Tag Archives: Russia

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Do Kurds need to do this right now, just at this very moment?

22 Sep

At the end of 2015 I wrote this piece: Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything where I expressed my hopes that Iraqi Kurds not declare de jure independence, since that would destabilize the region even further:

The Kurds: ‘I have a dream,’ as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighborhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

Kurds

Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

“This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political ‘multiplicity,’ as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that.”

And my what-to-do suggestions:

“The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.”

Well, it looks like “Hope” as Poles say, “is the mother of stupidity” and nobody cares about my wish-list.

The above was written before the relationship between Turkish Kurds and the Turkish government went to hell again and descended into crazy violence, before supposed anti-Erdoğan coup, massive purges, HDP’s Demirtaş’ imprisonment, and all the other fun stuff that’s happened in Turkey since.  I hate, more than anybody, to look like I’m catering to Erdoğan’s peeves, but an Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence just at this time is a provocation for him that may turn out to be disastrous.  Erdoğan is already massing troops on Turkey’s southern borders, and though I doubt he’ll have the balls to invade what’s pretty much an American satellite, Iraqi Kurdistan, I don’t put it beyond him to send troops into the Idlib region in Syria — maybe even hold a “referendum” and annex it like the Turkish Republic did to the neighboring region of Antiocheia in the 1930s.  A friend in C-town thinks that the third and newest Bosporus bridge is named after Sultan Selim 1st (“the Grim”) not just to stick it to Alevis (he was the ruler who committed widespread massacres of them during his reign, 1512 – 1520) but to emphasize Selim’s wresting of Mesopotamia from the hated Safavid Shia of Iran and the Levant from the Mamluks of Egypt and underline Erdoğan Turkey’s role in the region.  His Neo-Ottomanism may yet find its perfect expression in post-ISIS Iraq/Syria.

Read Barzani in the Guardian: Barzani on the Kurdish referendum: ‘We refuse to be subordinates’: “Iraq’s Kurdish leader tells the Guardian why the independence vote is so vital, and how he will defy global opposition”.

Interesting times.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

From the Times: Shaw’s fascination with Stalin

12 Sep

“But underlying all of this, there was an even stronger impulse: the fantasy of Russia itself. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution gave the dream a very particular political content, Shaw was primed to expect a global spiritual resurrection that would begin in Russia. This hope was not as fanciful as it may now seem: In the late 19th century, when Shaw’s political and artistic consciousness was being formed, Russian music, drama and literature were at the leading edge of modern Western culture. [My emphasis.]  As he later wrote to Maxim Gorky, “I myself am as strongly susceptible as anyone to the fascination of the Russian character as expressed by its art and personally by its artists.”’

When you’ve understood the urgency with which a mediaeval theocracy at the edge of the world moved to center stage of European culture in little more than a century, you’ve understood most of what’s Russian: then and — maybe more importantly — now.

“Correction…”: See, nobody knows when Tishabuv is.

31 Jul

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 6.08.21 PM

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 6.09.01 PM

Sorry; I couldn’t resist.  I wrote a few posts about the observation of Tisha B’av (or Tishabuv) a few years ago during the Romney campaign, which I’m reposting below, and the initial date confusion here seemed to confirm my, upon rereading, slightly snarky take on the observance.

I know I offended the website Jewish London (see below) when I wrote those posts, the writer of which felt personally attacked.  I certainly hope I haven’t offended the folks at Kehila Kedosha, the shul of the Jewish community of Jiannena, my mother’s hometown, to which I feel intimately connected (see an old Purim post, also below).

***************************************************************************************

Tisha B’Av?

Sorry, but it’s pretty funny that Romney’s trip has made of Tisha B’Av such a central metaphor for contemporary Israeli politics and the problematics of Jewish conscience (see previous post).  In old Ashkenazi humour — at least as I know it from Brooklyn — Tisha B’Av, Ti-shabuv in Yiddish pronunciation, is used ironically because it’s such an obscure holiday that no one ever knows when it is.

“When is he gonna finally paint the kitchen?  Who knows?  At Tishabuv…”

“If you’re waiting for the perfect girl to come along, you’ll be waiting till Tishabuv…”

And the like…

But Beinart’s piece, Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism to Support Israel and Buttress His Own Campaign, is truly beautiful, expressing the best tradition of Jewish moral self-reflection, which time and again has saved them and saved us too, in ways too complex to get into here:

“Sorry, but that largely misses the point. Tisha B’Av is less about steeling Jewish resolve against our enemies than fostering self-reflection about the Jewish misdeeds that allowed those enemies to prevail. The Talmud says that God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the First Temple because the Jews committed idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual sins. Similarly, the Romans are bit players in the Talmud’s intricate explanation of the chain of Jewish sins that led to the Second Temple being destroyed. Among those sins—none of which easily lends itself to a GOP stump speech—are “baseless hatred” among Jews and a concern for ritual stringency so obsessive that it trumps concern for human life. [my emphases]”

What other people, even if they lapse so often and so often tragically, are so honest and clear-eyed about their faults?

