Conversations on Citizenship

Last night I attended the Oath and Allegiance ceremony of migrants receiving their Australian citizenship. It was held in a small but neat community centre filled with pride. At the end, each new citizen received a small indigenous plant, a Kangaroos Paw, to cherish as the day they received ownership of Australia’s wealth.

Some took an oath by swearing allegiance on God; others just swore allegiance, not on god, but on the principles of what they believed in.

In the speeches they are reminded that Australia is a multicultural society and they are encouraged to maintain their cultural links. In fact, one of the recipients in the patriotic video run before the ceremony said this:

“My love for my old country is like the love I feel for my mother; my love for Australia is like the love I feel for my wife. A love full of possibilities”. Well. The cynic in my can analyse modern marriages and why they fail so often, or even worse, why they do not happen at all and compare that to citizenship. At which stage it would be easy to conclude that citizenship is doomed.

But citizenship is not doomed. In Australia it comes with an obligation to vote. You can spoil your paper but you have to attend the poll, or face a fine. It comes with an attempt to accept all culture on the surface of politeness, but the power is there to wash them weakly and just leave a few innocent and quirky traditions and festivals to liven up the desert landscape.

The opening of the ceremony was embarrassing, as the master of ceremonies mumbled respect for the people whose land they now occupy, and held a moments silence in respect. That is what defines Australian citizenship; a desire to be correct, to acknowledge a multicultural background but to be white. If only they could be made to pay for the evil they have committed, like their white counterparts in South Africa have been made to pay for Apartheid.

I remember how proud my father was when he received his Greek citizenship to the European Union. And equally proud when he had secured his children the same. Here was a loyalty to the culture but not the politics. No apology to any group. No indigenous tree to plant. Just a fire to burn in your heart.

Conversations with the Head of Interpol

My father’s taxi driver in Greece was a gem. He sat on a cushion to be able to see through the loop of steering wheel onto the road. He didn’t always look under the loop, and his eyes often strayed to make contact with the passengers as he held conversations after long absences.

He stayed in Levidi, the village along the short cut road that passes our house. It is a pleasant 2 hour walk through fields and pastures, past old churches and ancient city ruins.

The Head of Interpol was born in the same village and cousin to the taxi driver. So when he completed his stint as head of Interpol in Brussels and returned  to Greece it was natural that he saw my father more often. Those were the networks. His wife was a lawyer ( so was he by training) and my father used their services on occasion.

Once I flew over the Greece for a few days while everyone was preparing for a wedding in Italy. On my departure my father called the ex head of Interpol who was now the head of security at Greece’s new International airport.  My father said I should say hello to him when I arrived.

“But how will I know who he is?’

“He’ll find you, don’t worry.”

So I stood in the queue to check in and two security guards arrive and ask if I am Basil Stathoulis?

“Come with us.” They led me to the business class check in, checked me in and whisked me through passport control and security and to me to the head. He embraced me, kiss on either cheek, asked questions about the family and the situation at home in South Africa, then took me to the Business Class lounge, made me a great espresso and we chatted some more. Then he said to wait till he would collect me. Now I travel a lot and like to be on time, so I edged my way up to the boarding area. He found me there, and wouldn’t let me board till the end. He came on with me, greeting all the crew.

To the senior stewardess “Einai gnostos prosexai ton (He is known to us, take care of him).” Then the same to the pilot.

I was disappointed when I found myself sitting in economy. Surely he could have swung that for me?

Then as the plane took off and the seatbelt sign switched off the air stewardess came to me and said the captain was waiting.

So I went to the cockpit, admired the view and the buttons, chatted a bit about work and then said goodbye. The captains said no, buckle up and stay for the landing.

I flew into Rome on a clear spring afternoon in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, saw the Coliseum and Forum from the air, the Olympic Stadium and St Peters. It was an incredible entry to the Holy City.

It helped that my godfather had been the senior pilot of Olympic Airways a decade earlier.

Conversations with A Greek Pop Singer

In November 1994 the New South Africa welcomed a Greek hero to its shores.

He is without doubt the most recognisable Greek singer in the world, his name never besmirched in a world where entertainers have no principles; he seems at one with the people.

He sang and promoted songs by Mikis Theodorakis, who had been exiled to France by the Colonel’s Regime, a military junta that overpowered Greece in 1967. Exiled because he was a Communist, Theodorakis’ songs were about the people and freedom. In 1974 he returned to Greece to power a left wing coalition. In the 80’s he founded a Greco-Turkish friendship organisation.

Much as he was loved for his music, in South Africa Theodorakis would not have been welcome under the Apartheid Regime. Nor by people living under the regime.

Daralas, as he was born, anagrammatised his name to Dalaras. He was instrumental in the resurgence of the “rebetika”. According to an academic expert on Rebetika, Elias Petropoulos, “The womb of rebetika was the jail and hash den. It was there that the early rebetes created their songs. .. The early rebetika songs, particularly the love songs, were based on Greek folk songs and songs of the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople”.

Furthermore, a perhaps overemphasised theme of rebetika is the pleasure of using drugs, especially hashish. These songs have become known as the “hasiklidika”.

One of Dalaras’ more energetic concerts is memorable. He introduces the “hasiklidika” as simply that: “ta hasiklidika”; my spine tingles when I hear it.

So that is the background to my father welcoming Mr George Dalaras at the Jan Smuts International Airport of Johannesburg in November 1974. A singer whose LP’s lived in my father’s record player, a box as big as a server, along with one or two records of Theodorakis, but were played by my brother and I in secret. I don’t ever remember my father listening to them; he loved the more traditional and nationalistic music of Samos and Kalamata, although he did a really good “tsifteteli”.

Dalaras and Theodorakis were in conflict with my father’s conservative upbringing in South Africa and from Greece. Yet they were both massive vehicles for pan-Hellenism, a cause close to my father’s heart. So he embraced them.

My father could always see the bigger picture. He arranged concert tickets for Caterina, my sister-in-law (who is Italian and loves Dalaras) and I. He invited us as guests of honour to the post concert cocktail at the Carlton Hotel.

I was shy in those days and just wanted an autograph. I remember my father pushing me, saying “go talk to him”. I was so nervous and in awe of Dalaras. I met his wife, who loves horses, and have a framed autograph of the program in my study: “Ston Vasili, me agape, Giorgos Dalaras”.

I am so proud my father could “walk with kings nor lose the common touch”. And that he could see beyond the smoke and mirrors of politics.