Wednesday, November 30

Captain Christmas

The Liberty Counsel’s “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” which began in 2003, has found a bold new spokesman in the person of Captain Christmas himself (a.k.a. Jerry Falwell), who challenged the City of Boston’s rather silly decision to designate the Christmas tree on Boston Common a “holiday tree” (They’ve since gone back to calling it a Christmas tree). Falwell and his minions claim that the Christmas tree is essentially a Christian symbol. One could more persuasively claim the Christmas tree as a pre-Christian symbol of fertility, a phallic symbol to be precise, but that’s a whole other story.

The Bay State’s Puritan forebears would be turning over in their graves at the sight of a Christmas tree on Boston Common, whatever it’s called. Boston’s founders were children of the Reformation and adhered to a rather strict interpretation of the Bible, as does Falwell himself, or so he claims. Perhaps he’s a liberal in disguise! There is no doubt that those whom Falwell and the evangelicals claim as their spiritual ancestors would have frowned—no, they would have scowled—upon the mere suggestion that the frivolous decorating of an evergreen or even Christmas itself has anything to do with Christianity. The Puritans and other Reformation-era sects regarded the celebration of Christmas—and other feastdays—as an example of “popery,” their preferred term for Catholicism, which they believed had become infected with heathen and idolatrous elements.

I disapprove of Captain Christmas not because I think that “holiday tree” is a better name or because I want to reassert the pre-Christian meaning of the Christmas tree, but because the Liberty Counsel’s campaign is part of its larger agenda to undermine pluralism and foist on America a Christian hegemony. In our post-Christian world, moreover, it seems to me that the Christmas tree is neither a Christian nor a pre-Christian symbol any longer. Above all, it symbolizes syncretism, a concept with which Captain Christmas appears to be unfamiliar.

Syncretism is the process by which disparate religious beliefs and practices are blended together. For example, a newer religion may incorporate (or become infiltrated by) elements of an older, more established religion. Forbidden religions may also take on the guise of an approved religion as a survival mechanism. Sometimes it is simply a matter of deeply-rooted folk practices adapting themselves to or influencing the prevailing orthodoxy.

For millennia the evergreen (duh, because it is green throughout the year) was a potent symbol of immortality and regeneration. It is no surprise that the medieval folk practice of decorating evergreens got incorporated into the Christian feast of the nativity. Christmas itself is a blending of the nativity story and the ancient Roman festival of Sol Invictus, the rebirth of the sun following the winter solstice. In this way, the Christmas tree is an example of syncretism (as is Christmas itself); but the tree is also a symbol of a much larger syncretism that lies close to the heart of organized Christianity.

Decorating evergreens, the very symbol of immortality, has been a part of Christmas since at least the sixteenth century. The Christmas tree has become inextricably tied to the official commemoration of Christ's birth. However, while for some it might symbolize the birth of Christ as a historical event, what I am talking about is not the birth of Christ the person, but the birth—the creation—of Christ the construction. The Christmas tree symbolizes the reinvention of Christ and a shift away from the Jewish peasant who became a radical, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian advocate of the poor and marginalized in 1st-century Roman-occupied Palestine. This Christ had limited appeal (see “The Rich Young Man” episode in Mark 10:17-22 and Matthew 19:16-22). The tree represents the birth of a new Christ, the resurrected Son of God—not the person, but the myth that was created to spread the new religion. The Christmas tree is Christ newly adorned with decorative immortality. It symbolizes Christ romanticized, mythologized, and reinvented.

For me, the Christmas tree is a metaphor for the way in which the early Church co-opted the very notion of resurrection itself, an idea with which the Greco-Roman world had great affinity. One need look no further than the mystery religions of Osiris-Horus and Bacchus/Dionysos, both of which contained a resurrection myth. Interestingly, Dionysos was sometimes referred to as Διόνυσος Δενδριτής, meaning “Dionysos of the Trees.” The resurrected Christ caught on in a way that the peasant Christ never could have. A new Christ had to be born. It is this birth that the Christmas tree symbolizes. If Captain Christmas is uncomfortable with this symbolism because it recognizes Christianity’s syncretic past, I’d like to remind him that if it hadn't been for the absorption of pagan elements, Christianity would not have survived at all.

You might ask why I would want to celebrate that. I don’t really. The birth of organized Christianity’s Christ is just one of the Christmas tree’s many layers of meaning. When Joe (my partner) and I decorate our tree, we are creating a symbol of yet another kind, one that is neither Christian nor pre-Christian. We are creating a symbol of inversion.

