Saturday, August 31, 2013


How do you ensure, in a free market, replete with competitors of equal skill, that you can carve yourself an unassailable niche that guarantees your business survival? No, this is not Mark Bouris’ money column. Yet a little knowledge of history does seem to assist, in particular when reviewing the extraordinary life and times of one Belisario Corenzo, Neapolitan Baroque painter, price fixer and cartel operator hailing from north western Peloponnesus.
Now various Greeks have, over the years, attempting to derive a Greek origin for the mafia. According to them, said organisation arose out of the native Greek opposition to French domination in Sicily, as expressed in the uprising of the Sicilian Vespers, which was funded by the Byzantine Emperor.  Mere three hundred years transpire from that uprising to the date that Belisarios Korensios born in 1558, finds himself plying the trade of an artist, first in Venice, then in Rome and finally, in Spanish ruled Naples, where his career reaches its apogee, albeit at the expense of other deserving artists.
For Corenzio, though talented, and reputedly, a student of the great Tintoretto, was a complicated person. Yes, he was one of the pillars of Italian Baroque art. Undoubtedly he did more than anyone else to formulate the art of the Neapolitan School of Painting. Certainly, he is one of the most prodigious and prolific painters of his time, his surviving works gracing the walls of such august structures as the Royal Palace of Naples, the Stock Exchange, the Law Courts, a number of villas and a multitude of Jesuit and Franciscan establishments. Further, it is widely held that much of the flowing, gold dripping heavy Baroque interior decoration that characterises Naples of that time, is owed, in no small part to Corenzio’s skills as an interior decorator. For example, in 1609, Benedictine monks commissioned him to decorate the church of Saint Severino, where he provided the paintings for some of the side chapels and in which church he is buried. In 1615 he travelled to Constantinople where he painted the frescoes for the church of Saint Mary and also painted the frescoes for the dome of the famous monastery of Monte Cassino, in 1629 which was destroyed by allied bombing in 1944.
A talented painter in oils, the art of fresco painting seems to have captured his imagination and he was renowned for being able to execute his commissions four times faster than any other artist of his day. His enormous an highly individualistic “Feeding of the Five Thousand,” in which he expresses his Mannerist tendencies to their full extent, coupled with Raphaelite, classicist overtones and chiaroscuro in emulation of the great Caravaggio, was executed in the monk’s dining room at Saint Severino was completed in just forty days.
The main reason for Corenzio’s prolificacy seems to be his ability to obtain commissions from the highest echelons of Neapolitan society. This was effected by intimidating and threatening other artists, especially itinerant ones, in order for them to take commissions. For example, it is claimed that  when Guido Reni came in 1621 to Naples to paint in the Chapel of San Gennaro in the cathedral of the Naples, Corenzio paid an assassin to take his life. The assassin killed Guido's assistant instead, and effectually frightened Reni, who prudently withdrew to Bologna. Corenzio was arrested as a suspect in the crime, but released because of insufficient evidence against him.
Scaring people off his turf seemed to be the key to his success, especially since it appeared that he could do so with impunity. Corenzio thus became part of a triumvirate of painters, the others being Jusepe de Ribera and Battistello Caracciolo, who formed the Cabal of Naples, leading local artists to harass, expel, or poison artists not native to Naples so they would not obtain commissions in the city.
According to the art historian Bernardo de Dominici, no major commission for art in Naples could be executed without the consent of these three painters.  Artists who did so would be persecuted or threatened with violence, and often their in-progress works would be destroyed or sabotaged.
Not that the strenuous efforts of Corenzio always worked. It was for example, one thing to scare of Reni, and quite another to obtain the commission for himself.  After Reni’s flight, a group from Naples known as the Santafede was hired to complete the work at Naples Cathedral. However, that group's work did not impress the commissioners, who ultimately hired Corenzio. His work was also found to be unacceptable by the commissioners, and was removed. The commissioners then sent a letter to the artist Domenichino in Rome requesting his services. On 23 March 1630, Domenichino accepted the commission, though which much trepidation, for rumours of Corenzio and his Cabal had by that time, spread to Rome.
