Tag Archives: Romania

Feast of St. Nicholas on Julian Calendar, old post, and Срећна Cлава to all Serbian friends celebrating today

19 Dec

(See Slava: “Где је слава, ту је Србин” — “Where there is a Slava, there is a Serb“)

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Today’s my nameday

6 Dec

Saint_Nicholas_1550

Russian icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker (click)

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas (on the Gregorian calendar — December 19th on the Julian Calendar, depending on what kind of Orthodox you are ethnically), the saint generally known in the East (and beautiful Bari, one of my favorite Italian cities) as the “Miracle-worker.”  But for me the coolest thing about St. Nick, and that’s the cause of his nauseating transformation into Santa Claus in the West, is that his miracles are deeply human and mundane and material, and actually just more good deeds than miracles: his most metaphysical, I guess, was his power to calm threatening seas; probably more to the point he prevents the execution of an accused criminal, following Christ’s example in opposing capital punishment or — my favorite — he quietly leaves three bags of gold, εν τω μέσω της νυχτώς, in the bedroom of three poor sisters who needed dowries to get married.  He didn’t preach or rail against the dowry system, like the moralist who thinks his ideological crusade is more important then the real needs of real people, who gets a hard-on from his preaching while others are truly suffering: for example, the schmucks who leave a hard-working waiter a card that says: “We don’t believe in tips; they’re exploitative, join our group at www…etc…” or like the assholes you hear in New York on the subway when a panhandler comes by and certain types go off on their “oh-I’ve-heard-that-story-before-get-a-job-you-probably-make-more-money-than-me” tirades, without thinking that if a man is reduced to begging, for whatever reason, he’s already been through hell enough and deserves your compassion.

A priest at my old parish in Whitestone, I remember years ago on this day, said in his sermon: “St. Nicholas is not one of our great theologian-intellectual saints, like the Cappadocians [though he apparently slapped someone at the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea for saying something dumb about the Trinity…I think], or one of our warrior, defender-of-the-faith saints, like Demetrios or Mercourios or the Archangels.  More, he was a saint who always made sure that everyone under his pastorship had food to eat and a roof to sleep under.”  He was particularly venerated in the sea-faring islands of Greece, for obvious reasons (“Hagie Nikola, I implore you” sings the island girl with her sailor-man away, “carpet the seas with flowers…”) and is the patron saint of Russia.  In communist times the name still had some lingering Imperial/Romanov stigma attached to it and when I was there in the eighties, it seemed anachronistically charming to many Russians.  Now it seems there are significantly more young “Kolyas” and “Nikolays” everywhere.

Despite an almost erotic devotion to and obsession I’ve developed for St. Demetrios over the years — hard to resist a young Roman aristocrat in uniform — Nicholas is still my patron saint.  And he’s more than just important to me as saint himself, but because I love the Orthodox nameday tradition, which again varies from country to country.  Serbs have always observed a single clan nameday, the Slava, celebrating the saint on whose feast-day the family’s first ancestor supposedly converted to Christianity, a very ritualized and beautiful celebration and one of the many traditions that Serbs adhere to that makes them the Slavs that, more than any others, still have one foot in their pagan past; telling, also, to how important he is in the Orthodox world: the single largest group of Serbian clans celebrate St. Nicholas as their Slava patron.  Communism forced Russians to take their birthdays more seriously, and discouraged the celebration of the obviously religious nameday, but nineteenth-century Russian literature is full of nameday celebrations (Chekhov’s “Nameday Party,” and Tatyana’s nameday dance in Pushkin’s Onegin*), and as a semi-conscience remembrance of what the new Western-style celebration of birthdays replaced, the birthday-boy is to this day still called the “imeninets,” the “name-bearer.”

What I most love is that, among Greeks, your nameday is a day critical to your honor and reputation: it’s when you take friends out and treat them; it’s when people in small towns especially, but even some in Athens still, sit home in a house full of food and sweets and wait for everybody who has the right to — meaning every one they know essentially — and most likely will, drop by and wait for the the privilege of feeding them; most young Athenians today wait for an official invitation but massive group drop-ins are still common enough among the old-fashioned.  In smaller, provincial towns, when there was a death in the family, you used to have to put an ad in the paper saying: “Due to mourning, we won’t be accepting callers this St. Nicholas Day.”  In villages everybody just knew.  It’s a day when you make an artoklasia,  a “bread-breaking” offering and share sweetened and blessed loaves with your whole parish.  It’s a day when it’s your obligation to give and serve and prove your noblesse and not, as Western birthdays have become, a day when you sit around waiting for others to do for you or give you gifts.  Western, American, birthdays are only slightly less gross to me than the totally American ugliness of wedding and baby showers: “I’m getting married and/or I’m pregnant; so I’m having a party where you have to bring me things.”  And don’t even start me on bridal registries, where you tell people, not just that they have to bring you something, but what they have to bring you.

So: χρόνια μου πολλά…  And Многая Лета to other Nicholases everywhere.  Keep the tradition alive.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Tatyana was not a popular name in Russia until Pushkin’s Onegin became the Bible and literary gold standard of modern Russian, and Russians took the deeply loved heroine into their hearts.  Only then did it become a widespread name and eventually, through her epic act of heroically soul-baring letter-writing probably, her nameday, January 12th or 25th — depending again on calendar — become the patron saint day of young students and scholars.

Jews, Yiddish, past participles and the Rzeczpospolita

15 Dec

Stumbled upon this map (present day borders) the other day, of the distribution of past passive participle endings in Yiddish…

…that confirms a point I made in a post this past September ( Jews, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Romania and how “the borders kept changing” ) that is, that Jews never migrated to Russia or Ukraine, but only to the Polish-Lithuanian Rzeczpospolita and then ended up in other states when Poland was partitioned. The two maps overlap perfectly.

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Photos: Hutsuls!

25 Nov

Some cool photographs I stumbled on of the Hutsuls of the Ukrainian Carpathian highlands (some live on the other side in Romania too), taken between 1918 and 1935. They are described in “New header image: Paradzhanov’s “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors”. If you’re wondering why these Ukrainians look both so traditional and relatively happy and healthy, it’s because western Ukraine was part of Poland at the time, and though Polish rule wasn’t necessarily that benign for the Ukrainian, non-Catholic minority in that country, it was obviously, no-discussion better than the Leninist-Stalinist-Bolshevik reign of terror and deliberately induced famine that central and eastern Ukraine endured as part of the Soviet Union, and in which some 10 million — by conservative estimates — Ukrainians and Russians starved to death. Western Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union only in 1945, when Stalin annexed the eastern part of Poland, while Poland was given part of eastern Germany.

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Flamenco: sometimes “I can’t get enough” of something because it’s just so awful (even with a goddess like Estrella Morente); the limits of fusion; Andalucía to the Caribbean, ida y vuelta, or allez-retour; Spanish casticismo and crappy Greek reality TV

20 Sep

You know, you can’t just throw together anything you feel like…like, I dunno, the Pennsylvania polka with polyphonic southern Albanian orchestration or background singers, and call it music. There’s a great Greek expression for what would result: “May God call that [whatever] …” music, in this case; то есть, only God can give this thing the existential status it’s claiming for itself.

Fusion happens organically. Egyptian pop has a çifteteli rhythm Greeks like, and slowly Greek pop develops a whole genre that is heavily Egyptian sounding. Klezmer musicians, especially Romanian and Moldavian ones, heard Greek Balkan tunes in Bucharest and Constanța and Istanbul and incorporated them into their repertoire. Serbs are attracted to Greek music, to its tone and melodies and especially to its affective nature, so lots of the new starogradska music (which literally means “old city” music, meaning popular, but urban, not folk, like Greek λαϊκά) develops a deep Greek vibe. Greeks loved Bollywood in the 50s, so a whole genre (one railed against by many, including Tsitsanes, which is why I can’t forgive him), of some really beautiful music, developed out of some plain rip-offs, and some imaginative reworking, of the Indian material that Greeks liked in their movies.

I’ll soon bring you examples of all of the above. My point is simply that these intermeldings happen organically and if they’re forced, consciously and stupidly, the product kinna sucks.

I’m sure the intentions of the Khoury Projectfour Palestinian brothers from Jordan, with a last name that probably indicates Christian (“Khoury” means priest in Levantine Arabic) — are good…oh, Lord, please don’t let them be misunderstood. But the result is atrocious. It’s a little bit classical Um Kalsoum Arab suite, a little bit Balkan brass band or tamburaša, a little bit demek jazz improv’ — and it’s all made worse by the lust for speeeeeeeeeed our civilization suffers from, to cover up for lack of art, because form is sacrificed on the altar of cheap excitement, till form becomes illegible, rhythm becomes unfollowable, and melody disappears…and it all turns into a dog whistle that we can’t even hear.

Everything is like coked-up Bregović.

And what did that poor kanun do to this dude, that he’s banging away at it like it’s a heavy metal drum set, or like he’s hoping to snap a few of its strings?

