ulrike hermann4Ahead of Friday’s informal meeting of EU heads of state in Malta, the Greek government argues that Greece is meeting its fiscal targets, is working hard in order for common ground to be found, and that new measures are not necessary. In an interview with Alpha radio State Minister and government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said the economic and political conditions for an agreement exist because the vast majority of our partners in Europe do not wish a technical rekindling of the Greek crisis. Stressing that the Greek government will not accept additional measures, Tzanakopoulos underlined that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaueble's stance “is based on his vision for Europe: Austerity, harsh fiscal adjustment and indifference for any growth prospect…"

Greek News Agenda* asked Berlin-based economist and TAZ jourmalist Ulrike Herrmann to comment on the the different approaches toward the Greek debt issue and Wolfgang Schaueble’s tactics.

Ulrike Herrmann has written extensively on the current  euro/financial crisis. Her recent publications include Der Sieg des Kapitals | The Victory of Capital (2015) and Kein Kapitalismus ist auch keine Lösung (2016). She also frequently participates in political debates in radio and television, including the WDR 5's Presse club and the Phoenix TV channel.

What, do you think, is at stake in the different approaches among IMF, the European Institutions and Greece concerning the Greek debt issue? How can Europe handle the Greek debt and European debt overall in the future?

It is obvious that the IMF, the European Institutions and Greece have very different interests. The IMF is correct in its analysis that there is no alternative to debt relief and that the primary surplus required from Greece should not exceed 1,5 per cent if Greece is not to suffer another severe economic downturn.

Vice president of the European Parliament, Dimitris Papadimoulis, recently wrote an article under the title “Schaeuble could destroy eurozone, not just Greece”.  How do domestic German politics influence Wolfgang Schaeuble’s stance?

Schäuble has always allowed the German voters to harbour the wrong impression that there will be no tax payer's money involved in the rescue of Greece. Hence, Schäuble refuses to discuss any debt relief for Greece. At the same time, Schäuble wants the IMF to continue its engagement in Greece because otherwise the rescue programme would have to become an issue in the German parliament.

In the long run, Schäuble cannot pursue both aims. Either he accepts debt relief for Greece or the IMF will leave the programme. But Schäuble strives to keep the issue unresolved and "below the carpet" till the national elections in Germany have been held which are scheduled for September 24th.

Could you comment on the so-called “EU’s democracy deficit”? [How] does it relate to the rise of extreme Right in Europe?

It is a huge problem that the rich Euro-countries reduce the poor Euro-countries to the status of colonies which have to accept the orders from abroad. This won't work.

*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis. Many thanks to Nikolaos Vlahakis, Press and Communication Counsellor - Embassy of Greece in Germany

Read more: Goethe Institute Greek-German Dialogue (2015); On the End of Capitalism (2015); Wikipedia: Ulrike Herrmann (in German)

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Eleni Priovolou was born in Aggelokastro, Aetolia and lives in Athens. She studied political sciences at Panteion University. She has written twenty books for children and teenagers and seven novels: Μετά φόβου [With fear] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2016), Φωνές στο νερό [Voices in the water] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2015), Vino Santo (Kastaniotis Editions, 2014), Όπως ήθελα να ζήσω [As I wanted to live] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2014), To τέλος του γαλάζιου ρόδου [The end of the blue rose] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2014), Για τ’ όνειρο πώς να μιλήσω [Hοw could I talk about the dream] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2012) and Tα χάρτινα πουλιά [Paper Birds] (Kastaniotis Editions, 2011). Her novel Όπως ήθελα να ζήσω received the Readers’ Award of the National Book Centre of Greece (EKEBI) in 2010. Το σύνθημα (2009) received the Literary Book Award for older children of the Greek literary journal Διαβάζω.

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Eleni Priovolou spoke to Reading Greece* about her latest novel Μετά φόβου, which tells the story of two women set in the turbulent times of World War I and the subsequent National Schism in Greece. She talks about how challenging it is to write a historical novel, noting that “the absence of true democracy, the transformation of the citizen to a customer, and the dependency on financial elites has led the country to a dead end”.

Asked about the importance of language in the literary re-creation of a specific era, she notes that “language isn’t something static and fixed, but something flexible and developing”, and that she always “uses it in conjunction with its ancient past and cultural heritage”. She observes that “art is by its nature anti-systemic” and that “the art of writing is a political act”, while she concludes that “the fear and silence of a uniform mass of people in motion is [her] greatest fear for the future”.

Your latest novel Μετά φόβου [With fear] was recently published and has already received rave reviews. Tell us a few things about the book.

Μετά φόβου is based on the three quotes written before each chapter. The first one is a quote from Aeschylus’ Eumenides which means “Remember, don’t let fear go to your head” [«Μέμνησο, μηφόβος σε νικάτω φρένας»]; the second quote is based on the lyrics of the poet Manolis Anagnostakis “Love is a fear th at unites us with others”; the third and final quote is based on the lyrics of Yiannis Ritsos “Don’t be afraid of them. They count on your fear”.

Our main character, Aristi Vorria, fights through fear and guilt to win her freedom as a human being and as a woman. She doesn’t abide by the rules and suggestions of others and constantly goes through fire and water against all kinds of power and authority. The path she has chosen is beyond reach, as is freedom. Our second character, Dialechti, chooses to be shielded insafety and settles to life of quiet persistence. In the background of these stories there lie the tragic historical moments of World War I and Greece’s National Schism.

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The ‘Trilogy of Athens’ [Όπως ήθελα να ζήσω, Για τ’ όνειρο πώς να μιλήσω, Το τέλος του γαλάζιου ρόδου] delves into the political malaise that has been afflicting our country from the 19th century onwards. How challenging is to write a historical novel? What would you say “is to blame” for this ‘Greek malaise’?

I would say that all of my books are politically conscious because I am a politically conscious citizen; this has led to my early literary expression. Writing a historical novel is particularly difficult, especially when the researcher is constantly looking for the secrets and lies hidden between the lines of history, when he doesn’t settle for the obvious truth and doesn’t compromise with the historical facts that serve the purposes of a particular dominant ideology. Giving up one’s ideology is a difficult task, especially when the writer is confronted with facts he didn’t use to believe in and then finally has to pull the rug under his own feet. I wouldn’t call what’s happening here in Greece a ‘malaise’: I would call it misjudgment. The absence of true democracy, the transformation of the citizen to a customer, and the dependency on financial elites has led the country to a dead end.

How important is language for the literary re-creation of a specific era?

To me, language is the essence of literary creation. I sometimes dare to break syntactical rules for the sake of harmony. I am keen on recreating linguistically the different eras I am writing about, such as 19th century, interwar era etc, in the most accurate way possible, not only for the sake of accurate historical illustration but also for the preservation of words that tend to disappear from our vocabulary. In my opinion, language isn’t something static and fixed, but something flexible and developing, and I always use it in conjunction with its ancient past and cultural heritage.

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You have been writing books for adults, young people and children. How are these activities combined? What differentiates them and what is the binding thread?

That’s right. I address all ages and write according to my personal expressive needs. I treat children not as a separate but an integral part of our society, a constituent subjected to the same rules and consequences as everyone else. That is why I often use fairytale symbols to talk to children about themes that are more adult. In my opinion, literature is universal. The only thing that changes is the way of writing, so that its meaning can be grasped by the young reader.

Culture should be anti-systemic, otherwise it just serves the system’s purposes”. Could you elaborate on that?

Art is by its nature anti-systemic. It’s not very common to see artwork that glorifies authority or the system that supports it. Unless, of course, we talk about an authoritative regime where artwork is dictated by force. In that case it’s not art, but awful kitsch. Take for example Greek poetry competitions of the 19th century: If a poet wanted to win the first prize, he had to write 500 verses full of chauvinist nonsense and patriotic stupidity. This is not art. On the other hand, there is a question: Is it possible for a great artist, whose work is against all kinds of authority and power, to consort with authority representatives or supporters so that he or she can remain in the public eye? In any case, works of art provoke, criticize and clash with authority.

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Would you say that art, and literature in specific, is a political act, a conscious decision to participate in social change?

To me, the art of writing is a political act. In my works, I have created the world as I would like it to be, and it is for that world that I fight for, not only for myself but for future generations, even if it seems utopian. I firmly believe that political change is up to each citizen, as long as they realize that they carry their own responsibilities in all the aspects of their lives. In my opinion, political change doesn’t come about from the top of the hierarchy but from the base, the citizens, who should be fearless and educated. The education system should nourish responsible citizens and not components of manufacturing machinery, incubated people who think and act unvaryingly. The fear and silence of a uniform mass of people in motion is my greatest fear for the future.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

nicole fontaine4President of the European Parliament between 1999 and 2002 (with the European People's Party Group), Nicole Fontaine, a lawyer by profession, began her political career in 1984 as a Member of the European Parliament (1984-2002 and 2004-2009). After being appointed Alternate Minister for Industry from 2002 to 2004, she taught at Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she held a Jean Monnet ad personam chair for 5 years. She is currently teaching at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris and is also Affiliated Professor at the ESCP Europe Business School. Nicole Fontaine, along with journalist François Poulet-Mathis has  co-authored  the book “Brexit:  An Opportunity?” (Auteurs du Monde, 2016)

On the occasion of Nicole Fontaine’s visit to Greece and speech on “Europe after Brexit: How to reinvent the project of a Europe with Unity and Solidarity?” at  the French Institute of Greece (28.01), our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* spoke with her on the biggest challenges facing European integration, the consequences of Brexit and the EU ‘s relationship with the US in light of Donald Trump’s presidency.

