The Zeibekiko, as means of expression for the feelings of a real man, has its own unwritten rules. A Greek “man’s honor is written on his forehead”, people used to say. A clear forehead, i.e. name, was everything. In 99% of the cases, the clear forehead was attached to a narrow minded head thought.
In the conservative society being a honorable man is often translated with being extremely possessive towards women and enjoy the absolute respect by other men. Symbolically speaking, every zeibekiko dancer is “a unique warrior and a proud hawk”. And a bird has to follow the unwritten laws both in society and in nature.
I have picked up two characteristic examples of a “man’s insulted honor“, while someone is dancing the Zeibekiko. Both examples have been etched in two outstanding Greek films legendary in the local movie industry. Both films are authentic in performance and in catching dramaturgically the zeibekiko subculture and etiquette, the subtle balance of a male’s code of honor in the conservative working class of the Greek society of the 70′s.
Nikos KOEMTZIS everyday is selling his ‘biography-memoirs book’ at the Monastiraki plaza opposite of the Mpairaktaris souvlaki-restaurant ( near the Monastiraki metro of Athens station ) signing on the first page …. The profile of the famous greek criminal through the eye of a camera, the lyrics of a song and his autobiography …
"Nikos, what have you done?"
(lyric from the song "To makry zeibekiko gia ton Niko" by D. Savopoulos)
Outside the “Evelpidon” Criminal and Civil court of Athens, during the week, and at the flea market in Monastiraki on weekends, an old man, dressed always in brown or black, and wearing a Russian hat, sells his biography…
He is Nikos Koemtzis. He has killed three people and stabbed seven more, all because he wanted to dance to a song he had "ordered" from the musicians. He killed for a "Parangelia" (an order for a song).
He transferred the story of his life to a book – "To makry (Long) zeibekiko ”. Dionysis Savvopoulos (a famous Greek singer-songwriter) read the book and turned it into a song. Pavlos Tassios (a well known Greek director) heard the song and made a film. Today Nikos Koemtzis, his past behind him, sells his story to make a living.
But let us take start at the beginning…
Nikos was a petty, small-time criminal, born in a poverty-stricken part of Pieriaa and persecuted from a young age for his left-wing political beliefs. His wanderings in a time of poverty and political persecution in Greece lead him to Thessaloniki , where he held various jobs, before moving on to Athens. He flirts with the underworld and illegality and goes to prison for the first time in 1967-68.
The actors Antonis Kafetzopoulos and George Kotanidis in a scene from the film of Pavlos Tassios "Parangelia”
In February 1973, during the dictatorship in Greece- and having just been released – he goes to a live-music nightclub (the bouzouki hall "Neraida"), with his younger brother Demosthenes and some friends. Demosthenes makes an order for a song to the orchestra; he requests a zeibekiko, a dance meant to be performed by one person, and gets up to dance. An "unwritten rule" of the times was that only the patron who made the order could dance. Three police officers, however, who were at the nightclub, and knew very well whose brother was dancing – interfere during his performance by dancing simultaneously. There is an altercation, and the police officers start beating Demosthenes. "It is an order (parangelia)!" shouted an incensed Nikos; who drew his stiletto: 3 policemen killed and 7 others wounded… He was sentenced to death and spent years awaiting execution ( he was on death row for 3 years). Eventually Koemtzis will be sentenced for life and in 1996 he was granted a grace. He remained in prison for 23 years.
"To makry (Long) zeibekiko " – The book
In prison he starts to read and learn to write. Nikos Koemtzis started, using his limited vocabulary to record his life-story in order to give material to his lawyer for his defense in court. His prose has a genuine "popular" flavour – without exaggeration, and his narration brings to mind the famous Greek general Makriyannis .
He describes his life as a child. A story of great poverty, possibly the worst that could be experienced in an already damaged post-War provincial economy of Greece at the time. Nikos Koemtzis presents himself as a contemporary ‘Oliver Twist’ – although he almost certainly had never read the book by Charles Dickens! His father was declared a communist because he had taken to the mountains with the (Communist) EAM-ELAS brigades. In 1945 the "gendarmes" savagely beat Nikos’ father in front of the children, as well as their grandfather, a handicap from the war of 1913. Since then, Nikos Koemtzis detested anyone in a uniform, as he says himself. His father enters prison as a political prisoner during the Civil War and after his release the large family lives constantly on the move; persecuted "from village to village”, doing agricultural work to earn their livelihood.
Poverty leads him to Thessaloniki where he spends his adolescence doing various jobs (he writes that because he was "sharp” and a “hustler", he managed to become the best "grocer" in the market). Later, in 1958, he descends to the capital. He is engaged but the engagement is dissolved because of police harassment troubles his fiancée’s respectable family, and because he won’t accept becoming a police ‘snitch’.
His employer does not pay his wages; Koemtzis “sues” him (he probably meant a law suit), yet the court case is constantly deferred. Koemtzis faces a lot of problems; he is forced to rob the man and is sent to prison. There he is subjected to physical and psychological torture (let us not forget this occurred during the period of dictatorship), and just a few years later, his case will serve the most apt confirmation of the motto that "violence breeds violence”.