By November 1630, Domenichino was resident in Naples . Not long after he arrived, he received a death threat warning him to abandon the commission. He requested protection from the Viceroy of Naples, and despite assurances that he would be safe, rarely left his home except to work at the chapel or at the school he had opened. He would often arrive at the chapel for work to find the previous night's work had been rubbed out. He was so tormented by the cabal that in 1634 he fled to Frascati, not yet having completed the commission, and became a guest at Villa Aldobrandini, the seat of the powerful Aldobrandini family. The representatives of the Naples Cathedral who had hired him did their utmost to convince Domenichino to return. Upon learning of Domenichino's flight from the city, instead of taking on the Corenzio and his Cabal the Viceroy of Naples arrested his wife and daughterand sequestered his property. Domenichino returned to Naples in 1635 to continue his work on the cathedral, but by then no longer had the favour or protection of the viceroy and descended into paranoia. According to journal entries by Giovanni Battista Passeri, Domenichino feared that his meals would be poisoned, or that he would be stabbed. On 3 April 1641, he wrote a will and he died on 15 April after several days of illness. His widow was convinced he had been poisoned, and it was suspected that it was Corenzio who had brought about his untimely demise in his quest to dominate the Neapolitan art market.
His florid style, well in keeping with the overladen architecture and full-blown decorative ornament peculiar to the Jesuit builders of the seventeenth century survives him just as much as his sordid reputation as a protectionist, extortionist and thug, proving that crime does indeed pay for through his nefarious activities, including turning on the fellow members of his Cabal, Corenzio ended up being appointed court painter to the Neapolitan Viceroy. When this perfidious Peloponnesian finally did perish, at the age of eighty-five, it is said that his demise was occasioned by a fall from a scaffolding. Other sources say he poisoned himself. From remorse perhaps? Considering his track record, highly unlikely.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 August 2013

Monday, August 26, 2013


The incident took place on one of those sun-filled Melbourne afternoons when the sky is so blue and immense that you honestly believe that your childhood will never end. My sister and I were sitting on the lawn in my grandmother's backyard eating watermelon and competing with each other as to how far we could spit the pips, covering each other in red slime in the process. Suddenly, my sister looked up at the Hills Hoist and saw an interminably long, flesh coloured pair of knickers suspended from it. "What is that?" she asked, aghast.
"That," I replied, is «της γιαγιάς σου το βρακί.» Considering that my grandmother was five foot tall, the said undergarment must have come neatly just below her neckline. This caused my sister to collapse in the throes of laughter. Having composed herself, we then amused ourselves for the next fifteen minutes running around the Hills Hoist chanting a song our uncle used to sing to us:
«Ντάχτιριντι ντίρι ντάχτιριντι,
της γιαγιάς σου το βρακί,
κρέμεται στο μαγαζί,
δυό δεκάρες το πουλεί.»
Τhe recitation ceased only when my grandmother surreptitiously crept up behind me and landed me a cuff on the ear, exclaiming: "That uncle of yours, I'm going to kill him,"  causing my sister to fall helplessly to the ground, giggling uncontrollably.
My late uncle, a larger than life figure, divided people into two categories, κατσικοκλέφτες and καντηλανάφτες, the latter being the most useless of all. According to him, everything was variously comprised of λουκουμόσκονη and κατσικοκούραδα, while any foods not cooked by him were invariably to be possessed of the properties of τσίρλα and children were referred to as χέστηδες up until their wedding day and beyond. Ebullient and endlessly inventive, he also possessed a car horn that played the Zorba along with a gamut of animal noises, as well as an inexhaustible repertoire of children's songs that we thoroughly enjoyed listening to, perched upon his knee.
Until lately, I held the conviction that these songs were traditional Greek children's ditties, yet a reflection upon the lyrics gives one pause for consideration:
«Αχ μαρή του, αχ μαρή του,
έχει τρύπα το βρακί του,
και κρυώνει το πιπί του.»
Cause for concern and DHS Intervention? Surely not. Instead, this is lyrical recollection of a war-torn, impoverished society, a Greece in which children like my uncle were brought up in rags and who transformed their plight into song, most probably as a coping mechanism. A word of advice: Don't sing this song around people of Middle Eastern origin. For them the first two words mean "my donkey" and they will draw the conclusion that you are insulting the intended recipient of the said song.