What are the main challenges facing European integration right now?

Over the past 10 years, the EU fell ill. It fell ill because its institutions are perceived by the people as part of a constraining technocracy, because of lack of leadership and vision and finally because of its inability to anticipate and manage major global phenomena such as globalization, financial and migratory crises and the fight against terrorism. Unfortunately, as a result, the EU lost its citizens’ trust. So today, the priority for the EU is to rebuild itself. Having taken note of past mistakes, it is imperative that the EU is strengthened and able to meet its citizens’ expectations, to whom it had promised "an area of freedom, prosperity and solidarity". The challenge is to restore this aspiration to its full potential and to make it a reality. In a turbulent world we have made our strong and united voice heard. For EU leaders, this is a historical responsibility.

Some analysts claim that Brexit is the beginning of the dismantling of the European project. Do you share this view?

Some had predicted that a Brexit would bring about the final destruction of an already ill Europe. While it is true that there was the risk of a "domino effect", it soon became apparent that the negative effects of Brexit were mostly affecting the British. Only a few days after the result of the referendum, more than 3 million citizens signed a petition asking for a second referendum ... this has never happened before! And today, opinion polls reveal that in the event of a new ballot, the result would be different.

Concerns are strong, despite Theresa May’s conjurations: the British living in Europe are concerned, as is the market and many businesses, some of which have decided to leave the UK. For my part, I always thought that, on the contrary, if Brexit happened, it could be an opportunity for Europe. An opportunity to clarify things, because the British entered the European Community in 1973 exclusively to benefit from the advantages of a large market, and they always refused and prevented the progress that would have made it possible to meet citizen expectations. An opportunity to give us a shock, and to invite European leaders to rethink Europe, making it stronger, more united, more effective. Today, with the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States, this is not just an opportunity but an imperative necessity.

In your opinion, does Donald Trump's election move the United States further away from Europe and weaken international cooperation?

The positions presented by Trump during his electoral campaign - some of which were immediately implemented since his inauguration - are extremely worrying. Of course, commercial competition between the United States and Europe has always existed, as we have seen through several emblematic disputes within the WTO. The Presidents of the USA that preceded Trump did not really want a political Europe that interfered in the resolution of world conflicts. The friendship however between the United States and Europe remained, through our cooperation to defeat Nazism during the World War II, an unshakeable bond.

Today, President Trump is changing the geopolitical map with decisions that are likely to exacerbate disorder around the world, and the European Union has a responsibility to react. The threat of calling into question the solidarity of NATO member states in the event of an attack compels the European Union to establish its own defenses.

The coalition between United States, Russia and Iran to bring order to the Middle East, especially Syria, forces the European Union to form a real common foreign policy and to intervene in the name of the values on which the European project is based. Thus, international cooperation is without a doubt in our future and the European Union must seize this opportunity to enhance its influence.

*Interview: Costas Mavroidis amd Maria Oksouzoglou, translation to English: Ioulia Livaditi

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Tassos Boulmetis’ film "Mythopathy" was awarded the Best Feature Film award at Hellas Filmbox Berlin Festival, on January 22, 2017.

Holder of the keys to a nostalgic, bittersweet cinematic universe, director Tassos Boulmetis was born in Constantinople in 1957 and came in Greece in 1964. He studied Film Production and Direction at the University of California (UCLA). His first film “Dream Factory” gained 8 awards in Greece and the Golden Award of Fantasy Movies at the Houston Film Festival. His second film, “Touch of Spice”, was the biggest selling Greek film in the history of contemporary Greek cinema, selling 1.600.000 tickets. The film also won 9 prizes at the Thessaloniki Film Festival and other international distinctions, while it was also screened at numerous Film Festivals around the world. His films “Touch of Spice” and “Mythopathy” are coming of age stories of a male character, sharing a lot of autobiographical elements and taking place in a past that Boulmetis represents in detail, with a sarcastic smirk.

On the occasion of the Best feature film award for “Mythopathy”, Boulmetis talks to Greek News Agenda* about loss, which is the subject matter of his film work. He refers to the 80’s as the decade in which the basis for today’s crisis was set. Commenting on contemporary film production, he stresses that it goes on, despite difficulties and that it produces good festival material, but artistic success doesn’t always translate in ticket sales. He adds that, interestingly enough, the crisis has helped Greek Cinema, as far as International Festivals are concerned, because there is a growing interest on Greece and the outcome of the crisis.

“Mythopathy” was awarded best feature film award at Hellas Filmbox Berlin Festival. Is this your first interview after the award?

It is. “Mythopathy” has participated so far in film festivals that relate to the Greek Diaspora, such as the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, San Fransisco Film Festival, as well as Sao Paulo Greek Film Festival and Nuremberg. It will also be screened at the Greek Film Month in Paris and in Brittany. It appeals to the Greek Diaspora. As far as international film festivals are concerned, “Mythopathy” has been invited to the Constantinople Film Festival and will be screened in April. It has also been invited to the European Union Film Festival, which takes place in the USA, where a selection of European films is presented to the American public. Hellas Filmbox is a new Festival, which began last year. It is organized by young, energetic people and I dare say that it accomplishes its aim in the sense that it brings Greek film to the German public, 20 days before the Berlin film festival. It also brings them in contact with distributors. Some of these distributors have shown interest in “Mythopathy”, which will also be screened around Germany as will happen with the rest of the winning films of the Hellas Filmbox.

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Loss constitutes a prominent issue in your films. How do you perceive the feeling of loss at a period of crisis that Greece is going through?

For me, there was a sudden realization. With my second film, “Touch of Spice”, I was faced with a huge success which I tried to manage as humbly as possible. I was enjoying success during a period of prosperity for Greece (Olympic Games etc). At the same time, I was intrigued by an idea which I was trying to approach in a humorous mood, despite the fact it was hiding something serious: what happens to a family or a society when it starts to deconstruct the myths on which it has build its narrative? The entity of a community runs through a history, a narrative. I don’t necessarily mean political or religious history; I mean something more than that, its internal narration, which structures the myths that hold it together. So what happens to this community when you start to deconstruct them? The answer is simple: the community falls apart. As I said, this was a concept that intrigued me, but the only way for me to express it was through a humorous story. I had been working on this concept, when two events occurred in 2010: two unpleasant events that helped me understand what was hiding beneath my thoughts: the first tragic event for me was losing both of my parents within a year; the second was that Greece officially entered a crisis.

I was overcome with emotion as Greek society was going through this loss. On a personal level, I had lost the people closest to me and as a member of society I had lost an era that would never come back. I realized then, looking back at my previous films which include my first, lesser known film that the core of my work is about loss and how people deal with it. In “Mythopathy” I decided to talk about loss mainly on a social level. This is an autobiographical film, in which the basic protagonists are my parents and I, but it isn’t a film about my parents only. Many elements of the father’s persona in “Mythopathy” are drawn from my own father, who used to sell travel items, as well as my mother. I have also drawn many elements from my parents’ life in Constantinople for the parents’ personae in “Touch of Spice”.

By realizing that loss is the running theme in my films, I felt the urge to talk about the time I was a teenager, when I decided to become a film director and study film in the USA. So the film takes place between 1974, after the fall of the Junta, to 1981. I left for the USA in 1980, the beginning of the period during which the script of the crisis we are currently undergoing was written. To me, the whole spectrum of Greek politics from Right to Left holds its own part of the responsibility. In the years following the fall of the dictatorship, all political parties promised prosperity. PASOK, the ruling socialist party of the time, undertook the task of realizing that promise for prosperity and today we are experiencing the results of that promise. tango lessons“Mythopathy” and “A Touch of Spice” share a bittersweet, “sarcastic nostalgia” as you have described it in an interview. Is contemporary Greece a different country to that of the 70’s?

In a sense it is, as far as values are concerned. Throughout this time, the political parties, accordingly to the time they stayed in power, promoted corruption at the expense of ethical values.