Ok, there is one cool idea they’re working with, and that’s in the title: “RUMBA”. It’s not a ton of people who know that, but the musical and other cultural influences that Spain, especially Andalucía, sent to the Caribbean, were matched by the musical influences that the Caribbean, especially, of course, that heavenly font of music, Cuba, sent back to Spain. (You can probably trace the popular music of the whole twentieth-century world to either this one island of ten million people or the Mississippi Delta…or to the West Africa that both sprouted from.) Rumba, for example, is a flamenco genre, as is tango, though they don’t much look like their Latin American namesakes in their Andalusian gypsy forms (Morente gives us a moment of Cuban/Andalusian “rumba” dance moves at 6:56). But sevillanas and bulerías also have rhythmic structures and verbal phrasing and dance moves that have earlier Cuban antecedents.

The reason most people don’t know this is because there’s no more cliché-bound human than the modern tourist. And the academic tourist, who you think would have more outré interests to pursue when he travels, is often the worst of all. So as far as Spain goes, they’ll go to Barcelona, because it’s just such a “hip,” “cosmopolitan” Mediterranean (Christ, sometimes I hate that word) city, and skip the edgier, scruffy, by far more involving urban vibe of Madrid.* And if they’re under 35 they’ll go to Ibiza; over 35 will go to Mallorca. The MESA or other academic folk won’t go to either (if they want beach action they’ll come to one of our more remote Cyclades); rather, after Barcelona, they’ll do the Glories of Al-Andalus tour of Córdoba and Granada and then hightail it back home.

And you can’t get a full picture of flamenco in any of those places. Yes, there’s clearly a gypsy community in Granada that has created its own sound (including Estrella Morente and the whole Morente clan). But “gypsiness” and flamenco are to be truly appreciated in lower Andalusia, the flat river-delta of the Guadalquivir (the al-wādī l-kabīr in Arabic, the “great river”, like the kabir in this blogs’ name.) The great (or “kabir”) flamenco palos or genres, the great flamenco singers and guitarists, are almost all from the Gypsy barrios of Seville, Jerez, Cádiz, Sanlúcar, Puerto de Santa María, or the large village/towns of the region, like Osuna, Écija, Carmona, Utrera. This was not just the entry point for Spanish contact with its American colonies; it was the region that soon after the Reconquista came to be made up of large estates, latifundia, and a large rural proletariat that worked those estates and a large urban proletariat that lived in semi-employed poverty. Unfortunately, this was the pattern that Spain exported to not just its American colonies, but to southern Italy and Sicily during the centuries that it ruled those lands. What’s so fascinating about Naples and Palermo (like, of course, Seville) is that they were the first large, third-world cities of European modernity, overgrown, over-densely populated, surrounded by a countryside where land ownership was wildly unbalanced, cities of fabulous wealth and a dispossessed urban proletariat that still characterizes the modern and post-modern megalopolis — from Bombay to New York.

The Guadalquivir

Unfortunately or not, the pressure-cooker of urban poverty seems to be the petri dish of fantastic music: whether it’s Havana or Seville or Naples or New Orleans or New York and Chicago or Smyrna or Piraeus. We owe it to the creators of this music, and their suffering, to not mangle it the way the Khoury Project has done in this and in many other videos of theirs.

That’s why I’m bringing you more than just one of the original versions of the Cuban classics that Morente and the Khoury project butcher beyond recognition. Take the time to listen to both: the several original versions and the shameless interpretations the new fusion versions bring.

At 6:15, Morente sings the historic Cuban song “Songoro Cosongo”. This was a “son”, an Afro genre from eastern Cuba that, in the early twentieth century, became the more or less national dance (out of which the mambo and then salsa grew) replacing, even in polite society, the danzón. The lyrics are not original “Afro”; they’re Art-Afro, from the Black Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén — y de allí you get into all kinds of questions of authenticity that basically lead you nowhere. What’s important is that this first version was sung by the Septeto Nacional, which was the first group of Black musicians who were allowed to play in the Havana Tennis Club in the 1920s, marking the entry of Blacker music into the social mainstream of Cuban life (or maybe that was the Sexteto Habanero?). Here’s the original version. For Colombians, forget the baldosa please and watch the first part of the video and incorporate some movement into the dance; drop the screwdriver step.

And here’s Hector Lavoe’s 1970s big band sound, salsa version:

The other Cuban/PR classic that the Khoury Project and Morente make kokoretsi out of (at 7:10) is the piece known alternately as “Mandinga” or “Bilongo” or “La Negra Tomasa”.

Here’s a Cuban έντεχνο version from pianist Rubén González of the Buena Vista Social Club:

And here’s the truly breathtaking salsa version, again from the 70s, of Eddie Palmieri, with singer Ismael Quintana: “Kikidi-boom, Mandinga, Kikidi-boom Mandinga….”

Y aquí la tienen, la Negra Tomasa:

La Negra Tomasa, like Mamá Inés (“ay Mamá Inés, ay Mamá Inés, todo’ lo’ negro’ tomamo’ café.”) It’s amazing how powerfully Pan-American this archetype of the Black woman is: Mamá Inés, La Negra Tomasa, Aunt Jemima, the Black woman who, despite the misery and servitude of her existence, still feels and expresses genuine love for those she has to care for. Here’s the scene from Gone with the Wind where Hattie McDaniel gave the performance that garnered her the first Oscar to go to a Black woman:

Ok…

And back to Estrella Morente’s outta space performance. I don’t want to sound like one of the judges on #MyStyleRocksGR (though I’d like to have a drink with Stelio Koudounare — below)** but, Estrella, you’re a magnificent woman. But you’re also a modest Gypsy girl. Don’t wear a strapless dress that you’re constantly tugging up for fear it’ll fall off and reveal your ample bosom. It cramps your style, especially for a number as fast this “Rumba”.

(There’s something that’s so interesting about the semiotics of Gypsy and flamenco sexuality, a really interesting interaction between the revealing and openly erotic and the puritanical and covered up — that’s maybe a real remnant Indian cultural trait. We had a long-time Gypsy tenant, Mandy, who rented a commercial space in a building we owned in Manhattan for her Tarot-reading business; how they made the rent for a midtown Manhattan space offa Tarot readings is anyone’s guess. And whenever I dropped by at that time of the month, she was always dressed kind of like Lola Flores in this video below of commercial, movie, kitschy but beautiful copla-flamenco [look up “copla”; it’s a critical bridge between flamenco and other Spanish popular music]:

A tight top, but with straps — please — and an ankle-length skirt, tight around the hips and flaring out from the knees, like Gypsy women all over the world wear. The use of the skirt in flamenco dance, the flipping and turning around, the gathering up of its ample folds and ruffles and waving them back and forth or stuffing them between the legs, almost up into the crotch…all of those moves become especially powerful because revealing of the lower body seems so taboo. Not to mention the similarities between the prop manipulation of the long skirt in flamenco and that of the cape in the corrida, or bullfight.)

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* There’s a wonderful expression in Spanish: “De Madrid no se ve el mar.” — “From Madrid you can’t see the sea” which condenses the whole personality of the city. Madrid is really nowhere. It doesn’t occupy a strategic position, like the older cities of old Castille. It’s not on an important navigable river. The weather sucks: the famous “nine months of winter and three months of hell” (“nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno”), though I love the cold, sunny weather of a Castillian winter (“colder than a Lutheran” says one character in the film version of Alatriste), and the food is perfect for the climate. It was simply built by royal fiat as a court and imperial capital in the early 16th century because there was an old, Moorish town there in the geographic center of Iberia, on the high, arid and underpopulated central plateau, or meseta, of Spain.

And yet this isolated city — from where “you can’t see the sea” — in the middle of nowhere became the sophisticated, highly cultured and rich capital of a massive empire. The contradiction is that it couldn’t ever really evade or deny its roots. Madrid remained and remains a deeply castizo city. “Casticismo” is a complicated term that means “pure”, “[Spanishly] authentic”, “native”, “conservative” and even a solid melding of all of those together won’t give you the precise sense of the word. Casticismo is what makes Spain Spain. I’m tempted to find Greek analogies and thought that it might be Romiosyne as in versus Hellenismos. But no…

When you’re in a bar somewhere in the center of Madrid in July, and there’s a cold, sweaty caña, or half-pint, of beer and an equally sweaty few slices of ham in front of you, when there’re dirty paper napkins or toothpicks (or there used to be; this custom has sort of fallen out of style) or peanut shells on the floor (the more garbage there was piled up on the floor, the more it signalled to potential customers that, “oh, this is a fun bar that people like…let’s drop in here”) and you’re packed in with super-friendly, inquisitive Spaniards speaking at a totally unnecessary decibel level…and it’s only 11:00 am — well, that’s the right time to get a feel for casticismo, even if it’s just a sensory feel that you can’t express discursively.

And that’s kind of the essence of Madrid, a liberal, tolerant, mad creative, open place that’s still closed and stubbornly archaic and even anarchic: even cañí (tacky) or hortero (red-necky, rough, kitschy, or vulgar). As opposed to the dizque sophisticated-acting, cosmopolitan but actually staid bourgeois air of Barcelona, Madrid is more a microcosm of Spain: one of the West’s and Europe’s most progressive, advanced in every way, societies, that’s simultaneously not part of the West or Europe at all, but a wild, limit-pushing land that is something totally itself, where the grappling between the “raw” and the “cooked” is as interesting and powerful as anywhere.

