The Macedonian Tendency: Patriot Games

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Patriot Games

This is an old story from our friend Fiachra about Colin Farrell's Alexander. I saw the movie. Not much of a story, just enough to make Macedonians and Greeks look foolish. Wouldn't be proper to mention the role of US/EU in this comedy. Wouldn't be prudent!. People are watching! Mum's the word.

Patriot games

Which people are the true descendants of the greatest military
commander in history? Fiachra Gibbons reports on how Oliver Stone's
epic Alexander is reigniting an ancient, bitter feud.

Friday November 19, 2004
The Guardian

The first western imperialist ... Colin Farrell as Alexander

"We will come and kill you in your beds, cut your throats, and wipe
you from the face of the earth ... if Alexander the Great were alive
today he would grind you gypsy dogs into the dust, dig your dead from
their graves and silence forever your filthy language that insults his
name ..."

Internet chatrooms have never been the most decorous of forums but
even in the free-for-all that is cyberspace, those dedicated to
discussing Oliver Stone's new film, Alexander, are a case apart.

Since the combative director of JFK chose to make his first foray into
historical epics with a biopic of the most fought-over figure of the
ancient world, rivers of blood have been spilt - figuratively at least
- in a propaganda battle between Greek and Macedonian nationalists
over who has the right to claim the all-conquering hero as their own.

This very modern ethnic turf war is being fought with tortuously
argued historical blogs about which Macedonia Alexander conquered the
known world for - a tiny new Balkan republic that has only recently
come to see itself as the keeper of his flame, or a province that was
officially known as "Northern Greece" until the former Yugoslav
republic of Macedonia declared itself independent and bagged the name.

But the real blood and guts of the battle, the part Alexander would
have so enjoyed, is in the chatrooms, where fanatical foot- soldiers
taunt each other with blood-curdling threats heavy with echoes of the
short but brutish Balkan wars that carved up ancient land between
Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria almost a century ago.

Stone has remained uncharacteristically silent, preferring to wrestle
on set with war elephants and his leading man, Colin Farrell. Even for
such a seasoned controversialist, this is a scrap to stand back from.

For the struggle over who have the right to call themselves
descendents of the greatest military commander in history, and the
first real western imperialist, is neither pretty nor edifying. In the
early 1990s, Greece nearly invaded the newborn Republic of Macedonia
for "stealing" Alexander's symbol, the Star of Vergina, for its flag,
as well as the White Tower in the Greek Macedonian capital of
Thessaloniki for its banknotes, something the millions of ordinary
Greeks who took to the streets saw as "blatant acts of aggression".

The flag and the banknotes were hastily withdrawn, but Greek pride was
far from restored. To the horror of its European partners, Athens
briefly contemplated carving up its defenceless northern neighbour
with the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In the end, Greece
stepped back, choosing instead to blockade the tiny republic of barely
two million people in an attempt to strangle it at birth. Since then
millions have been spent on a war of attrition to claim the name - and
Alexander - back.

You cannot walk more than a few hundred metres in any town in northern
Greece without tripping over a new statue, bust or monument to
Alexander, who extended the Hellenic world as far as India in the
fourth century BC with such slaughter that even today in Iran and
central Asia his name is used to scare unruly children. You will find
the most pointed statue of all at the border with Macedonia at Niki -
named after the Greek god of victory - where a giant Alexander angrily
brandishes a javelin at the upstart state across the frontier.

All over Greek Macedonia, streets, schools and airports have been
hastily renamed, while archaeologists, having all but ignored ancient
Macedonia until relatively recently, are digging furiously for its
traces. The spectacular tomb of Alexander's father, Phillip, at
Vergina near Thessaloniki, and the city's revamped museum, hammer home
the kingdom's Greekness.

Still, passions had cooled somewhat after an unhappy compromise over
the name that burdened Skopje with the cumbersome temporary moniker of
the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or "Fyrom" for short. Greek
investment also began to build bridges - until Stone and his army of
Hollywood stars appeared on the horizon to put nationalists on both
sides back on a hair-trigger.

It is into this fraught and febrile atmosphere that George W Bush has
now wandered. With the world waiting and wondering where the president
will start the next war, Bush chose as his first major foreign-policy
decision of his second term to recognise Fyrom by its "proper" name as
the Republic of Macedonia, prompting paroxysms of Greeks anger across
the globe and Athens to vow to block Macedonia's entry into the EU and

Even before Bush's intervention, the very mention of the M-word in
Greek Macedonia risked a stern lecture on how it has been Greek since
antiquity. I nearly lost an ear to a particularly patriotic barber in
Thessaloniki last month when I mentioned that I had just arrived from
the "other Macedonia".