It is not by chance that viewer reactions to “Mythopathy” fall into two groups: the first concerns those aged over 45, who come out of the cinema with a sense of nostalgia, longing for the feelings of hope and optimism of those years. On the other hand, younger viewers tell me they envy the protagonist who left to pursue his dream. So this is the theme of “Mythopathy”, that in Greece we have lost times that are never coming back. And, as you can see in the film, every character is trying to come to grips with loss: the mother’s unaccomplished dream to travel to the south, the father, who is a down-to- earth person, is consciously trying to survive on a fake story, a myth. He represents a social class in post civil war Greece in the 60’s that is trying to survive and construct its own identity. So the father makes up and sells a story, a myth. Mother is aware that the story is a fake, but pretends to believe it, in order to keep her family together. Thus, there is a silent, unspoken and unconscious complicity for the survival of this nuclear family in a society that seeks prosperity.

Parents in your films serve as a comic relief. They represent the “ancient regime” watching the dawn of a new world they don’t understand, while worrying and trying to protect their child. Does this reflect the way you perceive Greek family and parenthood?

I totally agree with your remarks; and yes, it does reflect my personal experiences. I also have a brother whom I love very much and he likes to joke with me because he is absent from my films. I tell him that if I put him in the film not only would the cost of the film rise, but the psychological toll on me as well, because there would be an extra relationship for me to analyze! On the other hand the characters of the parents relate to my cinematic references. I like Woody Allen’s sense of humour and the depiction of his parents in his films, especially in “Radio Days”, where they are arguing over ridiculous things, trivialities. These quarrels reminded me a lot of the ones we used to have at home.

What is the role of women in «Mythopathy»? Has it served as a political allegory in the film?

It has and I have to say that I was worried it might sound sexist, which wasn’t my intention at all. In the film, my hero is trying to understand himself at a time when his sexual awakening is taking place. This is a part of his personal journey towards the construction of his sexual as well as individual identity. Unfortunately, he happens to be extremely unlucky, because he fantasizes of women who are linked to politics. Politics, in one way or another, take away from him the objects of his desire one by one. I used this concept as a vehicle to show that politics have taken from Greeks everything they desired.

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You work on your own, carefully elaborated stories with a historical background, persisting on minute detail. How easy is it to fund an expensive film production in the current economic situation?

Not easy at all. I was lucky to get financial support from the Greek Film Centre, Cosmote, as well as the Onassis Foundation. I also had other sponsors with product placement in the film. There were also other co-producers that contributed with digital effects. “Mythopathy” did not cover its production costs, but at least we are not in debt. As far as historical dramas are concerned, digital effects are of a great help but they are also very expensive. I am lucky to be collaborating with the same production company (MAGIKON) as in “Touch of Spice”, which undertook part of the production cost. If I were a newcomer, it might have been impossible to make this film.

You were the first chairman of the Hellenic Film Academy and have invested a lot of time and energy to this endeavour. Could you comment on this experience?

It was my first experience of that kind. At some point, the Gavras committee on Greek cinema, under prominent Greek-French director Costa Gavras was established, and he asked me to join. Other members included Apostolos Doxiadis, Yorgos Tziotzios and Christos Mitsis, an excellent team, which had no corporate interests. We had a lot of fruitful discussions and one of the outcomes was the request for a Greek Film Academy in line with established Film Academies around the world. Film Academies are private institutions founded by members of the cinematic community, which have nothing to do with public funding. For example, the Film Academy in Germany was founded by 85 film directors, in France by a group of producers, distributors and directors. These are private institutions which set targets as well as criteria for member eligibility. What are the targets of a Film Academy? First, to promote national cinematography, secondly to promote the art of cinema in general and, last but not least, to organize events and bring national cinematography and cinema art closer to the audience. The Greek Film Academy succeeded in these targets. It was founded by 106 film professionals, it has established awards and it has organized amazing events. In that sense, I consider my term as chairman as successful.

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What do you think of contemporary Greek cinema?

The number of films produced has been very good, despite current economic circumstances. Greek films are doing well in festivals, but they don’t sell at the box office. There are many reasons for that - the public isn’t attracted to these films. Take “Mythopathy” for example: my collaborators and the distributors estimated that ticket sales would be higher, because of the success of “A Touch of Spice”. My expectations were more modest. The film sold 150.000 tickets, which was very good in the current situation, but it was lower than my collaborators’ estimations.

Another positive aspect, as I mentioned earlier, is the interest for Greek films from film festivals around the world, meaning that we have very good festival material. Greece has a very prominent new director, Yorgos Lanthimos, making great films causing a stir. His work has a distinct style, it is globally acknowledged and each film is an original. Lanthimos initiated what is called the New Greek weird wave, which was followed by other Greek filmmakers, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Critics associated the New Greek weird wave with the crisis. This crisis has focused attention on Greece and there is a growing interest on what the cultural product of the crisis will be. This fact has benefited Greek cinema, because festivals are interested in Greek films. The same has happened with Turkish and Iranian films. So, in the context I described above, there have been Greek films that worked on the theme of the Greek family and its distortions. There are some Greek films on incest and are being read as political allegories. Danish cinema has also worked a lot on the theme of incest, bringing it to the fore as a social problem. Personally, although Sophocles was the first to work on the issue of incest, I don’t think it is one that represents Greek society, as it is a problem common to all societies.

What about your future plans?

I’m currently working on a documentary on the AEK basketball team on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary (next year) of the team winning the European Winners Cup, in Athens, in 1968. The year 1968 was a milestone year as regards political events around the world. This Cup was important because it was the first international distinction for a Greek sports team. On the occasion of the Cup anniversary, this documentary talks about the history of the team, the people etc. Let’s not forget that AEK has its origins in Constantinople. When I was living in Constantinople, I would often come across AEK fans and became a fan too, when I came to Greece.

Read also: Hellas Filmbox Berlin Festival: Cinema as a Bridge, Euronews: Sarcastic Nostalgia Tassos Boulmetis is back with Mythopathy

*interview by Florentia Kiortsi

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Sia Anagnostopoulou is a SYRIZA MP and associate professor of History at the Department of Political Science and History of Panteion University. She has been visiting professor at the New York University, the University of Cyprus and the Έcole des Hautes Έtudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Her main research interests are nationalism in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus and colonialism in Cyprus. She has published two monographies: Asia Minor. The Greek Οrthodox Communities, 19th century-1919. From the Rum millet to the Greek Nation (Athens 1997, in Greek) and The Modernization of Turkey. Islam and Turkish-Cypriots in relation to Kemalism (Athens 2004, in Greek).

Professor Anagnostopoulou is a member of the Paneuropean Committee of the Academy for European History created by Transform! Europe, a member of the Greek Contemporary Social History Archives (ASKI) and a member of  the Board of the  Nicos Poulantzas Institute.

From 2000 to 2003, Anagnostopoulou headed the Cypriot Foreign Ministry's research team on issues concerning Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community. In the January 2015 Greek legislative elections, Anagnostopoulou was elected as a SYRIZA Member of the Hellenic Parliament for the prefecture of Achaia and was appointed alternate minister for European Affairs. Following the last legistlative elections of September 2015, she was appointed alternate minister for Education, Research and Religious Affairs until November 2016.

Sia Anagnostopoulou spoke to our sister publication Grèce Hebdo* on the progress of the ongoing negotiations on the Cyprus issue, the European contribution to the Geneva Cyprus talks, the importance of installing an institutional framework for the coexistence of two communities of different religions and ethnic groups in one european state as an act of resistance against a galloping nationalism and the EU-Turkey refugee deal:

How would you evaluate recent developments on the Cyprus issue?

Very significant progress has been made. The negotiations between the leaders of the two communities, the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community, are at a very good point. First of all, there is a historic development, symbolically and literally speaking: it is the first time since 1974, after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, that the two communities have exchanged maps outlining territorial proposals.

This is important because the leaders of the two communities are trying to define their space -the "border" between their communities- by themselves and through negotiations. In fact, the two communities are trying to reconstruct a "border" of trust and peace between them, thus in practice annulling the consequences of the invasion that has violently imposed a frontier of hatred, dividing the Cypriot area into two worlds, two enemy "countries". Through the presentation of maps, the Cypriot leaders claim that they, and not the Turkish army, are the ones with the responsibility to manage the Cypriot area. This is a first step towards the solution, and it is indicative of the determination of the two Cypriot leaders to move forward.

What is your assessment of the European contribution to the Geneva Cyprus talks?

This is the first time that the European Union has become more actively involved in the Cyprus issue. In my opinion, it is necessary to get more involved, especially since Cyprus is the southeastern border of Europe, the border between Europe and the Middle East. The solution of the Cyprus problem must be at the heart of European policy. Also, through Cyprus (not only Cyprus, of course), the European Union will reinvent itself; it will reinvent its "world" and its region, and the values ​​that prevail in its relations with its neighbours.

