Letter from Platamonas

For Thessalonians over a certain age (50?), the historian and essayist Kostis Moskof needs no introduction. Yet it would be some challenge to explain Moskof to someone who had never heard of him. «Kostis Moskof had the advantage of being at the same time a fighter of the left, contemplative as an intellectual and… detached as the aristocrat he was,» Minister of Culture Evangelos Venizelos – who has the great gift for sounding knowledgeable on most subjects – wrote in the message he sent last Saturday to Platamonas, some 100 km (62 miles) west of Thessaloniki. Facing the sea, the castle of Platamonas, lying at the southeast foot of mount Olympus, is a small fortress-town of the middle Byzantine period. The occasion was the commemoration of Moskof’s death, five years since. He is laid to rest here. Throughout his turbulent and peripatetic life, Kostis Moskof – poet, translator and staunch communist, eccentrically believing in a world of fierce Christian love-values, and finally also a cultural counselor at the Greek Embassy in Cairo in the early ’90s – demonstrated an air of incorrigible innocence which seemed to conceal a culture-vulture worthy of a character from the pages of Byron’s «Missolonghi Manuscript» or even some Scott Fitzgerald novel. Though ill for long periods – he died of cancer – the cards that life dealt Moskof were generally good ones. Born in Thessaloniki in 1939, Moskof came from an upper middle-class Greek family of partly foreign descent; his mother, Amina, was Italian and the Moskofs, as the name indicates, had lived in Russia at one point in their history. An aristocratic bohemian, a scholar-gypsy, Moskof would laughingly refer to his background as «what used to be described as Levantine.» Ill-health, which was to plague him throughout his life, began in childhood but did not manage to dampen his ambition nor will to succeed. His wife Popi describes him as «indestructible,» an opinion shared by many who knew him, including myself. In the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, when Paris had become a city of self-exiled Greek immigrants living in their own villages within the greater metropolis, he worked there for a PhD in the history of civilizations. Ex-Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos – a long-time friend of Moskof who spent those years in Paris as well – recalled, speaking last Saturday to some 300 friends who had gathered in the Platamonas Castle, some episodes in their shared anti-junta life there. Yes, even on this occasion, he could not escape his ironic witticisms. Synaspismos MP Maria Damanaki, who was also present, reflected on the many facets of Moskof’s contribution to Greek-Egyptian cultural exchange. «Yes, he did a lot for the Arab-Greek friendship!» I said (knowingly) to an Egyptian I met later at the garden party on the huge Moskof Estate in Platamonas. There was no one present there who could not «place» everyone else and himself in a wide web of family and history, and Thessaloniki society. «The joke, of course, is that the Egyptians aren’t Arab at all. The Arabs conquered Egypt and stayed on. Do you know that even today you can find some Egyptians – belonging to the old, old aristocracy – who are contemptuous of the Arabs?» No, I did not. «Well, now it is religion that counts anyway. The Koran’s teachings, the Five Pillars, the pilgrimage to Mecca and such, isn’t it?» I insisted, basing this on the vague Greek belief that all religion is A Good Thing. Samuel Bissaras, born in Cairo to a Greek father and an Egyptian mother, a long-time translator for Kostis and an expert in Middle Eastern affairs answered: «You know ‘the good word’ in its Shi’ah variety is unacceptable to the Sunnis, who comprise 90 percent of Muslims. Those religious divisions are little-known facts over here in Greece.» We inevitably came to current affairs and to what is at stake in the postwar struggle for Iraq. «On the other hand, Shi’ites make some 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million population,» Samuel continued. «You cannot imagine how serious the recent bombing of the Islamic city of Al Najaf was. For us, the equivalent would be destroying Bethlehem or Mount Athos. Imagine that…» After a while, we all agreed that moderation may be possible but that this does not easily suit a modern Shi’ah leader, most of whom discourage any breadth of vision. Moskof in his quest for understanding would have thought otherwise. In fact, it is hard to imagine how Kostis Moskof – who as a good Marxist would have no doubt believed in paradise here and now on earth, and as a result of hard work and self-sacrifice at that – had united such peaceful ideas with a Muslim world, which is so far from analogous doctrines. I ventured two other questions to Samuel Bissaras: «Have you ever considered the possibility that a Shi’ah clerical regime, say the Iranian, could be committed to the divine mission of establishing a single worldwide Islamic state?» «If they see some chance of success why not?» We often look to our own religious past to find analogies with the present. «And what if we consider that today’s Islam displays the youthful vigor that our Christian Church displayed in the 14th century, in the Byzantine ages? «Could there be an Islamic Great Schism to complete the analogy?» «That should be America’s ultimate hope, with the situation in Iraq being what it actually is. And I would add that such a schism doesn’t happen by itself, the CIA should give it a helping hand!» That came from somebody from the garden party – who asked to remain undisclosed – and who just popped in. All that happened on a cool Saturday evening with a wonderful moon lighting Mount Olympus.

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