Tuesday, 30 July 2013

‘If it were possible for Turkey to sink Cyprus, it would do so’

Above is an interview that Andreas Mavroyiannis gave to the BBC’s HARDtalk programme last November. Mavroyiannis was at the time the diplomat in charge of Cyprus’ presidency of the EU and much of the interview concerns these duties and the looming economic crisis that fully unfolded on the island a few months later.

More recently, Mavroyiannis has been appointed by President Nikos Anastasiades as the Greek Cypriots’ chief negotiator for the Cyprus problem and he will now be the person who meets and talks with the UN’s Alexander Downer and the Turkish Cypriot side. The idea of the president of Cyprus not directly representing the Greek Cypriot community in negotiations with the Turkish side goes back to Makarios and, theoretically, is supposed to reflect the fact that the president is not leader of the Greek Cypriot community but head of the Republic of Cyprus. But this isn’t why Anastasiades has made the appointment. Rather, the idea of installing a chief negotiator, agreed by the National Council (on which the leaders of all the political parties represented in parliament sit), was a concession by Anastasiades to DIKO to acquire its support for the presidential elections that Anastasiades won in February. DIKO, which had previously supported Dimitris Christofias, was outraged that in negotiations with the Turks, Christofias was deciding policy and making concessions on the hoof, without proper consultation or agreement. Concerned that this egotistical and high-handed approach to policy would be repeated by Anastasiades who, it should be remembered, had supported the Annan plan, DIKO managed to get him to agree that the president would take a back seat in settlement talks by appointing a negotiator who would be answerable to the National Council.

Anyway, none of this is particularly important and what I wanted to point out is a couple of truths regarding Turkey’s Cyprus policy that Mavroyiannis mentions in the interview. These are:

1. Turkey’s objective in UN negotiations is to arrive at a settlement that allows it to keep control of Cyprus.

2. Mavroyiannis also says that in its disputation of Cyprus’s continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone, Turkey is revealing that it would like to erase Cyprus from the face of the world:
‘For Turkey, if it were possible to sink Cyprus, it would have done so, because, [firstly], we provide an alternative access to the Middle East and they cannot monopolise access. Second, because we can provide an alternative corridor to Europe for oil and gas – Israel, Cyprus, Greece. And [third] because they would like Cyprus not to exist in order to divide the Mediterranean between Turkey and Egypt.’

* (Also, I’ve had a couple of complaints about comments not appearing. Just a reminder, if you leave an Anonymous comment, it is recorded as spam and is likely to be deleted. Follow instructions on comments form on how to leave a comment).

Friday, 26 July 2013

Five myths about the 1974 coup against Makarios

I came across an interesting piece, Cyprus 1974: five myths about the coup, written by Marios Evriviades, who is professor of International Relations at Panteion University. (Read the entire article in Greek here or here).

The five myths, according to Evriviades, are that: 1. Sampson and EOKA B organised the coup; 2. The objective of the coup was enosis; 3. The objective of the coup was partition; 4. Makarios was deliberately allowed by the junta to escape from the assault on the presidential palace; and 5. The Americans tricked junta leader Dimitrios Ioannides into carrying out the coup.

Below I’ve translated into English extracts that relate to the first three myths Evriviades refers to. I believe Evriviades’ repudiation of the first two myths is compelling and even though I agree with the assertion he makes in discussing myth number three that Turkey’s invasion and partitioning of the island in 1974 did not alter Turkey’s deeper geostrategic goal of controlling the whole of Cyprus, I have my doubts about his view as to when Turkey came to regard partition as falling short of its long-term objectives.

Evriviades starts off his piece by referring to a UK Foreign Office document dated 12 September 1956 revealing that, despite Cyprus being in the throes of its campaign for enosis, Greece, through its foreign minister Evangelos Averoff, was actively promoting the idea of partitioning the island. Evriviades’ says:
‘In July 1956, while EOKA’s liberation struggle was fully underway, Evangelos Averoff was pushing the idea to American diplomats that Cyprus should be partitioned. In September 1956, Averoff repeated to Norway’s foreign minister Halvard Lange that partition was the only possible solution to the Cyprus Question. Two weeks later, Averoff suggested partition in two meetings with Turkey’s ambassador in Athens.’
On to the myths:

1. Sampson and EOKA B organised the coup
Evriviadis says that EOKA B was not involved in the coup and that Nikos Sampson [later installed as president] was completely irrelevant to it. The coup was organised from Athens and was carried out by junta officers in Cyprus, using forces from ELDYK [Hellenic Force in Cyprus] and elite units from the Cyprus National Guard.