The solution of the Cyprus problem, the border problem of Europe, will give out the message that: 1) the European Union has political responsibility for its borders; 2) It does not permit the perpetuation of "grey zones" in its territory, and of zones that lead to the division of its frontiers between a “Christian world” and a "Muslim world", one against the other; 3) It puts a definite end to its colonial past and to nationalist politics that undermine Europeanization efforts of its region; and 4) it turns its borders into a bridge with its neighbours and not a "wall of hatred” between the  European world and the "barbarians".

In short, the resolution of the Cyprus problem, especially at a crucial time for the future -not only of Europe but of the whole world- will demonstrate that European values persist and that the world (on a local, European and global level) is not divided by criteria of culture, colour and religion; on the contrary, respect for democratic institutions, equality and justice is the basis of coexistence. Therefore, the solution of the Cyprus problem, i.e. the formation of an institutional framework for the coexistence of two communities of different religions and ethnic groups under the same state -Cypriot and European- can be an act of resistance against a galloping and threatening nationalism.

Some argue that "no solution" on the Cyprus issue is always the best solution. Do you share that view?

Not at all. First of all, by adopting this view, we accept the consequences of the post-colonial period, of ethnic conflicts and, above all, of the Turkish invasion, as something that happened "naturally", without political intervention. As a result, we passively comply with the notion that at this very intense historical moment in time, when problems in the Middle East and Turkey create a framework of instability, Cyprus -at least part of its area- is prey to this instability.

This means that we accept that Cyprus is potentially a gate to the importation of this instability onto European soil. In reality, allowing almost half of the territory of a European area to be outside European control and outside the control of the Cypriot state is not a good sign for the future, particularly at this time when the future does not seem so peaceful.

What is your view on the implementation of the agreement signed between the EU and Turkey on 18 March 2016 on the management of refugee flows?

This agreement could show that Europe is cooperating with neighbouring countries in order to solve a serious problem, a humanitarian problem, in order to more efficiently protect refugees from traffickers etc. However, this agreement is not the result of a humanitarian policy but an emergency management policy, dictated by the rationale of retaining the problem outside European borders. The European Union, which is very effective at imposing economic regulations, proves uninterested in applying humanitarian rules with the same zeal. So the European Union has capitulated to the threats and nationalist policies of member-states that do not accept refugees on their soil, but refuses to deviate somewhat from its economic rules when it comes to countries like Greece, which face a humanitarian crisis and which, at the same time, provide a humanitarian roof for refugees.

*Interview by Irini Anastopoulou, translated to English by Ioulia Livaditi

poulou5 Anastasia Poulou is a Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy in Munich. Prior to this, she was a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Anastasia Poulou holds a PhD in Law from the University of Heidelberg, which addresses the impact of the Eurozone crisis on social rights in the EU and the role of courts adjudicating social rights in times of crisis. For her doctorate Anastasia received the second prize of the German Thesis Award by the Koerber Foundation. She received the award during a special ceremony at the German Bundestag in Nov. 13, 2016.

In her thesis, Dr Poulou explores the terms and conditions of financial assistance, as stipulated in the agreed MoUs between the countries’ government and EU institutions, as well as the domestic laws used to implement the agreements. She examines whether social rights, as guaranteed under the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, in four countries affected by the economic crisis - Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus - had been violated, and who is to be held responsible. Anastasia Poulou’s current work investigates the new typology of European governance in the area of social policies and its impact on the design of national welfare systems.

Greek News Agenda* asked Anastasia Poulou to comment on MoU’s austerity measures and their consequences on social rights in Europe and the prospects of EU’s social policy:

MoU’s austerity measures in Greece and other European countries include cuts in labor rights and the right to free negotiation. Do these cuts violate social rights guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU? Who is responsible for these violations? 

In all cases of European financial assistance, Eurozone countries received loans which were made dependent on their compliance with extremely broad in scope economic policy conditions. Even informally regulating economic policies, the conditions related to what one would call the core of social policy, namely healthcare and pension systems, education, and labour sectors. For example, in the case of Greece the minimum wage established by a national general collective agreement had to be reduced by 22%. This reduction, introduced by law and without the consent of the collective bargaining parties, constitutes an interference with the right of collective bargaining protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. This measure was so detailed and left no leeway to the Member State concerned, that the interference with the right of collective bargaining can already be attributed to the EU institutions proposing the measure. On the contrary, in the case of healthcare, the conditions entailed reforms, which aimed at the general objective of reducing public expenditure, but left a margin of appreciation to the national authorities with regard to their implementation. Hence, in this case a potential violation of right to healthcare could not be attributed to the EU institutions, but only to the Member State implementing the measures.

How can social rights be protected in times of crisis? Should social policy decisions be free from EU interference?

The development of the welfare state has been historically linked with the establishment of nation states. In this context, the enjoyment of social benefits is conceived as a key part of national identity and citizenship, and thus every Member State had, at least till the Eurozone crisis, some leeway in the allocation of social benefits. Even if one disagrees with the absolute confinement of the welfare state to the nation state, the question of who has the power to decide on the social benefits available to citizens should be considered carefully. Even though formally the EU has limited competences in the field of social policy, in times of crisis EU citizens feel left out of decisions that affect their ability to design and enjoy their welfare system. Given the fact that alienation from the European project is a real danger, an important challenge that EU social policy has to face is to reconsider ways in which EU citizens could meaningfully participate and co-determine decisions that directly or indirectly affect their social well-being.

Social policy regimes vary across Europe. What do austerity policies in the European periphery mean for the EU’s social policy as a whole? 

A significant part of the European population, mainly in the European periphery, is sceptical about the European integration process because they feel that they have lost out in recent developments. The burden of austerity invariably falls on the most vulnerable populations, multiplying the disadvantages to which they had already been exposed. At the same time, the cuts in social benefits and assistance in countries, where social policy regimes have always been relatively weak, sharpens the inequalities between the European periphery and the rest of the Member States. Hence, the big challenge that EU social policy has to face after the financial crisis goes to the heart of what “Social Europe” means and how it can protect a minimum of social rights for all EU citizens.

Can European Commission‘s “Pillar of Social Rights” defend Europe’s values and social model in the context of the current fiscal orthodoxy/“rules-are-rules” policies?

The preliminary outline of the ‘European Pillar of Social Rights’, presented in March 2016 by the European Commission, should be welcomed as an attempt to defend European social values in a period when matters within social policy are framed primarily as a burden on public finances and an obstacle to economic success. Nevertheless, the preliminary outline of the Pillar presented is still far from the desired outcome. The draft text fails to give concrete suggestions on how to operationalize social rights in the framework of the new EU economic governance and treats social policy as subordinate to economic policies. These weaknesses will have to be overcome, if the Pillar aspires to become a weighty reference tool to drive social reforms in the EU and not just a simple reminder of the existing EU social “acquis”.

*Interview by Nikolas Nenedakis

Read Anastasia Poulou recent articles: Towards A European Pillar Of Social Rights: An Opportunity Not To Be SquanderedEurope cannot ignore the social impact of economic “recovery”

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Kiriakos Gialenios was born in Thessaloniki in 1978. His first novel H νόσος των εραστών [Lovers disease] (Melani Editions, 2011) was shortlisted for the State Literary Award for Debuting Author in 2012 and the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation Award for New Writers in 2011. His second book titled Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα [Only dead fish follow the flow] was published in 2015 (Psichogios Publications).

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Kyriakos Gialenios spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest book Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα, which, “within two parallel, seemingly unconnected, and yet tied by an invisible thread, stories” combines crime fiction, poetry and a noir atmosphere. He comments on intertextuality as a conscious decision on his part, while he mentions that for him literature is “a vast field of plays and emotions, an ark of genres, techniques, arts and experimentations, through which we can express every aspect of our world, overt or hidden”.

Asked about the imprint of Thessaloniki, a city of great cultural interest, on his work, he notes that in his books, “the city has more of a spectral presence; it constitutes the negative on which the landmarks and the places are only faintly imprinted and it rests with the reader to make the connection between the imaginary and the real". He concludes that “in times of crisis and turmoil, art constitutes both a shelter and a way out; not just for artists themselves but also for those who are called as viewers, readers or listeners, to become participants in whatever form of artistic creation”.

Your latest book Μόνο τα νεκρά ψάρια ακολουθούν το ρεύμα seems to combine crime fiction, poetry and a noir atmosphere. Tell us a few things about the book.

I will start with something more or less commonplace. We write the books we want to read. Structured and written the way we want, incorporating as many influences and obsessions we may have. Thus, within two parallel, seemingly unconnected, and yet tied by an invisible thread, stories I try to fit poetry, crime fiction and a noir atmosphere. In places described but never named, through characters that always hide more that what they reveal, with love pulling the strings and settling on fates and lives, in an era when cynicism and irony seem to prevail over sensitivity; in this framework, the book is an effort to capture the most intense human instincts, positive and negative.

Gialenios BOOKSedited

The book seems to converse not only with your first book H νόσος των Εραστών but with classic works of literature as well. Was this intertextuality a conscious decision on your part?

