Tag Archives: Athens

Never was a more perfect climate wasted on so undeserving a people: how Greeks drive you nuts

24 Sep

Hymettus Athens half-zoom-set-sun

After two months of brutal mid-90s and freakish humidity, it finally dropped to low 80s the day before yesterday.

And they’re cold, the whiney brats.

The feel of the air is crisp and cool.  The sky is its normal dazzling blue.  The oleander and jasmine and basil smell.  The pomegranates are ripening.  Soon there’ll be a landslide of oranges.  And forgive the cliché but the light, especially at lower angles, is working its magic again and creating all sorts of optical illusions.  There’s something about the clarity it creates that seems hyper-real or surreal.  It makes it impossible to judge distance for one: the mountain that you know is forty kilometers away looks like you can reach out and touch it; the eucalyptus tree in the yard looks like it’s at the opposite end of a football field.  No way to convey it photographically.  Everything looks totally clear yet almost flattened and two-dimensional at the same time, like an icon or a Persian miniature or a shot from a super zoom, where all optical levels and distance are reduced to one plane.  Plus it makes the ugly grayness of Athens look blindingly white.

The beauty all around is completely lost on them.  Take out your heavy hoodies, roll up the car window so that the draft doesn’t give me a stiff neck tomorrow.  They actually believe that, that drafts hit and freeze a certain body part that then hurts you for an x number of days.  Especially lethal is the rear passenger side window in a taxi.  So they run to the doctor at the slightest sniffle who gives them a beer stein of antibiotics to guzzle and that compromises their immune system even worse.  And then when they’re seriously ill five or six times every year they wonder how it’s possible because they stayed out of drafts and wore a scarf.

A screaming match in the gym by the treadmills.  She wants to close the windows.

“We’ll be sweating”, she says.

“Yeah, hon’ we’ll be sweating.  And sweat rising to your skin and drying up upon air contact is the body’s natural cooling system without which we would die.  That’s why dry climates, like this, are so comfortable and humid ones are not.”

Yok.  Now people just stay away from the treadmills when the crazy American comes.

“Stay away from the window, you’re all sweaty, you’ll get sick.”

In twenty-first century language: “It’s better to sit in your sweaty post-workout clothes, even if they’re a better environment for breeding bacteria, than to let them be dried by a draft.  Then when you get sick, wonder why.”

But as Swift said, it’s impossible to reason a man out of something he was never reasoned into in the first place.  Cold doesn’t cause colds?  Germs and bacteria that flourish in a sealed environment do?  Forget it.

“I like my mediaeval ideas, ok…” says the Right-wing Old Fart, the I-don’t-want-to-s of someone argued into a corner.  Like the “I didn’t like it” of the Macedonian.

Wish I knew wtf neuroses like these are about.

Feel the coolness of the perfect Attic night falling.  Then watch the giant Hollywood Hills windows onto the beautiful sweeping marble terraces roll shut like a prison gate and then be shuttered and boarded up on top like the zombies will get in otherwise.

And weep.

Oh, and the security door fetish.

They have their other charms, I guess.

Athens gross concrete

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Lebanese food: September 14th and the Feast of the Holy Cross in Ein Zebde, Shouf

15 Sep

Ein-Zebde-Peach-FieldsEin Zebde peach orchards

This is one of those photos that shore up all literary descriptions you’ve ever read of Lebanon as the land of milk and honey.

Because only that sort of blessed (but unfortunately cursed too) land could produce Lebanese food.  More than the landscape, the mountains, my personal emotional response to a still functioning society of Arab Christians, the post-nightmare joy that even a partly-Resurrected Beirut must offer, and more, even, than the boys — it’s the food that makes Lebanon one of the top entries on my list of must-visits.  The boldness of the Lebanese culinary imagination reflects such care for both the sensuality and sanctity of food that I can’t helped being moved by just reading descriptions of it.  China, India and France (mmm…yeah, ok, Iran too) are the only places that can compete, I think, with this tiny little corner of the Mediterranean in sheer kitchen creativity.

Mansoufe (below), for example: made of pumpkin-and-bulgur balls, cooked with caramelized onions and flavored with sour grape juice.  Where else would people even think of this?  (Though I think “dumplings” or something might have been a better word; “balls” makes it sound like pumpkins have testicles.)

Mansoufe

But just like there’s not really any French food without the produce of France itself, and like I’ve come to believe what most South Asian friends think: that there’s no good regional Indian food outside of India, just Punjabi versions of dumb-downed Doabi-Mughlai food cooked by Sylhetis (though I know two good Bengali places in New York, one in Sunnyside, where you have to convince them you want the real stuff, and one in the Bronx, and an even better secret, a great Sindhi vegetarian place in Jackson Heights…Indian vegetarian is the only vegetarian food I’ll eat, actually the only vegetarian food I’ll honor by calling “food”), so, it seems, that if you want something other than stale felafel or inedible tabbouleh made by a dude who had too many lemons he needed to get rid of and who needs to be told that parsley isn’t a vegetable, then you need to go to Lebanon.

In steps the Food Heritage Foundation to help you get your bearings food-wise once you’ve gotten yourself to Lebanon: a great resource for anything you might want to know about Lebanese cuisine.  Yesterday they posted photos of the Ein Zebde (the Shouf village with the peach orchards at top) celebration of the Feast of the Holy Cross, and the annual potato-kibbe-making event the women there have held for the past twenty-four years.  Check out the page for captions on the pics below:

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Yesterday I tweeted my kudos to the Food Heritage Foundation (above).  But actually it would have been impossible to hide the fact this is a Maronite community even had they wanted to.  Even if they felt they didn’t have to explain why the women were doing this, the women’s hair and bare arms would have been a giveaway.

Still, I’m just saying this because if certain people like Mlle I___m de M_____i had their way both the entire staff of the Food Heritage Foundation and I would’ve been thrown in jail for fomenting sectarianism, publicly shamed for being Islamophobic and made to wear a Green “I”, and the Ein Zebde post would have had to be mysteriously cleansed of its Christianess.