Sampson, with a number of bodyguards, came out on to the streets of Nicosia on the morning of the coup on 15 July to find out what was going on. He was arrested along with his bodyguards and held in the basement of the headquarters of the National Guard. Only later, when his identity became known, was Sampson taken to the office of the junta’s main henchman in Cyprus, Brigadier Michalis Georgitsis, who had orchestrated the coup. Because no eminent Cypriots – such as Glafkos Clerides – would agree to be sworn in to replace the deposed (but still alive) president, Archbishop Makarios, Sampson was chosen, even if Sampson was regarded as ‘insane’, both by Athens junta leader Dimitrios Ioannides (who became head of EOKA B when General Georgios Grivas died in January 1974) and Ioannides’ EOKA B representative in Cyprus, Lefteris Papadopoulos.

Despite, Ioannides’ anger and disappointment that the ‘insane’ Sampson was the only man that could be found to make president of Cyprus, the two began to co-operate, with Ioannides’ first order to Sampson being: ‘Nicky, bring me Mouskos’ (i.e. Makarios’) head.’(«Νικολάκη, θέλω το κεφάλι του Μούσκου»).

As for EOKA B, by the beginning of July 1974, it was disintegrating, with its entire local leadership in prison. With the coup, its remaining members took the opportunity to kill resisters and other political opponents. Prior to the coup, EOKA B actions sought to foment conditions of civil war among Greek Cypriots, following the strictures and techniques laid down by the Nato-inspired anti-communist Operation Gladio. The Greek version of Gladio was Κόκκινη Προβιά, and this was applied in Cyprus throughout the reign of the Athens junta (1967-1974). The creation of EOKA B in 1971 and its subsequent activities were products of Κόκκινη Προβιά.

2. The objective of the coup was enosis
Not at all.
Unadulterated, real enosis had been abandoned by Athens in 1957, if not 1956. Any discussion of enosis after the events of 1963-64 [i.e. the Turkish Cypriot uprising] referred to ‘double enosis’, i.e. partition or, more correctly, the dissolution of the Republic of Cyprus and the annexation of some 60% of the island by Greece, with the rest going to Turkey.

Any assertion by the junta that its actions in Cyprus were motivated by a desire for enosis is sheer hypocrisy. The aim of the Ioannides junta was more simple: it was the survival of the junta regime – which felt threatened by a free and democratic Cyprus and by Turkey in the Aegean. By removing the ‘Red Priest’ [Makarios] in Cyprus, Ioannides believed he was providing a valuable service to his sponsor, the USA, which loathed Makarios and regarded him as an impediment to their plans for the island. Ioannides hoped that by doing the Americans a favour, Washington would restrain Turkey not only in Cyprus but also in the Aegean, where Turkey had begun to make threatening noises in November 1973.

3. The objective of the coup was partition
Yes and No.
It’s true that both the Georgios Papadopoulos (1967-73) and Dimitrios Ioannides (1973-74) juntas were reconciled to the partition of Cyprus, which when they weren’t calling it ‘double enosis’ were calling it ‘enosis with something in return’. Partition was also the ideal solution and strategic aim of the USA.

However, was partition Turkey’s objective on Cyprus? And was Ankara prepared to work first with the Papadopoulos’ and then the Ioannides’ regimes to bring about the division of Cyprus?

Here we are confronted with another myth, that Turkey’s aim was and continues to be the partitioning of Cyprus. Until August 1964, this was the case, but afterwards, it is not so. In August 1964, Turkey rejected partition as envisaged by the Acheson Plan (Greece had accepted the plan), because partition would not have solved its main strategic preoccupation, which was to prevent Greece extending its sovereignty to Cyprus. From this point on, Turkey altered its Cyprus policy in favour of the dissolution of the Republic of Cyprus and the creation of a federation of two autonomous states on the island [the ‘rulers in the north, partners in the south’ scenario] which would allow geostrategic control of Cyprus to pass to Turkey. Ioannides may have had the aim of partitioning Cyprus, but not Turkey. The form the Turkish invasion of Cyprus took and Turkey’s current Cyprus policy prove this beyond doubt.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

What caused Cyprus’ downfall: Nato imperialism or Turkish nationalism?

