The Library Agrafa

Dr Vassiliki Veros

The final original piece curated for the website by digital guest editor Dr Javaria Farooqui.

It is 1994. I’m sitting in a cafénion in Greece speaking with another diasporic Greek. They are lamenting to me their ξενιτιά, their life in a foreign land, and how they yearn for Hellenic dirt beneath their feet, the mountain air, deep valleys of oaken green, the sounds of fresh water springs. This is a totally foreign feeling for me, my own ξενιτιά being for my Sydney city streets, the dappled high shadows of glass cement buildings, the fresh salt air of the high-rise wind tunnels, sometimes dank with smells of diesel or smells from the harbour. I smile and nod my head as the mournful Greek is telling me their fates, as it is easier to show them comfort and false understanding than describing how I find more connection, more humanity, and a deeper sense of nature in the city walls than beyond them. It is the hard, satisfying pavement of concrete under my feet that I am yearning for, as I am being driven up to my father’s village in the remote Agrafa Mountains at the southernmost tip of the Pindus Ranges, which start in Albania. This is a white-knuckled drive, hands clenched on the armrest (there is no resting), shoulders hitched high, breath hitched higher. I know this precipitous, cliff-hugging mountain road as it circles upwards, hairpin bends, ramps. This is a road for the cautious driver, and I am being driven expertly by a distant cousin met through another cousin who is also with me. He is winding his way through these mountains on dirt roads that I know from my ba’s storytelling are better traversed by foot than by vehicle, even if you risk encountering a jackal, a wolf, the rare brown bear.


In my mind is my father, my ba, telling me to never be afraid to be a coward, and his own tale of cowardice as the truck he was on drove too close to the edge; he clung to the fixed bench seat on the open tray as the other men laughed at his panic, his tears. We drive up another escarpment, wild forest reaching down into the valley mountain folds. I see a steep drop like the one my ba described, and as my distant cousin points with one hand to the golden eagle soaring in the sky, my eyes follow its swoop downward into the ravine where I am sure I too will soon be in if he doesn’t keep both hands on the steering wheel. My gasps are tinged with both awe and fear. I think of my dad telling me how he was the only survivor of the truck after it tumbled off the edge. His panic was justified. This is wild mountainous country. This is Agrafa, which literally means ‘unwritten’ and ‘undocumented’.


Marathos, Agrafa

A remote mountain atop another mountain, impenetrable, inaccessible, known as the ‘unwritten’ since the Ottoman Empire because the occupants of the Agrafa were not required to pay the sultan’s tax and were, as such, autonomous, living life outside of the empire’s laws and regulations. In antiquity, this area was home to the Dolopes, a minor ancient Hellenic group mentioned by Homer, and in Virgil’s The Aeneid. According to Pausanias, the Dolopes became extinct; however, people continued living in the area in small numbers until the early sixteenth century at the peak of the Ottoman Empire, when there was an attempt to subjugate the people of Agrafa. The result was the signing of the Tamasi Treaty of 1525, recognising the autonomy of Agrafa, prohibiting Ottomans to live there with the exception of the ‘fanari’[i]. My ba would tell me that his first ancestors to the area came from the κάμπο, the valley, with all their animals. They were transhumant pastoralists who had been moving their herds and flocks between the mountain and the valleys seasonally, but on this particular spring return they knew they were staying as they wanted to live in the autonomous region. As they moved up the mountain, their animals mixed in with another family’s, and they had the arduous task of identifying and separating their stock. The two families realised that they had an unmarried child each, and that it was easier to conduct a wedding than to sort through the animals. With no church, they found two sapling firs, tying their tops together to create a natural chapel where they blessed their children’s union.


This story was anathema to me. It lacked the necessary romance and love that I would read about in the novels that I would buy from the newsagency on my way home from the one-room children’s library, arms laden with books borrowed and books bought. Romance to me was a meeting of two people who share a feeling of intimacy, desire, a visceral connection. Marrying for a business transaction, the joining of two large herds, lacked spark, lacked the necessary frisson of a dramatic coming together. This story of my ancestors’ marriage was much too rational, too economic a union.


I was 24 years old when my father asked me to travel to his village. He was too unwell to join me in my travels, dying only four months after my return. In sending me to Agrafa, to his village of Marathos, my father asked if I could take a photograph of the arched fir trees still tied together, which in his childhood were already hundreds of years old. He said that you could not make out which tree’s branches emerged from the marriage knot that had held for so long. These trees were the site where my father’s one-hundred-year-old grandfather had been hung from and shot at, in a vicious game of chicken during the Civil War. These trees were sacred to my ba. “Imagine that,” he would say to me “that the same trees saw a marriage as saw a crime.” I asked my cousin if he could drive me to them but he did not know of the trees. Perhaps they had fallen after my father had left Agrafa in the 1950s, first for a life in the port of Piraeus, and then for Australia as part of a post-war immigration wave, to an old country that had been described to him as a young nation.



