Letter from Thessaloniki

Quick, wake up! The lights in Aqaba have gone out! No, this is not a line from Laurence of Arabia. It was shouted during a night in mid-December 1973 in Eilat, Israel. Worries following the – Yom Kippur – war had kept Irene Papas awake. We were in Eilat, Israel, which is only a few miles away from Aqaba, Jordan. Enemy territory at the time, if you stood on Israeli soil, and as serene as a resort hotel out of season. Irene Papas was there on location for the shooting of Moses. Burt Lancaster was Moses in this internationally produced, lavish film version of the most famous Jewish leader. Since, at that time, I did not have anything better to do, I went along to watch. Ignoring politics, it was quite an experience for me, being in the combat zone of Sinai viewing simultaneously a war and the making of a super film production. The Arab-Israeli War of 1973, also known as the Yom Kippur War, was a war between Israel on one side and Egypt and Syria on the other. At that moment, the situation was serious enough, since the conflict had started an international crisis when the Soviet Union’s imperial pretensions responded to a plea from Egypt by threatening to send troops to assist. Of course, by November 1973, the war was already over, yet both Israel and Egypt claimed victory, which made the atmosphere that particular December hardly stable. Eilat, located at the southernmost tip of Israel, was, and still is, blessed with everything that makes a perfect vacation: beautiful mirror-like seas, first-rate hotels, spectacular underwater worlds and coral reefs. Just as nice was Aqaba (Al ‘Aqabah), the Jordanian waterway to the Red Sea on the other side. Yet there was a heavily guarded border between the two countries. Anything could happen at any given moment. Hence, Irene Papas’s alarm about the inexplicable power cut that night on the other side. Wearing the pallor of the permanent victim, Papas played Moses’ wife Zipporah. Some years later she was Rebekah in the made-for-TV Old Testament epic Jacob. But, she has excelled not only in Biblical assignments. Still, the other side adored her as well. Having starred in big Muslim epics, such as Moustapha Akkad’s The Message, a film in which Anthony Quinn played the uncle of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, plus a mega-violent Libyan-financed thriller Lion of the Desert, Irene Papas has been ideally cast as a woman who overwhelms two thirds of the planet. And not just Israelites and Arabs. Looking back on her affluent career, it is as though a memo circulated among the international studios to the effect that the most lucrative Irene Papas movies had to be parables on the theme of timelessness with global classical heroines. Known to international audiences mainly for her portrayals of Iphigenia, Penelope, Electra, Antigone, Clytemnestra, etc., she ascended to fame being at once an earnest actress seductively outgoing in her wit and with her fondness for frankness. She never made any attempt to sell Hellenism in the form of cheap statues, ashtrays and liquor bottles shaped like the Parthenon. Happily, last week Irene Papas was elected Woman of the Year in Europe for the year 2002. The jury included representatives, both male and female, from the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Movement, women’s organizations, volunteer groups, business women, and journalists. The Woman of the Year Award (the award itself being a symbolic pendant of clasped hands) is presented each year in recognition of an outstanding and ongoing voluntary contribution toward European integration. The woman to receive the award should be able to demonstrate, in writing, the future developments of the work for which she is being nominated. The nomination must be for her own essentially voluntary work, above and beyond her paid work. Irene Papas’s ambitious and innovative project is a consortium of schools for the performing arts, allying three of the world’s most ancient cities – Athens, Rome and Sagunto in Spain. All three schools will be located on the sites of old industrial plants, completely transformed into modern centers of performing arts. An abandoned pharmaceutical complex, located on Pireos Street, is being refurbished to house the school in Athens. The official inauguration is planned for 2004. When on June 8, 2001, the University of Rome Tor Vergata presented Papas with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters, her encomium read: Irene Papas, unmistakably Greek in her image as well as in her soul, has continually drawn inspiration from her origins; she has remained faithful to a specific cultural identity which she enjoys relating by citing her earliest experiences and perceptions of life, such as having been born in Chiliomodi, near Corinth, to a family she defines as ‘storytellers.’ In her 47th year of acting (Teodora, Imperatrice di Bizanzio, Rome, 1954, was one of her first Italian films), Irene Papas has returned to the same venue and subject with a Theodora which she wrote and presented as a Lectio Doctoralis when she was awarded the honorary doctorate, not so very suddenly, last summer. Often a lonely figure, La Papas – to the Italians who had also celebrated La Callas – received recognition as a star in Greece only after she was acclaimed a star abroad. Contrary to foreign critics, Greek reviewers seldom fawned over Papas’s roles. However she outwitted them, proving them superfluous, by hooking up a direct feed line to alien public taste. Much of her film work was done in Italy, a country where they dub everything but the frowns and smiles. And the widow from Zorba, which has aged into the favorite movie of an awful lot of foreigners, has made a remarkable career acting also for the theater in Greece, Italy and on Broadway. No offense to Melina Mercouri and Katina Paxinou, and the other players who crossed our national boarders, but the contest really is no contest. In short, Irene Lelekou from Chiliomodi (she retained the name of her husband Alkis Papas after they divorced) ascended to international fame as the actress who is identified most with our ancient and modern Greek civilization.

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