Some years ago, I had written a short story in Greek entitled Pantheon. Its premise was simple. The narrator is reciting the genealogy and the works and deeds of a long stream of community brotherhood presidents. Towards the end of the story, it is revealed that he is the son-in-law of the last president, that the brotherhood is now defunct and that his audience is a real estate agent, who is putting the brotherhood’s clubrooms on auction in order to liquidate its assets and – it is implied – share them among its last surviving members, which just happen to be the last presidents’ children. At the time, I remember members of the older generation who read the story shuddering, as if assailed by a sudden chill in the air, before regaining their composure and assuming an indifferent air, commenting: “Oh, that is so far-fetched.”
In actual fact, it isn’t. It is based on a true story, which is mirrored in the recent notice published in a Sydney Greek newspaper, calling a meeting of the Fthian brotherhood ő§hermopylae, with a view to deregistering it and gifting its assets to a hospital and various other institutions. This too has sent shivers up the spines of community doyens everywhere, who are now compelled to cast their eyes upon the woolly mammoth in the room and contemplate the complete dissolution and voidance of all their works and aspirations – not at some vague time in the distant future, but rather within their own lifetimes. What is vaguely and yet disquietingly ironic is that the Fthian brotherhood was also called Thermopylae, the symbolic term often used of Greek community organisations who are supposed to be “guarding the pass at Thermopylae,” i.e. striving to keep our culture and language alive. Thermopylae now has well and truly fallen.
That our regional brotherhoods are in terminal decline is no secret, and they partly have themselves to blame. I have passed by one brotherhood building at least once or twice a week for the past five years. Invariably, it is always shut, a thick dusty curtain shrouding its interior from prying eyes. An inscription on its door, in large, thick gold letters, unmistakably proclaims: “Members Only.” Sometime in the obscurity of the past, hordes of Greeks from other regions must have been clamouring upon the portals of the building, demanding ingress but not today. If the brotherhood does have members, none have ever been observed in the wild and one wonders if the xenophobia towards non-members was a symptom of an exclusivist attitude that blighted the progression of that organisation.
This brotherhood could have easily have been like the one whose general meeting I attended back in 1991 as a fourteen-year-old, where the sole item on the agenda was to exclude persons who were not of the same regional background from the committee of management. At the meeting, amidst cries of foul from partners of members who had contributed to the brotherhood for years and were now being made to feel excluded, the president, a larger than life personality, explained to them that they were not the real target of the exclusionary proposed amendments to the constitution. Instead, as he further elucidated, their adoption was necessary so that in years to come, someone by the name and ethnic origin of Mehmed Mahmud would not aspire to the position of president of the club. The meeting ended with laughter, and my question of why Mehmed Mahmud would want to be the president of an obscure and insular Greek regional organisation received no answer. Today, no one by the name of Mehmed Mahmud is president of that club, and it lingers on, its proceedings conducted in English and its activities centring around football and trivia nights. The older generations are largely gone or unable to carry on, and the younger generations see no reason why they should socialise with persons with whom the only thing that they have in common is a shared place of origin; often a place which is unvisited and of which they have scant knowledge.
The fragmentation of our community into regional ghettoes in which persons could assert their superiority over their co-villagers by aspiring to the presidency, indulging in micro-politics and ultimately having nothing to show for half a century or so of fundraisers, infighting and hard work other than a brotherhood clubroom, is regrettable but understandable. Migrants, who had often not been outside their village, let alone their region, prior to their emigration to Australia, felt more comfortable consorting with their own people, considering others to be foreigners. Yet the net effect of such an approach to community organisation, where particularity rather than commonality is stressed, is to alienate those people who, by virtue of their place of birth, cannot partake of the shared identity that is a condition precedent of ‘full’ and ‘genuine’ membership of a regional brotherhood – those born or raised in Australia.
Existing brotherhoods are now being compelled to assess their future viability. Do they limp on, oblivious to the decay around them, in self-serving adherence to their own present needs and without regard to the future? Do they continue on, desperately trying to at least hold one function a year so as to convince themselves that they still have a purpose? Of late, it has been posited that what ailing brotherhoods should be doing is revamping their constitutions so that in the event of dissolution, their assets remain within the Greek community and are not dissipated to extraneous organisations.
This of course makes sense on one level. Yet it is this emphasis on bricks and mortar, the urge to construct and raise capital blindly without a concrete plan for the future, that has secured our brotherhoods’ demise. Our forefathers were so intent upon buying and paying off their club premises, that they could not conceive of a time when such a prized possession would stand empty. That time came within one generation because no one was capable of developing and implementing a path that would ensure the longevity of these organisations.
It is therefore futile to expect brotherhoods on an ad hoc basis to determine where to leave their assets to for the benefit of the community. Quite frankly, they are incapable of making such a determination without guidance. Proof of this is the fact that in most existing brotherhoods’ constitutions, their assets, in the event of winding up, are generally to be given variously to the Children’s Hospital or to an institution back in their home region in Greece. No provision for the youth or for the broader Greek community in Australia was made for, because the founders and office holders of the brotherhoods were not able to think communally. For this reason, before such a discourse is entered into, broad community consultations need to be held in order to determine what type of future we want for ourselves and what manner of structures will best secure this. Only then should our brotherhoods be asked to bequeath their historic memory to such an endeavour, knowing that from the ashes of their own existence, a phoenix may rise, or at least flap its wings somewhat.
If there is a time for reorganisation, it is today. Given that it no longer makes sense to organise ourselves according to our place of origin, what prospects lie ahead for the future? Surely, in creating communities of Greeks in the suburbs and areas in which we reside, so that we associate with one another as citizens and friends with a diverse range of interests, values and concerns, in a social environment, rather than a rarefied clubroom. The Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria shows the way through its bold construction of a central cultural fulcrum that can coordinate our efforts on a city-wide level. Yet without the support and forward planning of all other community groups, such an endeavour cannot realise its full potential, nor probe the farthest reaches of our community. It is high time, prior to the dissolution of our asset-rich organisations, that the debate none of us want to have is finally conducted: Where do we go from here? This is a debate that will not be resolved immediately. It requires sensitive and sophisticated analysis of our educational, welfare, spiritual and social needs and aspiration, and will take some time. Indeed, it is a debate we should have been having decades ago. Once this is determined, our communal assets must be rationalised in order to be applied for everyone’s benefit, regardless of the narrow vision of some of our brotherhood’s founding fathers. And should the day come that presiding capably over our collective welfare as a coherent Greek community is the august president Mehmed Mahmud, none will be happier or prouder than I.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.