The idea of bringing nature indoors, turning the inside into the outside, is one that the pre-Christian world certainly would have recognized. Nor was the ancient world a stranger to ritualized inversion. In fact, many cultures throughout the Mediterranean still practice ritualized inversion as part of certain holidays—men dressing as women, women and men engaging in a kind of gender role reversal for the day. However, while it may look like Joe and I are reviving an old pagan custom, what we are really doing is creating a symbol of our own queerness, because queerness and inversion, while by no means synonymous, are intimately related. For us, the Christmas tree isn’t so much about immortality or the winter solstice. The Christmas tree, like us, is queer. It turns things upside down and inside out. I can only imagine what Captain Christmas and his evangelical elves would say about that.

A note on the images:

The top image is Ashurbanipal and the Sacred Tree (bas relief, British Museum, London). Ashurbanipal ruled the Assyrian Empire from 668 to 627 BCE. Could this be the very first Christmas tree?

The depiction of the resurrection is the middle panel of Hans Memling’s (1430-1494) Resurrection Triptych (oil on panel, Musée du Louvre, Paris). Are those Christmas trees the angels are waving?

Lastly, I’ve included Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) Bacchus (c.1596, oil on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), though this could easily be mistaken for a young Jesus or, better yet, a young Father Christmas.

Sunday, November 27

The Boys of Summer

I don’t know whether it’s the men or the warmth of summer that I find more alluring in these paintings (It was 20°F here last night, and I had to keep the cabinet doors under the kitchen sink open so the pipes wouldn’t freeze). Probably it’s the combination of summer, nude men, and the outdoors, all of which go so well together.

Jean-Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870) thought so too. Two of his paintings combine the beauty of men and summer in a way that cannot help but inspire longing (especially in cold November). In one of his best known works, Scène d’été (Summer Scene, 1869, oil on canvas, Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, MA), several men in various states of undress swim, wrestle, lounge, and daydream amidst an idyllic backdrop. What I find most interesting about this work are the bathing suits, which seem inconvenient and superfluous, almost an afterthought.

Bazille dispenses with clothing altogether in Pêcheur à l’épervier (Fisherman with a Net, 1868, oil on canvas, Fondation Rau pour le Tiers-Monde, Zurich), which shows a well-formed young man about to cast his net, while in the background another removes his socks, his clothing in a heap in the grass next to him. Bazille seems to be playing with the viewer here; he attempts to distract us from the fisherman’s provocative nudity by portraying him with a net, which is clearly mismatched with the setting; the nude youth stands at the foot of what looks to be a rather shallow pond in the middle of a forest glade, where clearly a fishing pole would have been more appropriate. Perhaps Bazille wanted to avoid the obvious pun that a pole would have suggested.

Bazille’s circle in Paris included not only fellow Impressionists Monet, Renoir, and Manet, but also Charles Baudelaire, Émile Zola, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, all of whom were surrounded by controversy of some kind. Some were considered scandalous and vulgar by their contemporaries, and two of them, Rimbaud and Verlaine, carried on a tempestuous affair with one another. Whether or not Bazille was himself erotically drawn to men remains a mystery, though I can’t imagine how he could paint such scenes without seeing and appreciating the physical beauty of his subjects. Moreover, Bazille painted the world he knew. Like his life outside the canvas, the world of Bazille’s paintings is one in which men are comfortable and relaxed in each other’s company (even when naked); they enjoy a casual intimacy and an easy familiarity with one another and each other’s bodies.

Bazille’s corpus of work is small. He did not live long enough to become prolific. During the Franco-Prussian War, Bazille volunteered for the army and was sent to the front lines where he was killed in battle at Beaune-la-Rolande. He died on November 28, 1870 at the young age of twenty-eight.

Friday, November 25

Στήν Υγειά Μας

I got a special treat this Thanksgiving. No, not that kind of treat…

Joe (my partner) and I had a lovely dinner with my parents up in Lynn, Massachusetts, and then paid a quick visit to Pine Grove Cemetery to pay homage to my forebears who, like the Pilgrims, traveled from faraway lands to make a new life for themselves in America. Going to the cemetery may seem like an odd thing to do on Thanksgiving, but we Greeks are pretty scrupulous about visiting our ancestral gravesites, and my father wanted me to see the holiday “blanket” he had placed on his parents’ grave and also show me that the two overgrown shrubs on the sides of my maternal grandparents’ headstone had finally been cut down. It was dusk when we arrived, and the setting sun filtered through the trees gave the place a soft silvery glow. In spite of the coldness in the air, the atmosphere was pleasant and peaceful. Pine Grove was established in the mid 19th century as part of the rural cemetery movement, and its 82 acres consist of rolling hills, a wide variety of mature trees, and many splendid Victorian monuments.

After our trip to the cemetery, my mother asked us to play a little music while she cleared the table, since we had brought our instruments (my sandouri and Joe’s guitar to accompany me). Perhaps it was the music that reminded her, but after she had finished cleaning up she offered us a digestivo, and she began to rattle off a list of candidate liqueurs that contained, to my surprise, my grandfather’s raki. I was surprised, not because my mother was offering me raki, but because prior to today I had no idea that my mother possessed a secret stash of her father’s moonshine.

Raki (or rakı) is how the Turks refer to ouzo (ούζο). Both are terms for the anise-flavored liqueur consumed throughout the Mediterranean, known as “arak” in the Arabic-speaking world and “rakija” in the Balkans; in Greece, raki has often been used as a generic term to refer to homemade moonshine of all varieties. In places like Lesbos, where my maternal grandparents came from, ouzo and raki were often used interchangeably because as recently as World War I, Greeks and Turks lived side by side there. Where my grandfather learned to make raki is a family mystery, but Lesbos has historically been a major center of ouzo production. Lesbos today remains the ouzo capital of the Aegean.

My maternal grandfather died in 1963, many years before his youngest daughter (my mother) gave birth to his final grandchild (me). I have heard many stories about the homemade moonshine that he produced with a makeshift still in the basement of the house where my mother grew up, a house that stands, incidentally, across the street from the Greek Orthodox church the family attended. The priest who served there in those days knew all about my grandfather’s moonshine and was a frequent guest at my grandparents’ house.

My mother can still remember coming home to stinging eyes when my grandfather was at work in the basement making raki. She also remembers many of the local Greeks coming to the back door with empty bottles to have them filled. As my grandfather neared the end of his life, the basement still produced less and less, which means that the small cordial glass my mother served me contained raki that was probably at least fifty years old.

As I sat in the kitchen sipping it, with its earthy and distinctly homemade flavor, I thought of the man I never knew and wondered what he would think of his gay μερακλής of a grandson who plays the sandouri (much beloved by my grandfather) and who, everyone agrees, is in many ways the most like my grandfather of all the grandchildren. Perhaps he would have mixed feelings about me. I know one thing for certain; we would have discussed our differences over a glass of raki.

The gentleman pictured is my grandfather in 1920. Above him is Vincent van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Still Life with Decanter and Lemons on a Plate (1887, oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).

Στήν Υγειά Μας (stin hygeia mas): a Greek toast meaning, “to our health.”
μερακλής (meraklis): a person who is passionate; a bon vivant.

Wednesday, November 23

Check Out Those Balls

This work, entitled The Bowlers, was painted by Sir William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) in 1870. Richmond is most famous for designing the mosaics of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. The mosaics were commissioned in 1891 by Queen Victoria, who wanted to “brighten up” the interior of Saint Paul’s. Richmond’s designs were strongly influenced by Italian and Byzantine mosaics.

I find this painting deeply homoerotic; yet it’s not clear to me exactly how scandalous or controversial it was when it appeared. Richmond was respectable enough for Queen Victoria to hire him two decades later to work on the interior of Saint Paul’s. Perhaps the Queen understood that the best person to decorate the interior of London’s grandest church was another queen.

Who knew, moreover, that bowling could be so sexy?? I’ve only bowled a couple of times in my life and never naked. One is not likely to encounter such a scene at Ron’s Gourmet Ice Cream and 20th-Century Bowling in Hyde Park (Massachusetts, not London), which features candlepin bowling and some of the best homemade ice cream around. And if you want to enjoy it naked, get it to go.

Monday, November 21

Little Egypt

Notwithstanding all the controversy surrounding the construction of the new mosque/Islamic Cultural Center in Roxbury and allegations that the Islamic Society of Boston has ties to radical Muslim elements (as reported by the Boston Herald and WFXT-TV, two news sources that I wouldn’t trust to report so much as the weather in the middle of a blizzard), I myself am quite excited about the construction project.

First of all, the mosque itself, which is set to open in 2006, is a wonderful addition to Boston’s richly varied architectural landscape. It seems to me, moreover, that the very act of building a house of worship with a hefty $22 million price tag represents a worldliness that runs counter to the radical other-worldliness of Islamic fundamentalism. Frankly, I myself am far more worried about the hate emanating from the pulpit of Boston’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

What really has me excited, though, is the possibility that with a brand new mosque being built, can a hamam be far behind?

Beauty Tips from an Ex-Lesbian

OK, don’t ask me what I was doing perusing the testimonials section of the Exodus International website—I thought I was on, I swear!!!—but God bless those ex-gays, they’ve got so much shit to deal with—I imagine it’s hard work losing that lisp and pretending to be straight!!—they really don’t need some irreverent smartass making fun of them.

But one testimonial in particular caught my eye. It’s from an ex-lesbian talking about her “restoration” (i.e. her transition from lesbianism to ex-lesbianism), and I think it’s worth posting because it encapsulates the utter ridiculousness that is at the heart of the entire ex-gay “ministry.” I kid you not, this quote is for real:

“During my years of restoration, I also began to learn about this thing called womanhood. Goodness! Who knew there was so much to learn: plucking eyebrows, hair bleaches, hair waxings, facial mud masks, eye lash curlers, manicures, pedicures, push-up bras, tummy tuckers, rear-end boosters, last year’s colors, and next year’s fashions?”

All you born-again ex-lesbians out there, make no mistake: it’s not enough to stop sleeping with women; you need to be gorgeous too. I guess this is what you’d call a “lipstick ex-lesbian.”

I guess she was so focused on all those Biblical passages proscribing lesbian sex (and filling her closet with fancy underwear from Victoria’s Secret) that she missed the New Testament’s own unique brand of beauty advice to 1st-century Christian women: “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes.”
1 Peter 3:3

Saturday, November 19

Be Afraid

Reverend Bush is at it again. This past Wednesday, while spreading freedom in Asia, he made the following remarks on the subject of freedom of worship in China: “What I say to the Chinese, as well as to others, is that a free society is in your interest. To allow people to worship freely, for example, in your society is part of a stable, mature society. And that leadership should not fear freedoms within their society.”

How is it that Bush can encourage the Chinese government to grant its people greater freedom of religion—because, after all, freedom is nothing to fear—and yet he and his party (and not a small number of Democrats I might mention) are scared shitless when it comes to granting same-sex couples in America the freedom to marry? I guess the United States of America is not yet as stable and mature as we’d like China to become overnight.

It seems to me that the current regime in China has a hell of a lot more to fear from genuine democracy than America has to fear from same-sex marriage.

Friday, November 18


Sometimes a delicate waif; at other times, a muscular youth—however he’s portrayed, nobody evokes medieval and Renaissance homoeroticism quite like Saint Sebastian.

A member of the praetorian guard who was also a crypto-Christian convert, he was shot full of arrows for his illicit devotion to Christ. He was later canonized by the Church, and his popularity as a subject for male artists who were, of course, on the official payroll demonstrates how in the midst of officially sanctioned homophobia, there arose an illicit devotion to the beauty of the male form and a climate that was hospitable to such imagery. Just as Saint Sebastian was executed because for a Roman soldier to profess loyalty to Christ was considered high treason, the many homoerotic and subversive images of Saint Sebastian reveal centuries of treason within the ranks of the Church. Then as now, homosexuality somehow managed to survive within an environment that was, at least on the surface, openly hostile to same-sex love. However, then as now, the pressure of the closet produced a repressed and tortured sexuality, just as Saint Sebastian is, in the many works portraying him, literally repressed and tortured.

In the iconography of Saint Sebastian, religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy are merged. As the arrows pierce his flesh, he swoons almost trancelike, as does the viewer who gazes upon his semi-nude body. Surely, he inspired countless masturbatory fantasies (and probably not a few sadomasochistic ones) among both priest and peasant, and especially among the monks whose cloisters were adorned with his image.

Saint Sebastian remains a poster boy for idealized male beauty. However, while he was one of Europe’s most renowned sex symbols, he was and is an arresting symbol of intolerance and persecution. He may look like the object of our desire—and not just ours, but the desires of the artists who produced the images, the patrons who paid for them, and the churchgoers who reverenced them—but we cannot escape the fact that in those same images, he is also an object of wrath. Saint Sebastian is, above all, a victim and a martyr. He remains for us a most powerful symbol of all those who have suffered violence at the hands of a repressive regime and of the Church’s ongoing crusade against manifestations of same-sex love.

A note on the images:

The first image is a tantalizing detail from Giovanni de Lutero's (1479-1542) Saint Sebastian (oil on panel, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan); the second, from Antonello da Messina's (1430-1479) Saint Sebastian (1476, tavola, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Berlin); the third is Guido Reni’s (1575-1642) version of the saint (1615-1616, oil on canvas, Palazzo Rosso, Genoa). Lastly, a modern treatment by Yiannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989).

Tuesday, November 15

Not Just the Beds


Σώμα, θυμήσου όχι μόνο τό πόσο αγπήθηκες,
όχι μονάχα τά κρεββάτια όπου πλάγιασες,
αλλά κ’εκείνες τις επιθυμίες πού γιά σένα
γυάλιζαν μές στά μάτια φανερά,
κ’ετρέμανε μές στήν φωνή—καί κάποιο
τυχαίον εμπόδιο τις ματαίωσε.
Τώρα πού είναι όλα πιά μέσα στό παρελθόν,
μοιάζει σχεδόν καί στίς επιθυμίες
εκείνες σάν νά δόθηκες—πώς γυάλιζαν,
θυμήσου, μές στά μάτια πού σέ κύτταζαν,
πώς έτρεμαν μές στήν φωνή, γιά σέ, θυμήσου, σώμα.


Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not just the beds on which you lay,
But also the desires that shone for you in bright eyes,
And made the voice shake—though some unfortunate
obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all in the past,
it’s as if you gave in to those desires—how they shone,
remember, in bright eyes that gazed at you,
how they made the voice shake, for you, remember, body.


For those who are familiar with Cavafy’s work, this poem is a frequent favorite. It is certainly one of my personal favorites. I like it because it reminds me that the meaning of sex is often the most arousing part of sex; that is, being desired, even when those desires never make it into the bedroom, is sometimes enough. Sometimes it’s enough just to get cruised. It reminds one that he or she is desirable, and those desires validate us, in much the same way that sex itself can validate us and make us feel special and loved.

The above painting is another of Tsarouchis’ works, as promised. As far as I know, it was untitled, but I'd like to think of it as “Not Just the Beds.” Tsarouchis was almost certainly familiar with Cavafy’s poetry, and possibly his own artwork took inspiration from it. How could someone with homoerotic sensibilities as strong as Tsarouchis' not be inspired by Cavafy’s magic?

Danseur Privé

Unlike the musician in this painting, I play the sandouri (see my very first post on this blog), not the bouzouki, with which I've always had a love-hate relationship, on account of the fact that it has displaced so many of Greece's more traditional instruments. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is that I would gladly take up the bouzouki if beautiful boys stripped and danced to accompany my playing. So far that hasn't happened with my sandouri. People have taken their shoes off, but I'm not counting that.

This painting entitled Zeïbekiko Near the Sea was done by Yiannis Tsarouchis (1910-1989) in 1979 shortly after his return to Greece from France where he had lived in self-imposed exile during Greece’s military dictatorship.

Tsarouchis’ work, which contains hints of both Byzantine iconography and French impressionism, is deliciously homoerotic. I’ll be posting lots more of him.


What better way to brighten the day of friends and loved ones than with an iconogram of Saints Sergius and Bacchus? They’re not just for Orthodox anymore. Queers love them too (both Sergius and Bacchus and icons, that is).

BTW, their feastday is October 7, but you don’t have to wait until next year. Send one today!

Monday, November 14

Otherwise Known as Lunch

While poking around Carol Gerten-Jackon’s Virtual Art Museum this afternoon, I came across The Mid-Day Meal, Cairo painted by John Frederick Lewis (1805-1876) one year before his death, most likely from an earlier sketch made during the ten years he spent living in Cairo. I had not heard of him until today during my own mid-day meal, Boston. I immediately fell in love with this painting.

I find this particular work very moving. It is, of course, a quintessentially Orientalist work of art; it depicts 19th-century Cairo as seen by Western eyes, in all its romantic and exotic glory. I would prefer, however, not to overly politicize such a marvelous work as this one. While I recognize the importance of understanding this work in its proper historical context, I cannot help but admire its delicate beauty and the sensuousness of the feast it portrays. I think it is clear that Lewis appreciated and was himself moved by Cairo’s beauty, and he quite successfully draws the viewer into the work itself, to take one's seat on the cushion in the foreground.

Gay Head

How cool is the tribal emblem of Gay Head’s Wampanoag? That’s the spirit Moshup holding a whale by the tale atop Aquinnah’s magnificent cliffs.

The tribe, which became a federally acknowledged tribe in 1987, resides at the southwestern corner of Martha’s Vineyard (or “Noepe” in their native tongue) in the town of Gay Head, which has recently reverted to its native name of Aquinnah. The almost 500 acres of tribal land include the public beach at Gay Head which lies beneath the gayly colored clay cliffs, one of Massachusetts’ most stunning spots.

The cliffs were formed during the glacial retreat at the end of the last glaciation, more than 10,000 years ago. To the Wampanoag, the cliffs are sacred. According to Wampanoag legend, Moshup would drag whales up onto the cliffs to cook, the whale blood staining the cliffs, giving them their deep red color. Removing clay from the cliffs is prohibited, and signs are posted to remind visitors that the cliffs, like the surrounding dunes, are a fragile natural resource. Today, the cliffs are no less sacred to the many beachgoers who marvel at their beauty and the amazing backdrop they provide to one of the grandest bathing spots in the Northeast. It doesn’t hurt that the hip Wampanoag authorities don’t prohibit bathing au naturale.

After a recent personal crisis involving a very frustrating and traumatic trip overseas, I paid a visit to the beach at Aquinnah with my partner and a close friend. It was an unseasonably warm day for November. Only a few other casual strollers were present. The beach was mostly deserted. The water at Aquinnah (and at the island’s other beaches as well) is usually much warmer than elsewhere in Massachusetts, more akin to the sheltered waters of Cape Cod bay than the open Atlantic, and this clearly has something to do with the nature of the currents surrounding the island. I swam at Aquinnah on a warm Memorial Day a couple of years ago, and it’s the only place I’ve ever been in Massachusetts where I could swim so early in the season.

Still, I didn’t really expect to go swimming in November. The next thing I knew, though, my partner was buck naked, running toward the surf, and I quickly followed suit by stripping down to my own birthday suit. The water was cold, but tolerable, and quite refreshing and invigorating. Having not swum since just after Labor Day weekend, it was amazing to relive the summer for a brief moment in November, and to do so in a place so beautiful and magical was more therapeutic than I could have imagined. After about a half hour playing in the powerful waves, I air-dried myself on the sand and dozed beneath the sun and the cliffs.

Sunday, November 13

Who was Agathon?

Τήν ψυχήν, Αγάθωνα φιλών, επί χείλεσιν έσχον—
ήλθε γάρ η τλήμων
ως διαβησομένη.

Kissing Agathon,
my soul was on my lips,
it came forward, poor thing, as if it would cross over into him.

It seems from this verse that, whoever he was, Plato really dug him. Perhaps he hosted more than a symposium at his house.

That verse, some of simplest and most poignant that Plato ever wrote, is remarkably close to modern Greek, notwithstanding that it was composed two-and-a-half millenia ago.

Friday, November 11

Göz Lokum

That’s “eye candy” in Turkish. But you don’t have to be Turkish to enjoy göz lokum. And göz lokum is everywhere, not just in Turkey, though Turkey has its fair share.

The painting is entitled Under the Western Sun and it was painted in 1917 by Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). He was well known for painting göz lokum.

More göz lokum to come, so stay tuned.

Thursday, November 10

The çaycı

Tea gardens—or çaybahçeler—can be found all over Istanbul and in towns and villages throughout Turkey. Many have an indoor component where younger men—women are conspicuously absent in what is still a predominantly gender-segregated society—gather around the television to watch football. The outdoor spaces afford a mostly older, backgammon-playing crowd shade and relative peace and quiet (away from the din of the television and agitated football fans).

Scurrying along Istanbul’s crowded sidewalks are the teaboys. The çaycı (pronounced “chaïja”) can be seen carrying his delicate tea tray to and from shops and offices delivering tea and Turkish coffee. These lithe young men, who spend most of their days running to and fro, perform a graceful dance as they weave in and out among the pedestrians and shoppers.

Turkish tea can be made at home, as all good Turkish housewives know, using an improvised “samovar” or double boiler kettle system. If you can, avoid all stainless steel in favor of a stainless steel bottom kettle and a porcelain top kettle, though it means mixing and matching. First, measure out how much tea is needed. For 4 cups, I use about 6 dessert spoons of tea; for 6 cups, about 8 dessert spoons. Rinse the tea in the porcelain kettle and drain. Refill the porcelain kettle with a small amount of water, so that the tea is barely covered. Place a good amount of water in the bottom kettle. Place the entire apparatus on the stove, with the stainless steel on the bottom and the porcelain on top, and bring to a boil. Once the bottom is boiling, pour some of the water into the porcelain kettle, just over half for 4 cups and three-quarters full for 6 cups. Let simmer as a double boiler for about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and pour, using a strainer, from the porcelain first, filling each cup half way, and then filling them the rest of the way with hot water from the bottom kettle. The perfect tea, I am told, is referred to as “rabbit’s blood,” with its deep crimson color. For a sweetener, I prefer sugar cubes—I use three myself because I like it sweet—but most Turks take one or two. My Turkish housemate doesn’t take any sugar; go figure.

It sounds much more complicated than it is. If you really want to impress your friends by playing çaycı, you can get your own tea tray.

Wednesday, November 9



Σαν σώματα ωραία νεκρών πού δεν εγέρασαν
καί τά'κλεισαν μέ δάκρυα, σέ μαυσωλείο λαμπρό,
μέ ρόδα στό κεφάλι καί στά πόδια γιασεμιά—
έτσ’ οί επιθυμίες μοιάζουν πού επέρασαν
χωρίς νά εκπληρωθούν, χωρίς ν’αξιωθή καμιά
της ηδονής μιά νύχτα ή ένα πρωΐ της φεγγερό.

Like the bodies of beautiful youths who died before aging,
locked away with tears in a bright mausoleum,
with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet—
such are the desires that pass away
without being fulfilled, without ever experiencing
a single night of pleaure or one of her bright mornings.


I used to have a pair of glasses just like these. But they met an untimely death at Campus a couple of years ago. Oh Manray (sigh)...

Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) wrote poems that capture the tensions and transitions of the Hellenistic world in a way that both reflects his own Alexandria at the turn-of-the-century, but also resonates with contemporary readers in the midst of today’s “culture wars.” Moreover, his poems on love, longing, and desire cannot help but arouse even the most repressed reader. Cavafy, like Whitman, found beauty and genuine human connection in even the most fleeting physical encounters. His most erotic poems are often as much about pathos as they are about passion.

Recommended Reading:
C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems translated by George Savidis
Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems translated by T.C. Theoharis
Cavafy: A Critical Biography by Robert Liddell

Λέσβος Αιολίς

The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.

Έρος δ' ετίναξέ μοί φρένας ώς άνεμος κατ’όρος δρύσιν εμπέτων.

Lust shakes me up like a mountain wind falling on the oaks.

It’s said that Orpheus’ head and lyre washed ashore on Lesbos after he was torn apart by a mob of crazed Thracian women. The moral of the story is, when your dead girlfriend’s shade is forced to return to Hades because you turned around to see her even though the gods warned you not to look until you were both safely out of the underworld, don’t go for a walk by yourself.

The Thracian mob failed to silence Orpheus’ lyre, though; his severed head and lyre brought with them to Lesbos the gift of music. The island that gave birth to the lyric poetry of Sappho is home to a vibrant literary and artistic tradition stretching back centuries. Greece is a very musical country with a rich and varied musical tradition, and Lesbos—or Mytilene as the island is also known—is one of the brightest stars in Greece’s musical firmament.

Prior to its liberation from the Ottomans and its subsequent marriage to Greece in 1913, Lesbos’ primary orientation was eastward toward Constantinople and Smyrna, rather than westward toward Greece. This connection to the cosmopolitan cities along the Aegean coast of Asia Minor is reflected in the island’s music, whose eastern influences could be felt long before the music of mainland Greece was “orientalized” as a result of the huge influx of more than a million refugees from Anatolia following the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922-23.

Recommended Listening:
Lesbos Aiolis: Songs and Dances of Lesbos
The Guardians of Hellenism, Vol. 1—Chios, Mytilene, Samos, Ikaria
Songs of Mytilene and Smyrna (Hellenic Music Archives)

My Narghile

Εγώ θα είμαι, ρε, δικτάτορας, κι’ο κόσμος στάχτη αν θα γίνει –ο ένας θα μ’ανάβει το λουλά, κι’ο άλλος θα το σβήνει.

Man, if I were a dictator, the world could turn to ashes for all I care, as long as I’ve got someone to light my hookah and someone else to put it out.

The narghile—also known as arghile in Greek, hookah in English—can be found throughout the Mediterranean and is a great way to smoke. In certain circles, it was the preferred method of smoking hashish, but historically tobamel or maassel, which is a mixture of tobacco, molasses, and dried fruit, has been equally common. Like a bong, the water cools the smoke, and the flavored tobacco—apple and rose are my favorites—fills your head with fragrance. Filling the base with wine or milk makes for an even smoother smoke. The key to a good narghile experience is the charcoal. Make sure the coal is hot enough to allow you to cover the tobacco with a sheet of perforated aluminum foil, so that the tobacco is heated, rather than burned. This is believed by some to produce fewer carcinogens. I don't recommend using “self-lighting” coals. Instead, look for a natural charcoal.

In spite of Boston’s smoking ban, Mantra Restaurant still features pictures of their hookah den on their website. I don’t know if it still operates, but as far as I can tell, that would be the only reason ever to visit Mantra. Otherwise, you can buy your own narghile and enjoy it at home.

If only all the countries in the Middle East could put aside their differences and smoke the water pipe.

Αφιερωμένο στην Σμύρνη

And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write ... I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) ... Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer ... ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

-Revelation 2:8-11

Nothing is more easily distorted than the past, but here are the facts in this tragic and much contested episode:

Women were raped, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were slaughtered in their homes and in the streets, an entire city was reduced to ashes, while the warships of the Great Powers, including the United States, were anchored offshore and refused to intervene. A million and a half people were uprooted from the only home they had ever known, and a three-thousand-year Greek presence in Asia Minor came to an abrupt and violent end. It was one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world had ever known, and hardly anyone even remembers.

“The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time. We were in the harbor and they were all on the pier and at midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them down. That always did the trick. We’d run the searchlight up and down over them two or three times and they stopped it...

The worst, he said, were the women with dead babies. You couldn’t get the women to give up their dead babies. They’d have babies dead for six days. Had to take them away finally.”
-Ernest Hemingway, On the Quai at Smyrna

Recommended Reading:
Farewell Anatolia by Dido Sotiriou
Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin
Ambassador Morgenthau's Story by Henry Morgenthau
Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922 by Michael Llewellyn Smith

The Hamam

Bathing in its purest form: Istanbul’s Cagaloglu Hamam in the 19th century. It hasn’t changed much.

From the fountain in the vestibule to the ornate brass spigots that line the walls along the marble-covered interior to the heated marble platform under the steam-filled dome to the plush towels, fragrant tea, and lemon cologne afterwards, a visit to one of Istanbul’s historic hamams is a sensuous experience not easily forgotten.

Cagaloglu (pronounced “jaalóhlu”), which dates to the 18th century, along with Çemberlitaş, which dates to the 16th century and has been attributed to Sinan, are two of Istanbul’s most historic hamams. Both are popular with tourists, with Cagaloglu being slightly more expensive, though both were a bargain compared to spa visits elsewhere in the world. It is also worth noting that while the vast majority of Istanbulites now bathe in the privacy of their own homes, the historic hamams are not just for tourists. Many locals, especially athletes, appreciate the hamam experience, especially the vigorous rubdown that, for a few extra dollars, is often the most memorable part of the visit.

Istanbul also has a handful of smaller, neighborhood hamams, and while they are not as spectacular in appearance as Cagaloglu or Çemberlitaş, there are fewer tourists and they are less expensive (but, again, none of Istanbul’s hamams could be considered expensive, compared to, say, a trip to the movies in a large American city). Outside of Istanbul, one can find hamams of all sizes, both grand and diminutive. Bursa, one of Turkey’s loveliest and most historic cities, offers several hamams that are as grand as anything one could find in Istanbul. Despite its beauty, Bursa is not heavily touristed, which means that its large hamams are filled primarily with locals, including many breathtakingly beautiful young Turkish men. Moreover, many of Turkey’s smaller towns and villages still have functioning hamams. Several hours east of Istanbul by car is Safranbolu, a delightful town that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Safranbolu offers a small but beautiful hamam where visitors can enjoy the peaceful steam and get a massage for a mere fraction of what it would cost in Istanbul.

It amazes me how often I talk to people who have gone all the way to Turkey only to ignore the hamams. Perhaps, Americans have been trained to think of “bathhouses” as sordid, dirty, and inherently unsafe. Turkey’s hamams are clean, well-maintained places that are simultaneously dignified and relaxed, sensuous but not sleazy, where decorum and strict Islamic notions of modesty prevent even the slightest impropriety from disrupting the sanctity and fellowship of the steam.

For more information, visit

η τραγουδούσα βροχή

The σαντούρι, pronounced “sandoúri”—actually the “n” is practically silent—is the Greek variant of the hammered dulcimer. The name represnts a Hellenization of “santur,” which is a corruption of the Babylo-Persian “pisanterin,” which itself is a corruption of the ancient Greek “psalterion.” I am told, however, that the psalterion was not an indigenous Greek instrument, like the lyre or kithara, but was an import from the east, probably Phoenicia.

The Greek sandouri in its current form can most likely be traced to its older cousins in Romania and Hungary, which were introduced to Greece and the Greek communities in Asia Minor by traveling musicians from the northern Balkans sometime during the 18th century. Prior to that, a more eastern version of the hammered dulcimer derived from the Persian santur existed in the Ottoman world. The Ottoman santur and the newer Greek sandouri coexisted for some time, with the santur being featured mostly in Ottoman court music, while the sandouri became a popular instrument in the ensembles that performed in the music cafés of Smyrna and Constantinople.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.