Then there is this, a cautionary tale about maintaining a proper diet, delivered in the grammar and syntax of my uncle's region:
«Μια γριά, μπαμπόγρια,
την πονούσε η κοιλιά,
και την είπε ο γιατρός,
φασολάδα να μην τρως.»
Upon the conclusion of this song, my uncle would invariably commence another, which began: «Η Μαρίκα η δασκάλα, που είχε δύο βυζιά μεγάλα.» At this point, my aunt would always intervene and I never was able to ascertain the fate of this particularly buxom educator of the masses. When I ventured to ask him as a teenager, he looked me up and down with his twinkling blue eyes and guffawed, "Why do you want to know, you χατζαντζάρη?" He then started to sing the song, only to be stopped again by my ever watchful aunt.
My uncle's sense of humour notwithstanding, there is something rather dark about Greek children's songs. Take this gem, a Samian adaptation of a song from Lesvos, which was also sung to me as a child:
«Η θεια 'μ η Αμιρσούδα
τρία βρακιά φουρεί,
ώσπου να βγαλ'του ένα
τα δυό τα κατουρεί.»
So far so good. Our aged aunt is incontinent, and there being no pads back in the village, she is forced to wear three pairs of underwear. Yet by the time she takes one pair off, the other two become wet. Sensitivity to the needs of the aged abound here. Yet the refrain is even more disturbing:
«Κ'νώ κι κ'νώ  κι κείνου κλαίει,
του διαόλ' του μπασταρδέλ'
κ'νω κι κ'νω κι κείνου σκουζ',
θα του σκάσου σα καρπούζ.»
Thus, the hapless mother rocks her baby and it cries, so she calls it a devil and a bastard. She rocks it again and it continues its lament, thereupon the mother states her intent to 'burst' her progeny 'like a watermelon.' This rather chilling counterpart to the song "Rock a bye baby" is inexplicable, save as an expression of a mother's frustration at having a difficult child and yet owing to the inclusion of the word μπασταρδέλι, was one of my favourites, in my infancy.
Even seemingly innocuous mainstream Greek songs have nebulous undertones. The national favourite «Μια ωραία πεταλούδα,» describes a butterfly flying through the plain, visiting various flowers and greeting them one by one. Yet «όταν έρθει ο χειμώνας, πέφτει κάτω και ψοφά.» When winter arrives, she falls down dead and the song ends on this rather macabre note, though in other versions, Christ-like,  «όταν έρθει καλοκαίρι, ζωντανεύει και πετά,» there is a remarkable resurrection.
The death of a hapless "petalouda" is nothing compared to the organised cannibalism that seems to take place in the children's favourite «΄Ηταν ενά μικρό καράβι.» This ditty, whose refrain is «ω-ε, ω-ε, ω-ε, ω-ε» is notable because it also exists in an Australian adaptation. At a Greek School Christmas party some years ago, the clever students changed the refrain to ole ole ole ole, adding for good measure: "feelin' hot, hot, hot,"  something that was sadly lost upon their adoring grandparents in the audience. A close inspection of the lyrics of this song, reveals this Νeo-Darwinian, Lord of the Flies type situation:
«Ήταν ένα μικρό καράβι, που ήταν αταξίδευτο
κι έκανε ένα μακρύ ταξίδι, μέσα στη Μεσόγειο
και σε πέντ'-έξι εβδομάδες , σωθήκαν όλες οι τροφές
και τότε ρίξανε τον κλήρο, να δούνε ποιός θα φαγωθεί
κι ο κλήρος πέφτει στον πιο νέο, που ήταν αταξίδευτος.»
Having related how the starving sailors resolved to eat the youngest, weakest and least experienced member of the crew, this ghastly song ends with the words: "And if you liked this song, we will sing it again for you." Is this an attempt to inculcate children from the earliest of ages into an ideology of the survival of the fittest? Or do these tales merely appeal to children's sense of enormity, in the same way that horror movies appeal to adults? How can one explain that my sister and I would walk around in a circle singing:
«Εμείς οι τρεις οι φίλοι που τρώνε το σταφύλι
κι οι άλλοι δυο κουμπάροι
που τρώνε το κουράδι.»