The feast of the Holy Cross — I doubt any Catholics remember or even know — commemorates the discovery by the Empress Mother Helen of the Holy Cross on which Christ was crucified, of which Mark Twain famously said there were so many splinters of everywhere that it was apparently a Holy Forest.  She was the mother of Constantine, the emperor who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the city on the Bosporus called Byzantion, renamed Constantinople (that’s İstanbul for those that don’t know), and who, like a good mother-ridden Greek boy (though he was really from what’s now Niš in in what’s now southern Serbia), unfortunately made what-a-monotheist-drag Christianity the official religion of the Empire to make her happy; though also like a good Greek boy he passive-aggressively wasn’t himself baptized till he was on his death-bed.  The discovery of the Cross and the feast of Sts. Constantine and Helen, “the Equal-to-the-Apostles”, on May 21st, when Athens is paralyzed by traffic for three days because a quarter of the city is named Kosta or Helene and another half is going to visit them for their name-day, is usually commemorated in the Orthodox Church by the same image:

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But for more fun, more lyrical descriptions of Lebanese food, mixed up with some serious butch conflict-zone reporting and a hilarious Middle Eastern mother-daughter-in-law relationship, see Annia Ciezadlo’s beautiful Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Athens exploding in citrus

5 Dec

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Oranges and tangerines are suddenly in season and the farmers’ markets are bathed in their smell and color.  I remember, à propos of previous post’s bitching about birthday and Christmas excess, my mother shaking her head at the riot of insane shopping and spending and spoiling of children (because she too had succumbed; how better can capitalism manipulate you than through your children?) and going about the living room Christmas morning collecting wrapping paper and mountains of horrible plastic packaging, mumbling about how: “On New Year’s Day* we’d get a pair of socks…maybe an orange.”  And while her half of the family had moved from her natal village of Pesta north to Jiannena, another branch, to which she was very close, had settled in the southern Epirote city of Arta, a very pleasant town, the mediaeval capital of the Despotate of Epiros ** and therefore full of beautiful Byzantine churches, which lies in the region’s coastal lowlands and is surrounded by one gigantic, heavenly citrus orchard like the Huerta of Valencia or parts of lower Andalusia, so it shouldn’t have been too hard to get more than just one orange.  But there was no spoiling the children then and in Jiannena one orange was probably expensive enough.

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And I’d love to know whose great idea it was to plant orange trees along many of the streets of the city.  These are bitter oranges, known as nerantzia (obviously same root as naranja and I would say sounds Persian but is probably Arabic) often called Seville oranges in Britain, and they can only be eaten in marmelades and jams — in Greece, either whole and when still green, or in curled slices of the orange peel…my favorite…  Don’t put it in front of me; I could eat gallons of it in a matter of days.

Street oranges

But since there’s a limit to how many candied oranges a nation can consume, most of them end up fallen on the street, where they get squashed and can be dangerously slippery, but whose rotting smell is not entirely unpleasant.

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The compensation is in the early spring when the trees bloom and — while it would otherwise be a sin to compare such an ugly to such a beautiful city — Athens smells just like Seville.

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* Greek children, and only children, used to get their presents on New Year’s Day, and they were brought by Saint Basil of Caesarea (Kayseri) in Cappadocia.  I don’t know why, since he was a theologian saint and had no gift-giving traditions associated with him — probably just because January 1st is his feast day — and I don’t even know what people here do now.

** The Despotate of Epiros was one of the independent Greek successor states, along with Nicaea and Trebizond, of the dismembered Byzantine Empire that emerged after the Frankish conquest, sack and destruction of Constantinople in 1204, under the rule of one branch of the Doukases, I think, but later also under a motley crew of other Greeks, Serbs, Albanians and Norman Italians.  It rejoined a reconstituted Romania, or Byzantine Empire (below), at some point after 1261 when Constantinople was retaken by the Laskarids/Palaeologans of NicaeaTrebizond, the region known as Pontus in Greek, remained independent.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Al Jazeera on Exarcheia

21 Jan

They just keep putting out amazing stuff — and, tamam, even when it’s not amazing, it’s stuff no one else does…  Cool article on the legendary Athenian neighborhood, my first choice if I had to live there.

“This is a theatre where all the ills and blessings of modern Greece become painfully obvious and clash. In this sense, Exarchia will either become a paradigm of resistance and revival through solidarity and unity, or a symbol of anger, violence and the disintegration of the social fabric in crisis-stricken Greece.”

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Exarchia: A space for urban resistance

Yiannis Baboulias

Last updated: 23 December 2014
 

Athens’ Exarchia neighbourhood has preserved the memory of decades of resistance to state repression.

 There are few places in Europe where you can find riot police squads in full gear, permanently stationed around buzzing cafes and restaurants. In all honesty, I know just one: Exarchia, the boho, ever-rebellious neighbourhood of Athens.

Situated in the centre of the city, right next to the “historic triangle” of Syntagma parliament building, Monastiraki (under the Acropolis) and Omonoia Square, Exarchia is considerably unpolished compared to its neighbours to the south and east. But what it lacks in clean sidewalks, it makes up for in virility and spirit.

This is a neighbourhood of politics, resistance and communal spirit. The first recorded student riot took place here more than a century ago. It was here that students started occupying universities protesting the 1967 dictatorship, and it was here that on November 17, 1973, a tank sent by the military junta to evict the occupation, broke down the gates of the Polytechnic University, crushing students. This was where the military regime signed its own death warrant.

After the restoration of democracy in 1974, Exarchia became home to the emerging left-wing movements, anarchist collectives, intellectuals, activists and, notoriously, urban guerrilla terrorist groups like “November 17”, which came straight out of the Exarchia far-left.

Today Exarchia has come to represent a microcosm of the major conflicts within Greek society: the police vs the politicised youth; the old vs the young generation; the state vs the poor and the marginalised; the political elite vs the austerity-stricken population.

The memory of violence

The streets of the neighbourhood have preserved a long history of police violence. The streets and the people of Exarchia remember. It is a neighbourhood tradition to commemorate resistance and protest against political violence, which inevitably pits it against the state and its repressive apparatus.

In November 1985, during the commemoration of the November 1973 student uprising, 15-year-old Michalis Kaltezas was shot by riot police. The Polytechnic was occupied once again by angry youth denouncing police violence.

In 2008, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was also shot dead by a policeman in Exarchia. The neighbourhood exploded into weeks-long riots. The incident took place in Messologiou Street, where young people still hang out, sipping beer, next to the mural set up in memory of young Alexandros.

This year’s commemoration of his death on December 6 turned into clashes with the police. Yet again, the police forces brutally attacked the relatively peaceful demonstration running through downtown Athens, and yet again, Exarchia became the stage of a well-known war game between the angry youth and the police.

The way protests happen in Exarchia, however, is a bit different. The streets, the buildings, the residents are not just passive spectators of this extended war. In December, the whole neighbourhood was “up in arms” throwing flowerpots and furniture from their balconies at the riot police; Molotov cocktails were raining down on the police from rooftops. 

Exarchia remembers, and the police does little to help it forget. Police brutality scars the neighbourhood on a regular basis. On November 17, when the demonstration for the anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising ended, mounted units took to the streets of Exarchia, breaking down building entrances, intimidating people on the sidewalks, damaging private property and beating up journalists. The next day there was just one phrase in the minds of many of the people I spoke to in the neighbourhood: collective punishment.

Every year Exarchia adds to its log of murder, violence and police brutality and its memory does not fail.

A political stance

Exarchia, in the mainstream narrative, has seemingly turned into what the police had always maintained it is: A stronghold of dangerous anarchists. But the roots of this hostility go deeper than a mere grudge against the police.

It should not come as a surprise that the headquarters of the PASOK party, situated in the neighbourhood, is heavily guarded by the police. The 2009 PASOK government was instrumental in passing the EU-dictated austerity measures that have driven 2.3 million Greeks into poverty, another 3.8 million under threat of poverty, destroyed social services provisions across Greece and sent millions into the streets unemployed.