The go-to book on casticismo is by my saint-hero-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno who wrote it in the early 20th century, when the question of identity — especially after the disastrous Spanish-American War of 1898 when Spain lost its last colonies to the United States — and how Spain needed to generate some kind of new dialectic between its “deep” identity and the modernity it had to face was a red hot, controversial issue. As a Basque, he had a particular insider-and-outsider take on Spain and if you read Spanish or can find an English translation — which I’m not sure there is — it should be on your reading list before your next visit there.

En torno al casticismo (“Regarding casticismo”)

Miguel de Unamuno 1929

** Yes, don’t ask, I’ve totally regressed:

Stelios Koudounares, Greek fashion designer and guest judge on #MyStyleRocksGR

I’ve never been even remotely interested in fashion. I mean, I like to know that what I’m wearing looks ok, but in terms of high-end, concept fashion that nobody really wears…nothing’s ever bored me more. So don’t ask why I’ve gotten hooked, and on a daily basis, to #MyStyleRocksGR. Yeah, I like Stelio, but it’s basically because the judges and contestants on the show are all having so much fun…and when it’s mean it’s because there’s some serious Greek shade being thrown around that, ultimately, no one takes seriously. Any way, I’m addicted.

Next: between occasional blogging and working on my translation of Polites’ Stou Hadjifrangou, I’ve also gotten addicted to reality show #BigBrotherGR. (Owning up: I was addicted to Jersey Shore too.) The other night I sat transfixed through three-and-a-half hours of the special live Friday night broadcast they do, because I was afraid that my favorite room-mate, Demetres Kehagias (Δημήτρης Κεχαγιάς) below, was going to get booted off the show.

I don’t like Kehagia just ’cause he’s good-looking. I like him ’cause he’s echt-Greek/Rhomios. He’s always grouchy and irritated about something and someone and getting into fights with everyone around him, talks a mile a minute in thick Athenian attitude and intonation… And then suddenly becomes all loving and caring and sweet in a way that makes everyone around melt. Luckily he survived.

Here he is in rare form against his nemesis room-mate, the woman with the fried peroxide hair, Anna Maria from Chania (that’s just what they were missing on this show, a Cretan woman of a certain age with fried, peroxide hair…) Check them out in this video below; the fun starts at around 2:17. Yes, the two guys in the black t-shirts are identical twin brothers (makes for all kindsa nuttiness), Zac (Ζαχαρίας) in the Marine t-shirt says and does absolutely nothing in any episode except look pretty, and the zaftig chick in the fuchsia top with the fan, splendidly named Aphrodite!!! is the loving Big Mama that me and apparently all Big Brother addicts in Greece — so say the polls — adore, and she spends lots of her time trying to de-escalate arguments like these. Enjoy. This is a perfect Greek kavga, the Turkish word we use for pointless, steam-letting, “let’s-have-some-fun” arguing. I’m not going to translate or tell you what it’s about….because it doesn’t matter!!! It’s not about anything! They’re just arguing!

I started watching ΣΚΑΪ (SKY) because it’s the of right-of-center channel that still maintains (despite these trashy shows I’m into) some sense of cultural and social standards out of all Greek TV stations. And also because a right-of-center good friend of mine got voted in as MP in Greek Parliament this year and he appears as the go-to expert on Greece’s international relations — especially at a tight time in Greek-Turkish relations like now — on ΣΚΑΪ‘s news broadcasts. But then I get back to work and leave the television on with no sound. Explains how I got hooked on these shows.

Addendum: they’ve also been broadcasting American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace these past two weeks. It’s fascinating. Because it’s not about Versace almost at all. It’s about his tragically psychotic murderer, Andrew Cunanan. And it leaves you with the very disturbing sense that he wasn’t so distantly psychotic from the rest of us, that he just wanted what we all want; things just came together in a way that pushed him over the edge. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Darren Kriss as Andrew Cunanan in The Assassination of Gianni Versace

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Jews, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Romania and how “the borders kept changing”.

17 Sep

Flying Dacian@FlyingDacian Tweeted the following:

This is a map of the distribution of Jews in Romania in 1930. 728,115 or 4% of the country was Jewish. Notice that the territories lost in 1940 to Russia and Hungary account for the majority of Jewish people in Romania in 1930.

And I asked him…so…what conclusions are we supposed to draw from his map?

And immediately I realized what the most important conclusion was for me and should, therefore, be for everyone: Jewish migration into eastern Europe and the nature of the Polish state at the time.

Don’t tell me you haven’t heard it; you can’t be from New York and not have heard it. You ask a now third or fourth generation Ashkenazi Jew where his ancestors were from and he says: “Oh, Russia or Poland…the borders kept changing.”

It’s a misconception that the Jews who fled pogroms, massacres, persecution and the social chaos of the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe of which they were the primary victims, migrated east to different countries in eastern Europe. They didn’t. They only moved to Poland.

People wonder what it was that led so many Jews to migrate to poor and socially backwards areas of Europe like Russia or Ukraine. Again, they didn’t. What Jew in his right mind would have fled persecution in the Rhineland, say, and sought refuge in Russia, for God’s sake? A relatively primitive mediaeval theocracy, which it arguably still is. Jews, however, ended up in Russia and Ukraine, when Poland was partitioned twice in the late eighteenth century by Russia, Austria and Prussia/Germany. The Pale of Settlement, which my hypothetical New York Ashkenazi Jew above might have heard of — the parts of the Russian Empire were it was legal for Jews to live — were simply the parts of what is now Poland, Ukraine, Belarus’ and Lithuania that Russia got out of the partition of Poland. Upon taking control of these lands, Tsarist Russia also inherited the largest part of Polish Jewry as well.

Why did they go to Poland then? Because at the time that persecution of Jews in western Europe was booming the Rzeczpospolita, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (shown in its various constituent parts in map below) was by far the most tolerant and progressive Christian state in Europe, which surprises many people, and like the Ottomans, Poles saw that Jews’ talents would benefit their state, and allowed and even organized their settlement throughout Poland.

So to address @FlyingDacian‘s curiosity, the parts of contemporary Romania that had the largest number of Jews in 1930, were simply those regions that had been Polish, then passed, some to Hungary, but most to Russia, and then ended up in modern Romania.

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Balkan Insight: Bones of 54 Political Prisoners Found in Romania’s Gulag

15 Sep

Marcel Gascón Barberá

Bucharest

September 15, 202011:57

Archaeologists unearthed the bones of the communist-era political prisoners at the former Periprava labour camp in eastern Romania, where scores of dissidents died of hunger, cold and exhaustion.

A Romanian fisherman in Periprava in 2004. Archive photo: EPA/MIHAI VASILE

An archaeological excavation conducted by the Association of Former Political Detainees of Romania, AFDPR, has found the remains of 54 dissidents who died in the infamous Periprava forced labour camp between 1959 and 1964.

The area where the unmarked graves were found was established using “information obtained from elderly locals from the village and from some former employees of the labour camp”, the AFDPR said in a statement on MOnday.

“The deaths at this forced labour camp were caused by hunger and cold, by the lack of drinking water and medical care as well as by accidents due to the exhausting working conditions and the detention regime that many of them were subjected to in the camps and prisons that they were previously in,” the statement added.

Some of the detainees were shot dead, mostly when trying to run away from the camp, according to the AFDPR.

Researchers have established that at least 124 detainees died at the Periprava labour camp, which was situated in the mouth of the Danube where it reaches the Black Sea.

Periprava was one of the camps constituting what became known as the Romanian Gulag.

The Periprava camp functioned under the first Romanian communist dictator Gheorghe Gherogiu-Dej, who ruled Romania from 1947 until his death in 1965.

His rule was characterised by Stalinist repression of ‘class enemies’ and ‘undesirable elements’, and the suppression of any form of dissidence.

Thousands of Romanians were imprisoned or sent to forced labour camps such as the one in Periprava.

Ion Ficior (centre), former commander of the communist penitentiary labour colony at Periprava, arriving at the High Court of Cassation and Justice in Bucharest in October 2013. Archive photo: EPA/STR.

In 2016, Romania sentenced the former commander of the Periprava labor camp Ion Ficior to 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity. Ficior died in 2018 at the age of 90, after serving two years of his sentence.

“We were forced to cut reed, sometimes covered in water to the waist, together with the water rats and the leeches, and under an unforgiving sun,” one witness told Ficior’s trial.

“We were full of pus-filled wounds from that Periprava sand,” recalled the man, who also recounted how prisoners had to drink water from the Danube in order not to die of thirst.

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The duck and okra and Armenian massacre chapter from Loxandra — “shit happens” — my translation

4 Sep

It’s actually hard to say which came first: whether Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra was the first literary manifestation of the archetype of a Greek woman of Istanbul, or whether life imitated art and Politisses started unconsciously behaving like Loxandra.  Joyful, funny, hovering and caring around all her loved ones but even strangers – even Turks – worldly for her degree of education and fundamentally cosmopolitan if even unawares, obsessed with good food, and always finding happiness and beauty and pleasure in the world, despite her people’s precarious position in their wider environment.

