Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Kazantzakis: ‘here we were shamed, here glorified’

Travels in Greece has always been one of my favourite Nikos Kazantzakis’ books, in which the Cretan writer takes the opportunity of a journey through the Peloponnese to meditate on Greek past and present. It’s a melancholy work, written in the 1930s, heavily influenced by Ion Dragoumis – whose spirit, Kazantzakis says, accompanied him on the journey – and echoes  Seferis’ ‘wherever I go, Greece wounds me’. No doubt, in contemporary Greece, this Dragoumian view of the Greek self as inseparable from the travails of the Greek nation, is anathema.

Some excerpts from the opening chapter of Travels in Greece:

‘The face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing twelve successive inscriptions: Contemporary; the period of 1821; the Turkish yoke; the Frankish sway; the Byzantine; the Roman; the Hellenistic epoch; the Classic; the Dorian middle ages; the Mycenaean; the Aegean; and the Stone Age.

‘Pause on a patch of Greek earth and anguish overcomes you. It is a deep, twelve-levelled tomb, from which voices rise up calling to you. Which voice should you choose? Every voice, every spirit longs for its body; your heart is shaken, and cannot decide.

‘For a Greek, the journey through Greece is a fascinating, exhausting ordeal… For a foreigner the pilgrimage to Greece is simple, it happens without any great convulsions… But for a Greek, this pilgrimage is fraught with hopes and fears, with distress and painful comparison. Never does a clear and unencumbered thought arise, never a bloodless impression.

‘A Greek landscape does not give us… an innocent tremor of beauty. The landscape has a name, it is bound up with a memory – here we were shamed, here glorified; blood or sacred statues rise up from the soil, and all at once the landscape is transformed into rich, all-encompassing History, and the Greek pilgrim’s whole spirit is thrown into confusion.

‘Merciless questions arise to lash our brains. How were so many wonders created, and what are we ourselves doing? Why has the race become debased? How can we carry on once more?’

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Casseroled kolokasi recipe

Since my post on kolokasi, from four years ago, is, by five-to-one, the most popular I’ve written – who cares about Cyprus, Thucydides, Castoriadis? – I’m providing the classic recipe for one of the signature dishes of Cypriot cuisine. Kolokasi is a root vegetable, similar to the potato in texture and taste, and known as taro in English.

Serves 4-6

One large kolokasi, peeled, then cleaned with a damp paper or kitchen towel and cut into large chunks
One medium-large onion, chopped
Two tablespoons tomato puree
Three stalks of celery, chopped
Juice of one to one and a half lemons
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
750g-1kg pork neck, shoulder or cutlets, cubed. (Meat is optional).

Do all this in a large saucepan or casserole pot.

I prefer kolokasi without meat, but pork or chicken can be added to the dish. For pork, you need, for the purposes of this recipe, approximately 750g to one kilo of pork shoulder or neck – pork cutlets are even better. Cut the pork into cubes, fry in two tablespoons of olive oil till brown, set aside.

1. If you’ve just fried your pork/chicken, then use the same olive oil to cook the onion. Otherwise, heat two tablespoons of olive oil, soften the onion.

2. Add the celery, followed by the tomato puree. Cook for 1-2 minutes.

3. Throw in the chunky pieces of kolokasi.

4. Shake pot, so that sauce coats the kolokasi. Do not stir. (If you’re adding pork/chicken, add it now). Cook for further 7-8 minutes, shaking pot another 2-3 times.

5. Add plenty of salt and pepper. Shake pot again to make sure kolokasi is well coated with the tomato sauce.

6. Add enough hot water to cover the kolokasi, and bring to the boil.

7. Add juice of one to one and a half lemons, depending on taste.

8. Cover pot, cook for one hour or until sauce thickens, stirring occasionally.

You can serve kolokasi as a side or main dish. I recently had kolokasi with stewed hare, which my uncle shot in Scotland, and carrot tzatziki.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Sorceress or scapegoat? Christa Wolf’s Medea

Of all the seductive, sinister and transgressive women who have haunted the Western imagination, none has a reputation more lurid than Medea’s. (Margaret Atwood)

The city is founded on a monstrous deed. (Medea)

East German writer Christa Wolf’s Medea is a harrowing novel that seeks to retell the story of the Colchian princess and rehabilitate her from evil, barbarian witch to knowing foreigner and immigrant who can see the hypocrisy, lies and violence on which Corinth (the city she is exiled in with her feeble husband Jason) is organised and ruled. Such a woman, who has learned the dirty secrets of Corinth’s power elite, which is now struggling with political unrest and natural disaster, is dangerous and has to be discredited and destroyed, and this, Wolf suggests, is the process by which Medea is turned into a scapegoat and comes to be falsely accused of killing her children and murdering Glauce, the Corinthian princess Jason has abandoned her for.