Most of the traditional Greek children's songs, refer to a bygone agrarian world that I could relate to my grandparents, aunts and uncles, much better than "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." The cautionary tale of the long eared donkey who, not content with his stable, sought after finery and frippery, or the story of the tortured cat: «Μια φορά κι έναν καιρό, πήγε ο γάτος στο χορό, και δεν χόρεψε καλά, και του κόψαν την ουρά,» helped me, albeit without by knowledge, to place the world of my place of origin in some sort of context, that made better sense than the world of Humpty Dumpty. These and their many regional variations are songs that would enrich the lives of Greek-Australian children and enhance their sense of their identity no end. As such, the need for them to be taught in schools, or kindergartens (and the desperate need for Greek speaking kindergartens is a pertinent topic for another time) is felt as keenly as ever before and the fact that a generation of Greek-Australians is growing up without the bleak humour contained therein truly makes one mortally sad.
Whenever my grandmother uncovered of my pranks or misdeeds, I would find out immediately because I would hear her slow steps down the corridor as she would chant menacingly: «Κούνελακι, κούνελακι, ξύλο που θα το φας.» Now what other nursery rhyme acts both as an early warning system and precursor to punishment? Certainly not my late uncle's equally lyrical but more blunt admonition, to wit:
«Αν δεν φας το φαεί σου όλο,
θα σου βάλω νέφτι στον κώλο.»
First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 August 2013

Saturday, August 17, 2013


On 2 August 2013, a most extraordinary posting made itself manifest upon the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance’s website. Bearing the title: Australian Macedonian Commemorative Service Ilinden/ St Elijah’s Day, the accompanying explanatory text went on to discuss the Battle of Vevi.
Persons who know something of Balkan History are right to be mystified by this bizarre posting by an organisation that is widely considered to be an important repository of military history. Ilinden, has nothing to do with the Battle of Vevi. Instead, the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising, as it is properly called, took place in 1903, some years before the battle of Vevi. This was an organised revolt against the Ottoman Empire which was carried out on the feat day of Saint Ilia,  by the Secret Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organisation, an entity that wished to liberated territories inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonian and Thrace from the Ottomans, and unite these to the Bulgarian Kingdom. A provisional government was established in the town of Kruševo, in today’s FYROM, which was overrun after only ten days. This day is thus an important day in the Bulgarian calendar and marks a key event in their campaign for self-determination, one that inevitably conflicted with Greek claims over the same region.
Ilinden is also celebrated a national day in FYROM as its historians claim that the uprising was an expression of “Macedonian” nationalism. In doing so, these historians conveniently distance themselves from the fact that the uprising was jointly co-ordinated in both Thrace and Bulgaria, for they understandably find it difficult to explain why “Macedonians” would want to free Adrianople, a city not so far away from Constantinople. The day of Ilinden is also commemorated as the day when in 1944, the Anti-fascist Assembly for the People's Liberation of Macedonia was founded by communist partisans. This organisation, sought the liberation of the entire geographical region of Macedonia, including those parts within Greece, Bulgaria and Albania, within the context of a broader Balkan Federation.
Confused? Wondering what all this has to do with a battle in Vevi? There were in fact two battles in Vevi, none of which have absolutely anything to do with Ilinden. The first battle of Vevi took place in October 1912 and immediately there is a dispute as to its name, it being variously called the Battle of Sorovich or Banitsa, as the town in question was only renamed Vevi in 1926. In the battle, a division of the Greek army was surprised near Banitsa (modern Vevi) by the retreating Ottoman army and was forced to retreat towards  Sorovic (modern Amyntaio), leaving the city of Monastiri to be eventually captured by the Serbs. This battle is usually held up by historians as evidence of the consequences of the lack of any coordination between the three Slav allies and Greece during the First Balkan War. Elucidating how in the august estimation of the trustees of the Shrine of Remembrance this battle, which was fought on Greek soil, between Greece and Turkey has anything to do with Ilinden or indeed people who culturally or ethnically identify with FYROM is to confound the deductive faculties of even the most hardened revisionist.
Perhaps then the Shrine is referring to the second and more famous battle of Vevi, which took place on 12 April 1941, between the Greek army, assisted by Australian, New Zealand and British troops and the invading Nazi forces. In that battle, after a fierce and protracted struggle, the Nazis were able to smash through Allied resistance, greatly demoralising the remaining Greek forces and paving the way for the capitulation of Greece. Again, one struggles to see what this battle, which forms part of the Greek national epic of resistance against the fascist forces in World War II, has anything to do with Ilinden. Indeed it took place 38 years after that event.
