cavafy’s poem one of his most chilling, a register he usually didn’t work in.

At the same time it’s a beautiful reminder of his humanity on several levels.  One is his life-long opposition to capital punishment: “Whenever I have the opportunity I declare this,” he wrote in 1902.  The other, without re-outfitting him as a post-colonialist before his time, is his affection for and lack of alienation and estrangement towards Egypt itself.  He could have had the cloistered emotional outlook of an erudite fag in the European cocoon of Alexandria, yet the otherness that life imposed on him taught his heart the right lessons.  The above poem (even his use of “the Christians,” which in the context can mean nothing less than “the kafirs,”* is a jarring statement of identification) is only his most poignant expression of his love for the country, not just the historical Egypt of so much of his poetry, but the actual Arab Egypt he lived in; “To glyky mas Misiri,” as he calls it in one poem: “Our sweet Misiri” — our sweet Egypt.**

I wonder what he would have thought of the current state of Greek politics – not that he ever cared much for either the Neo-Greek statelet or its inhabitants.  What would a man that lived and wrote on the cusp of every possible human margin and in every plural space conceivable, who would have died before he let his Hellenism be trapped by geography, nationalism or its idiocy, have thought of Greece having the most potentially powerful Nazi (I’m tired of dignifying them with the prefix neo-) party on the European continent?  And that granted to them by a significant youth vote.  A thirty-something Athenian, and a left-leaning one at that, recounting to me the multiple incidents of petty anti-immigrant animosity that she had been witness to in Athens even before the current crisis, recently said to me, in glib defensiveness: “Well, we’re not used to strangers in our country.”  This from us, malaka, the inventors of migration and its pain, who since the beginning of our historical presence have been strangers in every stranger’s land on the planet, except those corners ventured into only by more intrepid or desperate Jews or Gypsies.  It’s beyond even remotely doubting for me that it’s partly the loss of a diaspora consciousness on Neo-Greeks’ part, and the wider sense of world it gives you, that has made us such closed, parochial idiots, just as Israel — sorry to say — has had the same effect on Jews.  And the comparison doesn’t end there; in both cases the diaspora is not just forgotten and ignored, but a source of embarrassment and shame, and each state and its official and/or fabricated culture has the hubris to think itself the metropolitan standard that those left outside should aspire to, when neither state in question contained a serious metropolitan center of either Hellenism or Jewishness until the twentieth century (…with Israel causing a progressive closing of the Jewish mind everywhere — a disaster for all of us).  Now maybe that some young Greeks have had to start emigrating again some of that attitude will get a real reality check.  The economic crisis in Greece is a source of genuine consternation for me and I’m guardedly on the anti-EU/Troika side; at the same time some humility may be exactly what that society needed.  Maybe…though voting for Nazis doesn’t exactly indicate humility but childish rage.

 


*Qafr, kafir: infidel

**Masr is Egypt in Arabic.  Cavafy uses “Misiri” because in Modern Greek words can only end in certain consonants.  This is something  — tzatziki, kazani, kadaifi, kokoretsi, duvari — that makes Turks giggle and strikes them as particularly funny when they hear it in Greek and the kick they get out of it has always struck me as particularly sweet in return.  I think Cavafy intended it to have this effect.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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