Tag Archives: Italy

Repost: Catalonia: “Nationalism effaces the individual…”

1 Oct

…fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity. It divides and discriminates. And it defies the essence of democracy: respect for diversity. Complex identities are a key feature of modern society. [my emphasis] Spain is no exception.”

A brilliant op-ed piece from the Times today by Mario Vargas LLosa, among others, that exposes all the petty narcissism and destructiveness of the orgy of separatist movements that Europe has seen come to the fore in the past few decades: A Threat to Spanish Democracy .”

Catalunya+Prov+EnglishOther money quotes:

“In their attempt to undermine the workings of the constitutional government, Catalan separatists have displayed a remarkable indifference to historical truth. Catalonia was never an independent state. It was never subjected to conquest. And it is not the victim of an authoritarian regime. As a part of the crown of Aragon and later in its own right, Catalonia contributed decisively to making Spain what it has been for over three centuries: an impressive attempt to reconcile unity and diversity — a pioneering effort to integrate different cultures, languages and traditions into a single viable political community.

“Compared with the crises occasioned by the collapse of dictatorships in many European states, Spain’s transition to democracy, following the 1975 death of Francisco Franco, was exemplary, resulting in a democratic constitution granting broad powers to Spain’s autonomous regions. Yet Catalan separatists have glossed over the positive aspects of the transition.”

and:

“But the advent of democracy brought official recognition to Spain’s distinctive cultures, and set the foundations for the autonomy the Catalans enjoy today. Catalonia has its own official language, its own government, its own police force. Catalans endorsed the Constitution overwhelmingly: 90 percent of them voted yes in the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978. The millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona every year, drawn by the beguiling blend of Gothic and Gaudí, attest to the vigor of Catalonia’s culture. The claim that Catalonia’s personality is being stifled and its freedoms oppressed is simply untrue.”

The piece pretty much says it all: the bogus democraticness of separatist rights and the supposed right to self-determination completely debunked as nothing more than “little” nationalisms, which as Vassily Grossman points out in this post …the nationalism of little nations,” can be just as dangerous and certainly as small-minded as that of “bigger” nationalisms.  Ditto this op-ed for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ukraine (both sides), for Belgium, Scotland and, of course, for the most nightmarish manifestation of these tendencies in our time, the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia.  And that’s without even going as far back as the Partition of India, or the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s.

“Complex identities are a key feature of modern society.”  No, no and no…  Complex identities are not just a key feature of modern society, but humanity period, a feature of pre-modern society since the beginning of time.  The roughly two centuries of modernity or “the modern,” which we can probably date from the French Revolution on, is the only period in history when the ethnicity-based nation-state and its brutal, levelling, anti-humanist attempt to “de-complicate” human identity held sway as the predominant form of sociopolitical organization.  It’s just a blip on the screen of history and will soon come to be seen as such.  Multiple cultural identities and stable state political organization can co-exist easily.  Thinking otherwise is an idea whose burial is long overdue.

So, what irritates me most about separatist movements like that of the Catalans is that they’re really retrograde ideologies disguised as liberation movements.  Since the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the autonomous Catalan government had the impudence, I remember, to plaster New York City subway cars with ads that read “Catalonia is a country in Spain,” (???) Catalans have been engaged in a massive public relations campaign to project an image of sophistication, liberalism, bogus hipness, and artistic innovation (including culinary — if you can actually call the molecular nonsense Ferran Adrià put out food…) all meant to be juxtaposed against a clichéd, “Black Legend” stereotype of Spain — under whose repression Catalonia suffers — that’s just plain racist. Catalan nationalism rests mostly on the laurels of its Republican-ness and struggle against the forces of Spanish reaction in the 1930s — Hemmingway and Orwell’s “Homage.”  But the attitude of today’s average Catalan nationalist more resembles that of the average member of Italy’s Northern League, a far-right if not quite fascist but certainly racist bunch of jerks: the same smug sense of superiority towards their co-citizens and the same petit bourgeois self-righteousness about how their wealth and resources get sucked up by the parasitic rest of the country.

There is no convincing evidence that Catalan society is any more liberal or open or sophisticated than the rest of Spain.  See González Iñárritus film “Biutiful” (if you can bear to watch it; I couldn’t make it though a second viewing…but it’s the perfect antidote to Woody Allen’s nauseating “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona”), for how much better Catalonia treats its immigrants, for example, including those from poorer parts of Spain, than any other part of Europe, or do some reading up on the discrimination Castillian-speakers in Catalonia suffer.  Catalan independence is not a liberal or liberatory idea; it’s exclusionary and elitist to the core.  The problem is that most of the world falls for the discourses of these movements –the way the West did with Croatia in the 90s — because they’re so good at playing victim.

