Today, Greeks everywhere celebrate Greek Independence Day— the anniversary of the fateful day in 1821 when Greeks in the mainland finally said “enough is enough” to their Turkish occupiers after almost four hundred years of occupation.
Yes, let’s celebrate the distant memories of the men and women who made this day possible— the leaders of the revolution who today, are merely names in poems our kids learn to recite for their adoring parents at their annual celebrations. Kolokotronis, Rigas Feraios, Laskarina Bouboulina and so many more.
But who were these people and what did they do? Do we care? Are we teaching this to our children, or just teaching them “papagalistika” to recite poems without meaning.
I remember one of the poems that I had to learn years ago when I was a kid…
Στων Ψαρών την ολόμαυρη ράχη
Περπατώντας η Δόξα μονάχη
Μελετά τα λαμπρά παλικάρια
Και στην κόμη στεφάνι φορεί
Γεναμένο από λίγα χορτάρια
Που είχαν μείνει στην έρημη γη.
I had absolutely no idea what it meant or what I was saying… In fact, I knew the word “psara” and thought in my own childhood vocabulary that it might have been about a fisherman, or a fish. I was taught— probably much like most kids are today, to learn the poem and speak it clearly, so that mom and dad can proudly applaud and comment “how great my child’s Greek is.”
But is this our goal? To learn, syllable by syllable how to merely “pronounce” a poem?
The particular poem, I learned much later in my life while doing a study abroad at the American College of Greece when I was in college, was about the complete and total destruction of the island of Psara, at the hands of the Turks in 1824 when 7,000 citizens were killed and the entire island was burned. The residents refused to bow to Turkish sovereignty and give up their freedom. They chose death, over freedom.
The poem refers to personified glory, who walks alone, memorializing young lads who once walked the island. And on her head, glory wears a wreath, from the charred remains of a bit of grass, which is all that remains from the barren earth.
Up until the time I took my Modern Greek History course at the American College in Athens, I was deprived of this knowledge and never understood the power of this poem and thought I was reciting something about a fisherman, or a fish.
But today’s powerful message isn’t only about Kolokotronis or Bouboulina, or what happened on that tiny island whose population was massacred. Today’s celebration— and what we should be teaching our children— is about the single ideal that defines Western Civilization and the greatest gift the Greeks gave the West:
This is what we should celebrate today. Think about it. The Greeks in 1821 fought to be free, continuing the same beliefs of their forefathers and man’s thirst and right to it.
Today, the world is divided on the notion of freedom. Women can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, young girls are killed by the Taliban just for going to school and acid is thrown of the faces of women who wear make up in many countries that haven’t embraced the Greek ideal of freedom.
And despite the fact that we’re in the 21st century and almost two hundred years have passed— despite one of its worst crises in contemporary history— Greece and Greeks are free, wherever they are. Free to demonstrate, free to criticize their government, free to create hateful political parties and even free to salute Adolph Hitler in Parliament.
And in Turkey, the supposed “modern” heir to the Ottoman Empire that Greece fought in 1821— the “modernist” prime minister has just banned Twitter and called social media— contemporary society’s single most important expression of free thought and freedom— a menace.
Long live Greece. Long live Freedom.