In the second part of the book Nikos Koemtzis first describes his pre-trial incarceration in the Korydallos Prison Complex in Athens, and his meeting with his brother and a friend, who had also fallen ‘victim’ to the fatal stabbing. Koemtzis’ health is very poor; he has difficulty walking from the bullets shot into his legs by the police during his arrest; it was thought that he would remain disabled for life. He asks his companions to recall the events of that evening, because he himself does not remember anything. In this way he reconstructs the "accident" (as he calls it) of that night:
"… a thousand thoughts were spinning through my mind. I was looking for a solution to restore the wrong thing I had done … I suffered terribly and tried desperately to pick out a picture of the massacre, and I could not. And even now I cannot, even though I still struggle to… It seems that whilst I was sowing death, mindlessly, like a robot, I was occupied by the demon or the beast that nests inside me…».
And here begins his description of prison and the penal system in general (in a time not so long ago): "In prison you meet all types of characters, the sensitive ones and the numbed ones. Most of the sensitive ones search to find a lifeline. The numbed ones have resigned themselves to a hopeless existence, spending their days engaged with sinister intent. They are like animals, and most of them look to turning any youngster dropped into prison for the first time, like them: immoral and depraved, with no respect for human dignity. In a word, they are pimps, snitches, paedophiles; they carry all the evil of the world upon them.
That is why the Ministry of Justice should not keep recidivist offenders and first-timers together…".
In his book "To makry zeibekiko” (it is the title of autobiography; a zeibekiko he never danced, yet one that lasted for so many years), Nick Koemtzis continues with his account of the trial. The media portray him as a bloodthirsty beast, and thereafter take to baptizing any dangerous criminals as "Koemtzides". We, once again (personal experiences in the courts aside), discern the distance between the real facts and that was claimed during the hearing. His plea, where he assumes full responsibility for the crimes, makes an impression on the court…
Perhaps the most shocking part of the book is his description of life as a condemned man in the "house of pain" (the prison) at Halicarnassus in Crete . Koemtzis is detained in solitary confinement; a filthy, living grave. His only contact is with his jailers and occasional prisoner-snitches, put into adjacent cells by the police to "check his behavior." He waits day after day for his execution (One day an abbot came to visit – as he saw the priests he thought his time had come). In Greece΄s dictatorship at the time, there was no recognition or importance assigned to “death row phenomenon / syndrome”: the intense anxiety and fear experienced by the subject; the laborious, time consuming procedure that comprises (according to the subsequent ruling of the ECHR – see Soering vs UK), inhumane and degrading treatment that contravenes directive 3 of the ECHR. In any case, the political resolve had already been made: whilst the ECHR had been ratified by Greek country under Law 2329 of 1953, during the 1967 – 1974 dictatorship (when the trial and conviction of Nikos Koemtzis took place), the country withdrew from the Council of Europe in order to forestall its impending dismissal, and in doing so ceased to be a member of the ECHR. After the restoration of democracy, Greece re-ratified the ECHR under legislative decree 53/1974 and rejoined the Council of Europe (see St. Matthias, C. Ktistakis, L. Stavritis, K. Stefanakis; The Protection of Human Rights in Europe; Athens Bar Association , Athens; 2006, p.26 – in Greek)
In his cell, he writes poems, the only way to ward off insanity. He tries to imprint on paper his countless thoughts … The most dramatic is the scene where he removed alone a bullet from his leg that had been left there since his arrest (the prison doctor did not pay him any attention!)
The book closes with a spare epilogue: "… In March 1977 three wardens announced to me that I had been spared death, saying: "The state has been compassionate. Now it is up to you to become better." I replied that I could only become worse, not better. Finally, the Ministry of Justice ordered my transfer from prison in Heraklion, Crete, to a worst prison (a hell prison) in Corfu. I was in hell from July 21, 1976 to 1982. ..
… I was released on March 29, 1996”.
The approach for reviewing this work lies somewhere between artistic and criminological criticism. The criminological value of the book is indisputable. The study of a criminal autobiography – a practice adopted by the ecological Chicago School – can lead us to valuable conclusions about the reasoning and importance given in the perpetrator’s own words when describing his actions, and in observing the moral code he follows. The analysis of criminological phenomena through the eyes of the offender may help practitioners to analyze and propose improved prevention policies. In addition, through the study of this autobiography we uncover – page by page – a materializing of the theories of social reaction based on the "self-fulfilling prophecy" of the label or stereotype (see K. D. Spinellis; Criminology, Contemporary and Past Directions; 2nd edition; Sakkoulas Publications, Athens-Komotini; 2005, pp.275-278 – in Greek), and the importance of social responsibility involved in the creation of the offender, through the process of passage à l ΄acte.
Nikos Koemtzis killed and served the sentence imposed on him by the State for those crimes. Any attempt at glorifying the perpetrators of such crimes falls on deaf ears, even if this man’s story has inspired art. Perhaps then, should we come into contact with such works, we should be considering questions of how one is born a criminal and possibly what social responsibility applies in these cases. So whilst the offender is “disciplined” in serving his sentence, so should society be concerned when one of its own rejects it by resorting to crime. And whilst the above works were reviewed as primarily cultural artifacts, there can be no doubt their usefulness to criminological analysis, with much to offer towards the development of a social dialogue, an understanding of the criminal phenomenon and ultimately towards its prevention.
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