Above is a documentary – The Green Line – about the partition of Cyprus made for British TV back in 1985. The first part looks at events from 1920-1974 and argues that Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived in relative harmony until British colonial authorities in order to justify and retain their influence on the island initiated a cynical ‘divide and rule’ policy. The documentary then argues that having reluctantly conceded independence to Cyprus, Britain and, increasingly, America, concerned by the non-aligned policies of President Makarios, which they believed exposed Cyprus to Soviet penetration, devised a scheme to partition Cyprus between Nato stalwarts Greece and Turkey. This was done by urging Turkey to take an aggressive interest in Cyprus; influencing the Greek military junta to do the same; and by encouraging EOKA B to undermine Makarios from within the Greek Cypriot community. The programme interviews ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots caught up in the politics of the island as well as prominent British figures who shaped and witnessed Cypriot events.

It’s a fairly good documentary and while an analysis emphasising Cold War politics as a pre-eminent cause of the invasion and partition of Cyprus has many merits, I’ve never been fully convinced by it. This is because the ‘Anglo-American-machinations’ narrative – especially in the way it has been adopted by the left, such as AKEL (whose representatives are over-represented in the documentary), which embellishes it by accusing the USA and UK of manipulating ‘chauvinist’ or ‘nationalist’ elements on the island – fails to recognise Turkey’s calculated actions to dismember Cyprus.

Thus even if it’s true that it was the British in the 1950s that first suggested to the Turks that partition of Cyprus was a more realistic and beneficial choice for Turkey than its original policy option of wanting to take over the whole of the island, Turkey had its own reasons for the vigorous pursuit of such a policy regardless of whether it suited British colonial or Nato interests.

Indeed, this failure to factor in Turkey’s attitudes towards Cyprus is not just a historical and analytical oversight, it is a deliberate political omission. This is because to stress the role Turkish nationalism played in the downfall of Cyprus also points to a truth that the advocates of the ‘Nato-imperialism’ narrative cannot bear to hear and that is that the preponderance of Turkish Cypriots were genuinely consumed by Turkish national ideology; they were its willing agents; ardently wished to be separated politically and geographically from Greek Cypriots; and zealously worked for the extension of Turkey into Cyprus. Asserting the abject role of Cyprus’ Turkish minority in ruining the island makes it hard for proponents of the ‘Anglo-American conspiracy’ narrative to portray the Turkish Cypriots as ‘brothers-in-arms’ with Greek Cypriots in the fight for an independent and reunified Cyprus.

In summary, Turkish nationalism and Turkey’s warped perception of its interests is the predominant factor in explaining the invasion and occupation of Cyprus and the more appropriate historical context is not the Cold War but 1071, the Eastern Question and the genocidal foundations of the modern Turkish republic and Turkish national ideology. Asserting this is not just important for an understanding of the political history of the Turkish invasion and occupation of Cyprus, but it also points us in the direction of what can and needs to be done to liberate (or, more likely, protect) the island from Turkey.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

‘Better to die than let the Turks set foot in this holy place’

If you know Greek, then the interview above with retired Lieutenant-General Dimitris Alevromagiros is worth watching. Alevromagiros was serving in Cyprus during the period of the Turkish invasion of the island in July and August 1974 and it’s clear that he was inspired by the heroism of those Greeks from Cyprus and Greece (the latter serving in ELDYK) who, despite overwhelming odds, fought to repel the enemy. His recollection at the end of the interview (from 54:30) of the oath taken by Greek officers to fight to the death to protect from the Turks the Imprisoned Graves (Φυλακισμένα Μνήματα), which consists of the graves of 13 pre-eminent EOKA fighters executed or killed by the British during the struggle for Enosis 1955-59, is particularly stirring.

* I’ve managed to extract the five minutes at the end of the interview in which Lt-Gen Alevromagiros talks of the oath taken to die rather than let the Turks take the Φυλακισμένα Μνήματα, and you can watch the video below.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The unravelling of neo-Ottomanism

Turkey’s Islamist rulers’ nationalist ambitions for a revivified neo-Ottoman empire, which was cast by its leading ideologue current foreign minister Ahmet Davoutoglu as ‘zero-problems with Turkey’s neighbours’, has unravelled more quickly than anybody could have imagined. 

Indeed, it seemed only last year with the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ that a number of a nationalist and Baathist regimes – in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia – would be ousted and replaced by Islamists inclined towards closer relations with Turkey. However, in Syria, the Assad regime refused to fall while Egypt’s experiment with a Muslim Brotherhood government has come crashing down, causing great consternation in Ankara and a rupture in relations between Turkey and the new government in Cairo. 