The novel is written as a series of voices, as each protagonist feints, plots and manoeuvres as the crisis engulfing Corinthian society unfolds, and below is an excerpt from one of Medea’s monologues:

‘So this is how it is: either I’m out of my mind, or their city is founded on a crime. No, believe me, I’m quite clear on this point, what I say or think about it is quite clear to me, for I’ve found the proof, yes, I’ve touched it with my own hands. Oh, it’s not arrogance that threatens to undo me now. The woman – I simply followed her. Perhaps I just wanted to teach Jason a lesson, since he’d stood by and let them seat me at the end of the table among the servants, that’s it, I didn’t dream that, that was yesterday. At least they’re the highest-ranking servants, he said pathetically, don’t cause a scandal, Medea, please, not today, you know what’s at stake, the King can’t lose face in front of all his foreign guests. Ah, Jason, save your breath. He still hasn’t understood that King Creon can’t grieve me anymore, but that’s not what I’m talking about, I have to clear my head. I have to promise myself never to speak about my discovery to a living soul. The best thing would be to do what Chalciope and I used to do with secrets when we were children, do you know what that was, Mother? We’d wrap our secret up tight in a leaf and eat it up while staring into one another’s eyes. Our childhood – or rather everything in Colchis – was full of dark secrets, and when I arrived here, a refugee in King Creon’s gleaming city-state of Corinth, I had an envious thought: these people have no secrets. And that’s what they think too, that’s what makes them so convincing; with every look, with every one of their measured movements, they’re drumming it into you: Here’s one place in the world where a person can be happy. It was only later that I realized how much they hold it against you if you express doubts about their happiness. But that’s not what I’m talking about either, what’s the matter with my head? It’s buzzing with a whole swarm of thoughts, why is it so hard for me to reach into the swarm and snatch out the one thought I need?’

(Read the rest of the excerpt here. Read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the novel here. And read Christa Wolf’s essay on Medea and Cassandra, another character from Greek literature she has based a novel on, here).

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The origins of Marseille and the end of Phocaea

It’s good to be reminded me of the scope and magnitude of Hellenism, the fact that, as Henry Maine put it: ‘Except for the blind forces of Nature, nothing moves in this world which is not Greek in its origins.’

France’s second largest city Marseille is Greek in its origins and the supporters of its football club commemorate this fact not only in the name of the club, Olympique de Marseille, and in the azure and white colours of the team’s kit, but also in the waving of Greek flags at home matches.

Indeed, in the recent Europa League game between Marseille and Fenerbache, from another city with Greek origins (Byzantium/Constantinople), the fans of the Turkish team were so incensed by the Hellenic national symbols, which they took to be a provocation, that they began to riot in the stadium – smashing seats, attacking Marseille fans – prompting the French police to require the home fans to put away their Greek flags.

Three days later, in the league match against Lille, the Marseille fans reiterated their esteem for the Greek flag by forming, as the video above shows, a giant human version of it, beneath which a banner read: ‘NE RENIONS PAS L’ORIGINE DE NOTRE VILLE’. (We do not deny the origin of our city).

As to the origins of Marseille/Μασσαλία, the city was founded by Ionian Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor in 600 BC, themselves colonists from Phocis in central Greece – Olympique de Marseille’s original name was US Phocéenne.

Phocaea was destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1914, an event recounted in George Horton’s The Blight of Asia. Horton, who was US consul general in Smyrna at the time, states that the fate of the Phocaeans would have been worse had it not been for the intervention of a group of resident Frenchmen, who felt a bond and obligation towards Phocaea because of its status as the ‘Mother of Marseille’.

Below are a few passages from The Blight of Asia describing the massacre and destruction of Phocaea.