Police in full gear stand guard all year round in front of the PASOK HQ. Exarchia residents have repeatedly complained about their presence. In the summer, after the residents of a neighbouring building got into a dispute with the officers over the noise police buses were making, the officers threatened to break into the building and arrest them. In protest, thousands of residents walked out into the streets under the slogan “Out with the police!”

The neighbourhood also showed solidarity with the hunger strike of Nikos Romanos, Grigoropoulos’ best friend, who is now in prison. Tension quickly escalated and on December 3, a group of anarchists attacked the PASOK headquarters with 30 molotov bombs. As the police chased them down Messologiou Street, a group took refuge in the bar where I was sitting. They took off their masks and sat around pretending they were customers. They seemed angry, high on adrenaline and I could tell by their faces that the feud with the police and the state will not be settled any time soon.  

A unique community spirit

In the corner of Navarinou and Zoodochou Pigis street, a tiny park breaks the grey urban mass that is Exarchia. This once empty lot was meant to be turned into a parking lot, but activists took it over and after years of bitter struggle, managed to bring it under communal control and turned it into a green oasis, with a playground and a garden. “Their parking, our park” is the slogan of the group that runs it, and it’s the perfect metaphor for what the lively neighbourhood wants to be.

Co-ops and social enterprises are multiplying in Exarchia. In the rest of Athens one might see empty cafes and vacant shops, but in Exarchia, the streets are littered with alternative businesses, like independent bookshops, co-op cafes and restaurants and even entire theatres.

The residents have also organised to drive the drug trade away from the central Exarchia square and its surrounding alleys, and have managed to do so to an impressive degree compared to a few years ago. What seemed like a plague that would drive the area to the ground, has improved, thanks to a very active neighbourhood association, which over the years has become an integral part of life here.

Exarchia is resisting through a civic spirit emboldened by the crisis, and with solidarity that extends well beyond its residents. This cradle of alternative lifestyles is also one of the most welcoming areas in Athens, where immigrants can hang out feeling safer than in most other areas.

For thousands of young Greeks, Exarchia has become a space for urban resistance. This is where they gather to talk and do politics. It is their arena for free expression, where they demonstrate the full extent of their anger with an indifferent, self-serving state that ignores their opinions and turns its back on their future.

This is a theatre where all the ills and blessings of modern Greece become painfully obvious and clash. In this sense, Exarchia will either become a paradigm of resistance and revival through solidarity and unity, or a symbol of anger, violence and the disintegration of the social fabric in crisis-stricken Greece.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe, examining issues of precariousness, new nationalisms and independence movements across Europe. His work has been featured in Channel 4 News, Vice, the LRB and The Guardian among others.

Follow him on Twitter: @yiannisbab

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Philopomeon writes on: “Magnificent Turks and the Origins of this Blog”

3 Jul

In one more, just can’t keep ’em from coming, comment on “Magnificent Turks and the Origins of this Blog,”  Philopomeon writes:

“Oh wow, and don’t get me started on the “you don’t know OUR history” stuff from them. For them basically the years 600 AD to 1821 are a blank spot with some vagueness about a “Greek Empire” and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks”

And the massive gap doesn’t even seem to register with them or concern them.  Too much sloppiness to fit into the orderly narrative boxes they like.

It’s actually quite astonishing: where the narrative line doesn’t follow Glorious Greeks to Evil Turks to meh Independence, they’re as historically ignorant as many Americans.

BLUEMOSQUEZIMG_D950Interior of Sultan Ahmet mosque. (click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Magnificent Turks” and the origins of this blog

11 Jun

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(The photo above and all photos in the main body of this post, are of the Šarena Džamija in Macedonian, or Alaca Cami in Turkish, which means “The Decorated Mosque,” an eighteenth-century masterpiece of Ottoman Folk Baroque in Tetovo, Macedonia.  The photos interspersed between the footnotes are of the Bektaşi Harabati Baba Teke on the outskirts of Tetovo — two of the loveliest places I visitted on this trip.  Click on all.)

From Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon:

“It is impossible to have visited Sarajevo or Manastir or Bitolj or even Skopje, without learning that the Turks were in a real sense magnificent, that there was much of that in them which brings a man off his four feet into erectness, that they knew well that running waters, the shade of trees, a white minaret the more in a town, brocade and fine manners, have a usefulness greater than use, even to the most soldierly of men.”

Yes, again…  West is prompted to make this comment in I can’t remember what city in Macedonia because the book is huge. Always super-astute, she identifies something really profound about Turks: essentially, what’s known in classical Japanese aesthetics as “bushi-no-nasaké” – “the tenderness of the warrior.” I don’t think that needs to be explained any further. Afghans have this quality, and the autobiography of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty, his Baburnama, where he talks about the blood and fear of war with true horror in one passage and the sweetness of his beloved Kabul’s melons, its ice-cold waters and the handsomeness of its young men in the immediately following, is probably the most striking literary example of this aesthetic strength outside of anything written in Japanese I would imagine. (Complicated: the fact that it’s a quality most highly present in strongly homoerotic environments or cultures.) I remember sending West’s passage to one of my best friends in Istanbul when I read it and she wrote back and said: “I wish there were even a trace of that sensibility left here.” And I think she was being a little unfair and also suffered from the near-sightedness we all do when we’re immersed in an environment and really can’t see it objectively. To begin with, at least as far as C-town is concerned, it’s hard to build a city for fifteen million in fifteen years and maintain any kind of sensibility at all, so something has inevitably been lost in the dizzying pace of progress in contemporary Turkey. But it isn’t hard to see if you just look a little: a sensuality, an alertness to beauty and material comfort of all kinds, despite some overdone glitz, that comes at you from nowhere often – of course from Turkish women, some of the world’s most impressive for me, but even from the most macho (and some of the world’s most impressive) guys, which is when it’s really beautiful and almost disconcertingly lovely: an aesthete’s attention to detail; a sudden, completely unsolicited, solicitous gesture of smiling generosity; a strange soft politeness and sensitivity, which the sound of the language, especially in the City’s accent, only adds to… A “tenderness.” That of a complete man. Which is what the Japanese meant.

But my reasons for posting it now have nothing to do with my friend or with Turks really. I had been looking for an opportunity to post this passage at some point because it’s essentially the seed of this blog. I thought maybe on some anniversary in April, but Easter posts always get in the way then. What gave me the impetus to post it now is finding the beautiful “Painted Mosque” in Tetovo in Macedonia and the Bektashi Harabati Tekke on the outskirts of the same city, because both structures or compounds are the purest embodiment of the observation West had made of Turks some eighty years before.

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Why did the Jadde grow out of this particular quote? I’ll start from the beginning.