Iordanidou’s novel captures more perfectly than any other literary representation what Patricia Storace has called the “voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with life in Anatolia and Constantinople.  But what’s always moved me and struck me as so intelligent about the novel — each of the some ten or more times I’ve read it — is that it’s not all fun-and-games and yalancı dolma and Apokries in Tatavla and Politika nazia.  Right along side the pleasure and humor rides a brutally honest portrayal of the “tolerant” and “diverse” Ottoman society that is a favorite fantasy of certain progressives, on both Greek and Turkish sides of the coin.  Iordanidou doesn’t fall into that trap, just as she doesn’t fall into the alternate trap of portraying all Turks as murderous animals, along the lines of Dido Soteriou’s Matomena Homata (Bloodied Lands) or Veneze’s Aeolike Ge (Aeolian Earth).  She simply goes for the starkest realism: Ottoman Turks/Muslims and their subject peoples didn’t live together in harmony but rather lived in parallel universes that rarely intersected; the novel takes place at a time when – as Petros Markares points out in his essay in the book’s latest edition – “life was heaven for the minorities and hell for Muslims.”  But even in that paradise, when the two parallel universes collided, the result was hellish for everyone.

I’ve translated the chapter that takes place during the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in 1896, particularly the shockingly urban episode that occurred in Istanbul.  In August of that year, the Dashnaks, Armenian freedom-fighters-cum-terrorists took hostages at the Ottoman Bank in Karaköy and the operation turned into a mini-civil-battle with groups of Armenians and Turks taking up position on either side of the Galata Bridge. 

From Wiki:

Massacres:

Retribution against the ordinary Armenian populace in Constantinople was swift and brutal. Ottomans loyal to the government began to massacre the Armenians in Constantinople itself. Two days into the takeover, the Ottoman softas and bashibazouks, armed by the Sultan, went on a rampage and slaughtered thousands of Armenians living in the city.[11] According to the foreign diplomats in Constantinople, Ottoman central authorities instructed the mob “to start killing Armenians, irrespective of age and gender, for the duration of 48 hours.”[12] The killings only stopped when the mob was ordered to desist from such activity by Sultan Hamid.[12] They murdered around 6,000[1] – 7,000 Armenians. Within 48 hours of the bank seizure, estimates had the dead numbering between 3,000 and 4,000, as authorities made no effort to contain the killings of Armenians and the looting of their homes and businesses.

Loxandra and her family live through the massacring of their Armenian neighbors in Pera in terror, hiding inside their shuttered house for a week, till they finally run out of water and have to start interacting with the neighborhood vendors.  Iordanidou does take a swipe at Turkish passivity and fatalism though in the closing part of the chapter as Loxandra hears repeatedly from the Turkish merchants she has to deal with, in reference to the killing: “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”  This “Yağnış oldu” chimes like a bell or rather a kick in the gut on the chapter’s last page.  Thousands dead, “their homes looted, their churches destroyed… Yağnış oldu”

Shit happens, in other words.

Loxandra soon starts to forget, or at least pretends to.  In the end, the chapter is a disturbing look at the compromises we make in order to go on living with the Other, despite the evil he may have done you, or you him.  Otherwise life would be intolerable.  For “…too much sorrow doth to madness turn…” Loxandra concludes in the final sentence.

Loxandra: Chapter 5

Glory be to God, because To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Loxandra just figured that for her to suddenly find herself living in the Crossroad*(1) that meant that her time had come and that this had to be her world from now on.  She accepted her new life the way that she accepted Demetro’s death.  What can you do?  That’s how that is.

The Crossroad was nothing like Makrochori, and the beautiful old life she had there – it was like a scissor had come and snipped it off — slowly became a sweet receding dream.  Cleio started to yearn for twilight in Makrochori, the sky, the sea, their garden and the shade of their plane tree.  She had even lost her father’s library, because during the move to Pera, Theodore had pilfered most of it and now all she was left with were Kassiane, Pikouilo Ali Ağa and Witnesses at a Wedding.  She started to avoid the cosmopolitan life of Pera, which she at first had thought heavenly, and she lamented her lost paradise.  Exactly opposite to her mother.

Because Loxandra never wept for lost heavens.  Nor did she ever go in search of joy.  It was joy that went in search of Loxandra.  And it would usually pop up in the most unexpected moments.  The angel would suddenly descend and stir the waters in the fount of the Virgin of Baloukli and for Loxandra it was like she had been baptized anew.

Glory be to God.  And great be the grace of the Virgin.

The fat little ducklings of August and the okra make good eating.  It’s a sin to let August pass without eating ducklings with the okra.

So on the eve of the Virgin’s Loxandra bought ducklings to cook them with the okra, and despite her exhaustion, she went down into the kitchen to start preparing the birds.  She was especially tired because the day before she had stocked up fuel for the winter.  She filled the cellar with charcoal, and then she’d call the Kurds to come hack up the lumber she would use for the stoves.

In the City at that time, just as your milkman was Bulgarian, your fishmonger Armenian, your baker from Epiros, so your lumber supplier was a Kurd.  So Loxandra called the “Kiurtides” to come chop up her winter stock of lumber.  Early in early morn’ — όρθρου βαθέος — they would dump a good thirty “chekia” of tree trunks and thick boughs and then the Kurds would come, brawny giants from deep in Anatolia in salwar and black kerchiefs wound around their fezzes and with their shiny, well-sharpened cleavers to chop up the wood.  The Kurds were meraklides when it came to their blades.  Even all the way in his village in the depths of Kurdistan, the Kurd could never be separated from his cleaver, and when the time came for him to emigrate his mother would present his cleaver to her son, the way a Spartan woman gave her son his shield.  And when a young Kurd got to an age of fourteen or fifteen and started feeling the first longings of his youth, he never took flowers in hand.  Instead he’d take his knife and go about the mahalades crying out: “Dertim var, dertim”… “I’m in pain, in longing” and would look around to see if any of the shutters or windows all about would open.  The young girl that would first answer his call would open her window and cry: “Dertine kurban olurum”, meaning “I’ll sacrifice myself to your longings”.  And the young man would exclaim: “Bende baltaim burada vururum”, meaning “And so I nail my knife here.” Then he went home and sent his mother to retrieve his knife and at the same time, get to know her future daughter-in-law.

That’s how important the cleaver was for a Kurd.  And you’d be better off cursing out his Prophet rather than saying anything offensive about his cleaver.

Loxandra was afraid of Kurds, just the way she was afraid of Turks.  But when it came to important things like her yearly supply of firewood, well…there was no holding her back nor kid gloves to wear in treating them:

“Does this fit, you son-of-a-dog?” she’d yell, suddenly fearless and waving a big, bulky knot of wood above the Kurd’s head.  “Does this fit, bre, in my stove?”

She would get so angry that she almost might have said something about his cleaver.

But oddly enough the Kurds never got angry and never felt insulted by her, and would do any favor she wanted.  They would stack the chopped up lumber in her cellar and their departure was always warm and accompanied by the usual güle güle and reciprocal good wishes and a light winter, may-it-be, and here…take this for your little boy and here take this for your wife, and all the rest.

That night, Loxandra was exhausted and all night long she saw bizarre dreams of sharp meat cleavers and a big butcher’s block piled with chopped meat.  She just attributed the dreams to her experiences that day with the Kurds.  “Oh”, she thought upon waking: “Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά” “Jesus Christ Victor”…and she went down into the kitchen to brown the ducklings.

How could she know what the future had in store for them?  How could she know that the treaty that was signed eighteen years before in San Stefano had been revised and revised again so that Bulgaria could be an autonomous state, Romania and Montenegro were now independent, Russia took Kars and Ardahan and Batumi, Britain took Cyprus, Greece got Thessaly and a part of Epiros, but the Armenians got nothing out of all that had been promised to them, and they started an uprising, so that Sultan Hamid roused up his people, and he brought Kurds with their cleavers and they had organized a massacre of Armenians…right there…in the middle of the streets of the City…on the eve of a feast day like this…the Assumption of the Virgin…  How could she possibly know all of that?

So, blissful and clueless, she went down to prepare the ducklings, and she was in a happy mood, but in just such a good mood that morning.  The day before they had received a letter from Giorgaki asking for Cleio’s hand in marriage.  The letter was a bit nutty, but what was important is that he wanted to marry Cleio.  It started like this:

“In these difficult moments my mind races to you and only you, my refuge and haven, my peaceful port…”

And riding on that inspiration – and drunk – Giorgaki wrote that he missed his boat and that he had gotten stuck in Genoa with Epaminonda, alone and abandoned and penniless, because, being human, they had had a bit to drink to forget their dertia and night had fallen on them in the alleyways of Genoa, and in the dark Epaminonda had started bugging a Catholic priest: …psss…psss…thinking he was a woman, and the neighbors had gotten all riled up and Epaminonda had gotten arrested, but the Greek consul in the city was a countryman of Giorgaki’s and he got the authorities to release Epaminonda from the holding pen, and in a few days the consul would put them on a ship to Constantinople to celebrate the engagement — that is, if Loxandra accepted him as a son-in-law.  And before closing, he added: “My lips will never again touch even a single drop of alcohol.”

