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 μου.» It 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