Four, five, maybe even six years ago – I think it was 2008 – a group of Turkish historians of Ottoman art and architecture completed a massive and what sounds like a seriously respect-worthy encyclopaedia of all the Ottoman monuments of the Balkans. I heard about this from Greece, however, in an email from a fairly out-there nationalist who has since grown exponentially deranged, that went out to friends, and friends of friends, and acquaintances, and acquaintances of acquaintances, with the pompous subject line: “The Falsification of History!” No explanation of why the work of serious Turkish scholars was false or a process of falsification. No explanation at all; and, really, I can’t even remember what the tirade in the rest of the email went on about. I wrote back (“Reply all”) and said: “Good for them. Why don’t we do it too?” And then I remembered the above passage about “Turkish magnificence” that West had written while in Macedonia and I sent that out right after.

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The response blew my mind. Dostoevsky said that hysteria was God’s gift to women. But watch certain kinds of sports fans or listen to a certain kind of nationalist and you’ll see that maybe it’s the y-chromosome which carries this gift of the Lord’s. Or maybe Samuel Johnson was wrong in calling “patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels” and should have dubbed it the “last refuge of hysterics.” I was called a traitor. I was called an idiot. One person wrote to tell me that he might agree with some of what I said (I hadn’t really said anything – Rebecca West had) but that I was so aggressive that he wasn’t going to stoop to my level. One guy wrote me an email most of which sounded like it was lifted out of the literature and billboards of Samaras’ (now Prime Minister) simultaneous Macedonia/Elgin Marbles campaign that made an international rezili of us in the nineties when he was Foreign Minister (*1), telling me to “read some history” and “that if you don’t know your history you’re nobody; you’re pathetic my friend — you and your ‘magnificent Turks.’” Now, when a Neo-Greek tells me that I don’t know my history, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end, because even when they come out of the country’s best schools (”…oy, I should cough…” as a certain old Jewish lady I knew liked to say), like this guy has, the “history” they know – or choose to know — are just the national mythologies. I actually really felt sorry for him to be honest, not even insulted, because, like I said, this was a circle of friends of friends and there was a good chance that he would eventually get to know more about me some day and then he would feel r-e-a-l-l-y dumb for doubting either my historical knowledge or my sense of cultural consciousness. I hear he’s a nice guy. He later apologized for calling me “pathetic” but insisted that we still disagreed completely – “diagonally” was the term he used in Greek. I didn’t bother to ask what it was we still disagreed about exactly. And I also won’t tell you who most of these people are professionally because it’ll send chills down your spine.

There were no explanations coming anyway. What was “false” about this project? Were these academics impostors or clowns? Why was I “pathetic?” What was it that I didn’t know supposedly? What was the “diagonal” disagreement about? that the Ottoman was a civilization? What? Explain. Just like I never got an explanation for why my Genocide post was “enraging”…. εξοργιστικό…. other than that it takes away someone’s claim to victim status, nothing was clarified here either, except that one shouldn’t stand anybody saying anything positive about Turks.

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Eventually an attempt at explanation (talk about “pathetic”) came from the original sender, who we’ll call “The Messenger” from now on. “Of course, I support the preservation of art” – he wrote: the classic, vapid introductory caveat of every ideologue; Hitler loved art too; that’s why he bombed the shit out of Piraeus but didn’t touch Athens – “but I can’t tolerate the turning of every little stone into an Ottoman ‘monument.’” Had he seen this encyclopaedic project first-hand? Did he know that any of the entries were just “little stones?” I doubt it. But then came the real point, the following completely strained and muddled analogy: “And when it comes down to it, the preservation of the art of the burglar must take second place to the art of the owners of the home that was burglarized.”

Got it, right? The burglars are the Turks. Understood? Even if we overlook the fact that the primary genetic material of modern Turks is made up of the converted and Turkified peoples that already inhabited the Balkans and Anatolia (2**) — they’re us and we’re them essentially, on some deep level there’s no “they” there; does that not create even the tiniest bit of empathy and identification? — the Turks, and Islam, have been in the Balkan peninsula for six centuries. They’ve been in Anatolia for nine. But for the Messenger, they’re still burglars. They first appeared on the record in the history of southwestern Asia as military slaves, I think, in when? the 7th century? If we count Turkic peoples like the Bulgars, Cumans and Pechenegs, they’ve even been in the Balkans since the 6th century. When do they get their green card?

So this is the essential irrationality of these people’s thought pattern and it’s what makes their arguments descend into crazed incoherence so dramatically fast. They’re not angry at a policy or an act or a group, really, or even a politician or another nation even. They’re angry at gigantic, abstract historical phenomena: the spread of Islam; the westward movement of nomadic tribes from East Asia in the first millennium – shit like that. Which are phenomena that, admittedly, we may have been on the uncomfortable receiving edge of, and — you know what? — yes, cause me occasional sorrow too: the loss was great. (Though we maybe were given much through these processes, also, if you’re willing to see.) But, “ὅτε γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου” – “when I became a man I put away childish ways” (that’s Paul, I Corinthians, 13:11, since none of these types will know where the quote is from or even if it’s from the Bible very likely) and started looking for ways to handle that sorrow more productively instead of angry — which I had never felt — ranting — which I had never done anyway. But when you listen to these guys you get the distinct impression that you’re watching someone whipping air, or digging a hole in the water as the Greek has it. Because you’re listening to the rant of someone stuck on what he thinks is the losing side of history, and who insists on continuing to act like a loser – and thereby remaining one — by whining and hating. And if you confront them too intensely, they just get nasty because they hit a wall almost immediately; they have nowhere to go rhetorically. I was in a comfortable living room in Athens last month, having drinks and a perfectly civilized – I thought, at least — conversation and listening, I think, to Hadjidakis or even Chet Baker. And I said, for some reason – I can’t remember the context: “Obviously the single largest ethnic group, if not the majority, of the population of Greek Macedonia were Slav-speakers until the beginning of the 20th century, until they were chased out or massacred or exchanged and the considerable remnant terrorized into being afraid of speaking their language or even of openly being who they were.” And I immediately got a traditional warm Balkan reply from this τάχα sophisticated Athenian and Kollegiopaido: “Bre haydi, go fuck yourself, malaka!” Not because this person doesn’t know that what I said was true, but because I had dared to say it so bluntly. And instead of getting up and leaving, or staying and breaking some teeth for being spoken to that way, I was silent. “We were persecuted and thrown out of so many places too!” And then you realize you’re talking to someone who has descended to the level of a fourth-grader and that it would be child abuse to continue.

So rather than waste too much more time in exchanges or situations like that, I finally got my act together a couple of years later and started this blog. I wasn’t going to continue writing or responding to these people individually: narrow-minded and locked in their ideological boxes and — most irritatingly — profoundly provincial and ignorant of certain things and yet simultaneously convinced of their status as the crème de la crème of their segment of Athenian society. (They’re big fish in a little pond and when they get thrown into the ocean they don’t even realize it.)  I was just going to put my ideas out there and anybody who wanted to could do what they felt about them.

