My parents came to Australia as minority Rum Greeks from Turkey because Greece, wishing to preserve its ethnic population in Istanbul, would not have them.
So they came to Australia to discard their Turkish citizenship and move back ‘home’ to Greece – though Greece to them was more of an idea than a home. In reality, Australia was more hospitable. Here, they were just ‘wogs’, not tourkospori (Turkish seeds) as in Greece or worst still, giaour (non-believers), as we were known on the streets of Istanbul. For my parents, ‘wog’ was not a hurtful word because it came from a place where they were foreigners, and not from a place where they had grown (ie Turkey) or from a culture they identified with (ie Greek).
As a young girl, I grappled with my identity, and I would try to understand these words – intimidating but interesting. They were also obstacles which stood in the way of my true belonging. And to this day, when people ask “Where are you from?” I don’t know how to respond. Because what can you say when you’re a Rum Greek from Turkey? Where do you belong when your ancestors are buried in a place whose language you cannot speak?
The romantic story my mother told me of why we uprooted ourselves from the country where I was born was this: “Speaking Greek in public streets in Turkey was frowned upon. We were called giaour. I wanted you to speak Greek freely.” I’m sure there was more to it, but I could see her point because when languages are forbidden, we lose chunks of our identity.
Generations of Rum Greeks living in Istanbul and Anatolia preserved their languages. They believed it was important to keep these alive at all costs, even when – or because – these were forbidden. Speaking Greek was an act of resistance, an ‘aisiktir’ to the establishment. My parents’ lot were crushed by years of oppression, hardly antiestablishmentarians by nature with their conservative views and prudish ways. Their act of resistance came through learning their language. It was their opposition to the forced closure of schools and confiscation of Greek property and institutions.
For my family, Australia meant freedom to be ourselves and to speak our language, and I remember with nostalgia the luxurious linguistic arguments of the ’70s which seem so frivolous by today’s standards.
My dad back then spoke in an Istanbul-like way with long ‘l’ sounds and a different use of ‘mou’ possessives. He would assert his Greek dialect was “more correct” due to its continuity from Byzantine times. His linguistic dialect was also a way of showing he was a Rum minority within a larger minority of Greeks.
My mother, a teacher of Greek, would insist I learn perispomeni, psili, daseia and the nuances of the polytonic system, because, as she put it, “This monotonic system will make people lazy.”
I remember the horror she felt when a parent of one of her students, an old immigrant, wrote her a note in Gringlish (before it became a thing) with Greek words scrawled in Latin script, possibly for the for the sake of expediency.
“Almost like the Karamanlides,” she mused, remembering the group of Orthodox Turks who used the Greek alphabet for writing the Turkish language in Karamanlidika.
She always complained that I left an Aussie paradise to raise my children in the Athens jungle; and yet, it would have hurt her to see her grandchildren forget their Greek when her main reasoning behind coming to Australia in the first place was the freedom to speak our language. But having grandkids who could not speak Greek was not something she had to endure, so I was not forced to explain to her that when freedom to speak our language is taken for granted, when there is nothing to resist, we sometimes get lazy and forget, much like those who no longer use perispomeni, psili and daseia.
The term ‘use it or you’ll lose it’ usually applies to physical activities but it also applies to languages.
Greek Community of Melbourne President Bill Papastergiadis did not forget to speak Greek at the meeting to save the Modern Greek language at La Trobe University. Others at the meeting also spoke Greek despite their slight Anglo accents. It was a commendable symbolic gesture. But was it a swan song of a language that is fading in the Antipodes?
Is it too little too late?