Just as interesting are Turkey’s strained relations with Iran, another country Turkey had wanted to bring within its orbit. Indeed, in the article below, originally published here, the author (William Armstrong) suggests that anti-Iranian feeling is so strong in Turkey that there has been a surge in Sunni sectarian feeling that doesn’t bode well for Turkey with its large Alevi minority.

Growing anti-Iranianism in the pro-AKP media
Not so many years ago, a strategic partnership between Turkey and Iran seemed to be developing into one of the region’s more unexpected modern developments. Turkey was vaunted as a mediator in negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, and the relationship was reinforced by crucial oil and gas sales from Iran to Turkey. Those days feel rather long ago. The two countries now find themselves at loggerheads backing opposite sides of the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria, with fears of a regional sectarian conflagration steadily turning into an apocalyptic reality. A marker of the Syrian crisis’ deleterious effect on the Turkey-Iran relationship came with the diplomatic spat that followed the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on Turkey’s southern border earlier this year, which lead the Iranian army’s chief of staff to declare that the move could be a prelude to ‘world war.’ Less spectacular, but also very important, is Iran’s clear unease with Turkey’s delicate ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which involves the rebel group withdrawing its militants from Turkish soil to their bases in northern Iraq. Tehran is concerned that the withdrawal could result in the militants joining forces with the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is the PKK’s offshoot in Iran.

The schism between Turkey and Iran widened to such an extent that Patrick Cockburn recently described relations between the two as ‘poisonous’ and this is increasingly being reflected in the rising levels of anti-Iran sentiment in Turkey’s Islamist press. In addition to countless pieces targeting Iran for supporting the al-Assad regime in Syria , it has also been striking to see the AKP media include Iranians among the dark ‘outside forces’ stoking the recent Gezi Park protests, supposedly out of discomfort with Turkey’s economic success. In the early days of the demonstrations, it was eagerly reported in all government-supporting media outlets that an “Iranian agent” had been arrested on suspicion of being a ‘provocateur’ behind protests in Ankara. It later emerged in more sceptical news organisations that the individual concerned, Shayan Shamloo, was in fact a rapper who was living in Turkey as a refugee.

Soon afterwards – in one of those truly befuddling Today’s Zaman stories – Abdullah Bozkurt wrote a column titled ‘Iran plays a subversive role in Turkey,’ in which he argued with a straight face (pardon the pun) that Iran was using the protests to infiltrate Turkey with spies disguised as LGBT people in an attempt to bring down the government:
‘Recent protests exposed, among other things, the depth of Iranian infiltration into Turkey… [During the protests] about a dozen Iranian agents who were trying to turn rallies into violent anti-government demonstrations were caught by the police… Since it is difficult to distinguish legitimate non-Muslim minority or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from spies, Iranian intelligence often uses them as a cover to infiltrate Turkey and third countries.’
However weird, Bozkurt’s column wasn’t an outlier in pointing the finger at Iran for Turkey’s problems. Indeed, Zaman and Today’s Zaman have recently been publishing a steady stream of articles and columns critical of negative Iranian influence in the region, and it’s probably also worth noting here that the Today’s Zaman editor, Bülent Keneş, wrote a book on Iran’s links to international terrorism last year.

Much of the Iran-bashing in the Turkish press goes hand in hand with pieces on Turkey’s Alevi minority. The Alevis are an offshoot of Shiism, (distinct from the Alawites in Syria), and have historically been associated by some in Turkey as dangerous fifth columnists with divided loyalties to Iran. Indeed, that association goes back as far as Bosphorus bridge-commemorated Sultan Selim the Grim, whose decision to kill tens of thousands of Alevis was taken during a military campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire in the 16th century.

Some of the most enthusiastic and unpleasant examples negatively associating Alevis with Iran come from the extreme Islamist daily Yeni Akit. For two consecutive days in June, for example, Yeni Akit carried front page headline stories claiming that Iranian authorities had invited Alevi religious leaders across the border to visit Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to foment sectarian war in Turkey. The headline of the first day’s story, ‘Iran is playing with fire’ (İran, ateşle oynuyor), was a stomach-turning play on the Turkish term for ‘flame’ (ateş), in reference the fire often used in Alevi rituals. Of course, it should be stressed that Yeni Akit is far from representative of majority sentiment in Turkey, but it probably isn’t quite as marginal as most people like to think. In fact, a few months ago Erdoğan even put two of its writers – including editor-in-chief Hasan Karakaya - on his ‘Wise Men Commission,’ charged with the august task of repeating whatever he said about the ongoing Kurdish peace process.