Both intertextuality and the connection to the first book Η νόσος των εραστών were conscious decisions from the very beginning. The two novels may of course stand on their own; there is no interdependence, just that sense so eloquently expressed in the saying: Nothing is real, everything is permitted. Literature constitutes for me a vast field of plays and emotions, an ark of genres, techniques, arts and experimentations, through which we can express every aspect of our world, overt or hidden.

The heroes of your book all have ‘exotic’ names, while the titles of the various chapters are quite pretentious. What purpose do both choices serve?

The titles of the chapters are predominant elements of the text. Whenever I read a book divided in such a way, I try to discover what the title refers to, and this, in turn, defines the context of the specific chapter. Thus, on my part, I try to condense into a single sentence the sense and content of each chapter. Let’s say it acts as a point of reference as to what the reader is to expect in the following ten to twenty pages.

As for the names, in an environment where nothing is named and all situations are on the verge of an infinite dystopia, I felt that the naming of the characters should adhere to the atmosphere of the book. Thus, I avoided any relation to the Greek environment, aiming at the same time at dissuading the reader from identifying with familiar faces and situations.

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The book takes place in a town and a country that are not specifically defined, while the word “crisis”, though never mentioned, is constantly implied. Would you say that the book describes the end of a collapsing world and the beginning of a new one that is struggling to be born?

I tried to approach the modern era through the daily lives of the characters, which have, however, been defined to a great extent by how things were prior to the crisis. There comes a moment when they are called to face up to the exaggerations and the decisions they made at a time when they felt invulnerable and mistakenly believed that Fate is a pet that can always be put on a leash. In any case, the book seems to balance on the verge of a before and an after, at that critical moment when the characters all realize that their lives will never be the same, even if they don’t really know what is in store for them right after the next turn.

What has been the imprint of Thessaloniki, a city of great cultural interest, on your work?

Undeniably Thessaloniki is a huge melting pot of peoples, religions and cultural influences that go centuries back. In this respect, it can act as a fascinating canvas for artists to create their micro-cosmos. As for my books, the city has more of a spectral presence; it constitutes the negative on which the landmarks and the places are only faintly imprinted and it rests with the reader to make the connection between the imaginary and the real. What I try to convey through the pages of my books is maybe the city’s atmosphere, which I consider ideal for noir novels.

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Art is a fantastic journey into a world where anything can happen and mostly all can be forgotten. This timeless escape from normality acquires even more importance when in crisis”. What is the role art is called to play in times of crisis?

I insist that in times of crisis and turmoil, art constitutes both a shelter and a way out; not just for artists themselves but also for those who are called as viewers, readers or listeners, to become participants in whatever form of artistic creation. For that short or long period of time they choose to “travel” with their imagination or with the talent of the artist as their vehicle, they opt for an escape from the everyday routine and the roughness of the daily survival.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou

apostolakis hainisLyra player, singer, songwriter and theoretical physicist "Chainis" Dimitris Apostolakis is a founding member of Chainides, a Cretan music group formed in 1990 by a group of friends, most of them students then at the University of Crete. The group's name comes from the world 'chainis' meaning the fugitive rebel in Cretan dialect. The group are inspired by the vast legacy of traditional Cretan music and their lyrics are in the Cretan Greek dialect. Their discographical debut, titled "Chainides" released in 1991 was warmly received by the public. 

Over the years, Chainides have collaborated with several well-known musicians and singers, performed extensively in Greece around the world and recorded 11 studio albums. In their live performances, Chainides blend their own compositions and songs with new arrangements of themes and songs from traditions such as those of Turkey, Afghanistan, Bulgaria and the wider eastern Mediderrenean region. 

Chainides' latest album "Pera apo ta synora" (Beyond Borders), was released in 2014 with the participation of legendary lyra player Psarantonis and traditional music group Mode Plagal, based on the lyrics of Lorca, Borges, Sultan Abdal, Rilke and Pushkin and blending Cretan music patterns with motifs from flamenco to rock and jazz.

Chainis D. Apostolakis, along with Psarantonis, Chainides and modern dance troupe "And yet it moves", re-interpreted the 17th century Cretan poem Erotokritos as a mixed spectacle with music, acrobats and references to medieval folk festivals. The performance was first presented in 2014 as part of the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and has been re-run every summer since. His most recent endeavour is the publication of a collection of short stories called "Ftou xeleutheria gia olous!" (Everyone get free!, 2015).

Chainis talked to Greek News Agenda* about how Cretan music has evolved through the years, the anthropological and geographical uniqueness of Crete, the tradition of Anogia, the forgotten role of the lyra player as a master of ceremonies and how Erotokritos was the last European epic saga to be sung by the people. 

One of Chainides' biggest hits is 'O Akrovatis':"The Acrobat" (1994), Lyrics & Music: Dimitris Apostolakis: "Everybody, take a look at how the acrobat tries to balance Everybody, take a look at how the stranger doesn't get dizzy. Take a look at the acrobat; even if he falls he laughs and never cries. Take a look at the bird of the desert that has a bleeding wing. It's still flying against time, even if it's going to suffer the shot of death. When time is against you, the price you pay in order to fly is to be left alone. Everybody, take a look at me, I'm asking for nothing else. (look at me) that I have broken wings on my back and I am trying to keep the balance like an acrobat. The day has passed and you still are not there, don't cry my beloved one." 

Why do you think Cretan traditional music has remained alive for so long and is still evolving?

I consider labels like “traditional” to be tricky. Let´s start from the beginning. In the old days, people played instruments and sung without knowing that what they were playing was Cretan music. In each village there were musicians and  enthusiasts  that sung and danced all kinds of music: rizitika from the Lefka Ori mountains of western Crete, syrta from Chania,  kontylies from eastern Crete, rembetokritika or tampachaniotika -as they are called- from the urban north coast of Crete, songs from Kalamata and Smyrna and religious psalms, without knowing what kind of music it was. They just knew them as tunes.

Furthermore, because of the rugged terrain of Crete, each small region had its own instruments. For example, in the times before and after WWII in eastern Crete, you could find groups (zygiés) who used a violin and a guitar, or a lyra played with a bow with bells and a daouli drum. In western Crete you had the lute and violin, played differently from the eastern parts of the island.  In the north coast cities you could see boulgariá, an instrument like tabmouras or saz. In central Crete you had lyras escorted by mandola or mandolin. The mandolin was a fundamental instrument, played along with askomandoura, a type of bagpipe and a daouli drum. That is to say, people played whatever was available.

After the 70s and 80s you have a stylization of Cretan music. If you play pre-war recordings to young people involved with music now, they will not recognize it as Cretan music. When I met the first woman who sang Cretan songs, Lavrentia Bernidaki, sister of the great lute player Giannis Bernidakis or Baxevanis, she told me that in their group, Andreas Rodinos played viololyra (an instrument that’s a cross between the violin and the lyra), her brother Giannis played the lute, and they also had an accordionist and a clarinet player. This combination of instruments would be considered unthinkable in today's Cretan music.

cretanmusic1In the last couple of decades there’s an ever increasing number of young people playing lyra, lute, mandolin - it’s crazy! However, especially during the last decade, and perhaps because Cretans feel that they are being culturally besieged by fundamentally different ways of life, Cretan music has become self-referential. While thousands of youngsters are playing and singing it, Cretan music became very extroverted, very masculine, it lost its female element, its introspectiveness and diversity.

So, you are saying that Cretan traditional music has been homogenized.

Yes, it has been homogenized and standardized. This "return to tradition" that everyone welcomes with joy is not a return to self-reflection. It is a chauvinistic, narcissistic return; I believe in what the poetess Katerina Gogou said, that “our roots are not there for us to return to them, but so that we can grow branches”. I would add that tradition has deep roots in a specific time-space, so that its branches can potentially spread across multiple places and times. Also, I believe that tradition is what can be paired to something else. The sterile, obsolete version of tradition that is displayed as an exhibit in a folklore museum is doomed to perish. In reality, what remains of tradition is only what is necessary, and the necessary is always a product of composition; and composition could never contain similar things. Good compositions are made from something that we consider our own, and something that we consider foreign, things that are opposed but yet complementary.

There is, however, something special about Crete that relates to why this very old music is still being played, isn’t there?