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

**************************************************************************************

A reader writes: “Tishabuv?”

(Sorry…only now getting a chance to respond to some of these)

The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the Roman suppression of the first Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. (click)

In reference to Jadde posts: “Romney in Israel: How High To Jump?“and “Tisha B’av?,”  “Jewish London” writes:

“it seems appropriate that he should visit on Tisha B’Av, a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people”

Oooooofffff…  This is like teaching…when you’ve spent hours researching and preparing, and then another half hour conducting, a brilliantly detailed and structured, thrillingly executed lesson on participial phrases, only to have one student, while you’re catching your breath right after, ask a question that proves none of the class has understood shit the entire time you were lecturing.

My point was simply that there’s a genre of Ashkenazi jokes, among the many, based on “When is Tishabuv?”  Beinart’s point, “Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism…” is that in the long tradition of Rabbinic and Talmudic learning, Tishabuv has been a time to reflect on why a certain tragedy has struck Jews and not just commemorate that tragedy in a victimized and ad nauseum form.

Yes, brother, “terrible calamities befell the Jewish people” on Tishabuv.  The Second Temple, the One and Only House of God in the One and Only Holy City, was levelled.  Jews were slaughtered in unbelievable numbers.  In trying to figure out whether these events happened as part of the Roman response to the Jewish rebellion of 70 A.D. or that of 135 A.D. — which has never been clear to me — I learned that there’s a trend of Jewish mystical thought that fascinatingly believes all Jewish tragedies occurred, occur and will occur on Tishabuv: the selling of Joseph into slavery; Moses’ shattering of the first tablets at seeing the Jews revert to idolatry; the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity; the destruction of the Second Temple; the first massacre of European Jews at the beginning of the Crusades; the issuing of the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492; the day the first train left for Auschwitz – all become mystically assimilated into Tishabuv.  That’s a tragic and moving idea.  However, I do know that the Roman suppression of the revolt of 135 A.D. was so brutal in its massacre and expulsion of Jews that it’s easy to say that it officially marks the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Tishabuv is also intimately related to Jewish messianic thought.  The revolts themselves were partly inspired by messianic expectations.  And the crushing of those hopes by the greatest cluster of disasters to befall Jews before the Holocaust made Rabbinic thought retreat into the sharpest of all cautions against any such expectations.  This, I suspect, is what marked the final rupture between Christian Jews and the rest of Jewry.  It’s not that Jews didn’t succumb to the temptation again.  Kabbalism is a mystic desire to correct the world that is a barely concealed messianic impulse.  And there was the great fever of messianic ecstasy that swept the Jewish world in the seventeenth century, when Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi from Smyrna, started declaring himself the Messiah – one of the most fascinating and, in the end, sadly absurdist, episodes in Jewish history.  Zevi, either a con artist or a psychotic, had raised Jewish expectations to such a frenzied pitch, that when he ended up converting to Islam and becoming a ward of the Sultan, it sent shockwaves of psychological distress, not only through Ottoman Jewry, but throughout the entire Jewish world; in fact, due to renewed persecution and massacres at the time in Eastern Europe, the effects on Ashkenazi Jewry may have been even greater than on Sephardim.  The crisis sent the Eastern European Jewish universe careening into two different directions: on the one hand a trend that reemphasized Rabbinical textualism and that eventually responded to the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the movement out of Germany that attempted to bring European Jewry into the modern world; and on the other, a retreat into the most introverted mysticism, out of which Hasidism, and an even greater immersion in Kabbalistic thought, grew.  To some extent, this split is one that old New York Jews still codedly refer to, whether they know it or not, as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers” (explanation in subsequent post).  See Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film version of S. Ansky’s Dybbuk.  I think there’s no greater primary text of Jewish spiritual impulses and its conflicts.

Lili Liana as Lea, the bride who becomes possessed by the spirit of her wronged beloved on her wedding day to another man, in Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, the Dybbuk. (click)

(Two interesting notes that I’d like to make here.  One is that the Jewish revolts of the early first millennium were partially led by political groups whom we, today, wouldn’t hesitate to compare to, not only the first New England Puritans, but even the Taliban, and who engaged in certain tactics, like the surprise slaughter of masses of innocent civilians that we like to associate with Palestinian “terrorism” – or that of…errrr….Irgun, Haganah, the Stern Gang, Mssrs. Ben Gurion and Begin and all the rest.  The other is that maybe the real basis of Tishabuv jokes is still unconsciously based in messianic expectations, the way older Greek women who, say, have missed a bus, will mumble: “Oy, now we’ll be waiting till the Second Coming.”)