It all adds up to a worrying picture. With the Syrian crisis having exploded into a wider geopolitical struggle splitting the region on sectarian lines, it’s increasingly clear that the growing schism between majority-Sunni Turkey and majority-Shia Iran is more than just a temporary trend.

Friday, 12 July 2013

On Russia, Greeks and the Byzantine Empire

Below is an article by Dmitry Shlapentokh on how some recent Russian films are reflecting that country’s ideological and foreign policy preoccupations, its relations with Asia and the West. One of the films mentioned is The Fall of an Empire – the Lessons of Byzantium, which was written and presented by the prominent Russian cleric Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov who, apparently, is Vladimir Putin’s spiritual father. (The film is widely available on youtube, and above is the first part).

The film purports to explain why the Byzantine Empire collapsed, and it does this, largely, by pinning the blame on the West, which was not only perfidious and avaricious but also espoused decadent political and philosophical ideas that were exported to the Byzantines, who stupidly consumed them. Tikhon implicitly refutes any notion that Byzantium was an expression of Hellenism and, indeed, points to the re-emergence of Hellenism and Greek national consciousness as critical factors undermining the Orthodox Christian and multi-ethnic nature of the Empire. The Russian priest bemoans ‘Greek arrogance’ and its dalliance with the paganism of the classical past, which Tikhon says alienated Byzantine Slavs.

As Shlapentokh’s piece indicates, Tikhon’s film is less a serious attempt to understand Byzantine collapse and more an effort to draw a crude parallel between the malaise of contemporary Russia and that of Byzantium in decline and to warn Russian viewers that unless they confront their own social and moral turpitude and resist the influence of the decadent West, then Russia will go the same way as Byzantium.

Among other things, the film is an interesting insight into anti-Greek Slav prejudices and a warning to many Greeks (including me) who are susceptible to Russophilia.

A projection of Moscow’s mindset, by Dmitry Shlapentokh
Russia’s relations with the Asian people, as projected in recent movies, provides important insight not just about Russian domestic but also foreign policy, including Moscow’s view of the current conflicts in the Middle East.

Since the end of Vladimir Putin’s first term as president, the Russian movie industry has produced several historical movies on Asia and Russia’s relations with the Asian people. Most have had broad public responses, indicated by heated debates in cyberspace.

A movie about Genghis Khan, Mongol, created in 2007 and directed by Sergei Bodrov, was one of the most prominent. It dwelt on Khan’s extraordinary life, rising from an unknown man, even a slave at certain times of his early life, to became the creator of a huge empire.

His extraordinary brutality, even by the criteria of his time, was overlooked, as well as Khan’s descendents’ conquest of Russia. The emphasis was on Khan’s vitality, energy, talent and extraordinary will. In the movie, the East has positive implications whereas the West has a negative image.

In 2008, on the eve of Putin’s passing his presidential scepter to Dmitry Medvedev (at least formally), a new movie, The Fall of an Empire – the Lesson of Byzantium, created by Archimandrite Tikhon, allegedly Putin’s confessor, was shown on the official government TV channel, indicating its paramount ideological importance.

The movie dealt with history and the end of the Byzantine Empire, clearly identified here with Russia. While having a lot of similarities in its overall ideological framework with that of Mongol, Tikhon’s movie has much less pleasing images of the East than Bogrov’s work. The movie has decidedly anti-Western overtones.

According to this movie, the West is sly and deceptive; and one should not trust Western smiles and handshakes. Still, the most dangerous factor is not Western duplicity or even the fact that Western crusaders devastated Constantinople in 1204, but the corrosive influence of Western culture, which weakened the Byzantium Empire.

Still, there was not much hope in the East, and it was the Ottoman Turks who finally overtook Byzantium in 1453, leading to the disappearance of the indigenous Orthodox population.

Finally, last year, the movie The Horde, sponsored and funded by the Russian Orthodox Church, was brought to the screen with an entirely new image of the West. The movie dealt with the Golden Horde, created after Batu (Batyi), Genghis Khan’s grandson conquered Russian lands in the early 13th century. The rule of Batu and his descendants is usually called in Russian historiography the ‘Mongol/Tatar Yoke’, and the movie’s producer followed this traditional line.

The image of Tatars here is extremely negative: they were identified as brutal, sadistic, dirty, and with no moral restraints. One Tatar Khan, the protagonist of the movie, even contemplated an incestuous relationship with his mother.