Yes, of course there is. Crete is one of the last quasi-closed societies. Why? First of all, because it is surrounded by sea, and therefore has a very definite geographical boundary, and secondly, on account of the land: Crete has three huge mountain ranges, with hundreds of peaks over two thousand metres high, and an impressive biodiversity, ranging from chestnut trees to palm trees. This gives the island self-sufficiency in food, but at the same time, an extremely uneven terrain. Due to this ruggedness of the land, always interrupted by mountains, allotments in the lowlands have always been small, and since there were no large farming plots, there were no feudal lords, so Crete has been a relatively classless society. This anthropological and geographical uniqueness makes it one of the last places in Greece where the continuity of musical expression has never been interrupted.

cretanmusic3And of course Crete has some amazing people. Look, Cretans are a war tribe in decline. So, in the absence of wars, they engage in displays of masculinity, in displays of wealth, in illegal activities and so on. But nevertheless, there are minorities of Cretans who are real poetic warriors. There are people with soul, with self-denial, amazing warriors and citizens, in the sense of assuming responsibility for all; with all the hospitality, the openness towards diversity, the eternal enthusiasm, the self-abnegation, all this wonderful graceful exaggeration. This is unique. Truly unique. But these are minorities, as they always were, only now these minorities are even smaller.

What about the village Anogia in particular? It seems to produce an endless string of talented musicians.

I have collaborated with many musicians form Anogia. When I was learning Cretan music, several years ago, I played at weddings and festivals in Anogia, so I have played with Psarogiannis Xylouris, brother of Nikos Xylouris and the best lute player in Crete - along with Markogiannis. I’ve also been collaborating in albums and performances with Psarantonis for 15 years. Psarantonis is the greatest lyra player alive now, he is a narrative gravitational centre, he lives like a lyra player should. Quite a unique person.  

I have worked with many other musicians from Anogia as well. It is a very beautiful village, people have a special sense humour, are quick-witted and they support each other, they have strong social bonds. For example, when a new lyra player makes his first appearance, half the village will show up to support him. They have a strong sense of solidarity. However, Anogia, like Crete itself, is not excluded from the nationwide and global decline. Do not forget that at this point in time, the entire world, from Western liberal democracies to Arabic theocratic regimes, lacks meaning. Right now there is no vision in the world. People cannot dedicate their actions. They cannot give meaning to existence. What kind of vision for the future do we offer young people? Most suggest trying to find a job to make money, but that is not a vision. That is the common meal of the prisoner. So the world is at an existential impasse. Neither Crete nor Greece can be excluded from that.

"The Tiger" (2000), Lyrics & Music: Dimitris Apostolakis,  First version: Psarantonis: "I have a ravenous tiger within me which always waits for me and I for her, I hate her and she hates me, and she wants to kill me but i hope that she will become friendly with time. She has her teeth on my heart, her claws on my mind and for my own sake I fight for her And she makes me hate all the good things in this world so that i can sing to her with the deepest of sorrows. She forces me to cross mountains, valleys and chasms in order to embrace her in the wildest of dances, And when, at cold nights, she remembers her cages she lends me her pelt to wear. And when sometimes we lie drunk, almost in peace, so that each one can sleep, this still silence is like the one before the storm, like the final moment before she attacks."

You mentioned living “like a lyra player”. What is the role of the lyra player in Cretan music? How does the concept of ‘parea’ (gathering) and revel fit in the whole picture?

There are tons of lyra players around, but no one lives like a lyra player. No one expresses the objective of their role, which is to be a narrative centre of gravity. Something similar to what bards-narrators of Homeric epics were; in ancient Greece, there were thousands of them, wandering from place to place and narrating the epics while playing their instrument. Later on, the bard-narrator became a lyra player in Crete, and the lyra player became a rapper in New York.

Now, this narrative centre of gravity is basically lost. And along with it we lost the ring, the turf were musicians would play out their role. In the older days in Crete, the lyra player sat in the middle and the people around him danced. The lyrics (mantinades) were improvised, in a give-and-take between musicians and dancers, it was a whole theatrical undertaking. Now the lyra player is up on stage, separated from the people dancing below. The whole of Europe is plagued by the death of ceremonies, big and small. Christmas for example, was the celebration of nature’s new seed and was associated with the passage of time, but at the same time many people -consciously or unconsciously- were swept away by the river of the ceremony, experiencing the joy and deep mourning at the same time.

Of course ‘parees’ are still going strong, you can see “parees” forming spontaneously and they are often more successful than organized festivals. For example, in October during “rakokazana” celebrations, all hell breaks loose. But I rarely go to these things anymore; I miss this sacred weight of mourning. Up until some decades ago in these ceremonies, celebration was intertwined with mourning, birth with death, yin with yang, creation with destruction. The joy did not emerge from the prosperity and the abundance of meat and cakes. It was basically borne out of frugality, and the fact that everyone was present in the celebration, all the living along with all the dead and all the unborn. Joy sprung as flowers grow from dung, it came through death. And the people who took part in these celebrations were like sacred dancers balancing on the rope between the tragic and the ridiculous - a sacred intermediary between the primitive and the divine. This is lost now. Revels have lost their ancient, eternal weight, and therefore have lost their lyra player - Hierophant.

Lyra players no longer improvise, they play with a kind of exaggerated high energy that says we are here, we are the best men, our land is the best, so there is not room for anything else; in essence the whole thing becomes self-indulgent. Of course there are resistances. Crete is an amazing place. Even by imitating ceremonies, at some point, some people may manage to create actual ceremonies. I believe that with so many young people playing music today, something new will be born; something will spring up. At all times and places around the world, anything of beauty, spiritual works or artistic creations, have been products of a small but grand ‘holy minority’, as Shelley called it.

erotokritos1How has Erotokritos, the romance poem composed by Vitsentzos Kornaros in early 17th century Crete, influenced Cretan music and lyrics?

Erotokritos, up until recently, played the role that Homeric epics played in antiquity. This means that people knew Erotokritos by heart and sang it in gatherings, while doing agricultural work, when they were alone and felt longing, and everyone had a particular passage they liked. Lines from Erotokritos were also used as maxims, proverbs and generally the poem served as a value system.  Just like the Homeric epics valued beauty, bravery, and honour, Erotokritos valued beauty, courage and wisdom.

Moreover, these poems share another distinctiveness, in that just as the Homeric epics in ancient Greece sustained the Greek language during the so-called ‘dark centuries’, Erotokritos passed the language to the newly established Greek state. For a language to be spoken it must be realized poetically and epically. This is the method of the epics. We should not forget what Borges said, that the highest kind of literature is poetry and the highest kind of poetry is the epic, because, like he said, only in an epic poem can a happy ending be justified. Erotokritos was the basic living manual of every Cretan, every shepherd in his sheepfold had a copy of Erotokritos.

Psarantonis and I learnt Erotokritos from the oral tradition. We are the its last narrators and we had the pleasure of presenting it in a performance with the group Hainides, many musicians, as well as the exceptional modern dance and acrobatics team "And yet it is moving." So I learnt this poem from listening to people reciting it; it is the last epic poem in Europe that up to at least 20 years ago was being sung by the people. For example, Nibelungenlied, the German epic poem, has not been sung for ages. That is what Erotokritos was and its function in Crete. It incorporated all of popular wisdom and was thus embraced by ordinary people.

*Interview by Ioulia Livaditi 

Erotokritos - The Dreary Tidings: Lyrics

Hellas intro resEλλάς” (Hellas or Greece) is a project that presents the crisis affecting Greece in the past years through the eyes of six authors, cartoonists and illustrators: George Botsos, Petros Christoulias, Thanassis Dimou, Michael Kountouris, Antonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup) and Thanassis Petrou.

Under the high patronage of the Greek Embassy in Rome and with the collaboration of Katerina Fragou (founder of Iris Literary Agency), the project was presented last year by Giuseppina Frassino for Tricromia gallery (Rome, Italy) in an endeavor to explore the crisis from an economic, social and political point of view.

The idea of the exhibition was to portray the crisis in pictures, hoping that through the Greek case one can understand the future of every European nation. At the same time, special tribute was paid to the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that has become for many people, a symbol - like Greece- of freedom and courage.

Greek News Agenda* spoke to Katerina Fragou** who provided an insight to the project’s concept and future plans, as well as to the six participating artists*** who shared their views on how feasible it is for an illustrator-cartoonist to communicate the case of Greece abroad, taking into consideration the cultural differences between countries.

Can you provide an insight on how the “ελλάς” project came to life? What were the aims of the initiative; any plans for the future?

Katerina Fragou: The initial idea came from Tricromia, the Italian gallery in Rome and its owner, Giuseppina Frassino. Tricromia specializes in comic illustrators. Giuseppina Frassino asked me to help her find important comic illustrators occupied with the crisis and the problems it created in Greek society. She also suggested that, in case they happened not to have works on the crisis, she was willing to commission artworks. In Greece however, we lived in times of immense change for years and the crisis was, and still is, abundantly portrayed, especially in works of cartoonists.

The Italian gallery aimed to give food for thought to Italian society, which was in a similar situation.

The idea was to have a travelling exhibition or to present similar shows in other countries in galleries, museums or embassies. Judging from my contacts around the world, people in other countries are curious to see how we survive in Greece with all the problems we are facing.

