The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 8 February 2019

Orthodoxy or Death

I told Jade and Joy I was going to Mt Athos with the British consul on an official visit. Joy was enthusiastic. Jade was thoughtful. She dreamed of going. She was a zealous Briton and a sterling girl. Not only, as a female, was she barred from Athos, but I, the man who teased her, was going there with the Queen’s envoy, the man from Old Blighty, who had no idea she existed. She mumbled jealously: “You’ll land on your feet.”

Terry was right about the jeep. One was waiting for us when the boat docked at Dafni. It took us up the hill to Karyes, leaving the lesser pilgrims in the dust. Our permits were examined in a large, ancient building, perfect for the seat of a Monastic Republic but with a Greek flag outside. There was Terry, Bryan and a young man whose name I forget. An aide lowered his face to my ear and asked me softly in Greek, “Who is the consul?” I pointed discreetly. In a way, I was flattered. The aide had asked me. I was, in his opinion, the person most likely to understand – or the one least likely to be the consul.

We were heading on to Esfigmenou. The jeep took us as far as Vatopedi. After that, the road stopped, so we had to walk. The monastery looked a dreary place. There was a giant, black banner on the side and a flag, like a skull and cross bones, with the same message.

ΟΡΘΟΔΟΞIa H ΘaΝaΤΟC (ORTHODOXY OR DEATH)

The monks were in a power struggle with the ruling body. Esfigmenou is used to a fight. It’s on the eastern flank of the peninsula, at the top as you hold the map. It was the first port for marauding Turks. Terry had lost his job because of them, the modern sort, a proper invasion: Cyprus. He was the last British consul in Kyrenia. He lost his house, too.

“A pretty little town,” he said wistfully. “There was a café on the waterfront. I used to drink ouzo and watch the sun set.”

"Didn't the Turks invade because the junta in Athens was plotting a coup?" I'd heard it on the BBC. "They thought there'd be a massacre by the Greeks."

An embarrassed silence. I had said the wrong thing; not wrong, perhaps, in terms of history, but wrong because it embarrassed Terry. I couldn’t tell why. I wasn’t siding with the Turks, though I might have seemed to be. His wife was Greek. Perhaps he had no idea why the Turks invaded. For us, of course, the reason didn’t matter. The invasion did; it succeeded, for the Turks, and without it I never would have met him, or Bryan, probably. Terry moved to Salonica.

“Now, I have to move again,” he lamented. The consulate was closing. There’d be an honorary consul instead, a Greek man, in smaller offices. It wouldn’t cost so much. “I asked Geoffrey to have a word with Margaret. He said there was no point; he can’t do anything with her.”

The young man pricked up his ears.

“Geoffrey Howe? You know Geoffrey Howe?”

Mrs Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary at the time. Terry nodded but was silent. The young man turned to Bryan and asked him about his work. It had been for a UN body, reconstruction in Europe or something.

“An important post?”

“Yes, I suppose it was.”

More silence. The young man didn’t turn to me. In the morning, Terry asked me to find out about breakfast. He was aware I spoke Greek. He wasn’t aware how little. When a monk came out of the kitchen, I translated the word Terry used. It was another wrong thing. I couldn’t recall the monks’ term. I should have just said food.

“When is breakfast?”

“Breakfast! Breakfast!”

The Greek word resembles a clucking noise. Cried indignantly, it’s even better. I pictured a big, black hen. In a fury, the monk returned to the kitchen. It’s a dangerous thing to do. There was a roar. A flash of fire reflected on the wall. I said this in English: “His beard’s gone up in flames.”

“Beard’s gone up in flames,” Terry laughed. It startled the young man. He collected himself, then managed a grimace.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Mr David Manner

There are no two ways about it. Mt Athos is a fortress of discrimination. No women, of course. I should stand with the oppressed and refuse to go. In a sense, however, I am one of them. A hundred Greeks are allowed on the mountain per day, but only ten foreigners. It’s official. A Greek is ten times more important. Orthodox clerics are exempt from the quota, but they still need a letter of recommendation. There’s a wrong type of Orthodox, too.

“You should be fine,” Terry said when he signed my application. He was commenting on my chances of admission. I was finer than he imagined. Once, when I was on Athos alone, I decided to stay an extra night beyond the four-day limit. I told the monastery I’d missed the boat. There was one a day. The extra night was illegal, but they let me stay. There wasn’t much choice, since the boat had gone, though they weren’t bothered. I could have stayed longer. All the same, Terry may have known things I didn’t. The monks mightn’t want you in the first place.

One morning, I took Manur to the consulate. Terry observed him, then put his reading glasses on. He checked Manur’s passport, every page. I have an image in my head of his turning certain pages upside down to examine them more closely. I’m probably exaggerating. But there may have been something, a stamp, a black cross, an empty space which disqualified Manur. With his office work, Terry normally followed the rules, though he broke others, as I found out later. We all exaggerate, Manur included. His face had a tight expression. The passport scrutiny upset him. It got worse.

“Manur David Madyan.”

Terry read out the full name on the ID page (I’ve changed it slightly). Along with his official tone, there was a hint of doubt. He reflected for a moment, then started writing on the application form.

“We’ll make that David Manner.”

I liked the we. He wasn’t changing Manur's name forever. He couldn’t, could he? He did it for Mt Athos, for the permit, to make a better case for admission. He also put Manur down as British. He was doing him a favour. He was lying and he disliked people who did that. Manur looked even more uncomfortable. I felt a monstrous laugh bubbling in my chest but kept it there. When the application was done, Terry took his glasses off and sat back in the chair. He was pleased with himself. Manur had passed the interview, albeit in an altered form. Diplomacy is about compromise. He was now an Englishman and, implicitly, a Christian (I think he was already), not quite the right kind for the monks, but as good as they usually got with a foreigner, better – in their view and possibly in Terry’s – than most of the alternatives. Terry didn’t notice the humour. Manur didn’t either. After the interview, as soon as the door was shut, he said “I don’t like him” and quivered with disgust. “David was my father’s name.” 

     Terry meant well, but surely admission was guaranteed, as long as you paid the fee. Your name wouldn’t make any difference, or your race or religion. We were all non-Orthodox, all damned. 

     There’s one thing Terry didn’t mention – not till we were on the mountain  the rumours about the monks. I say we. The next time I saw Manur, he told me about the monks’ sexual habits. The rumours, that is. His Greek friends at the university had filled him in, gleefully, I expect, when he referred to Mt Athos. If he went, he would not just sacrifice his name, his filial pride and his nationality but his maidenhead as well. It was too much. Manur no longer wished to go. In the end, he disqualified himself.