But if “Jewish London” is to understand my point, he needs to better understand the transformation that Tishabuv has undergone in Israel since its founding, because I suspect that, not living among the most vibrant Diaspora communities in the world, Israel is his model.  Obviously, Zionism didn’t need to worry about the Messiah, since it had solved the “Jewish Question,” as must be obvious to anyone who throws even a cursory glance at the Middle East today and sees the peace and happiness in which Jews there live can attest to, and no Messiahs need apply anymore.  Tishabuv had been forgotten by the Jewish Diaspora, reduced to such an obscure holiday that it was the object of humour; I’ve lived most of my life in a city, and worked for a great part of it in an environment, where, believe me, it was impossible to not know that a great, or even just important, Jewish feast was being celebrated or was coming up, and Tishabuv wasn’t one of them.  In Israel, however, the “secular” Jewish state raised Tishabuv to new, official status as a holiday-fast day.  But not as a day of introspection; but as a day to remember, as “Jewish London” puts it, “a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people.”  This is because “calamities” are Israel’s justification for being; it was Israel’s down-payment and it’s still how it pays its mortgage; it’s the currency in which it trades.  And the ignorant Romney’s visit to the Western Wall with Netanyahu or whoever on that day, was just another slimy exchange in that same currency — and, in fact, a dishonour to centuries of Jewish suffering.

But back to the Diaspora, and a time when Judaism hadn’t locked itself into a barricaded nation-state.  More than just self-reflection and introspection, the repeated, century-after-century dashing of Jewish hopes may have generated an even more important element in the Jewish psyche: doubt.  The great Christopher Hitchens, quotes the equally great Rebecca West in his introduction of her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and her own ruminations about the origins of anti-Semitism:

“West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that ‘many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews.  They knew only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.’”

That’s why on Easter night, the night of the Resurrection, I always remember to have one, only one, glass of wine that’s offered to the suspicion – the same one born out of the fact that Elijah never actually walks through that open door at Passover — that this whole idea is bullshit.

So what is Tishabuv for (when we know when it is)?  Introspection, moral responsibility, skepticism, doubt and the saving beauty of being eternally able to convert suffering into humour and irony – these last may be the most important — a pretty whole summation of what Jews have given us, given me, at least.

When “Jewish London” can tell me what Israel has given us, he should let us know.  These Days of Awe might be the perfect time to think about that.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

**************************************************************************************

It’s Purim tonight! — something like a letter to my mother…

 

Nicolas_Poussin_E_before_Assuerus_c.1640Esther before Assuereus, Nicolas Poussin, circa 1640 (click)

For Purim this year I’m posting this poem by Greek Jewish poet Joseph Eliya, who was from my mother’s hometown of Jiannena in the northwestern Greek region of Epiros.  (See the tab box on the right for the hundred references to Jiannena and Epiros on the Jadde).

The Jews of Jiannena were Greek-speaking Romaniotes, descendants of the Jewish communities of Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor that existed since Hellenistic times and that held out culturally against the flood of Spanish-speaking Sephardim that found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They were called Romaniotes because Romania (the kingdom of the Romans) was what the Byzantines called their polity and what we too – till the early twentieth century – also called ourselves: “Romans” – which it always aggravates me to have to explain.  But it is one of the rich ironies of history that the only inhabitants of Greek lands that stayed faithful to their true name for themselves were Jews, while we sold our souls to the West for the promises and prestige we thought the re-excavated neologism “Hellene” would curry us from the Frangoi.

So Eliya’s native language was Greek, and though he wrote some of the most beautiful translations of Jewish Biblical texts into Modern Greek, particularly one of the Song of Songs and a series of love poems to Rebecca, in a rich, florid, archaic idiom, he also wrote homelier poems in a folksier Jianniotiko style like this one, “something like a letter to his mother” on the occasion of the feast of Purim.

For those who don’t know, Purim is the day that the Esther, the Queen Consort to the Persian King Ahasureus, and her uncle Mordechai, foiled the plans of the king’s evil minister Haman, to have the Jews of the kingdom massacred.  It’s generally celebrated by listening to the book of Esther in synagogue, the Megilla, sending food and giving charity to the poor and dressing up in costume, an aspect of the celebration that may be an interborrowing due to the fact that it tends to fall around Christian Carnival.