How could she not be happy?!  She set the pan on the fire and as soon as the birds started to soften up, she tasted the sauce to check the salt.  Suddenly she heard the stomp of running feet in the street.

Bre, Tarnana, get up and go out and see what’s going on”, she said to him.

But Tarnana was too tired to go see because to see he had to climb up onto the sink because the kitchen was in the basement. So all he could see the was the sight of running feet.  But Loxandra grabbed a chair for herself and climbed on top of it to get a better view.  And what does she see?  A Kurd with his cleaver in hand was trying to break down the door of Monsieur Artin.(**2)

HA!  The bloody dog, may-a-wretched-year-befall-him!

She got down off the chair and grabbed the large soup ladle.

“Just wait and see what I’ll do to him!”

She gathered up her skirts and ran up the stairs.  But she came crashing into Cleio.

“It’s a massacre, mother, a massacre!” cried Cleio in a semi-faint.

Loxandra paid her no mind.

“What massacre shmassacre you talking about, bre?  Some Kurd is looking to break down Monsieur Artin’s door. Get outta my way!”

Sultana came down too and along with Cleio and Tarnana they stuffed up her mouth so that her cries couldn’t be heard on the street.  They closed the shutters and they all hid in the charcoal cellar.

But even in the cellar you could hear the blows from the street, the running feet, and the dying cries of the wounded.  There would be a short few moments of quiet and then it would start again.  Any time there was a bit of silence, Loxandra would grab her ladle.

“It’s just the Kurds for heaven’s sake, may-the-Devil-take-them-and-carry-them-off! Let me go see what’s happening!”

When the frenzy finally stopped an employee from Thodoros’ office came to bring them some groceries and to see how they were.  He said there had been a mass slaughter of Armenians but that no Greeks had been hurt unless they were harboring Armenians in their house, and Thodoro sent the message that God forbid anyone find out you’ve got Tarnana in the house.  In the Crossroad things had calmed down, but the killing was continuing in the suburbs.

That was enough to finally scare Loxandra and she hid Tarnana under her bed.  She was afraid to get near the window or even open the shutters.  The street vendors started to come by as usual.  The salepçi (***3) came by.  The offal-vendor came by, and as soon as they smelled him the cats started growling.  She locked them up in the charcoal cellar.  “Shut up, bre, they’ll come and cut your throats too.”  The milkman came and knocked.  No one inside made a sound.  We’ll do without milk.  Drink tea.  But on the seventh day the water supplier came by and she had to open up because they were running out.  Hüseyn came in limping and emptied two goatskins into the clay amphora they stored water in. 

Hüseyn says good bye sweetly and soon the egg-seller comes knocking on her window.

“Kokona (****4), Aren’t you going to buy any eggs?”

Loxandra cracked open the window, took a look at him, and thought: “Could my egg-vendor Mustafa be a Hagarene Dog (*****5) too?”

The next morning the street watchman came by to say hello, expecting his usual cup of coffee.

Haydi, Tarnana, make him some coffee.”

She opened up the front door and sat on the steps, thinking again: “Is he or isn’t he?”  Finally she couldn’t contain herself:

Bre, Mehmet, I want you to tell me the truth, but, I mean, I want the truth, ok?  Were you out on the street the other day with the killings?  But tell me the truth.”

“Valah! Billah!  Mehmet wasn’t involved.”

“Oooff… And I was going to say…” And she began to sob.  “Why such madness?  What did poor Monsieur Artin do to them and they slaughtered him like that?  No, Tell me!  What did he do?”

“Vah, vah, vah”, Mehmet said.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the liver vendor a bit later.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the chickpea vendor too. “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”

Some ten, some twenty thousand people were murdered.  Their homes were looted.  Their churches destroyed.  Whole families were wiped out…“yağnış oldu.”

The dogs licked the blood off the sidewalks and life started again as if nothing had happened.

Tarnana came out from under the bed too, Elegaki came over too and they all got together in the kitchen to prepare the sweets for Cleio’s engagement.  Loxandra wiped her tears and made sweet out of sorrow, because that’s how that is.  And let me tell you something, too much sorrow, well…”that way madness lies.”  I mean, there are limits!

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*(1) The Crossroad, Το Σταυροδρόμι, (above) is what Greeks called the spot in central Pera where the now Istiklâl Caddesi (the Isio Dromo or the Grande Rue) intersects with the steep uphill Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (never understood what the New Market, which is what Yeni Çarşı means, refers to) coming from Karaköy, and the Meşrutiyet Caddesi which then takes a curve at the British consulate and ends up — now — in one of the most dismal urban plazas in Istanbul and a run-down convention center, that were built over a pleasant little park that was built in turn over an old Catholic cemetery. Mercifully, one side of the street is still architecturally intact and you still get one of the most splendid views of the Horn and the western part of the Old City from there. By the Gates of Galatasaray Lycée, that’s still the starting place for demonstrations and protests — whatever are allowed, anyway… By the Cité de Pera arcade and the central fish market (never understood why the fish market is up at the top of one of Istanbul’s hills and not on the seafront somewhere) that is full of both trashy, touristy restaurants and really good meyhane finds as well, once almost all owned by Greeks and Armenians.

If Pera is the center of Istanbul, the Crossroad is the center of Pera. And in Greek usage it meant the whole surrounding neighborhood as well.

The old Meşrutiyet Caddesi
The Gates of Galatasaray

(**2) Artin immediately registers to a Greek-speaker as an Armenian name.

(***3) Salep (Salepçi is a salep vendor) is a hot drink made from ground dried orchid tubers, milk I think, and cinnamon on top. It’s supposedly fortifying — in what way common decency prevents me from saying — but aside from the fact that “orchid” comes from the Indo-European root for “testicle” (as in “αρχίδια,” or as in “στα αρχίδια μου”) the finished drink has a slightly creepy, slippery texture and translucent color that definitely reminds one of semen. I happen to really like it, but I don’t know if that’s just because of its status as a historical remnant or oddity. You can find it in Athens too, like on Ermou, still. But it’s a hot drink, meant for wintery consumption, so it’s weird for Iordanidou to have a salepçi coming around on the street in the middle of August.

(4****) “Kokona” is a term used in historical literature to address not just Christian women, but Greek women, Ρωμιές “Roman” women, specifically. It’s never used to address Armenian or Jewish women, for example. It appears in literature and various accounts dating from even early Ottoman times. In the Byzantine Museum here in Athens (the name of which, at some point recently, was changed to the Byzantine and Christian Museumin case we forget that Byzantium was a Christian culture 🙄) there are several pieces of ecclesiastic embroidery: priests’ stoles, Epitaphio shrouds — that date from the 16th and 17th century, and are attributed to specific women: Kokona Angela, Kokona Marigo, so it was more than just a slang term of address. No one I know can tell me the root of the word, nor can anyone say why it was used just for Greek women and not other gâvur/kaffr women.

(5*****) “Hagarene Dogs”Αγαρηνά Σκυλιά – is an obviously unpleasant term used as far back as mid-Byzantine times to refer to Arabs/Muslims. The rub is that it was the first peninsular Arabs and Muslims who themselves identified with the term. Hagar, as we know, was the slave wife of Abraham, who bore him a child, Ishmael, because his own wife, Sarah, was already 80 years old plus and unable to have a child. Then the angels came to visit and told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a child; Sarah heard from the kitchen and laughed. But indeed, she did bear him a son, Isaac. And Abraham promptly tossed Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert, but they were saved by an angel that descended and struck the ground out of which a fresh spring of water gushed:

Hājar or Haajar (Arabic: هاجر), is the Arabic name used to identify the wife of Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and the mother of Ismā’īl (Ishmael). Although not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is referenced and alluded to via the story of her husband. She is a revered woman in the Islamic faith.

According to Muslim belief, she was the Egyptian handmaiden of Ibrāhīm’s first wife Sara (Sarah). She eventually settled in the Desert of Paran with her son Ismā’īl. Hājar is honoured as an especially important matriarch of monotheism, as it was through Ismā’īl that Muhammad would come. [my emphasis]

Neither Sara nor Hājar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrāhīm’s prayer in Sura Ibrahim (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.”[20] While Hājar is not named, the reader lives Hājar’s predicament indirectly through the eyes of Ibrāhīm.[21] She is also frequently mentioned in the books of hadiths.

I have no idea why early Arabs chose — not that it was a conscious process, but being unconscious makes its function even more powerful — out of all of Jewish scripture, to consider themselves and Muhammad descended from a scorned slave woman and her unwanted son, the first-born of Abraham cast into the desert, especially given how Ishmael is described in Genesis:

Genesis 16:12 “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.”

Unless “a wild man” suited their needs. Almost to an archetypal degree, conquest narratives justify themselves as retribution for a historical wrong, or as a necessary process by which the morally and ethically superior impose themselves on the inferior: from the Israelites and Canaan, to the Romans taking revenge for their defeated Trojan ancestors, to the Turkic Conquest of Rum and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, to American Manifest Destiny, to Nazi lebensraum to the current Islamist and Turanian rantings of Mister Erdoğan and the bitchy historical insults he’s constantly hurling our way.