Soloup Kountouris3We use to say that “a picture is worth a thousand words”; however, the work of illustrators and cartoonists is a bit special, as it involves political -often satirical- messages touching on delicate social problems. Judging from your participation in the “ελλάς” project, as well as from your overall working experience, how easy is it for an illustrator/cartoonist to communicate the case of “Greece” abroad, given the different cultural backgrounds between countries?

George Botsos: I tend to turn around the saying; the opposite could really be true: "a word is worth a thousand pictures". Words and images can be the source of infinite combinations and, moreover, our main field of inspiration. When you communicate visually, you are able to express a whole "text" in a single gesture, to tell a story with a "silent" symbolic movement. That is why for my contribution to the "Ελλάς" exhibition I've chosen to communicate without words, in the form of a triptych synthesis, using the universal language of comics, trying to surpass the possible different cultural backgrounds of our foreign audience.

To communicate the "Greek case" through artistic expression is totally different from a political or economic analysis. An illustrator-cartoonist is not striving to persuade through his work, but to send a message that is both intellectual and emotional, sometimes ambiguous in an aesthetically appealing way. If a creator is able to express his ideas about "Greece" in an interesting, original way, his Greek origin can work only as a “plus”.

Christoulias BotsosPetros Christoulias: The task of communicating the case of Greece to a foreign public is not easy. Society is not compact - neither in Greece or abroad - and an artist deals with diverse audiences. Despite the difficulties however, an image can carry a message in a more abstract way, generalizing the situation that it tries to depict. This way it can be more effective than a thorough documentary.

I used this approach when I was "drawing the crisis" as an abstract confusion of inked lines and motives. In the first image, the symbolic representation of the gloomy atmosphere is sitting like a heavy cloud over Athens and its people, while in the second image, a high wave threatens to gulp down a symbol of Greece’s positive face, that of its ancient history and culture.

Thanassis Dimou:"I admire the ability of political cartoonists to do this job and to encapsulate reality, but I have not practiced this profession myself. Humor, however, is a way of handling the reality that one is faced with, while comics and illustrations generally offer readers a creative escape. The language of sketches is global and this is its strength".

Michael Kountouris: My cartoons rarely come with words or captions. In order to describe or comment on people or a situation, I opt for symbols and images, making sure they are clear and intelligible to the public, both at home and abroad. The same rule applied to the 'ελλάς' exhibition: the cartoons I chose with which to take part in the exhibition were such that that pictures and symbols could be understood by the Italian public.

With over thirty years working experience in the field, I can assure you that it is much easier to talk about the crisis –whether economic, political or social - with a sketch than it is to deal with it in everyday life.

Petrou DimouAntonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup): Yes, it’s true… you just described my daily life in the satirical and political newspaper “to Pontiki” where I’ve been working as a cartoonist for the past twelve years. Every day, togetherwith my colleague journalists, we are up against deadlines. For this reason, we have several meetings at the newspaper so as to discuss our reports, what happens in Greek parliament or abroad etc. Then I also need to be informed about what other newspapers or portals report. Finally, all this information needs to be transformed into a satirical sketch. With one cartoon, you must report and comment on a political or a social situation. Not only do you have to describe the story behind the report but you must communicate your thoughts, your point of view about what is happening.

Every nation lives with its own preconceptions. All around the world, people tend to believe that their country is a little bit better than others; and all around the world, there is a core national narrative regarding “the superiority of our race”. We have to bear in mind that this type of prejudice may exist, when we wish to communicate our country and our messages abroad. You have to respect other cultures and keep in mind that everyone loves their country, customs, traditions and way of life as much as you love yours.

It is not so easy to communicate your work around the world if you come from a small country like Greece. Other people don’t understand your language and something like that is a huge obstacle. But the problems we are faced with nowadays, such as the financial crisis, nationalism, immigration, poverty etc are global. So, if you want to communicate something clear about these issues, you also discoverways of arousing the interest of people around the world.

Soloup KountourisThanassis Petrou: I took part in the exhibition, more as a comic book artist rather than a political cartoonist. A political cartoon is the art of the ephemeral: it comments on the daily social and political life, and it is often difficult to be understood, not only by the foreign but by the Greek public as well, if it refers to events that took place a long time ago that might be forgotten. For the “ελλάς” exhibition, I tried to create works that could have wider reading and be understood outside a narrow Greek context.

The different cultural background between countries is not that different between creators, because we have all seen and studied the work of foreign artists for many years, so there is proximity in our expression and aesthetics.

Unfortunately Greece, for years now, has been at the heart of developments taking place at European level, so both publishers and the public abroad expect to see works commenting on the crisis we are experiencing. From my own personal experience, having published a series of comics in France and reading the comments and reviews that followed online, it was made clear to me that audiences are looking for associations with the crisis in anything to do with Greece, even in works that do not directly relate to the crisis.

* Interview by Eleftheria Spiliotakopoulou

Fragou**Κaterina Fragou was born in Athens, where she studied French Literature. She lived in Paris for 15 years, where she also studied Comparative Literature. In 1995, she established Iris Literary Agency in Athens, undertaking the translation of works from all over the world into Greek.

She is working on making Greek literature known abroad, whilst working at the same time as a translator and an editor. She also organizes exhibitions.

***Authors- illustrators – cartoonists (in alphabetical order):

Botsos ProfilePicGeorge Botsos was born in Athens, in 1960. In 1983 he graduated from the Department of Political Sciences of the University of Athens. He published his first comic in “Babel” comics’ magazine (1987). This was the beginning of a long lasting collaboration with Babel, in which he presented 60 short comics. His comics have been published in magazines in France (L’Echo des Savannes) and Italy (Dolce Vita).He has also been working as a freelance illustrator for books and magazines (such as Marie Claire) and as creative director for advertising agencies. Since 2000, he has been teaching the art of comics and is director of the Sketch-Comics-Cartoon department of AKTO Art & Design College.He has also written and illustrated eight books for children and exhibited his paintings in several solo shows.

Christoulias1Petros Christoulias was born in Chalkida in 1979 and studied Fine Arts at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He works as a painter, comic creator and illustrator of children's books. The comics he has written and illustrated have been published in magazines and websites and have received many awards. He has also been involved in animation projects. He has participated in almost 20 collective comic expositions in Greece and an exposition on his book “Trenches” was held at the Greek National Library. He has also participated at the festival La Storia in Piazza, at the Palazzo Ducale in 2011 where he received honours in “conflicts war balloons” for “Trenches”. In 2015 he participated at the collective exhibition “Ελλάς” at Tricromia gallery in Rome and in the Ravenna festival. All of his books have received different prizes.

DImou profilePicThanassis Dimou is a graduate of the Department of Theatre Studies of the University of Athens (2000) and the “Theatro Technis K. Koun” Drama School (2001). Since then, he has collaborated with the National Theatre of Greece, the National Theatre of Northern Greece, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival and many important repertory theatres in Athens (Theatro Technis, Theatro tou Notou, Praxis, Porta etc.) in works of Aristophanes, Shakespeare, Goldoni, Moliere, Kleist, Chekhov, Durrenmatt, as well as in contemporary Greek and foreign plays. He also works as a cartoonist and recently wrote and illustrated the “Winter’s tale” (based on William Shakespeare) for which he received the National Award for Children’s Book Illustration (2009).

KountourisMichael Kountouris was born in Rhodes, in 1960. Since 1985, he has been working as an editorial cartoonist in Greek newspapers and magazines. He currently works at the (“Efimerida Ton Syntakton”) newspaper; he also cooperates with Courrier International and Caglecartoons. He has taken part in many solo and group exhibitions in Greece and abroad, such as The Hague Sculpture-GIANTS (The Netherlands, 2004), “G20” (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburg, 2009), “Ελλάς” (‘Tricromia’ Gallery, Rome, 2015), ‘Fifty-fifty’ Gallery (Düsseldorf 2016). He has received awards in various cartoon contests at the United Nations, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Iran, Greece, etc. As a children’s books illustrator he has been awarded with the Illustration Prize of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY, 2002) and with the First EBGE Prize on Graphic Design and Illustration (2006). Since 2011, he has been working on innovative projects regarding the use of cartoons in education (Educartoon).

Soloup profilePicAntonis Nikolopoulos (Soloup) is a caricaturist who collaborates with “to Pontiki”, as well as other major newspapers and magazines in Greece. He studied Political Sciences at Panteion University and obtained a PhD in Cultural Technology and Communication from the University of the Aegean. He has published 13 books with comics and cartoons. His Phd is about the History of comics in Greece. His graphic novel Aivali, which deals with the violent expatriation that took place during the war in Asia Minor between the Greeks and the Turks, in the wake of World War I,received the prize of the best comics and of the best scenario at Comicdom Athens 2015; It has been translated into French and Turkish and is the first graphic novel that is the subject of an exposition at the Benaki Museum travelling all over Greece. In 2015, he participated in the exhibition “Ελλάς” in Rome and in the Ravenna realistic comic festival “Komikazen”. In 2016, Aivali was presented in Brussels, Paris, Istanbul and Ayvalik.