Eliya was a poor schoolteacher who died at the young age of thirty, and I believe this poem was written when he was away from his beloved Jiannena, and his beloved mother, on a teaching post in the Macedonian city of Kolkush.  It’s a sad, therefore — and very Epirotiko in that sense and in tone — poem, that’s in sharp contrast to the happiness of the holiday.

This poem also has an added emotional subtext for me.  My mother’s best friend when she was in elementary school was a Jewish girl, Esther — Esther Cohen.  “Astro” they called her, in the Epirotiko diminutive; “Tero” is also another form for the same name.   And as a little girl from a peasant family recently moved to Jiannena from their village in the mountains just to the south, I could tell that her stories about her friendship with Astro were her first lessons in tolerance and difference, whether she would’ve called them that or not (we certainly wouldn’t in our day…I’ll leave them for another post).  And she may have known it even less, but her friendship with Astro may have prepared her for life in New York in ways she was probably never conscious of.  And what she may have been even less conscious of — though maybe I should give her some credit: I do know for sure that my mother’s stories of her friendship with Astro served as my first lessons in decency and openness to those different from you.  Of that there’s no doubt.  So this post is something like a letter to my mother too.

Always they ended in a kind of distracted silence, for she never knew what had happened to her friend during the war: “Τι νά’χει γίνει η Άστρω;” she would mumble.  “What can have happened to Astro?”  And what was strange was that she could’ve found out; there were surviving Jews in Jiannena that she knew and there were even Jewish Jianniotes in New York she could have asked.  But it was like she didn’t want to know.  Even odder, I’ve had several opportunities to find out as well; Kehila Kedosha Jiannena, the Jianniotiko shul in New York on Broome Street has records on the whole community.  But it’s been almost as if I don’t want to know either.

Here is Eliya’s original Greek, with my free verse translation below.

Purim

Purim

(Something like a letter to my mother)

It’s Purim tonight!  The thrill and joy of the great feast!

Light in our souls, and a smile on the lips of all.

And I, my orphaned mother, the refuse of exile*

Waste away in a chill joyless corner.

It’s Purim tonight!  And the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people.

And they read again with wonder, from the white parchment, the triumphs of Mordechai and Esther through the ages.

It’s Purim tonight!  Young and old gather at home, at hearth, to hear the Megilla’s** tale.

And I mother – with the burning lament of exile – tearily thumb through my Bible in a lonely corner.

Your son won’t be bringing you candles or flowers from shul*** tonight, mother.  And if your crying is bitter, don’t lament too deeply.  My Fate has been decided, and poverty — poverty, mammele**** – has no feel for sympathy.

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Notes on my translation:

*”Exile” here does not imply political banishment or anything of the sort.  It’s the word “ξενητιά” as Eliya spells it, that’s so central to understanding the Greek and — it probably goes without saying — the Jewish soul, but is so devilishly difficult to translate precisely.  It means absence — absence from the place where one should be, from one’s heart’s homeland.  Through and because of emigration and poverty most often but not always; it’s often something one feels without having had to leave.  The Turkish “kurbet” is the word closest in meaning that I know from another language.

**Not to be disrespectful, but the Megilla, the Book of Esther, is quite long, and is proverbial, in at least Ashkenazi humor, for being tedious and monotonous to listen to — but one bears it.  It’s exactly the same as the Greek term “εξάψαλμος,” the Hexapsalm, a selection of six psalms that is always read at the beginning of Matins and I’m not sure if during other offices, and would be beautiful if correctly and carefully recited according to the rules of Orthodox recitation.  Unfortunately, it’s usually read in an incomprehensible blur of mumbled boredom by the lector or cantor, which actually makes it even more tedious and irritating to sit through.  It’s usually a good time to go out for a cigarette.  I just always thought the similarity was funny.  “Ωχ, τώρα θα’κούσουμε τον εξάψαλμο,” a Greek will say with dread when faced with a berating lecture or kvetch session or someone’s tiring complaint that’s so repetitive you just tune it out, just like a Jewish New Yorker will say: “I really can’t listen to his whole Megilla right now…”

***In the second verse, Eliya uses the Greek word for synagogues and I translated it as such.  In this last verse, he uses a homier, Epirotiko form whose intimacy I felt was better conveyed by “shul.”