Westerners emerge here as implicit allies of Russia, plainly because they were treated as badly as Russians; and, with all of their cultural/religious differences from Russians, they are closer to Russians by culture and habits. What is the broad implication of these movies and the evolution of the image of the West and East?

And why should anyone outside of Russia give any significance to these movies? This is quite important for understanding the nature of not just the internal evolution of Russian society.

Throughout most of Putin’s tenure, Moscow’s relationship with Washington was tense; and recently Moscow became at odds not just with the US, but also with most Europeans over the conflict in Syria. Still, despite the deterioration of Moscow’s relationship with both Washington and Brussels, the opposite process took place among the Russian public.

It’s true that the rest of Russians’ lost their excitement about the US – quite strong in the beginning of Gorbachev’s era – a long time ago. Yet, their interest in West and Central Europe and the desire to follow European footsteps grew as time progressed.

This process also corresponded with the increasing hostility between ethnic Russians and Muslims of various ethnic origins, including those who are citizens of the Russian Federation. As a result, the West, especially Europe, emerges in the mind of most ethnic Russians if not as friendly but at least a neutral force. In any case, the West is seen as much less of a threat than the Asians, mostly Muslim Asians. This view has a direct implication for Moscow’s foreign policy.

The mainstream media usually points to Moscow’s support of Damascus, ignoring the fact that Moscow’s relationship with Teheran actually worsens as the Syrian Civil War rages. Moscow continues to deny Tehran’s request to send S-300 missiles despite the 2007 contract and a recent Tehran law suit in an international court.

The Bushehr nuclear plant – still operated mostly by Russian personnel – has stopped working, and Iranian questions about nature of the problems were left without a response. Nor has Moscow responded to Israel’s tough statement that S-300 missiles would be immediately attacked by Israel if they are, indeed, delivered to Syria.

All of this indicates that, while defending its national interests, neither the Kremlin nor the majority of ethnic Russians – similar to the protagonists of The Horde – are anxious to join the East in a full-fledged alliance to confront the West, including the US. And these views should be taken into account both in Washington and Brussels, especially at a time when Western military power is clearly showing its limits.

Dmitry Shlapentokh’s article originally published here.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Dark Odyssey

I managed to find and upload to youtube Dark Odyssesy, a rarely seen Greek-American film (1954), which concerns Yiannis Martakis, played by Athan Karras, who travels from his village in Greece to New York in order to kill the man who he believes dishonoured his sister. While on his vendetta in New York, Yiannis becomes involved with a Greek American girl who tries to persuade him to abandon the traditions and values of the old country and embrace the modernity and liberalism of America. It’s a very good film, which you should watch before youtube takes it down.

In one of the best scenes in the film, Karras (a celebrated choreographer and exponent of Greek dance) performs a breathtaking tsamiko, which you can see below.

Below is a review and history of Dark Odyssey by Dan Georgakas who, as a film critic and student of Greek America, has been instrumental in the film’s rediscovery. Georgakas regards the film as ‘perhaps the best featuring Greek American characters ever made’. He praises Dark Odyssey’s authentic depiction of Greek American life and evocation of 1950s New York. (Georgakas’ article is taken from here).

Dark Odyssey: An Indie Classic Rediscovered   
Dark Odyssey (1954) is an early manifestation of independent filmmaking in New York City that went virtually unknown for more than four decades. Cowritten and codirected by William Kyriakis and Radley Metzger, the film’s theme largely reflects the ethnic insights of Kyriakis, a child of Greek immigrants who grew up in the then heavily-Greek area of New York City’s Chelsea district. The story of how Dark Odyssey was made and its exhibition history is as harrowing as the fate of the film’s tragic hero and reflective of the perennial problems facing independent cinema.

Dark Odyssey, perhaps the best film featuring Greek American characters ever made, was possible due to the new lighter cameras that enabled the filmmakers to shoot most of the film on location with natural light. This greatly reduced the need to rent costly studio facilities for first-time filmmakers Kyriakis and Metzger. Both directors were much impressed by Italian neorealistic films that used on-site shooting extensively and by recent Hollywood films with New York City locations such as The Naked City (1948), On The Town (1949), and Side Street (1950). Kyriakis thought on-site filming would be ideal in helping him create an authentic film about the immigrant culture in which he had been reared.