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There are two basic components on which these individuals’ thought worlds rest and are designed and constructed. One is their complete lack of empathy, or even the capacity for the slightest identification, with those different from them. I understand not everyone can be from New York, where you’re not only confronted – in the flesh – with the entire rest of the world from the moment you’re conscious of your environment, but confronted as well with the stories of loss and tragedy and deprivation or just frustration and lack of opportunity –again, in the flesh – that brought both you and all these others together here in this city. And you don’t have to be as peculiarly sensitive to these issues as I am. But unless you have an anvil for a head, or no heart at all, it’s impossible to be a New Yorker and not recognize that, though your story may be distinct, it can’t be privileged in as facile a manner as it can when you’re home locked up in your little mono-cultural society. (3***)

And the “in the flesh” part is what’s crucial. People like the Messenger, or Mr. “Pathetic,” feel an instinctive, knee-jerk negativity towards Turks – or anybody else — because….

they’ve never LIVED them, or VISCERALLY lived ANY kind of DIFFERENCE, at ALL, in ANY  REAL way. (4****)

I’ve already written extensively about how the young people of my village, with one-fifth the education of these cosseted bureaucrats (much less a kid like my nephew Vangeli), are more cosmopolitan and open about the world because they’ve lived bi-cultural existences in Albania since their first breath, even if it’s with people they may not particularly like. If anything, the kids of Derviçani would silently ignore The Messenger and his preachings. And if The Messenger dared to get angry and nasty and foul-mouthed with them because his prophecies weren’t being heeded, as he always does with everyone who doesn’t fall at his feet when he speaks, he would be roughly escorted out of the café or bar they would happen to be in, in New York Irish pub style, by a couple of big Derviçiotika djovoria (5*****) — believe me, they’re good stand-ins for Irish pub bouncers, take a good look at some of them in my photos — and quite possibly at knife point just to make sure the message got through. They don’t take kindly, as I don’t, to being told what to feel or think by Athenian amateur “intellectuals” or what they more frequently refer to as “butterboys.” But there are even more dramatic examples I know, intimately, of people having lived amidst ethnic conflict from birth and then — as per Paul in Corinthians – having grown up.

My father grew up in that same village under much worse conditions: conditions of almost constant, chronic – and fatal — communal violence between his communities and the surrounding Muslim villages. During periods of extreme tension, for months or years at a time, a man didn’t leave his village’s boundaries without a rifle visibly slung over his shoulder and cartridge belt across his chest and the women never left at all. And this is the 1920s and 30s we’re talking about, not the eighteenth century. My father could easily have interpreted everything he and his family suffered then, and later under Albanian communism ( see: Easter Eggs…) as something inflicted on him by Albanians or Muslims. But he never did. One of his best friends in New York was a man I used to call Kyr’ Meto (Mehmet), not only an Albanian Muslim but a Çam, in fact, from the Albanian tribal group that were driven out of Greece and massacred by our righteous, right-wing resistance during WWII. They would tease each other, even, in a kind of morbid tragic-comic way of dealing with their shared painful past. My father always greeted Turkish or Albanian Muslim or any Muslim friend in my house with almost more warmth than he did others, as if slightly overcompensating with them were a balm for the pain or the fear of the past — or as if he felt the backwardsness of the old hatreds and they were now more a source of embarrassment than anything else — and with a genuine amused affection and nostalgia and interest in interaction with them, visitors from what was now a lost world. I remember him tearing up once (only on the side and with me, of course, not in front of anyone else) because a Turkish friend of mine had baked a spinach börek for him. They may have been the enemy once; but even as the enemy, they were real people to him, that on some perverse level he “missed,” and now the “enemy” part didn’t even count any more.

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My godfather was from a much more privileged, cosmopolitan environment.  His family was from a village near Isparta in western Anatolia. But the son of an Ottoman military doctor (which probably would make him a traitor in The Messenger’s eyes), he grew up in Konya and Aleppo and Beirut and finally Smyrna, where he lived a charmed life – the son of a rich Greek doctor in 1910s Smyrna and a promising violin student at the city’s conservatory. All this came to a nightmarish end with his father and brother-in-law hanged from the balcony of his house, the inferno and horrors of the Smyrna waterfront and refugee destitution in Athens. Yet it was the politicians who “never really hurt for the land and its people” — the Greek politicians — and had brought such total, scorched-earth disaster down upon their heads that he would constantly curse. Not Turks. He would kill for any opportunity to speak Turkish. He practically swallowed whole a Turkish friend of mine once, whom I had brought to meet him in Greece (admittedly a very beautiful one – the one who had made the börek for my father) and she in turn was dazzled by his strange, now slightly warped Ottoman Turkish. As conservative an old man as he was, he was, in fact, so old that he was still pre-nationalist in many ways and had no patience for what he felt was the ridiculousness of Greek nationalism. He would often say to Greeks – (slightly in a spirit of provocation and infected with that condescension that certain old Anatolian refugees or Polites – or even Cypriots today — feel for what they consider the backwards, ignorant inhabitants of the Greek state: “We taught them how to dress; we taught them how to conduct business; we taught them how to eat; we taught them how to wash themselves…”) – that he wasn’t sure whether he should consider himself a Greek at all, but maybe should just call himself a Turkish Christian. There were no smiles all around when he’d say things like that, but he got a kind of malicious, gleeful satisfaction from it.

Reflex hatred, despite their experiences, was just not part of their composition, like it is for The Messenger and his ilk. And needless to say, they would both have found it laughable that someone had freaked out — και τάχα μωρφομένα παιδιά — because eighty years ago a middle-aged English woman had written that Turks had good taste.

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The second, and I’m not sure I would call it a basic building block but it’s certainly a primary characteristic of these people, is related to what Benedict Anderson once wrote in his groundbreaking Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (6******), and that is that (I’m paraphrasing here): “The nation-state pretends to be the guardian of your culture and traditions whereas, in reality, it’s the enemy of the old ways.” I’ve always thought this the key to the strange contentlessness of nation-state nationalism. All these people who wrote me — the Messenger and his crowd — are, as is usual in these cases, from the more déracinées middling-bourgeois classes of their society and, other than a certain requisite amount of feta that gets put away in each household, there’s a certain indifference to and ignorance of any form of Greek tradition or life at all, and there exists only that same locally inflected form of post-bourgeois, consumer lifestyle that one finds among this class everywhere in the world, including both the tragic and comic consequences of their somehow thinking that their lifestyle puts them on a par with comparable classes in Paris or London or New York.

This was the class of young Athenians who mocked us relentlessly as Greek-American teenagers in the 70s, because we both knew and liked the dances and musical traditions of our parents’ regions and because we both knew and enjoyed the light Greek popular music of the time, which was, in fact, in its Golden Age during that period. I think we forget the degree to which Greek music of any sorts had come very close to dying out completely among these social strata until the rebetiko revival, which started in the 1980’s — and just refuses to die — because rebetiko was a tradition that was perfect material for middle-class white-boy appropriation (like jazz, the blues, and later rap and hip-hop in the United States): it provided all the discourse and attitude of subversiveness and marginality without any of its risky realities. Later, when by the nineties, the little girls of this class could be found dancing çiftetelia on the tops of bars in Mykonos (badly, of course; the thread had been cut by then and there was no regrafting the branch back onto the trunk of tradition), it was hard for me/us to contain our laughter or control the reactions of our stomachs.

