“If we allow non-Samians to join our committee, we open up the floodgates. Next thing you know, you will be receiving letters from the Brotherhood signed yours sincerely, Mehmed Mahmoud, president.”
This was the concluding speech of the president of the Pan-Samian Brotherhood ‘Pythagoras’ at a general meeting in the early ’90s, to discuss whether non-Samians should be permitted to participate in the running of the club. It was met with rapturous applause, my father’s question, “why on earth would Mehmed Mahmoud want to run our club?” being met with self-confident silence. After all, we were at the apex of our organised existence. Our clubhouse was well on the way to being paid off, we had just become affiliated with the Italian ‘Samo,’ club, whose members derived their origins from Samian colonists in southern Italy, and our functions, which took place every week for the purpose of raising the requisite funds to pay off the club premises were extremely well attended.
Unlike the case in many other clubs, Greek political ideologies seemed to be of little importance to the members. Nor was the attainment of the presidency an object of universal lust, despite the existence of several power-brokers to whom the executive positions seemed naturally to devolve. Instead, the pleasure of other Samians’ company and above all, the sampling of decent food seemed to the key aims of its members, creating a convivial atmosphere far removed from the skulduggery and polarisation that blighted other Greek organisations during their ‘Golden Age’.
It was through the Pan-Samian Brotherhood that I learned that my family was connected to other families, through bonds that pre-dated our arrival in Australia. Seated at a table during a function, old men would approach and kiss my head. Enquiring as to their identity as well as the source of their sentiment, my father would offer glimpses into an unknown past: “That one there was your grandfather’s shepherd. When pappou left for Australia, he gave him his entire flock. This one was a good friend of your grandfather’s back in the village. He stayed in our home for a few years when he arrived in Australia.” According to my way of thinking, such knowledge of prior relationships and obligations served to create binding ties down the generations and I found it surprising that my contemporaries seemed to be totally uninterested in exploring these.
Devouring the books of the meagre Pan-Samian library, I was astounded to learn how rich and diverse the history of my island of origin actually was. A world naval power in the time of Polycrates, it was the home of a plethora of great ancient poets, architects and mathematicians. Eupalinos, in particular, was the engineer of a marvel described in the histories of Herodotus: the second known tunnel in history, which was excavated from both ends and the first with a methodical approach in doing so. One of Samos’ sons, Ioannis Heraclides, became the first Protestant king of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, it was a bastion of fierce resistance during the Greek revolution, and the scene of the miracle of the Battle of Geronta, where doughty Samian fighters prevented the landing of Ottoman troops on the island, and in the process, also prevented a genocide such as that which took place in Chios.
This miracle was reinforced in the psyche of our members, by the positioning of a large, cartoon-like mural on our clubhouse wall, with the faces of the Ottomans being depicted with the twisted gruesomeness of a German mediaeval painting. I also found my family surname among the roll call of those who attended the Samian meeting that determined that the island would join the Greek Revolution. This conflicted with family lore, for my grandfather’s family had its roots in Aydin of Asia Minor and my grandfather was in Aydin during the Catastrophe, and this fascinating inconsistency has never been satisfactorily resolved, for all of my grandparents’ contemporaries are now long gone. As if all this was not enough, prior to uniting with Greece in 1913, Samos was an independent principality for almost a century, whose official language at one time was Esperanto and a leading world exporter of tobacco.
At Christmas time, I would take my violin and, with my cousins, would travel to the homes of members all around Melbourne in order to sing them the Greek Christmas carols and raise money for the club. This involved a) acquiring a sufficient repertoire of carols so as to not render ourselves senseless through repetition and b) getting to know a vast number of people who spoke with the same drawl and clipped consonants as my grandparents did and who displayed the same open-hearted hospitality. All Greeks were our people, but these were especially so, and even today, I have run into not a few persons who I had hitherto forgotten, who still remember our Christmas carol visits.
The Samian drawl, which is still the primary means of communication in my house, is barely spoken in the Pan-Samian clubhouse nowadays. Along with the Ithacans, the Samians are among the most ancient of Greek communities in Melbourne and my parents’ generation, who arrived in Australia in the ’50s and ’60s, have grown up and were educated here. They find it easier to express themselves in English, although in Cavafian style, they feel guilty for doing so. When they get together in ever-dwindling numbers for the same type of dinner dances that the club has held of the past 70 years, or write letters in what amounts to pidgin-Greek, one gets the feeling that this is an ersatz form of Hellenism, a Poseidonian cultural calque full of ennui before an imminent fall. It was thus fitting that the most recent extraordinary general meeting of the club, where it was determined to sell the clubhouse, was convened in English.
The sale of the clubhouse, owing to increasing overheads and a lack of income as a result of a dwindling membership, has been cited as proof of the irrelevancy of Greek organisations that have as their basis a regional identity. This regional identity is widely held to be inimical to the construction of a viable Greek Australian identity that will see us through the future and indeed, as a cause of disunity.
I beg to differ. There is richness and uniqueness in our regional cultures and their diversity gives depth and lustre to the shared culture of all of us. There is significance in the shared and remembered experiences of our ancestors and how they related to each other in our homelands. There is also magic in being able to maintain and create relationships of mutual assistance and obligation based on those past experiences that root us firmly not only within our ancestral culture but our birth culture as well. These are not things that should be dismissed lightly; if anything they are the foundations of our identity and the glue that holds us together. After all, the proposition that Greek culture is unified is fallacious and dangerous, leading as it does to an artificial and embarrassing construction, devoid of life.
Sadly, we have all squandered the opportunities given to us to make the most of our regional organisations, usually because of a particularly vicious form of infighting occasioned by certain power-brokers utilising such clubs as a vehicle for the promotion of their own egos, or as a form of wish fulfilment, given that many such clubs were run as mini-parliaments for would-be politicians.
This is does not apply in the cases of the Samians, however. Instead, it is age, complacency, insularity (in that the older generation could not see how they could interweave the activities of the club within the fabric of the broader Greek community), a lack of celebrating their diversity and an inability to foresee the way latter generations would adopt a superficial, disparaging view of their mother culture before rejecting it almost wholesale, that has brought them to the brink. And yet it is not too late, for there are many such as I who remember growing up within the love and security of the Samian community with extreme fondness and nostalgia. It is time to resurrect that sense of community.
I drive past the premises of the Nisyrian Brotherhood on Sydney Road, Brunswick at least thrice a week. Never have I seen the premises open and yet the sign on the door proclaims forbiddingly: ‘Nisyrian Brotherhood: Panayia Thermiani: MEMBERS ONLY.’ While a rationalisation of community assets may be beneficial and indeed inevitable, we, just like our ancestors since times ancient, are a conglomeration of regional, some time conflicting but always fascinating, identities. We would disregard these and their legacy at our peril. Our challenge lies in sharing rather than isolating these identities and celebrating their eccentricities. Their discovery, in all their multifarious Samian forms, ultimately form the reason why I chose to be Greek.
*Dean Kalymniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.