The plot revolves around Yianni Martakis (Athan Karras), a young Greek sailor who illegally leaves his ship when it harbors in Brooklyn. His mission is to find and slay the man whose sexual indiscretions caused the death of his sister in Greece. In the course of locating the man’s exact whereabouts, Yianni encounters Niki Vassos (Jeanne Jerrems), a wholesome Greek American who works at a waterfront diner. Not knowing the purpose of his visit, Niki guides him to Washington Heights, then a Greek enclave. Unable to immediately confront his prey, Yianni visits the Vassos home and is invited to stay in an extra room in the apartment while he is in New York.

Niki’s father and mother, played brilliantly by Ariadne and Nicholas Zapnoukayas, culturally connect with Yianni and are delighted at the bond they see developing between Yianni and Niki. Their other daughter, Helen (Rosemary Torri), is dating an American, a relationship the parents are trying to thwart. As the film progresses, we see the kindly parents eventually accept Helen’s suitor, but, until the final scenes, it is not certain if Niki’s love will deter Yianni from his rendezvous with murder. The broader theme at play is whether the better aspects of Hellenic culture melded with the opportunities in the United States will prevail over the destructive aspects of traditional Greek culture.

The Vassos elders in Dark Odyssey are very old country in their views and must struggle hard to understand their American-born daughters, but they are not foolish and in many respects are quite sophisticated regarding their ethical and social options. Particularly well done is a low-keyed family party which features Greek dancing performed informally in the manner Greek Americans have experienced in untold living rooms throughout the United States for decades. The apartment, a set built by Kyriakis and Metzger, has the physical size of a typical working-class apartment of the 1950s, rather than the incredibly outsized or simply tawdry New York apartments common to most Hollywood productions. The dress of the various guests, their speech patterns, their interests, and various social details are genuine. These portraits reflect ethnic culture and habits far more accurately than the incredibly popular My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2003) made some fifty years later.

Capping the family party scene is the most extraordinary Greek dance in American film. Choreographed and performed by Athan Karras, the dance physically expresses the struggle between the budding love and the abiding hate that consumes Martakis’s psyche. The Vassos family has placed a sword on the wall as a symbol of ethnic pride. Yianni briefly explains to some of the guests that the sword is associated with a variation of the ‘tsamiko’ style of dance that is extremely personal. Against his better judgment, he is prevailed upon to dance. The movements that follow are all the more dramatic in that Karras skillfully wields the sword as he moves, a reminder that many movements in Greek folk dances are far more meaningful when we understand they were first performed by men armed with rifles or swords who were wearing kiltlike skirts called ‘foustanellas’. The onlookers are awed by his performance, but only Niki knows the cause of the intense passion Karras has expressed.

The film’s outdoor scenes are as authentic as its interiors. A Greek ship owner allowed Kyriakis and Metzger to use a freighter docked in Brooklyn for the opening scenes. A Greek diner owner in lower Manhattan allowed the filmmakers to shoot in his premises on a Sunday morning. The owners of a Greek nightclub on Eighth Avenue allowed them to shoot several scenes, some involving actual customers. A Washington Heights resident allowed them to use a rooftop. A tugboat captain allowed his boat to be used in a long river sequence that shows the Manhattan skyline from the vantage point of the Hudson River. That particular sequence was interrupted when the tug had to assist in maneuvering the S.S. United States out of its pier on to a European-bound sea lane. Still other sequences were shot below the George Washington Bridge and around Grant’s Tomb. The result is a remarkable evocation of the Manhattan cityscapes and sounds of the 1950s.

The film took nearly five years to move from the first pages of a script to a full-length feature film. All the actors had donated their services, so shooting had to be done only a few hours a week as the cast became available. Erratic cash flow also created gaps at various stages of production. Once completed, the film faced new problems. Major distributors rejected the film as too ethnic to reach a mass audience in America. On the other hand, distributors dealing with the Greek American market felt it would fail if it was not presented in the Greek language. Thus, the usual pattern of a Greek-language film being dubbed into English was reversed.

Dark Odyssey opened at the Cameo Theater on 44th Street, with the English language version alternating with the Greek language version. The New York Times hailed the film as, ‘Thoughtful, unpretentious, and creatively turned… Messers Kyriakis and Metzger rate a warm welcome to the movie fold.’ Despite similar praise from other American dailies, there were no funds for advertising and the film did poorly at the box office. Later, it was shown at the Steinway Theater in Astoria for a week, but again without adequate advertising, the film failed to draw an audience. From that time on, Dark Odyssey remained unseen and forgotten. That circumstance only changed in 1999 when First Run Features made the film available as a low-cost video as part of a box set featuring the films of Radley Metzger. On its release in the new format, The Daily News compared the film to the work of John Cassavetes and judged it, ‘…a thoroughly warm and enduring drama that doubles as an evocative time capsule portrait of 1950s Manhattan.’ Since then, Dark Odyssey has taken on a second life as a feature in Greek film festivals in America and as a component of various university courses, most often in ethnic studies programs.