****And last but not least, we run into the painful translation issues that are generated by the fact that English is almost completely lacking in a system of diminutive terms of affection, especially compared with the highly elaborate diminutive terminologies of Slavic languages or Yiddish (or I assume Ladino) or even Greek.  At no point in the poem does Eliya refer to his mother as “mother” but rather “my little mother” — “μανούλα’μ” — “manoula’m.”  This is a term of affection used often by Greeks and especially Epirotes to refer to anyone, not just one’s mother, not even necessarily a female (Athenian idiots making fun will darken or double up the “l” to make it sound more northern and Slavic and hickish; for me it’s just more beautiful…); one will say to a young boy or even a friend: “Come here, manoula mou… What’s wrong, manoula mou?”  Just like “mammele” is used in Yiddish.  But I felt that using “mammele” throughout would have sounded too Yiddishy and cute, and so I saved it for that last, most intimate verse, and used mother elsewhere.  After all, this is a poem that above all is an expression of the most Jewish kind of mother-son bond.  But Yiddish and its many beauties is cursed now, by its sudden, dramatic extinction in Europe, and its shadow survival only in American entertainment, with the danger of always lapsing into a default comic tone.  It’s sad.  The translation from the Greek of the last line of the poem, for example: “poverty has no feel for sympathy…” would literally be: “…but poverty doesn’t know from sympathy.”  But then I’d be writing Larry David dialogue.

**********************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

FINALLY, I’d like to thank Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos for the scan of the Greek text of the poem.  I’m in Athens now, away from my library and couldn’t find it anywhere online.  I wrote to her and within five minutes she had written back to me with both “Purim” and “Esther,” another of Eliya’s poems about the biblical heroine.  She suggested that “Esther” is a poem more appropriate to the happiness of Purim than the melancholy of “Purim.”  Unfortunately, it’s written in a much more difficult, semi-biblical, archaic language that I didn’t have the time to translate.  I promise her however, that as soon as I get a chance I will work on it and post it on the Jadde — out of gratitude to her helping me out for this, and out of gratitude to the one-woman pillar of the Kehila Kadosha Janina community that she is.  I’d also like to thank the whole congregation there for always making me feel so welcome when I attend on Erev Simchas Torah; the rabbi and his stentorian voice, the three young men who lead prayer and are perhaps the community’s most precious resource — let’s see if I remember correctly: Seth, the rabbi’s son, and the brothers Andrew and Ethan, who though they’re from a Sephardic family from Berroia, devote their shabbes and yontif time to energizing this tiny community in need of outside help.  The warmth of the community has always moved me and I’m grateful for both the odd need for Jewishness in my life and the link to my mother and her childhood that they unknowingly provide.  Thank you.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything

7 Dec

syria

syria-11

I’m going to have to write this post in bullet points of varying length, that I guess reflect the tragic fragmentation of my subject matter in some way, because putting it all together into a coherent “opinion piece” is as hard as finding coherent policy to deal with the problem itself has been. I was against talking about Syria in the beginning of its crisis as if it were an inherently fragmented and “artificial” colonial creation, as it had become the fashion to speak of most of the Levant at some point or another. I particularly objected to Andrew Sullivan’s obnoxious Syria [or Iraq] is not a country declarations. But since then, that’s become the reality – an insistent enough discourse makes itself a reality — so it seems to be more useful to take on all the regions, factors and players involved one at a time…and if I can bring them together usefully at the end, I will.

Russia and Assad: It’s obvious that Russia is pursuing its own agenda in Syria, but frankly — isn’t everyone? — so that’s no great cogent or original observation, and to be very frank, shouldn’t play into our response to either Assad or Putin, given the point to which things have reached at this point, because the degree to which you or I can stomach either Assad or Putin is not the point. The point is that right now I can see no great tragedy in an Assad-run — for how long can be decided later, with Russia (see below) — Russian semi-protectorate that would run from the Latakya Alawite coast down the Hama-Homs-Damascus-Dar’a, corridor, that would provide security and stability for even the region’s originally anti-Assad Sunni population, and even attract Sunnis from the rest of the country who could make their way there: such – I would think – is the ethical questionability of the various Sunni groups (aside from just ISIS I mean) into whose hands the original uprising has fallen and the degree of their war-weary victims’ terror; and — because I think it’s important to declare your subjective affinities before you can honestly put forth your hopefully objective suggestions or propositions – I hope such an entity would also provide a safe haven for part of what’s left of Syrian Christianity as well. (Yes, MESA girls, you’ve caught me again.) It would also be a good idea if we learned a little bit about the Assads and the Alawite past in the region (as it would be equally good for us to know something of Turkish/Kurdish Alevis as well), not to exonerate Assad for anything, but so that we know what we’re talking about before we start unproductively babbling about villains just sprouted out of the earth – like we did in Lebanon in the past about the Gemayels and Maronites or the Jumblatts and Druzes or southern Shiites and Hezbollah. This is homework one would like to assign to the Levant and the Middle East’s Sunni majority as well: a request that it examine its moral conscience, if such a thing exists, and its treatment of minorities in the past, but I understand that that’s probably a tall order that we can’t wait for them to comply with in order to bring some relief to the current hellishness.