And wouldn’t you know, just today, Mr. Erdoğan gives us a Friday sermon that pretty much says it all and in language far less wordy than mine:

“Turkish Conquest Is Not Occupation or Looting – It Is Spreading the Justice of Allah”

Loxandra, of course, doesn’t know any of this. She’s just heard the legends of the “Hagarene Dogs” growling at the walls of the City before the conquest, and imagines them to be real barking dogs who can take human shape and turn into her milkman or egg vendor.

Betty Valasi as Loxandra in the 1980 Greek TV serialization of the novel

And now I need some good salsa, ’cause the legacy of “our parts” — τα μέρη μας — can weigh on you like a glob of hardened lead.

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14th century Constantinopolitan sakkos in Vatican — from the Byzantine Ambasador

20 Nov

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 4.39.39 PM 2h2 hours ago  C14th Vatican Sakkos was embroidered in before going to Rome as a gift to the Papacy. The back shows the Transfiguration of Christ on Mt Tabor. 

It’s really striking.  The mountain of Byzantine loot that’s collecting dust in the basements and treasuries of Italian and European museums and churches probably dwarfs the amount of classical Greek objects collected there over the centuries.  But not a one of us has spoken out against that fact or demanded their “return.”  The only art we’re interested in having returned to us is the art the West itself validates — and along with that we inherit the West’s own ignoring or ignorance of two millenia of our history.  How f*cked up are we…

Below is an older post on same issue.

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Why the Elgin Marbles and not the loot of 1204?

3 Jan

Another tempest in a teapot about how one statue from the British Museum‘s collection was lent to the Hermitage: Greek Statue Travels Again, but Not to Greece by Steven Erlanger.

In 1811, a lone Scottish gentleman, with or without permission of the Ottoman authorities, took some of the major sculptures from the Parthenon frieze down — admitted…stunners — and shipped them back to Britain, where they’re displayed to this day.

In 1204, a motley crew of Western/Catholic armies sacked Constantinople, our capital city, destroyed more of the art and learning of the classical world in a shorter space of time than had ever been destroyed before, carried off the City’s most precious objects, and left both the City and Romania, the Empire of the Romans, one of the most long-lived states in human history, a shattered shell, which, even though the new roots of an artistic renaissance in Byzantine art and architecture were pushing forwards, not even Greek ingenuity and political prowess were ever able to put together as a viable state again.  It was the most bafflingly mindless destruction of the greatest city in the world and, by far, the most violent, and to-the-root assault our civilization has ever experienced.

An yet no one asks Italy for the return of even one piece of the looted objects, which are just sitting there, most gathering dust in the treasury of San Marco in Venice.  Are none of these items of any interest to us as Greeks?  Are none of them as beautiful as the Elgin Marbles?

Pala_D'OroII(double click)

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File-Horses of Basilica San Marco bright(click)

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Are they less Greek?  Why no fuss?  Why don’t we care?  I don’t support the repatriation of art works and I wouldn’t support the transfer of the objects in the San Marco treasury to Greece either.  But it should make you think.  Why?  Because we’re so effed in the head by Western Classicism, and two millenia of our history is ignored as we obsess about fifty years of the art of one city-state…out of our entire cultural experience!

And here’s an individual who thinks he’s doing us a favor — and the politically correct thing — by supporting the Neo-Greek statelet in its demands to have the Elgin Marbles returned:

‘The Parthenon Marbles: Refuting the Arguments’

– by Dr. Tom Flynn
[Dr. Flynn can be contacted at tomflynn@btinternet.com and @artnose on Twitter.
This document can be read as a .pdf in the Documents & Articles section. It can also be found on the website of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.]

The pressure on Western encyclopedic or ‘universal’ museums to address the repatriation of cultural objects unethically removed from their countries of origin during the age of imperialism is growing ever stronger. The museums, in their efforts to resist, continue to cleave to the argument that return of even one significant object or set of objects would inevitably “open the floodgates” leading to the wholesale denuding of the world’s great museum collections.

This argument is fallacious since it implies that the majority of  museum collections were unethically acquired, which is not the case. It succeeds, however, in deflecting attention away from the dubious circumstances in which certain objects were removed from their rightful homes. Few cases are more significant in this respect than the Parthenon Marbles in London. For this reason they are of pivotal importance for the future of international cultural diplomacy.

In its effort to counter mounting public pressure to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, the British Museum has used a range of arguments over the years, all of which can be refuted. This perhaps explains why majority public opinion continues to favour the reunification of the Marbles as the right thing to do. Through its continuing resistance, the British Museum is failing to honour the public trust.

Outlined below are the main arguments used by the British Museum to keep the Marbles in London and the counter-arguments which support the calls for return.

1. Lord Elgin “rescued” the Marbles by removing them to safety in Britain
An argument consistently promoted by the British Museum and supported by Julien Anfruns, Director-General of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Despite ICOM’s supposed impartiality in matters of delicate cultural diplomacy, Anfruns told the Spanish journal La Nueva España: “Had the transfer never happened, who knows if we would be able to see these pieces today at all.” In fact, the Marbles that Lord Elgin did not “transfer” to Britain and which remained in Athens, survived remarkably well and have benefited from responsible cleaning by Greek conservators using state of the art laser technology. In contrast, the Marbles retained by the British Museum were scrubbed with wire brushes in the 1930s by British Museum staff in a misguided attempt to make them whiter.

2. Lord Elgin “legally” acquired the Marbles and Britain subsequently “legally” acquired them from him for the British Museum
In the absence of unequivocal documentary proof of the actual circumstances under which Lord Elgin removed the Marbles, the legality of Britain’s acquisition of them will always be in doubt. More importantly, the fact that permission to remove them was granted not by the Greeks but by the Ottoman forces occupying Greece at that time undermines the legitimacy of Elgin’s actions and thus by extension Britain’s ownership.

3. Lord Elgin’s removal of the Marbles was archaeologically motivated
Lord Elgin’s expressed intention was always to transport the Marbles to his ancestral seat in Scotland where they would be displayed as trophies in the tradition established by aristocratic collectors returning from the Grand Tour. Nobody with genuine archaeological interest in ancient Greek sculpture would ever have countenanced the disfiguring of such a beautiful and important ancient monument in the way Lord Elgin did. For archaeologists, an object’s original context is paramount. It is telling that Lord Elgin’s son, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, was responsible for ordering the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing during the Second Opium War of 1860. Philistine disregard for the world’s cultural monuments seems to run in the family.

4. The Greeks are unable to look after the Parthenon Marbles properly
The New Acropolis Museum in Athens is a world-class museum with first-rate conservation and curatorial expertise. It is the most appropriate place in the world in which to display the Parthenon Marbles. Its proximity to the ancient monument — and the masterful disposition of the New Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon Galleries on the same architectural axis as the Parthenon itself — would return to the Marbles some measure of their architectural significance. While they remain in London, this aspect of their importance is steadily being erased from the cultural memory.

5. It is impossible to restore the Parthenon and thus the aspiration towards ‘reunification’ is a false one
Restoration of the structural fabric of Parthenon temple continues apace. However, the aspiration has never been to return the frieze, pediment and metopes to the original building but rather to reunify them within the New Acropolis Museum where they can be properly appreciated and understood in the context of the original building, and preserved for posterity. In London they are willfully decontextualised and misleadingly displayed with no relation to Greek artistic or cultural history.

6. The Marbles are better off in London where they can be seen in the context of other world cultures
Research on museum visitors has concluded that the average visitor does not make meaningful connections between the randomly acquired objects held and displayed by encyclopedic museums. Indeed, when given the choice between viewing the Parthenon Marbles within the artificial environment applied to them by British Museum curators and experiencing them in the city of Athens from which they originate, polls consistently demonstrate that the majority of the public would prefer to see them returned to Athens.

7. The Marbles belong to “the world”, to all of us, and should therefore be left where “everyone” can enjoy them
Now that Athens has a world-class, state-of-the-art museum in which to house the Marbles, there is no longer any justification for assuming that London is the best place for the people of the world to enjoy them. Since its opening, the New Acropolis Museum has enjoyed huge visitor numbers. It is therefore reasonable to assume that visitor numbers would increase still further were the Parthenon Marbles to be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Moreover, Greece is in dire need of a boost to its cultural tourism, which the return of the Marbles would help it to achieve. Anyone comparing the New Acropolis Museum, bathed as it is in Attic light, with the gloomy Duveen Galleries in the British Museum would reasonably conclude that “enjoyment” of the Marbles would be immeasurably enhanced were they returned to Athens.

8. If the British Museum agreed to return the Marbles to Athens, it would set a dangerous precedent that would “open the floodgates”, leading to the denuding of the world’s encyclopedic museums
For European and North American museums to suggest that they would be denuded is tantamount to admitting that the majority of their collections were dubiously acquired, which is not the case. It is therefore nonsense to suggest that museums would be emptied. Every request for repatriation should be treated on its own merits. The great encyclopedic or ‘universal’ museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York and elsewhere are all subject to the laws laid down within internationally agreed legal instruments such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the safeguarding of cultural property. Refusing to return the Marbles sends the wrong message at a time when a more ethical approach is required over disputed cultural objects.