The finger-flipping at the impressive democratic achievements of Spanish society since 1975 is particularly galling.

See also my Leader of Catalonia Calls for Independence Vote (September 27th).  And  More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or… (September 27th)

catalonia-5-x-3-flag-3475-p

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Birtsevits” — Watching Serbia-Italy FIBA

13 Sep

Sometimes I get really pissed off because I think certain Neo-Greeks don’t even try to say certain sounds because they don’t exist in standard Modern Greek and they’re associated with stigmatized provincial dialects and accents and that there’s a special animus against certain Slavic sounds in particular, which would be in keeping with Greek nationalist paranoias (since we’re all really Slavs!!! :) snaaaaatch!!!).

I’m not asking you to distinguish between the denser “č” and the lighter “ć” — which I even have trouble with — but can you really not even say “ch” at all?  Do I have to listen to you saying “Birtsevits”?  It’s painful.

Watching on mute…

Forza Serbia!!!

done25

Stefan Birčević

“Those of us who love Naples…”

4 Jan

“…are constantly called upon to defend her…” writes Shirley Hazzard in her  The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples.

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 7.36.15 PM

And yet how can you not?  That’s what I thought when the Times came out with this article a few days before Christmas:In Naples, Gift of Coffee to Strangers Never Seenabout the Neapolitan tradition of buying two coffees at an espresso bar and only drinking one, leaving behind the paid receipt on the second one for someone who can’t afford it — “sospeso,” suspended — to enjoy.

Screen Shot 2015-01-03 at 7.40.33 PMThe Storico Gran Caffè Gambrinus, which honors the Neapolitan tradition of the “suspended coffee.” The practice, which boomed during World War II, has found a revival in recent years. Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times (click)

There may not be anything particularly Neapolitan about such a tradition of anonymous generosity — except perhaps the poverty it was born from.  But there is something distinctly Italian about the idea that even the poorest person deserves a moment of luxury and pleasure.  You could leave old shoes or clothes too.  Or donate money to someone.  But an aromatic stretto is a gift of a different order because it confers another order of dignity on the recipient: a moment of rich joy at a beautiful place like Gambrinus (shown in pic).

Surfeit and excess has always been the mark of sacrifice and offering.  I remember going to the Virgin of Guadalupe on Fourteenth Street here in New York once on December 12th, her feast day.  And young Mexican guys bringing massive flower arrangements — massive, layered, wedding-like affairs — in her honor; bouquets that easily could have cost these guys a night’s restaurant pay or more.  But, in some sense, sacrifice is about being free, if just for that day and that moment, of necessity.  “My cup runneth over.”  I’m not bound by the material limitations of my existence.  Not today.  I expand and give.  Like the Christmas carol: “A child shivers in the cold, let us bring Him silver and gold.”  Not blankets, or food for His mom, or pampers.  Luxury.  Opulence.

I don’t get a chance to write about Naples as often as I want to.  Here’s a piece from an old post about a favorite film:

“[Garrone’s] Gomorrah is a must, must see film.  The trailer kind of stupidly makes it sound like a mob film — albeit an ‘unromantic’ one — but it’s really about a hundred deeper things: the loss of the profound Italian love for the land and its fruits; the destruction of centuries of Italian craftsmanship; the beauty of the language of one of the world’s most ancient and unfairly maligned cities; the environmental degradation that comes from moral degradation; and the fraying of the social bonds and ties that once made life for the poor bearable.  SEE it.  You’ll never look at a peach the same way again.  It’ll break your heart.”

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Catalonia: “Nationalism effaces the individual…”

7 Nov

…fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity. It divides and discriminates. And it defies the essence of democracy: respect for diversity. Complex identities are a key feature of modern society. [my emphasis] Spain is no exception.”

A brilliant op-ed piece from the Times today by Mario Vargas LLosa, among others, that exposes all the petty narcissism and destructiveness of the orgy of separatist movements that Europe has seen come to the fore in the past few decades: A Threat to Spanish Democracy .”

Catalunya+Prov+EnglishOther money quotes:

“In their attempt to undermine the workings of the constitutional government, Catalan separatists have displayed a remarkable indifference to historical truth. Catalonia was never an independent state. It was never subjected to conquest. And it is not the victim of an authoritarian regime. As a part of the crown of Aragon and later in its own right, Catalonia contributed decisively to making Spain what it has been for over three centuries: an impressive attempt to reconcile unity and diversity — a pioneering effort to integrate different cultures, languages and traditions into a single viable political community.

