I drive past the Nisyrian Society club building on Sydney Road, Brunswick at least once a week. On its curtained door, a sign proclaims forbiddingly: ‘Members Only’. This I find interesting, because in the two decades that I have been driving past this imposing edifice, not once have I seen droves of aroused non-members lining up before this mysterious portal in an attempt to penetrate the Nisyrians’ inner sanctum. Indeed, come to think of it, I have never seen the door actually open.
Nonetheless, it is interesting how we Greek-Australians identify or self-identify our own sub-cultural groups with reference to their buildings. Quite simply, in the common consciousness, if one does not have a building, one does not manifest oneself in any meaningful way within the broader Greek community, hence the resistance, especially of the older generations, to any change in the real asset base of any given organisation. Thus, much more focus is expended in maintaining or paying off unproductive assets than in actually doing that which our regional brotherhoods were founded to achieve in the first place, which is to link people of the same background together and create cohesive micro-communities.
My own club, the Pansamian Brotherhood of Melbourne, has recently found this out for itself. Despite the Iphigenias of doom and destruction prophesying ensuing oblivion following the sale of our clubhouse in Brunswick, we still meet and hold the same functions as we did before, as the exploration of the connections between people is the main aim, realising that a clubhouse, though admirable in many respects, is not the organisation itself. When it becomes a carapace, excluding others and ossifying practices that are no longer relevant to the changing face of the community, the clubhouse can actually become an agent of a club’s destruction.
In the municipalities of Darebin and Moreland alone, there exist more than 20 Greek regional clubs, most of which own a clubhouse but none of which until now have ever coordinated their efforts. Yet when one drives past or enters these structures, one thing becomes striking. Though these clubhouses and the clubs themselves are in their municipalities, they are not of their municipalities. That is, though rate-paying, they have little if any involvement in their broader communities, contributing nothing substantial to them. Rather than being an expression or reflection of the Greeks residing in those municipalities, their doors serve as portals to an isolation chamber, whose sole purpose is to hermetically seal its members from anything taking place ‘outside’, even when they are operating as social centres for the local elderly, as many of these clubs now are.
The reason for this is simple. When we Greek Australians refer to our ‘regional’ clubs, the word here does not denote the regions of the city in which we live, but rather, the regions in Greece from which we derive our ancestry. Consequently, ‘local’ or ‘regional’ clubs are anything but what they imply, purporting to serve instead the needs of a geographically widespread population of Greeks of the same region, many of whom have little or no emotional, economical or social concerns or attachment to the area in which their club building is situated.
This is of concern, because it is the area in which we live, the people who we see in our everyday social interactions that play a large part in the formulation of our personal identity. Where there exists no structure or forum within which a native Australian Greek local community can arise, one in which the Greek identity of emerging generations can be explored with the context of their everyday life, their relationship to their local environment and most importantly their relationship to other Greek Australians in the course of their daily life, then such paltry networks as the topicistic brotherhoods provide become stale, rarefied and irrelevant, to the point where the descendants of their members no longer identify with them and cease to attend them.
A corollary to this is the fact that having our community primarily organised around such insular brotherhoods, and not having as a criterion the local areas in which Greek Australians reside, contributes to language and identity loss. For if we live in our local communities disparate and unable to coordinate social activities with the Greeks of our own area, then our involvement in our brotherhood has and will continue to take on a tokenistic flavour, where the Greek language and the Greek identity, rather than being integrated into the warp and weft of mainstream society as a community language and a constituent identity of the broader Australian social fabric, is relegated to the margins as an isolated and irrelevant ancestral idiom, which has nothing to contribute to our daily endeavours as Australians and is thus taken out for a time and aired sparingly, after which time it is generally discarded.
What is astounding is the fact that after a sojourn of a little more than a century in Victoria, we are yet to articulate a viable Australian Greek identity, one that is pertinent and germane to our experience in this country and which could provide a unique perspective and point of reference, in a truly multicultural society. By enclosing ourselves almost exclusively within the carapace of our brotherhoods, we have not only lost an opportunity to engage and add value to the mainstream: we have, by refusing to integrate our identity within the broader discourse, ensured the irrelevancy and ultimate failure of Hellenism as a discourse within Australia altogether.
It is for this reason that Hellenism Victoria, an initiative primarily of brotherhoods and clubs of the Darebin and Moreland municipalities, must succeed. Its proponents simply cannot fathom how such a large agglomeration of (with a few notable exceptions) stagnating and insular Greek organisations has had little or no impact not only on the local municipality but also upon the Greeks living within it. They point to second generation, generally time-poor parents who cannot make the trip to Oakleigh on a regular basis to ‘get their [ersatz] Greek on’ and lament the fact that their children are growing up disconnected to the Greek families in the neighbourhoods and streets around them, without access to Greek language childcare or even local non-Greek-place of-origin activities, which could instill an intrinsic sense of belonging to something other than a mere institution – a community and a way of life. They comment that the existing clubs are cold, forbidding and irrelevant to those who do not derive from the area in Greece they represent, or whose parents are not on the committee of management and their sphere of action is, at any rate, quite limited. They also point out that the centralisation of Greek endeavour within the CBD, while valuable, is not a panacea and can in no way replace pursuing organised Hellenism on the suburban, daily level.
Hellenism Victoria is therefore an endeavour to transmute the raw elements of Hellenism into something relevant to the place in which we all live. It is an attempt to provide some sort of cohesion in the face of the alarming unravelling of the structures of mutual obligation and recognition that have hitherto characterised our community, dispensing with a tribal framework which is fast becoming obsolete.
The manner in which Hellenism Victoria seeks to achieve the localisation and revitalisation of the Greek identity in the municipalities in which its constituents exist is by co-ordinating a joint approach to issues of integration, socialisation and manifestation of one’s identity via interested pre-existing clubs, in a spirit of mutual co-operation. Rather than being a “club for clubs” as some have commented, it represents the commencement of a concerted effort to rethink the parameters and structures of Australian Hellenism, without discarding, excluding or disparaging existing community stakeholders, but rather by including them in and making them responsible for a bold and exciting new initiative where their own histories and tribal affiliations are left intact, but liberating them sufficiently to allow them to cater to the needs of the broader, local and tribally-unaffiliated Greek community, through competitions, joint events and most importantly, festivals that will see local Greeks who live close to each other being able to relate to each other as Australian Greeks, and not as members of an obscure tribe whose arcane rites have been discarded even in its place of origin.
This remarkable attempt at rebooting our community by Hellenism Victoria deserves our support and is historically significant, as it represents the first time in our age that hitherto hidebound structures are attempting, in concert, to radically reposition themselves in order to address the huge demographic and sociological issues that will challenge the existence of a coherent Greek community in Melbourne in the future. Whether or not, as an experiment, Hellenism Victoria will succeed depends largely on the breadth and clarity of its proponents’ vision, the ability of existing community groups to work together but ultimately, on us.