When this was pointed out to the relevant Shrine officials, they commendably removed any reference to the Battle of Vevi from their website, without of course, offering an explanation as to their extraordinary conduct in attempting to link an important battle in Australian and Greek military history to an unrelated historical event and people. They even removed any mention of Ilinden, instead, clarifying that the Australian Macedonian Commemorative Service, would be “a service to honour the service and sacrifice of both Australian and Macedonian Servicemen and Women who have fought together during European campaigns.”
This time, the Shrine took great pains not to mention exactly which European campaigns these are. The wording “fought together” is also suitably ambiguous, as it could also be taken to mean “fought together but against each other.” This is because during the First World War, the inhabitants of FYROM generally were possessed of a Bulgarian consciousness and actively assisted Bulgaria in fighting against the British Empire. The same is also true of the region in the Second World War, except for the communist partisans, who while leaning towards the Allies, could not have fought with Australian soldiers as these had been evacuated from the Balkans after 1941.
We have here then, the creation of a myth, albeit ostensibly with good intentions. Australians who identify themselves ethnically or culturally with FYROM wish to cement the fervour and love they have for Australia by placing it within an imagined historical context, in emulation of other Australians of diverse cultural backgrounds who actually fought with Australian soldiers and lost their lives protecting them. The trustees of the Shrine of Remembrance however, in indulging people their well - intentioned historical fantasies can not be let off so lightly. As custodians of Australian military history, they must be careful not allow that history to serve ethnic or political agendas. Also, they must take pains to properly document and research such events as the battle of Vevi. In this way, a comparison between the way they treat battles fought by Australians with European allies, as opposed to those fought with Balkan allies, and an accusation that those fought with Balkan allies are considered of lesser importance because of the ethnicity of those allies can be avoided. One would hate to be led to believe by their conduct that the Shrine of Remembrance was able to confuse Ilinden with the Battle of Vevi and then make spurious claims about “Macedonians” fighting side by side with Australian soldiers simply because they consider the Balkan context unimportant enough to render itself to manipulation.
For it does appear that the Shrine is the victim of some shrewd manipulation here. It is insidious as it is clever. Vevi, is a town that exists in that marginal region of northern Greece where ethnic and cultural identities have overlapped. There were two Bulgarian schools in the town in Ottoman times and a survey conducted in 1993 of its inhabitants claimed than many of those over the age of thirty spoke or understood a Slavic dialect. Today, it is a town whose inhabitants in their overwhelming majority indentify as Greek. In feeding information to the Shrine that links together Ilinden, so-called “Macedonians” and Vevi, the persons responsible for providing that information to the Shrine seem to be attempting to impugn the ‘Greekness’ of that town, its history and legacy and impose their own cultural interpretation on it, making the Shrine unwittingly complicit in a fight that is not its own and from which it should steer clear.
In his classic: “Life in the Grave,” Stratis Myrivilis, the renown Greek author who was posted in villages around Monastiri during the First World War shows how complex issues of identity can be. While asserting that the inhabitants of Monastiri at the time where predominantly Greek speaking and were being pressured by the Serbs not to speak their language, he also casts a sympathetic eye towards those who, he stated, were told by the Serbs that they were Serbian and thus forced into the Serbian army and also told they were Bulgarian by the Bulgarians and were forced into the Bulgarian army. In short, he charts the beginning of the development of a separate ethnic identity for the Slavs of Macedonia while also acknowledging that in the heart of the space that they claim as their own heimat, there exist Greek and other populations with older and more developed ethnic identities also with their own claims. The Shrine should not be put in a position to have to adjudicate such claims. This is not their function, nor, as they have proven, do they have the expertise to do so.