“Compared with the crises occasioned by the collapse of dictatorships in many European states, Spain’s transition to democracy, following the 1975 death of Francisco Franco, was exemplary, resulting in a democratic constitution granting broad powers to Spain’s autonomous regions. Yet Catalan separatists have glossed over the positive aspects of the transition.”

and:

“But the advent of democracy brought official recognition to Spain’s distinctive cultures, and set the foundations for the autonomy the Catalans enjoy today. Catalonia has its own official language, its own government, its own police force. Catalans endorsed the Constitution overwhelmingly: 90 percent of them voted yes in the referendum of Dec. 6, 1978. The millions of tourists who flock to Barcelona every year, drawn by the beguiling blend of Gothic and Gaudí, attest to the vigor of Catalonia’s culture. The claim that Catalonia’s personality is being stifled and its freedoms oppressed is simply untrue.”

The piece pretty much says it all: the bogus democraticness of separatist rights and the supposed right to self-determination completely debunked as nothing more than “little” nationalisms, which as Vassily Grossman points out in this post …the nationalism of little nations,” can be just as dangerous and certainly as small-minded as that of “bigger” nationalisms.  Ditto this op-ed for Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ukraine (both sides), for Belgium, Scotland and, of course, for the most nightmarish manifestation of these tendencies in our time, the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia.  And that’s without even going as far back as the Partition of India, or the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s.

“Complex identities are a key feature of modern society.”  No, no and no…  Complex identities are not just a key feature of modern society, but humanity period, a feature of pre-modern society since the beginning of time.  The roughly two centuries of modernity or “the modern,” which we can probably date from the French Revolution on, is the only period in history when the ethnicity-based nation-state and its brutal, levelling, anti-humanist attempt to “de-complicate” human identity held sway as the predominant form of sociopolitical organization.  It’s just a blip on the screen of history and will soon come to be seen as such.  Multiple cultural identities and stable state political organization can co-exist easily.  Thinking otherwise is an idea whose burial is long overdue.

So, what irritates me most about separatist movements like that of the Catalans is that they’re really retrograde ideologies disguised as liberation movements.  Since the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the autonomous Catalan government had the impudence, I remember, to plaster New York City subway cars with ads that read “Catalonia is a country in Spain,” (???) Catalans have been engaged in a massive public relations campaign to project an image of sophistication, liberalism, bogus hipness, and artistic innovation (including culinary — if you can actually call the molecular nonsense Ferran Adrià put out food…) all meant to be juxtaposed against a clichéd, “Black Legend” stereotype of Spain — under whose repression Catalonia suffers — that’s just plain racist. Catalan nationalism rests mostly on the laurels of its Republican-ness and struggle against the forces of Spanish reaction in the 1930s — Hemmingway and Orwell’s “Homage.”  But the attitude of today’s average Catalan nationalist more resembles that of the average member of Italy’s Northern League, a far-right if not quite fascist but certainly racist bunch of jerks: the same smug sense of superiority towards their co-citizens and the same petit bourgeois self-righteousness about how their wealth and resources get sucked up by the parasitic rest of the country.

There is no convincing evidence that Catalan society is any more liberal or open or sophisticated than the rest of Spain.  See González Iñárritus film “Biutiful” (if you can bear to watch it; I couldn’t make it though a second viewing…but it’s the perfect antidote to Woody Allen’s nauseating “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona”), for how much better Catalonia treats its immigrants, for example, including those from poorer parts of Spain, than any other part of Europe, or do some reading up on the discrimination Castillian-speakers in Catalonia suffer.  Catalan independence is not a liberal or liberatory idea; it’s exclusionary and elitist to the core.  The problem is that most of the world falls for the discourses of these movements –the way the West did with Croatia in the 90s — because they’re so good at playing victim.

The finger-flipping at the impressive democratic achievements of Spanish society since 1975 is particularly galling.

See also my Leader of Catalonia Calls for Independence Vote (September 27th).  And  More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or… (September 27th)


catalonia-5-x-3-flag-3475-p

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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

2 Jun

IMG_0779

(click)

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.

Rustem pasa tiles

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.

Eugénie;_keizerin_der_Fransen_(2)

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):

Fish20140522_214540(click)

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!”