Petrou ProfilePic2Thanassis Petrou was born in Thessaloniki in 1971. He studied French Literature in Thessaloniki and Paris and has a Master’s in Sociolinguistics. In 2002, he won the first national comic prize of “9” magazine while he started to work for the magazine. In 2005, he completed his studies in comics with distinction (AKTO Art & Design College). He has published comics and cartoons in major magazines and newspapers in Greece and has participated in festivals in Greece and other countries. Since 2012, he has been teaching Sketch, Comics and Cartoons. In 2015, he participated in the group exhibition “Ελλάς” at Tricromia gallery in Rome and in the Ravenna festival. He has illustrated and, in some cases, written scripts for comic books, such as: The Marathon battle (Patakis, 2015), Actors (Cartoonark, 2013, which received the Mention of EBGE Prize on Design and Illustration), Giousouri and other fantastic stories (Topos editions, 2012, which received the Best Comic Prize in Comicdom Athens 2012), Pararlama and other stories (Topos editions, 2011) and The corpse (Jemma Press, 2011, which received the first Cover Prize in Comicdom Athens and the prize of the best comic in EBGE Prize on Design and Illustration; in May 2015, it was published in France by Steinkis.

Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou was born in 1983 in the city of Drama in Northern Greece where he lives. He has studied Law and Political Sciences at the University of Thessaloniki. He has published four poetry books to critical acclaim: Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου (Thraka, 2015), Με ύφος Iνδιάνου (Melani Editions, 2014), Μισές αλήθειες (Melani Editions, 2012) and Έκαστος εφ' ω ετάφη (Gavrielides Editions, 2007) His poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies and recently in the anthologies of contemporary Greek poetry Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis, edited by Theodoros Chiotis (Penned in the Margins, 2015) and Austerity Measures, The New Greek Poetry, edited by Karen Van Dyck (Penguin, 2016).

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Kiriakos Sifiltzoglou spoke to Reading Greece* about his latest poetry collection which “includes prose-like poems, poems and letters” noting that he “chose mostly persons whose life and art were tried hard by history, death, madness, even by art itself; persons whose works, however, constituted ‘milestones’ in the world of art”. As for the poetic language, he comments that “the theme defines the language, but language may, in turn, alter the theme, offering new perspectives or even a new reason why”.

Asked about whether poetry and photography are communicating vessels, he says that “a poem may contain such intense and potent 'magery' that you feel as if reading a photo or, in turn, a photo may avail of such abstraction that can withstand multiple readings and be read as a poem”. As to the effect of reality on poetry and vice versa, he notes that “reality surrounds us all – breathing, shouting, singing, making us angry, turning its back on us, engulfing us – in an all-inclusive co-existence”, while in turn, for poetry to re-form reality, there is required “a peculiar combination of vision and consistency”.

Your latest poetry collection, titled Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου [In the house of the hanged] was awarded the O Anagnostis Literary Review Awards 2016 for poetry. Tell us a few things about the book.

Στο σπίτι του κρεμασμένου is my forth poetry collection. The award was both a great joy and honor, not just for the book but as recognition of the ten years I have been writing poetry. This poetry collection was quite different from the previous ones, both in terms of theme and language. It includes prose-like poems, poems and letters. They all refer to real artists, writers, poets, painters, photographers, from Kafka and Cioran to Rober Walser, Tsvetaeva, Mark Rothko etc. I put them in eras and places different from the ones they lived in; they meet and interact with each other, uttering words they have never actually spoken.

SifiltzoglouBooks

I chose mostly persons whose life and art were tried hard by history, death, madness, even by art itself; persons whose works, however, constituted ‘milestones’ in the world of art. In other words, I underwent a “re-mystification” process – like short films on a blank page – for artists that have left their mark on me, either through their work or some aspects of their life; and I felt as if I returned, in writing, the love that they unwittingly bestowed upon me.

As Petros Golitsis notes, Sifiltzoglou, “in his capacity as a traveler, captures snapshots through his photographic writing, resulting in often cryptic ‘conclusions’”. Would you say that poetry and photography are communicating vessels?

A poem may contain such intense and potent “imagery” that you feel as if reading a photo or, in turn, a photo may avail of such abstraction that can withstand multiple readings and be read as a poem. It’s been three years that I am involved in photography and I have come to realize that poetry and photography can go hand in hand, not so much in terms of representation or “a decisive moment”, but mostly in terms of figurative meaning, intense meaning; a bullet that strikes instantaneously and aims straight to the soul, the mind and the eye. A shot that hits all three may act both as a poem and a photo- as long as the artist arms, fires and shoots straight to the target.

Your poetic language decomposes conventional linguistic norms and established conventions. What role does language play in your poetry?

From my first through my fourth poetry collection, language varies, shifts, taking shape in different ways. I’m not just interested in the theme, in ‘what’ I say but I try to baptize and re-baptize it in a new way of linguistic expression – difficult bets not easily won. I sometimes think that the theme defines the language, but language may, in turn, alter the theme, offering new perspectives or even a new reason why.

Language is the vehicle, the engine, but it may also become the fuel, or even the driver, it can move very fast, take dangerous turns and it may even send you down the cliff, straight to the abyss, in a meaningless leap; attention is required and the artist has no excuse saying “I was unaware”. Therefore, I try, by “guessing”, by turning upside down, not just words, but whole sentences to give my poems each time a different form – hoping that, even to some extent, I have managed to do so, given that what we want and what we achieve can be completely different things.

As Fryni Kostara eloquently put it, Sifiltzoglou is “not a poet of the elaborate but a poet of the substantial, who, through the depiction of the simple things of everyday life, urges us to look behind the superficial”. What is the effect of reality on poetry? And, vice versa, how is reality re-formed/trans-formed in poetry?

Reality surrounds us all – breathing, shouting, singing, making us angry, turning its back on us, engulfing us – in an all-inclusive co-existence. Even what we call “everyday reality” is actually a major part of our life, where everything can be found. I often say that I picture reality as a “huge lovely dump”, from where you can fish diamonds; even completely worthless materials that, at a first glance, seem non-poetic, may be transformed into poetry. It all depends on how open you are, how socially aware, how sensitive your ears are to what is calling or whispering to you – what additional windows, doors, skylights, basements or micro-cosmos you are in need of.

As to whether poetry may reform reality, it depends on the individual, from the artist to every single reader; and it’s demanding, tricky, requiring a peculiar combination of vision and consistency. In other words, it comes at a cost – yet a worthy one. I can’t say more, just bear in mind the words “vision”, “consistency”, “cost”.

Should poetry be socially or even politically ‘militant’ in times of crisis?

There are no “musts” in Art, yet there are certain “obsessions” among artists. These two elements can rarely go hand in hand just casually, spontaneously, or unselfishly. Even in extreme situations, social or political ones, “musts” feel strange or raise suspicions. The thing is whether the artist wants or can overcome himself and his obsessions so as to hearken to the extreme and express it in his way. In many cases, the artist considers himself to be the centre of the universe, even when the world around him is on fire, while in other cases he chases after this extreme reality and blows everything up.

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In my opinion, extreme situations give birth to intense stimuli, which, depending on the sensitivity and the antennas of each individual, may become landmarks or prove to be nothing. There are people saying that “the era indicates or dictates…”. I, on the other hand, think that when the “natural frequency” – to use a physics term – of the creator, vis-à-vis extreme situations, coincides with the “natural frequency” of society, then yes, the “pace” of poetic verses can even make bridges fall.

You have been living in a provincial town of Northern Greece. How do things stand as far as artistic and literary production is concerned in the Greek province? How easy is for writers of the Greek province to have their voice heard?

Although I have been living in a small provincial town of Northern Greece called Drama, I should say that literary production has and continues to be doing well. Both in the previous decades and during the last few years, there are quite notable writers here. In a small town, time flows slowly allowing for a deep assimilation of everything – if, of course, that’s what you are after. It’s as if you are part of life and as it unfolds, you can take a step back, keeping your distance, so as to make the next few steps on a more solid ground. Not to mention that you really have the time and convenience to read wonderful books by others!

I truly enjoy walking around the town, greeting people every two steps, engulfed by a feeling of familiarity; I can’t stand the myth of the distant, mysterious, unsociable poet. North of my town, there are virgin forests and rivers, uninhabited villages, rare species of fauna and flora; it’s there that you bend your head, free of ostensible poses, it’s there that you can feel living poetry dying and then created anew.

No, a provincial town does in no way deprives you of “a large audience”, especially now with the internet and social media – as for the past, maybe, not to say definitely yes. For an artist, whether living in the capital or in the most distant town or village, the main agony is what to “bring to the table”; the book leaves his hands and starts its journey – it’s somewhere on the way that it will find the “erudite reader”, even if he doesn’t form part of the larger audience.

*Interview by Athina Rossoglou