‘The complete and documentary account of the ferocious persecutions of the Christian population of the Smyrna region, which occurred in 1914, is not difficult to obtain; but it will suffice, by way of illustration, to give only some extracts from a report by the French eye-witness, Manciet, concerning the massacre and pillage of Phocea, a town of eight thousand Greek inhabitants and about four hundred Turks, situated on the sea a short distance from Smyrna. The destruction of Phocea excited great interest in Marseilles, as colonists of the very ancient Greek town founded the French city. Phocea is the mother of Marseilles. Monsieur Manciet was present at the massacre and pillage of Phocea, and, together with three other Frenchman, Messieurs Sartiaux, Carlier and Dandria, saved hundreds of lives by courage and presence of mind.

‘The report begins with the appearance on the hills behind the town of armed bands and the firing of shots, causing a panic. Those four gentlemen were living together, but when the panic commenced they separated and each installed himself in a house. They demanded of the Kaimakam gendarmes for their protection, and each obtained one. They kept the doors open and gave refuge to all who came. They improvised four French flags out of cloth and flew one from each house. But, to continue the recital in Monsieur Manciet’s own words, translated from the French:

“During the night the organized bands continued the pillage of the town. At the break of dawn there was continual ‘tres nourrie’ firing before the houses. Going out immediately, we four, we saw the most atrocious spectacle of which it is possible to dream. This horde, which had entered the town, was armed with Gras rifles and cavalry muskets. A house was in flames. From all directions the Christians were rushing to the quays seeking boats to get away in, but since the night there were none left. Cries of terror mingled with the sound of firing. The panic was so great that a woman with her child was drowned in sixty centimeters of water.”

‘This extract is given from Monsieur Manciet’s description of the sack of Phocea in 1914, of which he was an eye-witness, for several reasons. It is necessary to the complete and substantiated picture the gradual ferocious extermination of the Christians which had been going on in Asia Minor and the Turkish Empire for the past several years, finally culminating in the horror of Smyrna; it is a peculiarly graphic recital, bringing out the unchanging nature of the Turk and his character as a creature of savage passions, living still in the times of Tamerlane or Attila, the Hun;— for the Turk is an anachronism; still looting, killing and raping and carrying off his spoil on camels; it is peculiarly significant, also, as it tells a story strongly resembling some of the exploits of Mohammed himself.

‘Monsieur Manciet says [in his account]:

“We found an old woman lying in the street, who had been nearly paralyzed by blows. She had two great wounds on the head made by the butts of muskets; her hands were cut, her face swollen.

“A young girl, who had given all the money she possessed, had been thanked by knife stabs, one in the arm and the other in the region of the kidneys. A weak old man had received such a blow with a gun that the fingers of his left hand had been carried away.

“From all directions during the day that followed families arrived that had been hidden in the mountains. All had been attacked. Among them was a woman who had seen killed, before her eyes, her husband, her brother and her three children.

“We learned at this moment an atrocious detail. An old paralytic, who had been lying helpless on his bed at the moment the pillagers entered, had been murdered.

“Smyrna sent us soldiers to establish order. As these soldiers circulated in the streets, we had a spectacle of the kind of order which they established; they continued, personally, the sacking of the town.

“We made a tour of inspection through the city. The pillage was complete; doors were broken down and that which the robbers had not been able to carry away they had destroyed. Phocea, which had been a place of great activity, was now a dead city.

“A woman was brought to us dying; she had been violated by seventeen Turks. They had also carried off into the mountains a girl of sixteen, having murdered her father and mother before her eyes. We had seen, therefore, as in the most barbarous times, the five characteristics of the sacking of a city; theft, pillage, fire, murder and rape.”

(Read the whole of Horton’s chapter on the Massacre of Phocaea here).

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Cyprus prepares for elections under the shadow of a bankrupt economy

An update on what’s happening in Cyprus. Two issues are dominating: the bailout deal the government has agreed with the EU, European Central Bank and the IMF to shore up Cyprus’ bankrupt economy and the presidential elections due in February next year.

Despite his proclivity for dithering and pathological predisposition to denial, President Demetris Christofias – under pressure from his finance minister and the chairman of the Cyprus Central Bank (and the threat made by opposition leader Nikos Anastasiades to bring charges of criminal negligence against him, should he not sign a bailout deal) – eventually capitulated to the Troika and agreed to the austerity measures demanded of his government in exchange for an estimated €17.5bn for the recapitalisation of Cyprus’ banks and to cover the government deficit.

Already experiencing recession and unprecedented levels of unemployment at 12 percent, the new measures involving increased taxes, cuts to pensions and public sector pay, as well as privatisations and economic liberalisation, will disconcert a society that has, for 30 years, become used to a buoyant economy characterised by full employment, steady growth and ever-increasing levels of disposable income.