The subsequent careers of the filmmakers are of note as they indicate the various pathways opened to artists involved in independent filmmaking even in the 1950s. Rather than being discouraged by Dark Odyssey’s rapid demise, William Kyriakis went on to a long and fruitful career as a documentary filmmaker. He also worked on various Greek films released in America, most notably Michael Cacoyannis’s Stella. Codirector Radley Metzger built an international reputation as a cult director with a series of erotic films that were financial plums. As recently as September 2010, Metzger was honored for his film work by the Oldenburg International Film Festival in Germany. Laurence Rosenthal, who wrote the compelling musical score for Dark Odyssey, went on to Hollywood where he composed for major motion pictures such as The Miracle Worker, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and Becket.

Athan Karras left the Broadway stage where he had been working and moved to Hollywood where he became a much sought choreographer and dance instructor. Over the years, he became recognized as America’s leading authority on traditional Greek dancing. Hollywood producers often consulted Karras about films and television shows featuring Greek music. His prestigious dance studios attracted Hollywood luminaries such as Marlon Brando, Ginger Rogers, Telly Savalas, Bo Derek, and Omar Sharif. Ariadne and Nicholas Zapnoukayas continued to perform in Greek theatrical productions until the demise of those acting venues in the late 1960s.

Made at the dawn of American independent feature filmmaking that employed on-site locations, Dark Odyssey remains a notable example of what genuinely independent film production can accomplish. Despite the obstacles created by an extremely limited budget and resources, the film succeeded in creating a vibrant, visual portrait of New York at a time of great change without recourse to the dramatics of poverty-stricken lives or organized crime. Thematically, the film offers telling insights into ethnic life in post-World War II urban America. The specifics are Greek but the patterns fit experiences common to all immigrants and their immediate offspring.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Who were the Greeks? Episode Two

Above is part two of Michael Scott’s BBC documentary Who Were the Greeks? in which the classicist looks at why Greek civilisation was so creative – which he puts down to the competitive spirit at the heart of Greek culture; why that civilisation has proved so enduring and appealing – which he associates not only with its continuing relevance but also the conquests of Alexander the Great – the spreading of Hellenism that came in their wake – and how captive Greece took Rome captive with the brilliance of its culture; and at (allegedly) new thinking about Greece – such as the use of paint and colour in Greek art, indicating that Greek art was not monochrome, as surviving statues and structures might lead us to believe, but technicolour.

I don’t think Scott gets much wrong, although for those who already have a reasonable understanding of Greek civilisation he doesn’t say anything original – and the trend of this country’s classicists to try and explain Greek civilisation by making comparisons to contemporary British popular culture makes them look stupid and trivial. Of course, this is only a TV programme and I suppose its purpose was not to tell you something different about a culture that you would need several lifetimes to study and appreciate to any satisfactory degree, but to give those who don’t know much about it some kind of introduction and to encourage them to look at Greece for themselves.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Dan Georgakas on the fall of Smyrna, 1922


Above is a good talk from Dan Georgakas given to the Pontian Greek Society of Chicago on the fall and evacuation of Smyrna in 1922 and how these events are represented in contemporary Turkey. Georgakas, whose family has roots in Asia Minor, is an interesting person. As well as being a significant chronicler of the Greek American experience and a champion of Greek causes and culture, he is a prominent film critic and political writer and activist, who was a part of that counter-cultural wave that swept over Detroit in the 1960s. Georgakas was a founding member of the anarchist group, Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers.

In his talk on Smyrna, Georgakas as well as detailing the horrors that befell the city’s Greeks when it was taken by Mustafa Kemal’s forces, makes the very significant point that the refusal to own up to the atrocities it committed at its establishment has meant that the Republic of Turkey was condemned to repeat them, as evidenced by the Varlik Vergisi, the Constantinople pogrom, the ethnic cleansing of Imvros and Tenedos and the invasion and occupation of Cyprus. In other words, Georgakas is telling us that Turkey’s lies about its past inform its present actions and as such should not be trusted by Greece or regarded as a reliable partner by America.