Agrafa, Greece

We eventually reach the village. People emerge from their homes to come and meet me. Many people still recall my father and his siblings even though the last one left after my grandfather passed away in 1963. My father’s first cousin, a gently spoken woman, whose eyes fill with tears, holds my hand as she speaks of how she watched the truck roll down the hillside, killing her husband and so many others. She keeps shaking her head: “it was terrible and yet God saved only your dad.” I meet the shopkeeper, godfather to my uncle, and I meet the church groundsman, who opens the church doors for me and my cousins. Ayios Taxiarchis is an old church built in 1591[ii]. He tells me that you can only enter with a permit from the archdiocese if there is no service on that day but we are allowed in: “είναι δίκιά σας η εκκλησία, η οικογένεια σας την έχτισε: the church is yours—your family built it.” It is so moving to be here, this sacred space where my father learnt to read and write at the psalter’s side. With no formal schooling, my dad was educated in letters in this building, until he served in the army and received more formal training.


Though Agrafa was undocumented, its autonomy resulted in it becoming the centre for education and Hellenism in the eighteenth century. The School of Agrafa was established in Vragianna, a village to the north of the prefecture, where the venerated Saint Cosmas of Etolislë, an Enlightenment clergyman[iii] who built schools across Balkan and Central Greece, was educated for several years. At the time, he was a student at the school in Vragianna, his older brother Chrysanthos was the principal educator[iv]. My father had told me that his ancestors were catechised “σταπόδια του Κοσμά Αιτολού” at the feet of Cosmas Etolislë. This is family lore, my father who learnt from his grandfather, his grandfather having learnt from his elderly parents about his own grandparents, as family stories have their way of weaving in truth and light, story and hyperbole, hyperbole back to the original story. For this story, I need more assurances and these are provided to me by aunt, my father’s centenarian sister.


When I was young, I was enthralled by these stories of Agrafa, with feats of heroism from klephts, guerrilla independence fighters like Katsantonis, my ba’s great-grandfather who fought under the Souliot general Marko Botsaris; stories of love matches and marriage proxies, of birth miracles and infant loss, of annual fêtes with dancing and flirting, and of grief and loss, especially the deep traumatic grief of my grandmother’s murder, killed in a village square for having travel permits signed by an opposite faction. This saw her family leave and disband across Greece and over to Australia. Her blood spilt in Agrafa somewhere unwritten, her life undocumented, her burial place still unknown.


As a child, I was obsessed with finding written mention of Agrafa. How could there be such a place? Such an idea? To me it was like a Shangri-La, Narnia, a fairy tale, a fabled other place that existed only in the stories I was told. Every book, every encyclopaedia I would search, made no mention of the unwritten. This place with deep history, with stories of love and hate, the learned and illiterate, mountains and sun, snow caps and river ravines did not exist in the books we had at home or in the library up the road. My public library in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville in the 1980s had the largest Greek-language collection in the southern hemisphere. I would go through the history books, the geography books, every book I could find in English and in Greek, searching content pages and indexes, searching card catalogues and shelves, without success. It wasn’t until I came across Lonely Planet’s guidebook Trekking in Greece[v] that I finally saw the words in the written form in a published document.


A whole section on mountain treks in Central Greece dedicated to the Agrafa Mountains, with a paragraph—as though to make fun of Agrafiot storytelling—on how the inhabitants have a propensity for hyperbole, how they speak of great feats of heroism. I kept this book, my first find of a documented mention of Agrafa which made me question what I knew. My father was a self-confessed embellisher of stories. He relished adding “σάλτσα, sauce”. So what parts of his family lore were embellished? Which stories do I believe? How do I make sense of what I was told and what is (un)written? How do I uphold the storytelling above the written works? This was only the first document I found on Agrafa, I have since found many, with digital information access providing a wealth of reading wells that I constantly pursue.


This constant searching for the Agrafa taught me to seek other untold stories as part of my reading life in Sydney. The stories that aren’t collected by the library, or, if they are, the stories in the library that get placed in a box, into the stacks, in rooms marked as ‘Archives.’ Or the collections and books that give so many people reading pleasure. Romance novels, in their thousands, being found on library spinning shelves laden with paperbacks, which in so many Australian libraries remain undocumented and uncatalogued. These books are separated from the orderly, searchable shelves of fiction. Books to be borrowed to your heart’s content; swap and replace baskets of books whose authors and whose titles remain unsearchable in the catalogues of knowledge. Like my search for my father’s mountains, romance fiction has become my own library agrafa.


