How Brisbane’s Paniyiri Festival Lost Its Way

Peter Calos

As May draws to a close, it is time to once again revisit, and mourn, that classic festival venerated by philhellenes all over Brisbane: the Paniyiri.

Yes, the weekend is a tried-and-true vehicle for the consumption of gyros, honey puffs, dolmades, calamari, and that other thing you can’t quite remember the name of but you tried once on holiday in Mykonos and thought was pretty good.

But is it worth anything else?

Sure, there’s a cultural exhibition in the club next door, and dances late into the night. Not to mention a mock village made of a few deck chairs. (Let me tell you from experience – that’s as far from a “Greek village” as we are from Alpha Centauri.) We’ll have fun despite ourselves, since at heart it’s a social event – but everyone will eventually acknowledge at some point in the proceedings that it’s not what it used to be. Every year for at least the past three years, as far as I know, some strapped-for-a-story young journalist has tapped into the mostly-unspoken Greek consensus: that the festival has lost the connection it once had to their Greek community of Brisbane, and is now a mere commercial venture. And the trend looks set to continue: advertisements for the event now feature, and I quote, ‘Greek Yum Cha’, as a product on offer.

It is immensely hard to see how we reached the point of apparently needing to claim cultural practices from China to service a Greek festival, given that we have the same thing which can be found in a two-second Google search for ‘mezes’! But nonetheless, this is the bed Brisbane’s Greek community has made, and we can either lie in it or sleep on the floor – give up on the whole thing and just sell it to Channel 7 already.

It’s an accepted fact, at this point, that the spirit of the thing is, if not gone, then at least noticeably corrupted.

In response to my arguments, a philhellene will make two claims: it’s an excuse to meet friends and enjoy a social outing, in an otherwise drab time of the year filled with overly grim political role playing both on HBO and the ABC.

(I think you know what I mean.)

And, second, “at least it shows off more culture than Australia usually has on display.”

The first point – that it is a fun social outing – no one could take issue with. The second?

What is ‘culture?’ Allow me a slight diversion here, for the sake of a fuller understanding.

‘Culture’ is something that results from multiple singular perspectives coming to a consensus, assigning value based on shared values. Historically, the purple dye known as ‘Tyrian purple’ was reserved for the colouring of imperial robes, and the robes of higher statesmen, because harvesting the specific dye was difficult, compared to the more common colours. Hence the idea of purple as the ‘royal’ colour throughout much of Roman history. To give a more modern example, if a novel exemplifies a particular national outlook, captures a moment in time for a certain culture, or outlines a movement with enough accuracy, it becomes a ‘cultural icon’ – i.e. Nikos Kazantzakis’ novels are held up as ‘Greek literature.’ The Notre Dame is an expression of Gothic Catholicism, the combined efforts of hundreds of French workmen over hundreds of years that were able to come together to create a ‘cultural icon.’ These things are what is meant by ‘culture’ – but none can exist without acknowledging the frameworks of shared understanding which underlie their existence.

The Greeks, upon our dispersion to America, the UK, and Australia over the last century, have offered the Western world many aspects of our old culture that amounted to the following: honey puffs, baklava, gyros, Zorba’s syrtaki dance, the uniforms worn by soldiers during the Greek War of Independence, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Unfortunately, without an excessive time and attention investment, it’s difficult to understand the underlying reasons for those things, or their composition (For example: what is the Zorba – is it one dance? No, it actually borrows from two different types of traditional dance). The Greek customs and symbols mentioned above fit into the Anglo-Saxon mould because they have universal appeal and they become ‘symbols of Greekness’, trappings of Hellenism that don’t require their original meaning to make sense anymore. Does anyone remember the origins of Zorba’s dance, or the traditions it borrows from? (Who even remembers who Zorba was?) Why did the soldiers of the Greek War of Independence wear shoes with pom-poms? How could anyone in their right mind actually find My Big Fat Greek Wedding funny?

It takes time and investment to learn the answers to these questions, time and investment that most don’t want to, or can’t, put in. In a grand vindication of Baudrillard, the symbols have assumed substance from outside their place of origin – given new meaning by a Western tradition seeing them for the first time. I am Greek. That means I must also constantly eat baklava, spend half my life on beaches, always do funny-looking dances, wear a silly uniform, and so on and so on.

Of course, because these symbols are so distinct, it’s easy to make money off them. They are excellent advertising tools, which attracts Channel 7 et al. And so we return to the discussion at hand. Oh, the festival’s lost its way a little, yes. But are things really so bad as the pessimists say? Is there a medicine for the popular complaint?

Up till now I was able to excuse the slight bastardisation of custom as a translation done for convenience. Very few people are attracted to a culture by a desire to understand its underlying assumptions, after all. People are interested in something initially by the trappings, by symbols divested of their true meaning. Fair enough. You can’t start off rambling about rebetiko culture from the 1910s and expect anyone to really care – you have to show them the dancing, and if they’re interested enough they’ll start exploring from there. Nor can you attempt to celebrate a smaller culture within the context of a larger one without excising the more specific, unpopular, obscure cultural artifacts – no one will be eating lentil soup, for example, at Musgrave Park this year, or wearing a Chi-Rho emblem. Obviously, they serve gyros, and those passionate enough to dress up will wear togas. One cannot fault the Paniyiri’s organisers for exploiting the very marketable symbols of Hellenism, as laid down in this country by their milk-bar-owning forefathers 80 years ago, for the chance to show off a tiny bit of the real Greece. There’s quite literally no other way to do it than that.

However, surely the desire for recognition and popularity has reached a complete nadir when this translation is done through an unnecessary third party, when radio ads advocate for ‘Greek Yum Cha’?

Yum Cha is Chinese. It’s not Greek. Therefore, this is not Greek food, but a fusion. I have nothing against that in and of itself, but it shouldn’t be present at a Hellenic festival. What an utterly ridiculous disgrace this is, that we apparently can’t stand on our own cultural merits and have to resort to leeching off Chinese customs to get people to like what we eat! Those Greeks who would protest at my words – are you averse enough to your own culture that you can’t tolerate it without a familiar Asiatic balm? Where is your respect for your ancestors? You never had to do this before, Paniyiri organisers – there’s no need to embarrass us all by starting now.

This is one of very few moments where I have been ashamed of my own culture. The organisers have stooped so low in order to draw in a new audience that they have created a festival not just out of sync with, but counter to its original intentions. You’re no longer showing off Greek culture to Brisbane – you’re actively trying to disguise it as something else, to erase what it really is, to get people to pay attention to it.

I cannot be the only person in this city who finds that absolutely disgusting!

Try not to misunderstand – even as it was commercialised I had some appreciation for this festival, because, Westernised or not, as annoying as Effie’s voice is, the symbols it was showing off were true to their origins. Oh, they were draped in too much honey, you had to pay exorbitant prices for them, the announcers kept mispronouncing the names and talking about them in a silly manner, but we still acknowledged what they really were.

Now that even the token veneer of Greekness has been stripped away, and traditional Hellenic customs are presented in a manner utterly counter to their origin, quelling all curiosity and distorting people’s image of what Greek culture really is, I see little reason to attend the Paniyiri again. It’s no longer even pretending to be Greek. I can’t respect this festival if the organisers don’t – and they clearly don’t.

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