Regardless of what one believes about the validity of such claims, Australian institutions should not be cynically used in order to lend legitimacy to spurious re-interpretations of history or disrespectful attempts to re-construct battles in which Australian soldiers gave their lives in the cause of the freedom of all nations, in order for ethnic minorities to score points off each other. This latest manifestation of a disturbing tendency to subvert history in the service of ethnic politics, is in appalling bad taste.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE on Saturday 17 August 2013

Saturday, August 10, 2013


The coveted Nia Vardalos award for perpetuating inane Greek stereotypes this week goes to Giorgos Alkaios, who, during the 2010 Eurovision song contest, sought to thematically tie the title of his contribution: 'Opa,' to the parlous prevailing economic situation in the world. He  stated: "I think Greek people want to say an 'Opa' and get out and ... you know, break a plate, and you know, very ... with dance, and feelings, and smile. Live or leave it. This is the word that we sing."
In so saying, in those heady pre-Troika days, the august Alkaios who by his own admission claims that his song is all about leaving the past behind and starting all over again, opining further that in a world shaken by the current economic circumstance, people just need to say 'Opa' and move on, was eerily parroting the sentiments of a song of more venerable provenance, that also happened to include the magic word 'Opa,' as sung by the immortal Bithikotsis:  «Οπα όπα τα μπουζούκια, / όπα και ο μπαγλαμάς, / της ζωής μας τα χαστούκια / με το γλέντι τα ξεχνάς.» He is of course, quite right. Partying makes one forget their troubles, until that is, it is time to go home, there to enact austerity measures.
Interestingly, of all the nouns in the above mentioned lyrics, only one, the world for life is Greek. The rest, bouzouki, baglamas, glendi and hastouki are of Turkish origin. The word Opa! on the other hand, made famous by the combined efforts of Steve Agi's most luminous publication as well as featuring in Nia Vardalos' portrayal in 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding', in conformity to the Alkaios stereotype, of Greek American migrants as being possessed of the propensity to slap their thighs and cry out this word at every given opportunity (in Greek America it is pronounced with an omega, hence "Ohpa," rhyming with Oprah,) is largely regarded as one of the noises that most distinguishes Greeks from the rest of the human herd, regardless as to whether this sound is commonly employed or not.
 For my part, I only employ the term as a means of encouragement when engaged in strenuous physical activity (such as running up stairs, or lifting bricks, I hasten to clarify) and disdain to slap my thigh. Apart from that, I use it only to denote incredulity, as in: «΄Ωπα, μεγάλε, κόψε κάτι,» or when visiting my mother and viewing the vast amount of food piled upon my plate, to exclaim: «΄Ωπα, ποιος θα τα φάει όλα αυτά;» The word is never emitted when I dance because counting the steps and dragging my feet to the rhythm is a task almost impossible enough to be undertaken without also having to judge the timing, volume and inflexion of the Opa to be inserted into the context of the revelry. This of course, comes in stark contrast to Alkaios, who claims that 'Opa' is a happy word and just what people need in a time of trouble. Reconciling these diverse usages is a mysterious entry in an English dictionary which provides four separate usages for the word: a) As a command/suggestion to halt, bring to a stop, b) as a warning against general danger, c) as an expression for acknowledgment of a minor mistake and d) as an expression of good cheer, sometimes used during dancing, expressing fun and excitement, also known as an Alkaios.
If one listens to Serbian music, and especially anything by Goran Bregovic, notably the song 'Kalashnikov,' if one ventures further sound and east to the Slavonic culture of the Vardar region and Bulgaria beyond it, the word opa and its permutation hopa and hop is to be heard time and time again. The word is even employed in the movie Borat, thanks to the inclusion of Esma Redzepova's spine-tinglingly stirring rendition of 'Chaje Shukarije' into its polymorphous soundrack. Backtracking towards the Adriatic, one will find that the word opa, or hopa is so woven into the warp and weft of the Albanian cultural tapestry, in such songs as "hope hopa me ngadale" that enterprising chanteurs feel quite comfortable in utilising same in order to provide their own versions of popular international hits, thus Hopa, Gangnam Style. The erudite thinker and commentator Pantelis Boukalas claims that he has even heard the term being employed by Brazilian dancers on Greek day-time television and one can do no else than posit the plausibility of such dancers being capable of emitting such cries while expertly mimicking the gyrations of the planets around the celestial orb, commenting as an aside as to the optimal use of Boukalas' time.