Then there’s their complete indifference to the Church. And I’m not talking spiritually; I could give a shit about them spiritually or about the state of my or their or anybody else’s souls. Or religiously, a word whose meaning I don’t even understand.  I’m talking about the Church as a cultural institution, of which one cannot remain so profoundly ignorant and consider himself Greek. Period. That’s an unalterable, non-negotiable secular article of faith for me.  Sometimes I don’t like it either; but whether we like it or not, this institution: its philosophy, art, architecture, music, poetry and theater, were what the Greek world poured the by far greatest parts of its cultural energies into for close to two millenia. I know it’s a difficult leap to make from that; Holy Mother Russia for example, had the time and luxury and power to remain deeply Orthodox and yet take from the Western world the forms and genres she needed to make them her own and create the dazzlingly rich literary and musical culture she did for herself. I wish we had had a Dante or a Chaucer or a Boccaccio or a Lermontov or Pushkin to set us on the road to a modern literary culture, but we didn’t; we had to wait till the Generation of the 30s to produce anything even resembling a coherent modern prose and poetry tradition. We had to make the jump from the essentially mediaeval mind-set of late Ottoman Hellenism directly to modernity and in trying to make it were tripped up, on top of it, by the Classicism forced down our throats by the West.  As a result, the average member of The Messenger’s class is profoundly ignorant of any aspect of Church tradition, but will, in ways which make you cringe in embarrassment, take great pride in pointing out to Americans that the columns on a Greek Revival home in Princeton, New Jersey, for example, are “Greek” columns of the “Ionian order,” like the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”  The Messenger himself spent this past Holy Week sending out YouTube videos of Greek Air Force flight formations as a form of holiday greetings. I responded that I didn’t know what these could possibly have to do with this time of the year and asked why he was sending them to me and he got angry and sarcastically replied: “Ok, I’ll only send you ecclesiastic hymns from now on.” This is obviously a sarcastic reference to my supposed “religiosity” – which he probably considers a combination of passé Greek diaspora churchiness with a healthy dose of American “Jesus-Loves-Me” thrown in. I wrote back that I had never posted a single ecclesiastic hymn on my blog and that whenever I did post on a particular religious holiday it was to place it in a wider context of the myriad connections it usually has to other civilizations more than anything else. In fact, almost all the religious music on my blog is Black American Gospel or R&B. And if The Messenger or Mr. “Pathetic” or any of their buddies do know any ecclesiastic hymns, other than the first bar of “Christos Aneste,” which they’ve heard on those three and only three minutes, when, at midnight on Easter, they even set foot near a church, they’re welcome to send them to me.

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I talk earlier about certain historic processes, great losses of ours, causing me sorrow too. And, in response I’ve spent the greater part of my adult emotional and intellectual energies trying to build some sort of rickety bridge to those lost places – even if the only thing I have to show for it is this amateurish blog — and to the peoples with whom we lived in those spaces and with whom, over these spaces, literal and symbolic, we slaughtered each other in such staggering numbers for so numbingly long a time. But The Messenger and Mr. “Pathetic” don’t give a flying shit. A lost Byzantine world or even the lost world of Anatolian Hellenism mean nothing to them, other that just a reason for Turk-hatred and nothing else –read on if you can.

Because THERE…is that deeper indifference that stuns me often; and that’s not just an indifference to a certain body of cultural tradition, but to the bearers, the people themselves, of those traditions. This, again, is the natural outcome of being obsessed with the state of the State, while being almost completely indifferent to the cultural content – which is its people — of the State. The Messenger is obsessed with what’s good for the State, but is almost completely stumped if you ask him what his vision is for the Hellenism that this State is supposed to contain and defend.  I remember a characteristic attack of hysteria on his part in which he was screeching: “And I don’t give a shit about Anatolian Hellenism or Politikes Kouzines or Loxandres!!! (7*******) I care about what’s good for Greece!!!”   And this was always clear: that, taking this particular case, if the completely moronic plan for the 1919 invasion of Anatolia had worked, it would’ve been good; if not, as it wasn’t, then fuck the lot of them; bring them all to Greece and start again. The Fatherland is what counts. These are exactly the thought processes of Venizelos himself, without a doubt one of the slimiest dressings-up of two-penny Cretan machismo into a frangiko tuxedo that ever left its trail of slug-juice across the international stage: “Let’s try this insane idea and if it brings me greater glory and only then Greece, ok.  (I mean, damn, I even had to suck off Lloyd George in Paris to support me on it.)  If not, we’ll figure something else out, like up-rooting one-third of the Greek world – the most dynamic and productive part — from their aeons-old ancestral hearths and destroying forever the civilization and culture they had built in those places.”  “In place of that civilization,” which is not reconstructable in another place – places, lands, cities, forgive the New-Agey tone, have an energy, an identity, that don’t allow you to just put them together again somewhere else – “I’ll have myself a homogeneous and distinctly more governable Greece,” thinks the Great Cretan Father “and I’ll deal with the Jews of Salonica my way (politically disenfranchising them and allowing a series of vicious pogroms against them which would release the frustrated energies of the Anatolian refugees I was responsible for creating); I’ll conduct some completely gratuitous political purges and brutal Third-World-style monkey trials and executions so that I can blame the failed vainglory of my plan on the Monarchists, thereby perpetuating into the late twentieth century the polarization of Greek politics that I’ve been the primary creator of…those pesky Slavs in Macedonia will probably have to be taken care of by another generation… But I’ve certainly done my part in bringing myse…errr…the Fatherland peace and glory and order and progress and – just watch and see — they’ll even name a big airport and a big ole boulevard in Belgrade after me when I’m gone.” And there is a big ole boulevard in Belgrade named after the Cretan manga, which is quite apposite actually, because stirring up dangerous passions and delusions among his people and then abandoning them to ruin does make Venizelos very close to a Greek Milošević; they might want to think of a Milošević Boulevard in Athens too, or a Karadžić Avenue, just in honor of the spirit of Greco-Serbian friendship. And if you wanna go beyond Greek-Serbian palishness and broaden things up ideologically, a Tudjman Street would not be such a bad idea either.