So let Russia go for what it wants for now; it’s in most everyone’s interest and let’s try to turn it to everyone’s advantage instead of attacking her for every move she makes. ENGAGE RUSSIA. I beg everyone. A plea I will make later as well and repeatedly.

The Shiite crescent or triangle: This is the very real alliance of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a largely Shiite entity that’s essentially what’s left of Iraq, and Iran. It’s not a product of Israel’s paranoid imagination, but only Israel thinks it has any real reason to be worried about it and therefore Israel should be promptly ignored on every point and aspect of those worries.

bashar-al-assad-hang-the-bastard

Bashar al-Assad

Neither Iraq nor the Iraqi army are functioning entities, so we can temporarily remove them from our discussion. I think I’ve addressed the moral “problematicness” of Assad: that there can be no solution in Syria till he’s gone, though, is a moralistic pose and not a truly moral position — sadly, one even Obama is fond of striking — and is an excuse for doing nothing and a recipe for letting the current holocaust continue. As for Hezbollah: whatever we think of its origins or the nature of its religiosity or its political ideology, it’s a highly professional organization with a highly professional, well-trained and hardened army, and the only Arab or other force that has put Israel in its place twice – took a little longer the first time but was pretty snap the second – and has pretty much served as an Akritai line that has kept it there since and, whatever its political tactics are (I honestly can’t say), it seems to me to be the one force that has kept Lebanon relatively stable (yes, as had Syria) for the past twenty years or so.

hezbollah.xlarge1

Of course, it does this with the massive organizational and material help of Iran. Which brings us to…

Iran: Get over Iran. It became a comforting cliché, with which the Middle Eastern Studies academic left aunanized itself for several decades: that the imperialist West had aborted every modern attempt at a democratic, civil society in the Muslim world and that that was therefore responsible for the rise of political Islam. Tell me which countries we’re talking about and who the leaders were who were going to lead them to this heavenly, secular modernity? The even more militaristic and fascist and statist successors of Kemal in Turkey? Look how that’s turning out and it’s still incomparably the best of the batch and, ok, there’s still hope recent setbacks can be reversed. Who else? Nasser and Egypt? Arafat or current Palestinian leadership?  The Ba’athist successors of the Hashemites in Iraq? Maybe in Jordan? Ben Bella and Algeria? Bourguiba even and Tunisia? The Saudis? Jinnah’s successors, further east, or even Jinnah himself? Maybe the Afghan royal family? Who?

The only country in the Muslim world that in my humble opinion seemed to have had many of the prerequisites for a secular, civil society, perhaps a constitutional, truly assembly-based government, and a leader with an appropriately intellectual, bourgeois background and education — and accompanying democratic inclinations — was Iran and Mohammad Mosaddegh. And the Anglo-Americans destroyed that experiment. And yet Iran still seems to be the country, which despite the powerful institutional obstacles, has, on a popular level at least, the temperamental prodiagrafes for the development of such society and is poll-wise the most pro-American in the region. What is the rationale behind continuing to villainize and sanction and isolate? Ok, maybe not “what is the rationale?” But I’m simply calling for the acceptance of the fact that allowing Iran to open up to the world would inevitably – no, don’t give me Russia or China as examples – lead to an internal opening up as well, and both Iranians and the rest of the world have only to gain, when, and not if, that happens. Let it happen faster. As fast as you can.

Mohammed-Mossadegh.jpg

Mohammad Mosaddegh

Turkey: There probably isn’t a country that, though never “officially” colonized, is a better object lesson in how to endure the machinations, infiltrations, exploitation, hypocrisies and pousties of Western manipulation – from the 18th century to this day – and how to then flip them to your advantage like a bad-ass judoka than Turkey.  In dismembering the Ottoman Empire, all the Great Powers did their best to make the process of our separating from our neighbours into independent nations as long and complicated and bloody as they possibly could. When after WWI, they realized the Turks weren’t going let them split even a remnant Anatolia into six or seven parts and give those away too…suddenly…Turkey…could…do…NO…wrong…and still can’t. It’s fabled “privileged geographical position,” which no Western power was able to grab for itself, allows it to do anything it wants: supress all and any pressures for democratic change; conduct a vicious decades-long civil war against – I dunno, can it still be called a minority when it’s one-fifth of your population – its Kurds; violently harass its supposedly Lausanne-protected Greek community till they all leave en masse, while invading Cyprus to protect its Turkish minority there…and on and on and on. And now that President-to-be-for-at-least-a-decade-I-figure Erdoğan has sat on the throne Turks themselves put him on, the anti-democratization process: the societal and governmental Islamization; the assassinations and imprisonments, the suppression of journalistic rights and other democratic voices; the bullying of neighbours and throwing around of irresponsible, expansionist language; the destruction of a painfully wrought peace process that Turkish Kurds showed remarkable maturity in struggling towards, and the unleashing of the formidable, American-backed and supplied power of the Turkish military on them once again; the probable aiding and abetting of the animals of ISIS in various ways, plus the shooting down of a Russian air force jet out of pure pissing-contest impulses; not to mention the ever greater and egomaniacal vandalizing of one of humanity’s greatest and most ancient cities – all continue. And the world breathes not a word. Obama did not even address the downing of the Russian jet: all I saw him do is rudely turn around in his chair at some banquet at the Paris Climate Change Conference and off-handedly say to some journalist: “Well, a nation has the right to defend its air space.” The next day six Turkish fighter jets flew almost two-thirds the way across the Aegean into northeastern Greek airspace , and we didn’t say a word and wouldn’t have had our call taken even if we had tried, since it happens on a practically monthly basis. NATO allies, you see…