Ultra-nationalists would in term claim that the aforementioned nations have merely copied this, and so many other things from that rather shiny and alluring package that is marketed under the appellation of "the Glory that was Greece." According to them, the etymology of the term 'opa'  is of pure ancient Greek provenance, being derived from the cry  «ευοί ευάν», or, if this does not prove satisfactory, from the nautical ancient version of "yo, heave-ho": «ωόπ», which is attested in Aristophanes' plays 'Birds,' and 'Frogs.' Yet if the same said purists are to be believed, the Modern Greek soccer cry 'Ole, ole' is also of ancient Greek origin, deriving, not from classical Aristophanian times, but much earlier, in the mists of times Homeric, from the word «ούλε».
Other purists, notably proponents of the puristic form of Greek none as Katharevousa have made the claim that the word comes from the word όψ - της οπός= η όψις ie vision, and in particular from the derivative οπή, or peep hole, in which the word ώπα would therefore mean: "You are a vision," or alternatively, "I like what I see." It is easy to be seduced by this analysis.
However, if the word glendi is of Turkish origin, it does not stretch the realms of plausibility too far to appreciate that the word opa, existing as hop, hopala and hoples, as a counterpart to our own χωπ, ωπαλά, (as in the island folksong «όπαλα, όπαλα, κολπάκια μου 'κανες πολλά») and even ώπλες, or χώπλες, from which ultra-nationalists derive the English term hopeless, but in actual fact is used in such rembetika songs as «Ελενίτσα,» thus: «Αμάν αμάν ώπλες κούκλα μου κουκλίτσα μου συ μ' έχεις τρελάνει. Ελενίτσα μουIt is contended by linguists that the word can be spelled with an omega or an omicron interchangeably though in my mind, anyone who attempts consciously to employ an omicron must be possessed of loose morals.
Diversifying the conjecture further, the word oppa exists in Palestinian Arabic as a warinng to young children who are balanced precariously upon their perch and in danger of plummeting and in Syrian Arabic as obba. It is also widely employed by Egyptian soccer commentators when a player gives the ball a long or strong booting. Whatever one thus believes about the ultimate origin of this most versatile word, the truth is that it unites a large swathe of culturally related peoples across the eastern Mediterranean and if one where to postulate a Rhigas Feraios-type transnational Federation of such disparate tribes, it should be on the basis that we all share the same word to express enjoyment, disbelief or a warning.
Receive then, the Federation of the Nations of Opa! which take their leave of you ποσιτινγ the question asked in the 2005 film Opa!, a modern day treasure hunt for a mystical relic that turns into a love story for all time:  "If you discovered Atlantis, would you be happy to walk away from it without holding a piece of it in your hands?" The answer of course, from the same film is obvious: "The search might be equal to or greater than the discovery." Ώπα, τώρα κάτι μας είπες..
First published in NKEE on Saturday, 10 August 2013

Saturday, August 03, 2013


Over 200,000 excited people had gathered along the roads and at the finishing point. It was not money that created the interest. There was no betting, and the prizes were medals, diplomas and the much coveted laurel. It was a feeling of patriotism which had seized all classes, rich and poor alike, and both sexes. Louis’ victory was the best thing that could have happened. It put the coping stone of success on the gathering, and the representatives of other nations were treated with regal hospitality afterwards” Edwin Flack.
 As is evidenced by the above, there is much to be said about the exemplary sportsmanship displayed by Australia’s first Olympian.  To state that one’s competitor’s victory is the optimal outcome, and this despite the fact that  he had no experience of the running track, is the height of chivalry, regardless of whether, in his exhaustion-induced delirium while running the 1896 marathon, Flack punched to the ground, a Greek spectator who tried to help him. Flack was subsequently  removed from the course and tended to by no less a personage than Prince Nicholas of Greece himself.
Flack praised the Greeks sportsmanship and the work of the Games officials and the support given by the Greek royal family to the 1896 Games. Everything, he said, had been carried out perfectly, and the crowd’s appreciation of his own victory could not have been more generous. He had as the historian Gilchrist records, “received unusual attention from Greek royalty, after the marathon race, Prince Nicholas had come to the dressing room and given him a drink of egg beaten up in brandy the prices had given him an ancient Greek coin as a personal memento; and for some days he had virtually been a royal guest, accompanying the royal family to church and on other occasions.”