Likewise The Messenger. All during the nineties, after the terrors of communism had passed the inhabitants of my father’s villages spent years of anxiety caused by a new fear: that the Albanian government would take advantage of the general chaos in the Balkans at the time and expel them from their villages into Greece – one fear replaced by a new anxiety. Only after 1997, when the Albanian state collapsed on all imaginable levels, and then things slowly stabilized, did this new fear subside, partly because the Albanian military itself had collapsed as well and all its weaponry, down to tanks, were completely looted from one day to the next. This flood of weapons is what caused the radical escalation of the Albanian KLA’s (Kosovo Liberation Army) violence in Kosovo, but in a land where a man’s rifle was “better than his wife” as an Albanian song puts it, it may have been the reason for the final coming of some sort of stability, for reasons that would make an NRA member’s heart sing: if there were any ideas about expelling Greeks from their villages, the knowledge that they, like almost everyone else in the country, now had a couple of Kalashnikovs along with their old hunting rifles buried under their houses’ floorboards definitely put a halt to any such radical plans.

But even despite this second wave of terror my people experienced, The Messenger stands at my side, about ten kilometers from Derviçani, 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…”

He. They. Simply. Just. Don’t. Care. They care abut the Fatherland (or in The Messenger’s case, calling it the Vaterland at this point might be more apposite) and that it comes out on top. What it does to the civilization it’s supposed to defend, what the content of that civilization even is, what it does to the souls of its inhabitants, don’t matter. Das Vaterland über Alles. Nation-States, sadly, as in the analogy I made at the top of this post, are a whole lot like professional athletic teams. “Why do you love this team? It’s from my city. And? Your city has two or three of these same teams; why do you love this one? Everybody in my neighborhood does.  So?  Because my father did. And? Well, just because…ok… χέσε με τώρα… Fuck off now…what are these questions about anyway?”  You ask for meaning — like in the living room where I was told to go fuck myself — from something meaningless, and ultimately, the only response you’ll get is rage. The rage of the mute.

Again, I said I wasn’t going to tell you who these people are professionally, but those who know me already know and the rest can probably take a not so wild guess. Let’s just say, as I must have made obvious, that they consider themselves the defenders of the Fatherland’s interests abroad. So for them to have something to defend, the Fatherland must have some enemies — or just not very cooperative neighbors — because if not, what would they be defending? Nothing. And then they’d just be living the life of a glorified bureaucrat. And where’s the glamour in that?

Or as the poet said: “Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.” “Those people were a solution of some kind.”

The Staurodromi, Pera, June 2014

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1 * In the nineties, Antones Samaras, now Prime Minister, was Foreign Minister and he put all of his energies into preventing the recognition of Macedonia as an independent state by that name, and forcing the issue of the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece; this is when plans for the new museum of the Acropolis were set in motion, which I just won’t go into, despite the fact that I admit it’s an impressive building. It has a hall of models of the Elgin marbles, that’s waiting there, for the return of the real ones, like Miss Havisham and her moldy wedding cake, spitefully waiting with her clocks stopped in her the fading beige wedding dress, for the bridegroom who, believe me guys, the Brits are never going to let come. And good for them and rightly so.

We never had a defensible point about Macedonians’ use of the name Macedonia for themselves. We may have had a point about Macedonians appropriating the completely Greek cultural phenomenon of Alexander the Great as their own – despite the cosmopolitan he, Alexander, later, clearly became, when he recognized the beauty and superiority of the cultures of the East he had conquered (but of course, we ignore that part of his story). Where we may have really had a point is that all this indicated irredentist intentions on the part of the new Macedonian state, on lands which may have been ethnically Slav-Macedonian until recently but now were clearly not. But we didn’t emphasize that or put it at the forefront of our argument.  Instead, as if it were still 1810 and some crazy Philhellene Wittelsbach were king of Bavaria, we tried to play the “The Ancients” card with the rest of the world. Instead of taking the lead, at a time of horrendous instability and bloodletting in the Balkans, and attempting to be arbiters of some kind of peace, as the most stable state in the region at the time (can you imagine?) we “donned our ancient fineries” as the Xarhakos song from Rebetiko has it, which only left the rest of the world, as Misha Glenny says: “confused and bored.”

This imbecilic persistence in the idea that claiming Greek antiquity as our own is going to gain us prestige and preferential political treatment from the West is beyond just neurotic; it’s pathological.  And yet no Neo-Greek can seem to understand how pathetic and comical it seems from an outsider’s perspective.

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2 ** A lot of Turks don’t like this argument either, because they think you’re calling them gavur tohumu or something. Official early Turkish Republican historiography had Turks arriving, as they now are, and gloriously conquering Anatolia and the Balkans, though there was never any explanation as to why Turks here – especially the Great Father himself – didn’t look anything like the Turks who lived in the places where they had come from (though the answer could probably be found if you got deep into Sun People/Sun Language theory and historiography, which, if you’d you’d like to do, be my guest).  Of course, nobody really believes this any more; when you have Bosnian restaurants and Kosovar Albanian fraternal organizations, or Circassian youth groups, you have a society that’s admitted that it comes from diverse sources in a manner much more mature than that of Greece – and that that’s no shame. But I can understand Turks getting defensive about it; Greeks have started saying this about Turks a lot lately and mostly it’s in a negative spirit, as a way to delegitimize them as some sort of mongrel race, or the: “See, Sinan was really Greek” argument. But it’s an odd and very stupid argument for Greeks to make, since we, as a former “absorbing,” Imperial people ourselves, are also a very complicated ‘mongrel’ mix, as the huge variety of our own physiognomies proves: “See, Basil I was really Armenian, and the Comnenoi were really Vlachs,” for example.  But there’s no talking logic to things as rootedly irrational as racism and nationalism.

3 *** I wrote once in an old post about Greek racism, when Golden Dawn violence was at its height, that:

“I’m from a city where you stop being a stranger the second you arrive, maybe, as many say, because nobody can really be bothered to give you a second thought.  “We may not be very nice, or smile, or say ‘Good Morning’,” wrote Pete Hamill, “but there’s always room.”  But I don’t believe that New York is tolerant just because everybody’s too busy to be intolerant.  I believe there’s a sadness behind New York cynicism and irony and supposed “world-weary stoicism” that few people really understand, but if you feel the city in your gut and it’s not just a cool glamour-spot for you, then you know.  You can hear it in people’s voices, in the accent, in their body language and facial expressions, and in the kindness and blunt bursts of warmth you’ll suddenly get from where you least expect it.  It’s the sorrow of exile — and the wisdom it forces on you.  He may not know a word of whatever it was his great-grandparents spoke or seen even a picture of the land they came from, but every New Yorker carries a bit of that sense of loss in him and an innate knowledge of what drove him and his away and brought them here: the destitution of Ireland, the grinding poverty of Sicily, the fear of just being Jewish in Russia, the terror of being Black in Georgia, the violence of Colombia…  You think it’s romantic; it’s not.  (In fact, there’s lots of research out there now suggesting that repeated external experience can and does become codified as genetic information that is then transmitted from one generation to the other.)  Every New Yorker just knows it’s the human condition.  So when the next stranger comes along, he nods, says hi, and goes about his business.  Maybe takes a curious interest in where the new guy is from and learns a little something about the world; maybe helps him out if he can.  Of course, it’s now a cliché to say that New York isn’t America; but it’s just as true that it couldn’t exist in any other country.