Now, why Cyprus has not been able to withstand the shocks to its economy is a matter of debate, with the island’s communist president insisting that global capitalism and the island’s greedy and over-ambitious banks are to blame, with the latter being accused of negligently exposing the Cypriot economy to Greece’s debt.

On the other hand, Christofias’ critics argue that he has been too slow to react to the looming crisis; unwilling, for ideological reasons, to pre-empt the Troika by reforming the economy or constrain soaring public expenditure, choosing instead to maintain the pretence that the Cypriot economy could withstand the buffeting it was taking, by pursuing loans from Russia and China. Charges of economic illiteracy and incompetence have also been levelled at Christofias and his government by Athanasios Orphanides, former Cyprus Central Bank chairman, who has repeatedly accused Christofias of ignoring his advice in October 2011 to argue against a haircut of Greek bonds for fear of the massive losses such a markdown would have on Cypriot banks holding Greek debt. (The fact that Christofias has decided against standing for re-election in February tells you who Cypriots blame for the country’s economic crisis).

Naturally, there have been rumblings of discontent from trade unions about the austerity and reform package, and although we can never underestimate people’s reactions to losing pay, privileges and, indeed, their jobs, I doubt these will amount to much. The main trade unions in Cyprus are not only affiliated to the ruling communist AKEL party, and thus will be discouraged by their political masters from making the government look even more ridiculous by, essentially, calling for strikes against itself; but, also, the strength of the Cypriot economy has meant there is no recent tradition on the island of significant labour unrest. Similarly, although we shouldn’t ignore AKEL’s natural inclination to exploit fear and stoke class resentment, Cyprus does not suffer from the vicious political and ideological discord, which we associate with Greece, while, to continue the Greece analogy and suggest why Cyprus’ difficulties will not lead to a Greece-style social collapse, the Cypriot state continues to function and command the respect of its citizens. It’s also apparent that the discourse that the post-1974 economic model Cyprus has become stale and unsustainable is widely articulated and accepted on the island.

Another factor that will help avert the turning of economic disaster into political crisis is the presidential election due in February, campaigning for which is well underway. The election will have a cathartic effect, since there is a sense that once the ridiculed and despised Christofias leaves office, the island will breathe a sigh of relief and get a fresh start.

It seems to me a foregone conclusion that Nikos Anastasiades, of centre-right DISY, will be Cyprus’ next president. Anastasiades is an unconvincing figure who inspires skepticism and mistrust, forever tainted by his vehement support for the Annan plan in 2004. However, it is an indication of the priorities in Cypriot society at the moment that his views on the Cyprus problem appear less important than his commitment to managing and reforming the economy. Indeed, even DIKO – former premier Tassos Papadopoulos’ centrist party, many of whose supporters regard Anastasiades as a hate figure – is now backing Anastasiades’ candidacy.

Anastasiades’ support for Annan in 2004 does not mean he will, as president, be more amenable to Turkish demands on the Cyprus issue. For a start, Turkey’s policy since 2004 has hardened and its vision for a ‘solution’ is now way beyond what Anastasiades is prepared to accept. Indeed, because Turkey is not, and never has been, prepared to countenance a solution that isn’t, in one way or another, partition, and because Turkey’s neo-Ottoman, ‘no problems with neighbours’, foreign policy is collapsing all around it, it’s hard to imagine that the Turkish government will do further harm to its imperial aspirations and fantasies by loosening its grip on Cyprus. Having DIKO as governing partner – and the more nationalist Antonis Samaras as prime minister in Greece – will also ensure Anastasiades’ perception that Cyprus needs a solution as a matter of urgency to prevent de jure partition and the irreversible Turkification of the occupied areas, will not lead him to make concessions that will achieve precisely what he says he wants to avoid.

With a Cyprus solution not on the horizon, Anastasiades has been talking in his campaign less about what the nitty-gritty of a settlement might look like, and more about the changes to Cypriot foreign policy he envisages – increasing the involvement of the EU in the UN-sponsored negotiations on a settlement; improving relations with Israel and the USA; applying for membership of Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme – all of which Anastasiades anticipates will bolster Cyprus’ international credibility, thwart Ankara’s efforts to upgrade the pseudo-state and make sure Turkey continues having to expend valuable diplomatic capital to maintain its occupation of 37 percent of the island.