9. The Marbles are too important a part of the British Museum collection to allow them to be given up
The most important part of the British Museum’s work in the future will be the fostering of creative cultural partnerships with other nations. These can lead to groundbreaking exhibitions such as the Terracotta Army from China and Moctezuma from Mexico. Returning the Parthenon Marbles would open a new chapter in cooperative relations with Greece and enable visitors to the British Museum to see new objects loaned by Greek museums. Refusal to return the Marbles is hampering this process. The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts, properly lit. The decision to return the Marbles to Athens would be seen as the British Museum leading the way in enlightened cultural diplomacy, the benefits of which would be diverse, long-term, and far-reaching.

10. The Marbles can only be “loaned” to Athens if the Greeks agree to concede Britain’s legal ownership of the sculptures
Attaching such a precondition to a dispute over cultural property has been widely viewed as insulting and condescending and reminiscent of colonialist approaches to international relations. Seemingly intractable cultural disputes require both parties to adopt a spirit of open-minded generosity and to enter into discussions on equal terms and with no preconditions.

11. “The Elgin Marbles are no longer part of the story of the Parthenon. They are now part of another story.” (Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum)
It is not the role of museums to rewrite history to further their own nationalistic ends. As their correct name makes clear, the Parthenon Marbles are, and will always be, integral to the story of the Parthenon, one of the finest cultural achievements bequeathed to humankind by the ancient Greeks.

Have we missed anything? Ah, yes, the sun shines more frequently in Athens. Case closed.

And here I am, not even realizing that I had written a response to this piece a while ago:

“This might be good or even be a strong case but I refuse to encourage Greeks’ obsession with these issues in ANY way.  This stuff is crack for the Neo-Greek soul.  It’s pathological and is part of the DEEP cultural fuck up of Modern Greek identity.   It’s distracting, false consciousness; it’s to Greeks what soccer is to Brazilians: cheap bread-and-circus pride.  Flynn is being far more colonialist or post-colonialist or whatever than those he so freely levels those accusations at in ignoring the ways that Western Classicism has damaged the Modern Greek spirit and made a coherent identity impossible.  Does he know that down to my grandparents’ generation the most frequent term of self-designation we used was “Romios” — Roman, because a holistic connection to antiquity, early, middle and late was a given.  But in no other part of the “colonized” world was the “colonized’s” supposed history so fundamental to the “colonizer’s” own origin myth, so the post-Enlightenment-cum-Romantic Westerners show up and we have to be who they want us to be.  Does he know what the granting of selective blessing on one small part of our historical experience, while the whole rest is disregarded as a mediaeval or Ottoman dark age, does to a people’s own interpretation of their past?  Is he even remotely aware of what — the state and ideological violence — it took to to turn Byzantines/Ottoman Greeks into Neo-Hellenes obsessed with proving their connections to a past that the West planted in their heads?  He’s unaware that the obsession with these issues approaches the level of a psychosis among Modern Greeks that has caused them deep psychological and cultural trauma that will probably never heal until the next historical revolution in Greek consciousness occurs.  In doing so, he’s being as WOEFULLY ignorant, condescending, racist, etc., about Greeks and Modern Greece as he thinks the British Museum is.”

Plus, any one who, in 2014, writes the words “bathed…in the Attic light” should be prohibited from publishing anything ever again.

My solution?  Flynn points to one: “The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts, properly lit.

Great.  So make two perfectly “reconfigured” models of the originals, one for the British Museum and one for the New Acropolis Museum in Athens — and light them properly.  Then take the originals and crush them into fine gravel and spread it over the driveways of Sandringham and Balmoral and let’s be done with the issue and let the conscience-ridden Flynns and other Frangoi of the world be tormented by their post-colonial guilt and leave us in peace with our neuroses — please

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Catalans’ second thoughts: ‘…the last refuge of the wallet-minded’: nationalism in all its petit bourgeois glory

17 Oct

From the Times, by

14caparros-inyt-superJumboDemonstrators in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday protesting Catalonia’s push for independence. Credit Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images

On Oct. 1, Mr. Puigdemont’s separatist cause seemed on the road to victory as images of the Spanish police beating grandmothers circled the globe and sympathy aligned with the Catalan cause.

Then came the counterattack. King Felipe VI led the charge. He stated that neither the government in Madrid nor the monarchy would negotiate with the pro-independence Catalan leaders.

But it was the joint offensive between the Spanish state and major Catalan corporations that really did the trick. On Oct. 4, the government issued a decree that would help businesses relocate from Catalonia to Spain. In the days after, the headquarters of the major Catalonian banks — Caixa and Sabadell — and the water and gas companies announced they would leave the region. Democracy also works this way: Millions of voters cast only one vote, while a few use their millions to weigh in as if they were millions…

The banks’ departure felt like a cold shower for independence supporters, willing to give it all for their motherland — except their savings accounts and their European lifestyles. For Mr. Puidgemont and his party, historically tied to those same banks, it was more like an ice-cold tsunami. [my emphasis].

It’s really tiring — and tiring, especially, is feeling the constant scathing condescension towards these idiots — to see what a playground for the puerile identity politics are.  Caparrós continues:

With the economy in danger among the waving flags and patriotic chants, it became increasingly evident that independence was more a desire than a project. For years, there has been talk about creating a new country but little discussion of its economic and social structure, which is why it was never clear how much actual social energy — how much struggle, how much sacrifice — was necessary to achieve it.

Creating a country is a complex, expensive process: To take such a step you need a huge amount of support. Usually, independence is achieved after a long war, or the fall of a colonial power. At the least, it requires the gathering of an overwhelming majority. In Catalonia, I’m glad to say, the first two options seem impossible. The third one is not in place. To start as a new but divided country would be a recipe for disaster.

Like the make-you-wanna-pull-your-hair-out Brexit: it seems — what? — nobody thought of these things?

One important thing that may have come out of, as I wrote, rethinking Yugoslavia, and the thing that Catalans and Basques, Croatians and Slovenians, and Lombards and Romagnolos, and self-righteous Brits and Germans bitching about Greek irresponsibility, should really rethink is how their supposedly parasitic South is also their major market.  See the dim shape Croatia seems to be unable to pull itself out of since independence, I’m happy to report with just a touch of schadenfreude; Croatia, which a New York Times editorial in 1992 gallingly called to be accepted “…into the West, in which it always belonged”, (see Bugarian historian Maria Todorova‘s enraged reaction in her Imagining the Balkans)…Croatia has now fallen behind the poorest countries in the EU, Romania and Bulgaria, on many indicators.

_98146567_puigdemontkingPuigdemont and Spanish King Felipe VI at recent press conferences.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Why the Elgin Marbles and not the loot of 1204?

3 Jan

Another tempest in a teapot about how one statue from the British Museum‘s collection was lent to the Hermitage: Greek Statue Travels Again, but Not to Greece by Steven Erlanger.

In 1811, a lone Scottish gentleman, with or without permission of the Ottoman authorities, took some of the major sculptures from the Parthenon frieze down — admitted…stunners — and shipped them back to Britain, where they’re displayed to this day.

In 1204, a motley crew of Western/Catholic armies sacked Constantinople, our capital city, destroyed more of the art and learning of the classical world in a shorter space of time than had ever been destroyed before, carried off the City’s most precious objects, and left both the City and Romania, the Empire of the Romans, one of the most long-lived states in human history, a shattered shell, which, even though the new roots of an artistic renaissance in Byzantine art and architecture were pushing forwards, not even Greek ingenuity and political prowess were ever able to put together as a viable state again.  It was the most bafflingly mindless destruction of the greatest city in the world and, by far, the most violent, and to-the-root assault our civilization has ever experienced.

An yet no one asks Italy for the return of even one piece of the looted objects, which are just sitting there, most gathering dust in the treasury of San Marco in Venice.  Are none of these items of any interest to us as Greeks?  Are none of them as beautiful as the Elgin Marbles?

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Are they less Greek?  Why no fuss?  Why don’t we care?  I don’t support the repatriation of art works and I wouldn’t support the transfer of the objects in the San Marco treasury to Greece either.  But it should make you think.  Why?  Because we’re so effed in the head by Western Classicism, and two millenia of our history is ignored as we obsess about fifty years of the art of one city-state…out of our entire cultural experience!

And here’s an individual who thinks he’s doing us a favor — and the politically correct thing — by supporting the Neo-Greek statelet in its demands to have the Elgin Marbles returned:

‘The Parthenon Marbles: Refuting the Arguments’

– by Dr. Tom Flynn
[Dr. Flynn can be contacted at tomflynn@btinternet.com and @artnose on Twitter.
This document can be read as a .pdf in the Documents & Articles section. It can also be found on the website of the British Committee for the Reunification of the Parthenon Marbles.]

The pressure on Western encyclopedic or ‘universal’ museums to address the repatriation of cultural objects unethically removed from their countries of origin during the age of imperialism is growing ever stronger. The museums, in their efforts to resist, continue to cleave to the argument that return of even one significant object or set of objects would inevitably “open the floodgates” leading to the wholesale denuding of the world’s great museum collections.