photo_verybig_111705

Nobody reported the story except the Greek press.

The Kurds: “I have a dream,” as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighbourhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

Kurds

Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political “multiplicity,” as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that. Plus, again, as vehemently secular-minded, it will hopefully remain what it has already become: another safe space for the remnants of Syro-Mesopotamian Christianity.

108-270_b

The Christian village of Maluula in Syria

Saudi Arabia and the rest of them down there: I admit that for a very long time I didn’t get this one. The fear of Russian power and the resentment of the Iranian Revolution, the obvious reasons for catering to an obnoxious Israel’s every whim and demand and the kid-glove coddling of Turkey all make some sense, though my ultimate point here will be that they no longer do. But the Saudis…no clue. Did any-one need their oil in particular? Wasn’t the United States itself already energy self-sufficient? Why? That the West always does what it does because Jews control Washington and everyone wants Saudi oil seemed to me to be the political theories of Athenian taxi-drivers.

Yet I was just speaking to someone from the ministry of energy here in Greece the other night and it turns out that compared to that of other oil-producing nations, Saudi oil (and I guess other Gulf State oil as well?) is unusually high in quality, demanding minimal refining and easy drilling as well, since its gigantic reserves are all close to the surface. The price of oil can plunge to rock bottom and they will still have monstrous amounts of a desirable product with which they can undersell any other country in the world and that will keep them filthy rich into the foreseeable future. And capable of funding jihadism everywhere.  Including the spiritual “inner struggle” kind.

these-maps-show-the-progression-of-isis-control-in-iraq-and-syria

So we’ve ended up here, with a nice neat circle drawn around ISIS territory because that is our major problem and that’s the entity we’re looking to eradicate plain and simple. And it can’t be done without a profound shift in how we – I don’t how we want to define “we:” the West, the civilized world, how about just humanity? – treat and engage each and every one of the players involved in the above scenario. Because while our objective is to destroy ISIS, almost all the above policies are based on either almost irrationally selfish and small-minded views, or even more so, on a Cold War logic that simply no longer applies, and that will do little to impede the danger ISIS presents, in almost anyway you take at it or from wherever you look at it.

First and foremost and again: let Russia in. ENGAGE RUSSIA. We all have everything to gain and nothing to lose if we stop treating Russia like a pariah nation. Russian power is not a threat and can instead prove massively useful to the world if we bring Russia into the fold instead of trying to desperately keep her out of everywhere and even foolishly try and fence her in. It may be a little more complicated than a simplistic “more flies with honey” theory but whatever it is we choose to describe as Russian aggression, Russia sees as defensive and that may not be an irrational response from a powerful nation that sees itself treated as an amoral being that is constantly excluded from all the West’s major moves.

And I’m talking about radical engagement: not just lifting sanctions and trade blocks and visa requirements. I’m talking about making Russia a part of the European family of nations, as laughably dysfunctional as that family may be looking right now. Why are Montenegro or Georgia on the list of candidates for NATO membership — Montenegro probably as some sleazy old promise offered to it if it seceded from Serbia; and Georgia, one of the oldest polities in the Russians’ sphere of influence (for better or worse and partly of its own initiative at the start) and with a complicated love-hate relationship between them – while Russia itself is not?  Too big to absorb. Well, yes, but my point is to stop thinking of her as an entity to control and absorb and start thinking of her as a political and especially military power that’s just too enormous to not have as an ally in the current struggle we’re engaged in.

