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5th Avenue Aegean Blues

The Greek Independence Day parade along 5th Avenue in New York City returned after a two-year hiatus because of COVID-related restrictions. The time lapse also meant there were many anniversaries being commemorated at the same time. These included the Bicentennial of Greek Independence in 1821, the 100-year anniversaries of the establishment both AHEPA and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in 1922, and of the burning of Smyrna in 1922, the 2500th anniversaries of the battles of Thermopylae/Salamis and Plataea, as well as the 200th anniversary of the massacre on the island of Chios.

Not to take anything away from the huge success of this year’s parade, I would have liked to see a more contemporary issue also be highlighted: a response to the provocative statements by Turkish officials disputing Greece’s rights and sovereignty over the Aegean islands located close to Turkey’s coast. This might be something the ‘Topika Somateia’ associations representing those islands, all of whom have floats in the parade, might want to consider for next year if Turkey’s Aegean rhetoric drags on.

But first let’s give thanks the parade even happened, given the infighting that paralyzed the parade’s organizing body, the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York for several months. Apparently, if it had not been for the intervention of Archbishop Elpidophoros and a few well-known Greek American leaders in the New York area we would not have had a parade this year. On the day, the gloriously sunny weather rewarded their efforts and helped showcase the blue and white procession flooding 5th Avenue.

As a spectacle and a statement of ethnic pride the parade was a huge success. The large number of participants and spectators reinforced the sense Greek America remains a significant ethnic force in the Greater New York area. The Evzones who marched at the head of the parade reminded everyone of the wars Greece had given to liberate itself and preserve its sovereignty and independence. The big number of floats projected messages ranging from the solemnly patriotic, alluding to the several anniversaries being honored, to the more playfully festive, as for example the Miss Greek Independence float.

The first Greek parade on 5th Avenue I ever attended was in March 1987. It coincided with a very dangerous escalation of the diplomatic tensions between Greece and Turkey. Earlier in March, it became known Greece was intending to drill for oil in the vicinity of the island of Thasos in the northern Aegean. Turkey disputed Greece’s rights to do so and dispatched a survey ship to the area. The militaries of Greece and Turkey were put on alert. When both countries pulled back from the brink of war days later, it was front page news in the New York Times.

Understandably, the atmosphere up and down 5th Avenue on that day was electric and bursting with patriotism. Whatever the pre-planned themes of the parade, the focus was clearly singular, the ongoing dispute with Turkey in the Aegean. The Greek-Americans sent a clear message that they were united and standing by Greece. I especially remember the disciplined formation of the Greek Cypriot students – the loud declarations of their Hellenic identity, and the defiant spring in their step.

While Greece and Turkey are not at the brink of war currently, relations are strained because of a string of threatening claims by Turkish officials with regard to the Greek islands in the Northern Aegean and the Dodecanese, all of them geographically close to Turkey’s western coast. The Turkish demands that those islands be “demilitarized” or the questions expressed about Greece’s sovereignty over them are purposely misleading and misrepresenting prior diplomatic agreements signed by both countries.

If the situation continues, or appears to recede only temporarily, next year’s parade would be a good opportunity to showcase these islands, their historically Greek ethnic character, the circumstances under which they became part of Greece, and the treaties that Turkey signed acknowledging the fact. There is also a story to be told about the current contribution of those islands to the peaceful coexistence between Greeks and Turks. Each summer thousands of Greeks and Turks make day-trips or longer visits from many of those islands to Turkish coastal towns and vice versa. Moreover, a ferry service between Lesvos’ capital Mytilene and the port of Izmir will start this summer. There is a growing amicable mingling among Greeks and Turks that exposes the hollowness of the false claims about what those islands represent.

Hopefully, by the time next year’s parade comes round the tension in the Aegean will have been resolved. But even then, projecting a enhanced set of messages of how and why the Aegean islands belong to Greece and how they contribute to peaceful coexistence in the region might be a good idea.

 

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The Aegean isles have been sovereign Greek territory under international law since the early 1900s with an ancestral Greek population that has lineage dating back 3,000 years.

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