The Australian media was decidedly dispossessed of the sporting spirit when regarding the ultimate victory of the shepherd Spyridon Louis over Flack and others in the marathon, with the Sydney Bulletin commenting:
“[Flack’s] defeat by a modern Matoosekos Greek at the Olympic Games was a severe blow to his professional pride, which finally fell to pieces when King George of Greece shook his hand in vigorous sympathy. The Swanston Street fruit-sellers were at last avenged.”  
The City of Casey, on the other hand, where Flack eventually retired to breed Friesan cattle, has recently sought to honour Spiridon Louis, the first winner of the modern Marathon, by erecting a statue to him on High Street, Berwick. This is exciting news. While this is not the first statue of Spridon Louis to be erected in Australia, for one already exists in the Sydney suburb of Brighton Le Sands, that particular statue could represent a classical, idealised portrait of any athlete, not the foustanella clad Louis that the world came to know and idolize. We are therefore possibly  on the brink of something unique in the annals of Australian municipal history – the unsolicited erection of a tsolia, in suburban Melbourne. It is in fact a statue paid for by the State Government.
Surprisingly, Berwick residents are horrified at this prospect and have circulated a petition signed by one thousand residents, against the erection of a statue of the first Modern Olympic Marathon winner. Bill Kemp, the grandson of William Gamble who share-farmed with Edwin Flack, is quoted in the petiiton as sharing in the disgust felt by the “entire community” about the placement of the statue.
“Placing a statue of Spiridon in Berwick is an insult to Edwin Flack who won two gold medals for Australia and more importantly helped to establish Berwick as a thriving town.”
How this is an insult to Flack, who, if his own writings are to be believed, had a high regard for Louis, is not explained. Other claims made by enraged residents, such as the fact that there is no evidence that Flack ever met Louis also don’t seem to explain why the erection of a statue to an Olympic champion are to be precluded.
Perhaps we get to the nub of the matter when in their letter to the Council, the protesters suggest that the rather than being placed in Casey, the statue be donated to the City of Darebin, which has a significantly higher Greek population. What this seems to suggest is that these residents believe that there exists no place for a statue in honour of a foreigner in their city. According to what appears to be a rather narrow and parochial understanding of the world, Louis, a wog, has nothing to do with them, so he should be shunted off to another municipality inhabited by wogs who can appreciate him, and to whom he belongs. The presence of the statue of a wog in their local area, is not just inappropriate, but rather, an insult to them and their history – a history that excludes the histories of other Australian citizens who do not happen to derive their origins from the British Isles.
The fact that all around the world, citizens, councils and governments erect statues to personages they deem worthy of admiration or emulation, because their acts have enhanced humanity as a whole seems totally alien to a blinkered and racially exclusivist conviction that statues of wog athletes are an insult to the legacy of non-wog athletes. It also seems to fly in stark contrast to the traditional Australian obsession, nay worship of sport, in all its forms. This is a tradition that prizes fair play, striving for excellence and applauds and admires victory. It is definitely not a tradition that shuns athletes because of their race, culture or religion. No better personage than the gentlemanly Flack, who was so feted by the Greeks during his brief stay in Athens, and who applauded the victory of Aristides Akratopoulos over him, in the men’s singles tennis. Given his example of sportsmanship and ability to accept defeat gracefully, one would venture to say that it is his modern-day partisans, are anxious to protect his legacy from defilement, who actually insult it.
Spiridon Louis means nothing more to the Greeks of Australia than to any other citizen of the world. An unlikely champion, he has become an international symbol of doughty perseverance and honest competition and any attempt to play ethnic politics with his memory is ill-conceived.  The City of Casey should be commended for its unanimous decision to proceed with the erection of the statue in the face of opposition, with Casey Mayor Amanda Stapledon going so far as to state that: “Council will not hesitate to take action, and encourage the police to take action, against anyone responsible for vandalising or damaging the statue once installed.”
Yet one question does remain unanswered about the City of Casey’s decision. It has been resolved that in Louis’ statue upon High Street, will be placed next to the re-located statue of Edwin Flack. Will Flack’s statue be placed behind that of Louis in graphic re-enactment of the first marathon? And will, as we all hope, Louis be clad in the palikaria of his foustanella, there to inspire pedestrians and drivers alike with his glory, for ever more? Slow and steady wins the race, every time.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 3 August 2013