“How Greeks forgot the “sorrow of exile” is beyond me.”

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4 **** You feel this innate inability to experience the Other in the gut in this entire class of Athenians or urban Greeks generally, because the complex they’re burdened with, like the middle-classes of all semi-developed countries,  is that they’re always looking for petit bourgeois status points in everything they do and the rest falls outside their blinkers. They’ve been everywhere and have seen everything it seems, but have felt nothing. The great test for me, of course, is New York. Now, if you don’t understand that the great glory of New York is the dialectic between its glamorous, high-fashion, high-finance, high-cool end, and its popular, working–class, thriving immigrant metropolis end – neither of the two poles on their own, but the incredibly fecund dialectic between the two — then you’ve understood nothing about New York and might as well, as Nasredddin Hoca says, “go home.” And it’s so obvious that the great majority of Neo-Greeks who visit are so completely interested in just one end of that polarity that they’re not even worth considering as people who have truly appreciated the city. Colombian and Mexican friends who live here and have visitors come tell me the same thing: “They only wanna see what’s cool, so they can talk about it when they get home.” In other words, middle-class white boys from underdeveloped countries are all the same. It’s always the odd German or the curious French or Japanese couple — or two Turks once on 74th Street! — who have taken the subway out to Jackson Heights or Flushing and are prowling around for good Mexican or Indian or Chinese food or just the feeling of coming out of a subway stop and being in a completely different country. Neo-Greeks visitors, in fact, are so clueless about New York City, that they don’t even see that New Yorkers themselves now consider Astoria one of the city’s hippest neighborhoods, and instead they’re embarrassed by its old-fashioned immigrant Greekness; they can usually be found in a tourist trap neighborhood like Greene or Mercer Streets somewhere…looking for shoes.

As for The Messenger, he has a job that many would kill for, that posts him in various interesting cities around the world. Maybe not Paris or London or New York or Berlin, but cities and countries interesting enough that most of us would jump at the opportunity to go work there for a while. He hates all of them. Within two weeks of arriving he’s come up with his own elaborate, and always scarily racist anthropology of the country: why the city is boring and disgusting; why the food is disgusting; why the people are inherently, genetically morons and fools. He lives in each for up to two years at a time and hasn’t made a single friend in any of them. They’re all too boorish for him.

His criterion for loving a city is that he can get köfte and french fries at four in the morning. The only city worth living in for him is Athens. Now Athens is not an immediately loveable city by any means. It’s an acquired, and not easily acquired, taste and I for one happen to genuinely love it. But it’s the ugliest city on the European continent that doesn’t have war or a megalomaniacal communist dictator to blame for its hideousness and, as I’ve said before: “It probably takes first place among Europe’s cities in imagining itself as far more sophisticated than it truly is.” I love it…but can we get a reality check here, please?

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5 ***** These low stone walls here (shown above), boundary markers between individual properties, are called “djovoria” in Dropoli, the region where my father’s village is; I’ve never heard the term used in other parts of Epiros. The men of Derviçani are also known as “djovoria” or “a Derviçiotiko djovori.” The meaning of this moniker is probably clear. It implies thickness and strength and stubborn immobility, a dude who’s probably not too bright, but who, like a genetically gifted wrestler or judoka, has a low center of gravity that’s hard to knock down and take to the mat. “Άντρα άπ’τη Δερβιτσιάνη, κοπέλα από τη Γοραντζή, γαϊδούρι άπ’το Τεριαχάτι κι άπ’το Λεζαράτ’ σκυλί.” “A man from Derviçani, a girl from Gorandji (the neighboring village which is considered not only far more elegant and sophisticated than Derviçani, but also to have the prettiest girls in the region), a donkey from Teriahati (because it’s inhabitants were considered docile and somewhat dumb) and a dog from Lezarati (long story: this is the neighboring village and competitor in the ongoing, still violent feud…because they’re considered turncoats, having converted to Islam in recent memory, which in these parts means the eighteenth century). And this is a saying that’s not from Derviçani, but from the other villages of the region. In fact, almost all the other villages of Dropoli consider themselves culturally superior to the brutish brawlers of Derviçani, but because it’s the biggest and northernmost Greek village, they’re considered the frontline, dumb grunt infantrymen of Christian Dropoli, and are granted grudging admiration for that – if nothing else.

6 ****** Types like “Mr. “Pathetic” are always telling you to read history, yet outside of standard Greek sources, they have read nothing…by which I mean nothing. They know none of the literature of modern nationalism, like Anderson or Hobsbawm  or or Gellner or Ignatieff; they’ve never read any of the writers on Balkan nationalism in particular, Glenny or Judah or Todorova. And they haven’t even read the works of scholars that have dealt with Modern Greek nationalism almost exclusively in their work, like Michael Herzfeld or Anastasia Karakasidou, a Greek anthropologist who studied in the United States and who was physically threatened and practically had to go into hiding after her dissertation was published in the late 1980s, because it dealt with the continued presence of Slav-speakers in Greek Macedonia; even the informants in her research who had told her they still speak Bulgarian better than Greek came out and officially denied her and the information they had given.

What’s the history I’m supposed to know again, Mr. “Pathetic”?  Let me know.

And what have you read lately?  Tell me.  Nα μαθαίνω κι εγώ…  

(Those scholars’ names are linked to their Amazon pages btw; don’t be scared…try…there’s nothing to be afraid of…)

The Messenger, of course, reads nothing but military history.

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7 ******* Politike Kouzina I’ve never seen, but it’s a film that I’ll admit sounds like the kind of sappy, faux-nostalgia, Greek-Turkish “brotherhood” corniness that makes me ill.  Maria Iordanidou’s novel Loxandra, however, is a masterpiece.  It’s often — and very  mistakenly — taken lightly because it’s a glimpse of life in late nineteenth-century Constantinople as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged Greek housewife, whose primary daily preoccupation is whether she should buy small mussels for lunch and fry them or big mussels and stuff them, or whether the eggplants in market are of the right fleshiness to make a decent hünkar beğendi yet. Yet through her daily preoccupations, deeply intelligent observations are made about nationalism, about ethnicity, about co-existence and inter-ethnic relations and about the compromises we make – often in the face of terrifying violence – to go on, not only living with others, but to continue seeing them as human. Together with Polites’ Stou Hadjifrangou, and to some extent, Theotokas’ Leones, it’s far smarter on all those counts than anything by Benezes or Sotiriou or any other book of the “Anatolian martyr” genre that usually fills about one-third of the average Greek bookstore. And in the best Greek Constantinopolitan tradition, huge sections of it are hilariously funny as well.

Of course, since it has no bearing on the good of the State, The Messenger doesn’t give a damn about any of this, or everything that was lost in the destruction of that world.  He’s angry at the destruction because his animosity can feed off of it.  But what it was that was actually destroyed, he is completely indifferent to.

Κι’αυτά.  Bu kadar, as they say.

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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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