“From my window I send one, two, three, and four kisses, as one, two, three, and four birds come to the port. I wish I had one, two, three, and four sons, who once growing up become gentlemen, the pride of Piraeus.” It is an approximate translation of the iconic song Melina Mercouri sings in Greek, as the main character in the movie “Never on Sunday.”
For this Women’s History Month, I firmly decided to write about slightly political female figures. After my article about Marija Jurić-Zagorka from Croatia, I decided to move on to another interesting woman, from another country I know well. It is Greece, and i only started going to Greece and knowing more about that country less than two years ago. That being said, I have to admit that I didn’t know much about Melina Mercouri before that. I only knew about that famous song and about one important European institution she founded, about which I will talk in the second part of this article.
Born in 1920 into an influential Athenian family, she followed a musical and theatrical career from the early age. She had some privilege and she used it well. Most importantly, she was never afraid to stand up for her ideals. As a result, she was sent into exile and even had her Greek citizenship revoked for some time during the military junta in Greece. After that, she was the first woman minister of culture in Greek history.
What can we learn from “Never on Sunday”, a 1960 movie?
Writing about women’s history often leads to oversimplification. In fact, many museums, institutions, and companies will share something about one or more “amazing women”, but they will romanticise the story. Additionally, they overuse the word “inspiration” and objectify struggles and use them for some moralisation to a different direction. To clarify, a simple fact that there was a woman who passionately fought to study and not to marry early and have children doesn’t mean that career should be a golden standard for every contemporary woman.
Further, many stories from women’s history (and any kind of diversity) don’t put things into perspective. For instance, the cancel culture will often exclude old movies from conversations saying that they are “sexist”, “racist” or something similar, without understanding the context and the fact that things changed since. Instead of canceling, we should discuss and learn.
In the same vein, I need to introduce the 1960 movie Never on Sunday. The main character is Illia, a prostitute from the port of Piraeus, starred by Melina Mercouri. The movie features other prostitutes, port workers, bars, and one American tourist (Jules Dassin) who is looking for the “truth” and in his mind he tries to “fix” Illia and convince her to give up on her job and become a “lady”.
I decided to watch that movie and write exclusively my own view on that in the context of women’s history and the way this movie can teach us nowadays, 60 years after it was premiered.
Melina Mercouri as a woman who made her choice and stood for it
In the eyes of a viewer from typical modern western worldview, this movie might seem like it enhances gender stereotypes. The fact that men touch the main character without her consent and she agrees with that seems enough to “cancel” it. However, the truth is pretty much the opposite.
This story is all about the choices.
The moral of the story is that the main character doesn’t allow anyone to “fix” her and convince her to change her life choices. Not only because it doesn’t matter if she is a prostitute. It is important to notice that she enjoys her life in the port, the social circles, and the men giving her attention. If someone doesn’t enjoy it, it is perfectly fine. Everyone needs to set their own boundaries and no one else can tell us what are our boundaries.
Further, the movie doesn’t portrait the main character as a “woman” or even a “sex worker”, but simply with her name, Illia. The American tourist in the story points out that she is “Greek” and also the symbol of the “decadence” of “once glorious civilisation”, but the plot clearly ridicules such an idea, pointing out to tolerance.
Politician and minister of culture
Mercouri always remained consistent in her beliefs. Here come some similarities with the woman from my previous article, Zagorka. Both women loved their own cultures. Both of them didn’t like any form of nationalism, and intolerance that comes from it. They were also fighting for women’s rights. Finally, both were artists of some kind, Zagorka was a writer while Mercouri was an actress and a singer.
Both were activists, eager against the inhumane regimes. Croatia and Greece are close countries, geographically belonging to the Southern Europe / Balkan peninsula, and sharing a fairly similar culture.
On the other hand, they lived in slightly different eras and contexts. Zagorka was not allowed to pursue her dreams, while Mercouri had such a privilege. Mercouri was born in a country with a worldwide fame for ancient history, while Zagorka was born in an empire that largely excluded people of her community. While Zagorka became the first political journalist in her country, Mercouri became the first minister of culture in her country.
There are two very important outcomes of her terms in the office.
Mercouri and Parthenon Marbles
In the early 19th century, a young English nobleman Lord Elgin made a then-typical grand tour, during which he visited Greece, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. In a typical colonial mindset, he believed that he can take things from archaeological sites as if they were souvenirs. He opted for marble relieves from the Parthenon, the masterpieces of the classical era in Athens. Although he wanted them to decorate his palace, these marbles ended up in the British Museum, as he sold them there.
In the recent years, many museum professionals talk about decolonizing museums. For instance, many museums in big Western European cities have large collections of African art that get quite some unfair treatment as the curators don’t even understand how should they present them. Everything started when Mercouri started her quest for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. She attempted it over 35 years ago, she passed away over 25 years ago. Her dream hasn’t come true yet.
Many people still believe London is the centre of the world and Parthenon marbles belong there, simply because that way they is “accessible to more people”. The struggle still continues, though. The new Acropolis Museum waiting for the marbles to return.
Let me just clarify one thing: I perfectly understand that some people heard different versions of this story. In fact most of my articles touch complex stories. Notice that this blog is not neutral and it has a light political inclination to decolonisation, diversity, and holistic inclusion. Although these texts are in English, most of the Fun Museums authors are Southern Europeans.
Read also: Uncovering Parthenon
Melina Mercouri is the founder of the European Capital of Culture
In my recent article about the Sugar Palace in Rijeka, Croatia, I wrote about the European Capital of Culture. Melina Mercouri is the one who had that idea and made it happed. That institution already secured cultural development for many cities across Europe since 1985 when she started it in Athens. The concept is simple: the title of the European Capital of Culture rotates through the continent, from city to city.
Early on, prominent big heritage cities held the title, one per year. During the 80s and 90s, the title belonged to cities such as Florence, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Stockholm, Lisbon… After that, the concept changed, allowing two European capitals of culture per year, moving to lesser-known, middle sized cities. Further, as the European Union received new member-states, more countries saw their cities with the title. Right now, even non-EU countries may become the Capitals of Culture.
The concept clearly help many cities to gain international visibility. In my personal opinion, it gave a perfect ground to a, idea of a slow and more sustainable future of traveling. Many places that once were just “off-the-beaten-path” are now “European Capitals of Culture of the year XXXX”. As a result, their image got a definition and character.
During the year in which a city has the title, there is a variety of events and programs. Most importantly, the preparation process for that also includes infrastructural works. Most cities get new museums, concert halls, parks, and other amenities during that time.
Melina Mercouri is important for 3 reasons
In conclusion, I will say that Melina Mercouri gave us a lot of cultural influence we are not aware. First, she played interesting roles in movies in which she is faithful to her liberal and social ideals, at the same time showcasing her Mediterranean culture. Second, she gave a ground to an idea of decolonisation of museums, although she was not the first or only one who spoke up for that. Finally, she founded the outstanding institution of the European Capital of Culture.
If we consider culture as something universal, that is everywhere around us, we need to remember the great Melina Mercouri.