I love how romance fiction makes me feel, and provides me with a way to see the world. At once I believe in the love reveal, the happily-ever-after, and at the same time I consider romance fiction to be a cautionary tale: beware the promise of diamond sunbursts

Exploring the uncatalogued, the unwritten metadata of popular romance fiction is my research well, my thesis focus. These texts are relegated into the library agrafa—romance fiction collections that remain undocumented, unregistered, whose transtextual elements have been obfuscated or not fully realised—those works that remain separate, independent, successful without institutional engagement and recognition. Romance novels brought by the armful to the circulation desk to be scanned, stamped, borrowed, processed by readers, some embarrassed, some nonplussed. These collections of books that are in full circulation, hidden in plain sight, visible upon entering the library. These are stories of love, of romance, of connection, consent intimate and desired, connections un-fractured, the broken mended, examined, black moments overcome, differences resolved, hearts and minds seeking betrothals, seeking commonalities of spirit to bring them together. Fictions of love in their varied manifestations. Historical, contemporary, fantasy, mystery. Through romance fiction, I can imagine my ancestors’ marriage of convenience beyond a necessary business deal of two pastoralists with a logistics problem. I can imagine a coming together of two people who needed to find love in forced proximity, improbably but imaginably happy.


I love how romance fiction makes me feel, and provides me with a way to see the world. At once I believe in the love reveal, the happily-ever-after, and at the same time I consider romance fiction to be a cautionary tale: beware the promise of diamond sunbursts or marble halls[vi]. For me and for so many other readers, these books that we find in our homes, among our friends, in bookshops (new and second-hand), in swap meets, in fan-fiction, online and in self-published ebook retail spaces, carry such deep stories of love. These romance novels, which barely exist in the realm of celebrated and lauded literary awards, carry the ideas and the desires of so many people in our society and throughout history. In Australia, romance fiction is created by more authors than any other genre[vii], and their writing has examinable cultural, social and literary impacts.


It also does not escape me that I am writing about the ‘undocumented’, be it a place, a people or objects, on the unceded Aboriginal land of the Eora Nation, at the meeting point of Gadigal and Wangal countries, more widely known by its settler colonial name, the Inner West of Sydney. These unceded lands belong to the oldest, continuous living cultures on Earth, with the oral histories of the Australian Aboriginal people far surpassing the antiquity of Greek stories, which have regularly been disrupted by the incursions of others from Homeric times to the recent world wars and the Greek Civil War. Gadigal and Wangal countries in Australia, along with the Agrafa in the Pindus Ranges in Greece have such deep commonalities in their undocumented, unwritten, strong and enduring, registered and unregistered histories, from the mountain peaks to the sparse deserts to the seas.


I am only here because of courtships wanted or unwanted, contested or consented, loved, desired, requited, arranged or unintentional, perpetuated and nurtured for generations, whether they can be traced through documents or traced through oral traditions. When you are literally from undocumented, unwritten lands, unmapped and untaxed, this permeates your consciousness, bringing into sharp focus not only the people but the written works that remain independent, successful without institutional recognition. And perhaps it is in these unwritten places where I feel most comfortable.


Notes: [i] Municipality of Plastiras Lake. (2018). Tamasi Treaty (May 10, 1525). https://plastiras-ota.gr/en/culture/historical-info/tamasi-treaty-may-10-1525/ [ii] Γκορόγιας, Ν. (2022). Οικοτουριστικές διαδρομές-μονοπάτια στον Δήμο Αγράφων, Νομού Ευρυτανίας. [iii] Barka, P. (2021). Voskopoja and Ioannina, two advanced centers of the European enlightenment in the Ottoman West. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 13(3), 68-80. [iv] Δήμος Αγράφων. (n.d). Βραγγιανά. https://agrafa.gr/vraggiana/ [v] Dubin, M. S. (1993). Trekking in Greece. Hawthorn, Vic: Lonely Planet. [vi] Montgomery, L. M. (1987). Anne of the Island. 1915. New York: Bantam. [vii] Driscoll, B., Fletcher, L., Wilkins, K., & Carter, D. (2018). The publishing ecosystems of contemporary Australian genre fiction. Creative Industries Journal, 11(2), 203-221.


Photos courtesy of the author.

 

Dr Vassiliki Veros has a PhD in library and information science and popular romance fiction from the University of Technology Sydney (Australia), where she is a sessional tutor in the Bachelor of Communication. Having worked as a librarian for three decades, Vassiliki’s research centres on librarian practices, public libraries and popular genre fiction including romance novels, her favourite reading genre. She has written scholarly articles on metadata and cataloguing, book groups in libraries, library donations as well as children’s reading practices.

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