This argument is fallacious since it implies that the majority of  museum collections were unethically acquired, which is not the case. It succeeds, however, in deflecting attention away from the dubious circumstances in which certain objects were removed from their rightful homes. Few cases are more significant in this respect than the Parthenon Marbles in London. For this reason they are of pivotal importance for the future of international cultural diplomacy.

In its effort to counter mounting public pressure to return the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, the British Museum has used a range of arguments over the years, all of which can be refuted. This perhaps explains why majority public opinion continues to favour the reunification of the Marbles as the right thing to do. Through its continuing resistance, the British Museum is failing to honour the public trust.

Outlined below are the main arguments used by the British Museum to keep the Marbles in London and the counter-arguments which support the calls for return.

1. Lord Elgin “rescued” the Marbles by removing them to safety in Britain
An argument consistently promoted by the British Museum and supported by Julien Anfruns, Director-General of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). Despite ICOM’s supposed impartiality in matters of delicate cultural diplomacy, Anfruns told the Spanish journal La Nueva España: “Had the transfer never happened, who knows if we would be able to see these pieces today at all.” In fact, the Marbles that Lord Elgin did not “transfer” to Britain and which remained in Athens, survived remarkably well and have benefited from responsible cleaning by Greek conservators using state of the art laser technology. In contrast, the Marbles retained by the British Museum were scrubbed with wire brushes in the 1930s by British Museum staff in a misguided attempt to make them whiter.

2. Lord Elgin “legally” acquired the Marbles and Britain subsequently “legally” acquired them from him for the British Museum
In the absence of unequivocal documentary proof of the actual circumstances under which Lord Elgin removed the Marbles, the legality of Britain’s acquisition of them will always be in doubt. More importantly, the fact that permission to remove them was granted not by the Greeks but by the Ottoman forces occupying Greece at that time undermines the legitimacy of Elgin’s actions and thus by extension Britain’s ownership.

3. Lord Elgin’s removal of the Marbles was archaeologically motivated
Lord Elgin’s expressed intention was always to transport the Marbles to his ancestral seat in Scotland where they would be displayed as trophies in the tradition established by aristocratic collectors returning from the Grand Tour. Nobody with genuine archaeological interest in ancient Greek sculpture would ever have countenanced the disfiguring of such a beautiful and important ancient monument in the way Lord Elgin did. For archaeologists, an object’s original context is paramount. It is telling that Lord Elgin’s son, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin, was responsible for ordering the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing during the Second Opium War of 1860. Philistine disregard for the world’s cultural monuments seems to run in the family.

4. The Greeks are unable to look after the Parthenon Marbles properly
The New Acropolis Museum in Athens is a world-class museum with first-rate conservation and curatorial expertise. It is the most appropriate place in the world in which to display the Parthenon Marbles. Its proximity to the ancient monument — and the masterful disposition of the New Acropolis Museum’s Parthenon Galleries on the same architectural axis as the Parthenon itself — would return to the Marbles some measure of their architectural significance. While they remain in London, this aspect of their importance is steadily being erased from the cultural memory.

5. It is impossible to restore the Parthenon and thus the aspiration towards ‘reunification’ is a false one
Restoration of the structural fabric of Parthenon temple continues apace. However, the aspiration has never been to return the frieze, pediment and metopes to the original building but rather to reunify them within the New Acropolis Museum where they can be properly appreciated and understood in the context of the original building, and preserved for posterity. In London they are willfully decontextualised and misleadingly displayed with no relation to Greek artistic or cultural history.

6. The Marbles are better off in London where they can be seen in the context of other world cultures
Research on museum visitors has concluded that the average visitor does not make meaningful connections between the randomly acquired objects held and displayed by encyclopedic museums. Indeed, when given the choice between viewing the Parthenon Marbles within the artificial environment applied to them by British Museum curators and experiencing them in the city of Athens from which they originate, polls consistently demonstrate that the majority of the public would prefer to see them returned to Athens.

7. The Marbles belong to “the world”, to all of us, and should therefore be left where “everyone” can enjoy them
Now that Athens has a world-class, state-of-the-art museum in which to house the Marbles, there is no longer any justification for assuming that London is the best place for the people of the world to enjoy them. Since its opening, the New Acropolis Museum has enjoyed huge visitor numbers. It is therefore reasonable to assume that visitor numbers would increase still further were the Parthenon Marbles to be reunited in the New Acropolis Museum. Moreover, Greece is in dire need of a boost to its cultural tourism, which the return of the Marbles would help it to achieve. Anyone comparing the New Acropolis Museum, bathed as it is in Attic light, with the gloomy Duveen Galleries in the British Museum would reasonably conclude that “enjoyment” of the Marbles would be immeasurably enhanced were they returned to Athens.

8. If the British Museum agreed to return the Marbles to Athens, it would set a dangerous precedent that would “open the floodgates”, leading to the denuding of the world’s encyclopedic museums
For European and North American museums to suggest that they would be denuded is tantamount to admitting that the majority of their collections were dubiously acquired, which is not the case. It is therefore nonsense to suggest that museums would be emptied. Every request for repatriation should be treated on its own merits. The great encyclopedic or ‘universal’ museums in London, Paris, Berlin, New York and elsewhere are all subject to the laws laid down within internationally agreed legal instruments such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the safeguarding of cultural property. Refusing to return the Marbles sends the wrong message at a time when a more ethical approach is required over disputed cultural objects.

9. The Marbles are too important a part of the British Museum collection to allow them to be given up
The most important part of the British Museum’s work in the future will be the fostering of creative cultural partnerships with other nations. These can lead to groundbreaking exhibitions such as the Terracotta Army from China and Moctezuma from Mexico. Returning the Parthenon Marbles would open a new chapter in cooperative relations with Greece and enable visitors to the British Museum to see new objects loaned by Greek museums. Refusal to return the Marbles is hampering this process. The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts, properly lit. The decision to return the Marbles to Athens would be seen as the British Museum leading the way in enlightened cultural diplomacy, the benefits of which would be diverse, long-term, and far-reaching.

10. The Marbles can only be “loaned” to Athens if the Greeks agree to concede Britain’s legal ownership of the sculptures
Attaching such a precondition to a dispute over cultural property has been widely viewed as insulting and condescending and reminiscent of colonialist approaches to international relations. Seemingly intractable cultural disputes require both parties to adopt a spirit of open-minded generosity and to enter into discussions on equal terms and with no preconditions.

11. “The Elgin Marbles are no longer part of the story of the Parthenon. They are now part of another story.” (Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum)
It is not the role of museums to rewrite history to further their own nationalistic ends. As their correct name makes clear, the Parthenon Marbles are, and will always be, integral to the story of the Parthenon, one of the finest cultural achievements bequeathed to humankind by the ancient Greeks.

Have we missed anything? Ah, yes, the sun shines more frequently in Athens. Case closed.

And here I am, not even realizing that I had written a response to this piece a while ago:

“This might be good or even be a strong case but I refuse to encourage Greeks’ obsession with these issues in ANY way.  This stuff is crack for the Neo-Greek soul.  It’s pathological and is part of the DEEP cultural fuck up of Modern Greek identity.   It’s distracting, false consciousness; it’s to Greeks what soccer is to Brazilians: cheap bread-and-circus pride.  Flynn is being far more colonialist or post-colonialist or whatever than those he so freely levels those accusations at in ignoring the ways that Western Classicism has damaged the Modern Greek spirit and made a coherent identity impossible.  Does he know that down to my grandparents’ generation the most frequent term of self-designation we used was “Romios” — Roman, because a holistic connection to antiquity, early, middle and late was a given.  But in no other part of the “colonized” world was the “colonized’s” supposed history so fundamental to the “colonizer’s” own origin myth, so the post-Enlightenment-cum-Romantic Westerners show up and we have to be who they want us to be.  Does he know what the granting of selective blessing on one small part of our historical experience, while the whole rest is disregarded as a mediaeval or Ottoman dark age, does to a people’s own interpretation of their past?  Is he even remotely aware of what — the state and ideological violence — it took to to turn Byzantines/Ottoman Greeks into Neo-Hellenes obsessed with proving their connections to a past that the West planted in their heads?  He’s unaware that the obsession with these issues approaches the level of a psychosis among Modern Greeks that has caused them deep psychological and cultural trauma that will probably never heal until the next historical revolution in Greek consciousness occurs.  In doing so, he’s being as WOEFULLY ignorant, condescending, racist, etc., about Greeks and Modern Greece as he thinks the British Museum is.”

Plus, any one who, in 2014, writes the words “bathed…in the Attic light” should be prohibited from publishing anything ever again.

My solution?  Flynn points to one: “The Parthenon Marbles display in the Duveen Galleries at the British Museum could be reconfigured using high-quality casts, properly lit.

Great.  So make two perfectly “reconfigured” models of the originals, one for the British Museum and one for the New Acropolis Museum in Athens — and light them properly.  Then take the originals and crush them into fine gravel and spread it over the driveways of Sandringham and Balmoral and let’s be done with the issue and let the conscience-ridden Flynns and other Frangoi of the world be tormented by their post-colonial guilt and leave us in peace with our neuroses — please

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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