Those people are not Macedonian, he raged. "That is a Slav lie. We are
the real Macedonians. They are prostitutes and Gypsies and worse than
Albanians," he declared. His family, it turned out, were recent Greek
immigrants from Georgia who, he claimed, went "east with Alexander".
He liked to take his son on Sundays to the massive equestrian statue
of Alexander on the city's seafront promenade, where Greek
right-wingers gathered after Bush's bombshell to burn American and
Macedonian flags. "I tell him to be proud of his ancestors and how
lucky he is to have returned to the land of his forefathers."

But ask anyone four hours north in Skopje what Alexander was and they
will smile sheepishly and say, "Macedonian, of course!" And when
pressed about the obvious absurdity of a country that has a majority
Slavic population claiming a man who was born nearly 1,000 years
before the first Slav appeared in Macedonia, they answer, "Well, he
was certainly not Greek."

If the Macedonians were Greek, why did Alexander have to address his
troops in both Greek and ancient Macedonian, they argue. And every dog
can quote the Athenian orator Demosthenes' famous condemnation of
Alexander's father Philip as "not only no Greek, nor related to the
Greeks, but not even a barbarian from any place that can be named with
honour, but a pestilent knave from Macedonia, whence it was never yet
possible to buy a decent slave."

"No one is saying that Alexander spoke modern Macedonian, that is
ridiculous, but who is to say that there isn't something of him still
floating around in the genome," says Vojislav Sarakinski, a lecturer
in ancient history at the city's main Cyril and Methodius university.
It is easy to ridicule all this as archetypical Balkan lunacy until
you realise how much of the emotional heat of the dispute stems from
the insecurity of both countries about their borders, fears fully
justified by the region's recent history.

Stone has been well aware of these sensitivities from the start,
though initial Greek outrage at his film focused on Alexander's
omnivorous sexuality, in particular his fondness for eunuchs. His
film, he insists, is purely about the historical "man god", and so has
made no secret of showing Alexander's love for his friend Hephaestion.
There is, however, none of the lurid decadence promised from Baz
Luhrmann's planned film about Alexander, if it ever gets off the

Evangelos Venizelos, the formidable former Greek culture minister and
a Macedonian, attempted to get Stone onside early on, offering him
Greek locations and the use of the army for battle scenes, but the
director demurred and instead diplomatically chose locations far away
from controversy in Morocco and Thailand. Confronted with angry MPs
unhappy with what they were hearing about Alexander's bisexuality,
Venizelos despaired, "What can I do? It's Hollywood."

Generally, though, most Greeks see the Stone film as a chance to
strike a blow against Skopje, given that it is based on the biography
by the Oxford academic Robin Lane Fox, whom both sides see as a

None of the previous, deeply disappointing attempts to bring
Alexander's extraordinary life to the screen have had to walk the same
tightrope because, until Skopje broke away from Belgrade in 1991,
Alexander's origins were not in dispute. In fact he barely figured in
the old Yugoslav textbooks, and even in Greece he was something of a
forgotten figure - relegated to the second and third division of
Hellenic heroes behind Pericles, the great philosophers, and warriors
such as Leonidas. While the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos
dealt obliquely with him in his film about a 19th-century Macedonian
brigand, Megalexandros, there has been no biopic in either country.

"Alexander lived long before nationalism and so is our common hero,"
says Vasil Tupurkovski, a former deputy president, who has written
four popular histories about him. "He would be laughing at us arguing
about him now."

Ah, but would he be laughing in Greek or Macedonian? Professor Nade
Proeva, the expert on ancient Macedonia in Skopje, thinks both.
"Alexander certainly spoke and wrote Greek, but then it was the lingua
franca of the time, like English is now. I speak French but that does
not make me French."

With such treacherous ground to negotiate, and amid thunderous
lobbying from both sides, Stone has chosen a remarkably adroit middle
course. His masterstroke has been to give Alexander and the men of the
Macedonian phalanxes Irish accents, while the Greeks speak clipped
English RP.

Macedonians of all complexions are content with this, each convinced
it favours their cause. So in another two millennia when people ponder
again the origins of the mysterious Macedonian who emerged from the
southern Balkans to rule the world at 25, they will turn their ears to
Colin Farrell's guttural brogue and conclude that he was in fact a

· Alexander opens in the US next week and in the UK in January.

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