ISIS (and Turkey to some degree) ticked off the Russians bad and they have already done more to weaken the “caliphate” in the past few weeks than all other Western actions combined. Is it escalating the conflict? There is no escalating this conflict: when your enemy is sworn to escalate it to the maximum, and there’s no reason to think they’re bluffing, you’re already there. Yes, there’s reason to fear that Russia – which uses Powell-Doctrine-type “overwhelming force” more than the United States ever has – will go too far and turn central Syria and Raqqa into a Chechnya and Grozny, but the best way to limit those kinds of excesses are to enter into some coordinated action with Russia and not just allow her to act alone. Because we’re going to need Russia when the air campaign needs to stop, when at some point it will. And that’s when I predict that Russia will also be willing to send in men on the ground and I don’t mean just a few special operations groups. While they’re certainly not eager to send their young men off to die in another Afghanistan or Chechnya, this has already – again, for better or worse – become a sort of Holy War for Russians and they will be far less squeamish about sending in troops than any other European society or even the United States at this point. And working with them on such an operation will not only increase its efficacy but limit the risks and excesses.

In the end bringing Russia in from the outside will also change it from the inside; as the nation itself feels less like it has to be on the constant defensive, then so will the Russian government adopt a more open and progressive attitude to its own internal political life.   This is what we saw happening in Turkey in the early 2000s when European Union accession was still a negotiable reality; much of what Turkey and Erdoğan have turned into since are a result of those cards being taken off the table. Do it for everyone then, for us and for them. Engage Russia; it’s a win-win proposition.

As for the rest…

I’m sorry to say this, since being or acting or thinking positively about Turkey and Greco-Turkish relations has been one of my intellectual and emotional priorities for most of my adult life. But something when I got to Istanbul the day after the elections this November felt like a massive internal, tectonic shift for me — like something had snapped.  Slap just half the sanctions and forms of isolation we’ve imposed on Russia and Iran on Turkey instead and let’s see how quickly Erdoğan’s tough guy stance lasts. And cut off military aid completely. As long as its going to a state that buys ISIS oil (which is the least we know of in terms of aiding them), as long as its being used, again, to terrorize its own Kurdish population into submission – cut it off completely. I would say take some of that aid and channel it into civil funding and assistance to Demirtaş and his HDP (Kurdish People’s Democratic Party), but that would probably be illegal, make them an even more vulnerable target and generally backfire. I would say do the same for Alevis in Turkey, whose agenda overlaps with both Kurdish and generally those of all democratic impulses there, but that would backfire even more horribly, since Alevis are a much, much more vulnerable target. (See: “Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange)

alevis_in_turkey

Demographic distribution of Alevis in Turkey

1024px-alawite_distribution_in_the_levant

And distribution of Alawites in the Levant, which, aside from Syria, clearly shows major concentrations in Turkish Antakya and also northern Lebanon.

The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.

The rest will – if it hasn’t already – cause the reader to accuse me of fomenting a Middle East wide Sunni-Shia war, with my sympathies, both personal and ideological, firmly Shiite and that I’m proposing Russia and the West join in on the Shia side. Perhaps it is. Slap down Erdoğan (for whom this is certainly a Sunni-Shia struggle) and keep doing so till his ego is under control or he becomes a lame duck political force. Hard, but not impossible, if Turks start to see the real price they have to pay for so stupidly supporting him. Ignore Israel for now and let the Saudis (for whom this is also certainly a Sunni-Shia Struggle) stew in their own juices and cut off oil purchases if they try anything more radical. And as part of the inevitable opening of Iran and the inevitable growth of its role on the world stage, let it, Hezbollah, the, yes, despicable Assad and the, yes, still dubiously motivated but driven and highly motivated Russians all go to work on ISIS, Da’esh, whatever, and its ridiculous, vicious “caliphate.”

Sound risky? Yes, I know it does. It is. Got a better idea?

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Boris Nemtsov addendum…

28 Feb

putin

I just posted the Times story as soon as it broke yesterday in semi-amazement and without thinking too much.  And then the delayed response dawns on you that is so blatantly obvious you can’t believe it was delayed.  The Question: how can he possibly believe that the world won’t think that the Nemtsov hit was ordered by him — or just carried out “on his behalf” without being told so that he can claim clean hands?  And then you realize — he doesn’t care if the world thinks that; he’s probably sure that that’s exactly what the world does think, in fact, but just doesn’t care.  Το καθίκι…  Just that simple.  What are they going to do about it anyway?

Today’s Times story by Andrew Kramer: Fear Envelops Russia After Killing of Putin Critic

Screen Shot 2015-02-28 at 2.33.33 PM Mr. Nemtsov at an opposition rally last year. He was scheduled to lead a protest against the war in Ukraine this weekend. Credit Yuri Kochetkov/European Pressphoto Agency

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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

8 Feb

bdec44f200d445ceb018834ba071fe73_18(click)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

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

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

[my bold emphases in all of above]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Med19304(click)

**************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

 

%d bloggers like this: