Thursday, June 06, 2013

Thessaloniki: An Experience at the American College (Anatolia)

Life never ceases to have surprises.  Thanks goodness.  Mind you, no one wants unpleasant surprises and I've had a few of those as well of late.  But the invitation from the lovely American College in Thessaloniki earlier this year was a wonderful honour and I went there the last week in May to join a most interesting workshop organised by Maria Kyriakidou, the Assistant Principal.  It was called Art, Aesthetics and Power and there were nine speakers including myself.  Topics included several discussions on famous photographers such as Fred Boissonas, a Swiss pioneer of photography, Leni Riefenstahl and her film Olympia which she produced for Hitler's 1936 Nazi version of the Olympic Games, and Edward S. Curtis who photographed Native American  people.
Sioux maiden by Edward S Curtis

By this time the indigenous Americans were safely corralled in reservations and these pictures were staged to make it seem the Indians were still in their former free state.  All the same they are works of art and capture a time long lost. 

Greek village house by Fred Boissonas

Leni Reifenstahl

Other topics covered aspects of gender such as the importance of Mary Magdalene whom the Church denigrated as the repentant harlot and the story of Esmeray, a Kurdish transvestite from Kars.  The last talk was based on interviews and research made in Cyprus on gay, and transgender Cypriot people and 'normal' attitudes towards them.   Some other beautiful photographs of Thessaloniki and its architectural changes in the late 19th - early 20th century due to war, earthquake, fire also formed a most interesting discussion.

Old Thessaloniki
My own talk was on my first  book The Long Shadow which was mainly set in Salonika in World War One. Ypres, the Somme, Passchendale and all the other haunting names of the Western Front are well known events, lived over again and again in films and documentaries.  We conjure up pictures of slithering mud, cold trenches and other harrowing scenes of Western battle zones.  But who knows much about Macedonia and the freezing Vardar winds, the barren but beautiful mountains, the treacherous ravines and raging summer heat filled with malarial mosquitoes?  The troops entrenched in Salonika behind barbed wire barricades called it The Birdcage, hence the title of the talk The Barbed Wire Birdcage.  The Long Shadow is a novel that explores the events of the Salonika Campaign through the imaginary diary of a Red Cross nurse with true as well as fictitious events based on letters, diaries, magazines and books of that period.  We see Salonika as a fascinating, multicultural city described through the eyes of doctors, nurses and ordinary Tommies, many of whom laid down their lives there. 
Talking about the Struma Front
It has been a most enjoyable experience.  Thank you all at ACT for inviting me there.

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Favourite Quotes

  • My home is my retreat and resting place from the wars: I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner of my soul. Michelle de Montaigne
  • Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony: Mahatma Gandhi
  • Friends are people you can be quiet with. Anon.