Lebpic1340611232r779452Leblebi

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:

nikostautoteta23

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)

000116

papingo

1704170417041704_12

Papingodsc_0416

PapingoIMG_4952

Monodendri-Hotel-22

Tsepelovo59399932

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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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

The Death of Sarpedon: Who does art “belong” to?

10 Sep

One the most irritating cases of this kind of “repatriation” of art (Where Do Antiquities Belong?)  was this red-figure Greek vase, dated around 515-510 B.C., I think of Attic origin:

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This vase, one of the most beautiful depictions we have of one of the most beautiful deaths in the Iliad, was in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until a few years ago, when it was “returned” to Italy because it was supposedly found and looted from a Tuscan archaeological site.  It was one of the must-see stops for me anytime I was at the Met and looked glorious in the museum’s renovated Greek and Roman art wing.  Here’s a description from NYU School of Medicine’s (?) website:

“Euphronios, one of the first to work in the red-figure method, uses his simple but skillful technique to draw the hero’s body at the moment it succumbs to death. Especially vivid are the three open wounds on Sarpedon’s body from which blood spills to the ground. Sarpedon’s eyes are closed, his limp hands drag along the ground. Zeus, powerless to prevent his son’s suffering and death, sends the god Hermes to attend to his son’s burial. Hermes, in turn, summons the caretakers Sleep and Death to transport Sarpedon to his grave.”

Yep, that’s just what Italy needed — another vase.

Italy can barely handle the maintenance and restoration of the artwork it has.  Whenever I’m there I constantly feel like I have to move very carefully at all times or else I’ll break something.  I say this to people and they look at me like I’m a psycopath, but whenever there’s an earthquake in Italy — not like the 1980 one in Campania, where thousands were killed, but this latest one, for example, in Emilia — I’m less shook up by the casualties than I am by the irreplaceable art and architecture that have been destroyed.  I guess I think maybe the destruction of the frescoes of the upper church of San Francesco of Assisi in 1997 is as tragic as a loss of life.

The Basilica of San Francesco (click)

And the interior collapsing during the 1997 earthquake

The Metropolitan’s Greek collection is not terribly impressive.  The Sarpedon vase shown like a jewel there.  In Italy, even if it had been put somewhere central like the Capitoline Museums, it would’ve been lost in the overwhelming artistic weight of everything around it.  But they put it in the Quirinale, the Presidential Palace!  Can the public even see it there?  I would expect this from Greece, which is constantly grasping at anything that it believes will bestow it with the cultural capital of antiquity.  I never expected Italy to be so petty.

A final note.  A classic piece of regressive ideological projection from the NYU site: “Euphronios’s depiction of Sarpedon’s death is an early portrait of the barbarity of war and the needless death that is its legacy.”

Really?  Is that what you think the Iliad is about?  That’s pretty funny…

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Where Do Antiquities Belong?

10 Sep

From Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish:

A variety of Bronze Age earrings from Penn’s “Trojan Gold.” (Courtesy of Penn Museum)

Blake Gopnik looks at how two American museums dealt with objects in their collections originally obtained under questionable circumstances. One, the Cleveland Museum of Art, decided the benefit of displaying a historical piece of art to the masses outweighed any ethical questions about its origins. The other, the University of Pennsylvania, worked out an arrangement to return 24 gold objects to Turkey, the country from where they believe the works had been originally looted:

There’s [a] downside to repatriations like the one Penn has announced. They play into the notion that the countries in today’s U.N. have a unique claim to every object ever made within their modern borders, as part of their trademark “cultural heritage.” [My emphasis]

[Cleveland Museum of Art Director David] Franklin points out that with his head of Drusus [Minor, a portrait discussed in the article as having a questionable paper trail], “you have an object where the marble seems to be Turkish and the artist was probably Roman, working in Algeria … The whole concept of ownership by a country goes against the way art was made.” Does the Drusus head really belong to Turkey, where it was born and the Roman empire ended its days, or to Algeria, where Drusus would have been worshipped, or maybe even to the Italians of modern Rome? Or maybe it belongs just as much to some little girl in Cleveland, who has read about the Romans from the time of Christ, and wants to see what one of them looked like and what kind of artworks they would have treasured. Franklin points out that, uniquely in a museum like his, she can compare that marble head to a long history of Christian art that either rejected a Roman model or tried to match it.

“They play into the notion that the countries in today’s U.N. have a unique claim to every object ever made within their modern borders, as part of their trademark “cultural heritage.””  Of course, the ludicrous idea that culture, past or present, corresponds with political borders could only be brought to you by the stupidity of the nation-state ideological model.

Read Gopnik’s article.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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