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Journal of Modern Greek Studies, May 1984 Stratis Tsirkas and the Arabs E. D. Karampetsos In his fictional treatment of the Arabs Stratis Tsirkas is unique among Western authors. He is unique, strange as it may seem, because he wrote about Arabs as though they were just like anyone else, whether Greek, French, American, or English. Count how many non-Arab authors have written about Arabs as peers and it quickly becomes obvious how special Tsirkas was. His unusual point of view is a result of having grown up among Arabs, speaking their language , working with them, and sharing their interests, hopes, desires and problems. Of course such an understanding might have been wasted, had it not been accompanied by exceptional literary talent and a determination to understand how the life of the individual is bound up in the movement of history. In his approach to history, Tsirkas was a Marxist, but in his preference for literature, he was Aristotelian; he chose to write literature, because he saw it as a superior means of expressing universal truths through an intense involvement in the everyday lives of Greeks and Arabs. Unlike the social scientist, he had no interest in enumerating ethnic or racial traits typical of Arabs, that is, in defining them in terms of their otherness, of the differences which set them apart from the Westerner. Instead, Tsirkas created individuals in action whom his readers are forced to see in terms of their shared humanity. It is not enough to say that Tsirkas understood the Arabs, that he had no racial or cultural bias against them; it is more correct to say that Tsirkas loved the Arabs, that he identified with them and their struggles for freedom and independence. This attitude was literally imbibed with his mother's milk for, as Tsirkas frequently stated, she was primarily responsible for his understanding of the Arabs. My mother, remember, was an Orthodox Christian born in Jaffa, who made no distinction between Christian and Moslem Arabs, nor white and colored people. I inherited her racial and religious tolerance, which I was able to absorb even more thoroughly when I witnessed her 39 40 E. D. Karampetsos attitude toward the Egyptian people in their struggle to gain independence .1 From his mother Tsirkas absorbed the unique atmosphere of her birthplace and an enthusiasm, not merely a sympathy, for the Arabs' national and individual interests. Until 1948, Jaffa was a place where Greek and Arab met as equals. The modern Greek—heir to Byzantium and the Ottoman occupation —is at once oriental and western; in Jaffa, he could meet his counterparts, the Palestinian Christians, who themselves are a living remnant of the Christian oikoumene which flourished under the Byzantine Empire. In this oikoumene one was neither Hellene nor Arab; one was Christian. The common language was Greek, but they came under the temporal rule of the Romans; thus, with the passage of time and the dislocations of history, to be called "Roum" Orthodox became synonymous with being Greek Orthodox. The Jaffa community of Roum Orthodox—almost eighteen thousand strong—was the largest in Palestine. In the century preceding the establishment of the Israeli state, the local Christian community prospered; Greeks and Arabs prayed in the same churches, went to the same schools (the local academy was the finest school of the Jerusalem patriarchate), and intermarried. Tsirkas visited Jaffa in 1942; he recalled this experience as a form of enlightenment: I mixed with the crowd; its gentleness, its tolerance, its good humor enlightened me. I suddenly understood whence came the "wisdom of heart" of my mother, who had grown up here as an equal among the Arabs, whether Moslem or Christian, and why she always took the side of the Egyptians against the British, her soul unsullied by racism.2 In Jaffa, East and West were geographical directions, not separate worlds. Tsirkas was born Iannis Hadjiandreas, in 1911, to a second generation Greek Egyptian family from the island of Imbros. His father was a barber who, because of poor health, always had problems in supporting his family. As a schoolchild Tsirkas helped supplement the family income by working in his father's barbershop. Later, after leaving...


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