Saturday, June 02, 2018


“Do you know why we Greeks are so successful?” the bright eyed, animated lady with the most luminous teeth asked me as she adjusted her necklace upon which was strung a Santorini-blue, evil eye.

“We are?” I enquired.

Side-stepping the question, she continued. “Because we have something else no one else has. And do you know what that is?”

“A language of such dexterity that is able to reduce the words Notis Sfakianakis to a short and easily compactable ‘Sfax’?” I responded.

“Kefi,” she answered, jingling her bracelet covered arms. “Kefi. An attitude to life that lets us surmount all challenges. The Greek succeeds where others fail because he has kefi. No one can stop him. You can see that when we dance. Take a Greek wedding for example. It’s all about the dancing, whereas with Italians it’s all about the food.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I reflected. “At all the Greek dances I’ve been to lately, the MC had to plead with the attendees, who were mostly in their eighties, to get onto the dance floor. They seemed to be more interested in complaining about the price of the ticket.”
My interlocutor raised her perfectly delineated, fleshy Kardiashian ™ eyebrow. “Very funny. No, Kefi is a whole life philosophy. Did you know that kefi is so unique to Greece that there is no word for it in any other language? That tells you something.” She struck her marble kitchen counter triumphantly, with the flourish of a barrister concluding a particularly difficult case.
“I don’t think that is correct,” I ventured. “For starters..”
“No, one hundred percent. This guy from Greece said it on youtube. I’ll try to find the url,” she fiddled with her telephone. “Filotimo and kefi, two Greek words with no equivalents in any language.”

“But kefi is not a Greek word.” I persisted. “It has been adopted from the Turkish keyif (“merriment”), which in turn is borrowed from the Arabic kayf. It also exists in Aramaic as keip. So in actual fact, this is a Middle Eastern concept, imported, or adopted by Greeks.”
A long silence ensued. At first my interlocutor was shocked, something could be discerned from the manner in which her lips pursed and unpursed like a fish gulping when exposed to air. Then she scrambled for her mobile phone and after her incredibly long, ring bedecked fingers caressed it a number of times, she looked up and signed in resignation. “But kefi…” Then her lustrous eyebrows met together in a frown and she asserted. “This is garbage. They must have stolen that concept from Alexander the Great’s army when he conquered them.”
“But why are you so adamant we are possessed of kefi?” I asked. “Take your people, the Epirots. If we consider, as the ancient geographer Strabo did, that Epirus was the ancestral home of the Greeks, then it follows logically that they should be abounding in kefi and that consequently, Epirot folk songs should be oozing with joie de vivre. Shall we consider some of those songs?”

“Ummm,” she murmured reluctantly.

“Exhibit A,” I continued, “an old and popular favourite, with which many an Epirotic dance commences: «Δεν μπορώ μανούλα ‘μ, δεν μπορώ, άι σύρε να φέρεις το γιατρό.» Is this a song about a person so full of kefi that he has to invade the dance floor, thereupon to bust his manifold Epirotic moves in a spirit of mirth or goodwill? No, simply, this is the lament of a person who has been rendered thoroughly ill by means of a psychosomatic malady relating to his compluslive/obsessive love of an unnamed individual, who now requires urgent hospitalisation.
“Exhibit B,” I droned on inexorably. “A love song: «Δεν στο ‘πα χαλασιά μου, στον μύλο να μην πας. Μη σε πατήσει η ρόδα, και γίνω εγώ φονιάς.» Which aspect of kefi would you say that this song particularly rejoices in? Here we have a song in which a would be lover, fulfills Occupational Health and Safety requirements by warning the object of his affection of a particular hazard within the workplace, in this instance, a questionable mill stone. He goes on further, to comply with disclosure requirements in order to confirm that the only reason why he is providing such a warning is so that he does not end up accused of industrial manslaughter. The last verse of the song is also revealing: «Μωρή κακιά κοπέλα, πού πας για λάχανα. Καρτέρα μωρή και μένα, να σου πω τα βάσανα.» So replete then with kefi is this song, that not only is the girl it is addressed to considered as bad, it is nothing more than an injunction for her to remain in situ, while her admirer unloads his psychological baggage upon her and has a good whinge. Sounds like vast quantities of allegria, the Italian word for kefi, were had by all.”
“Yes but in the context of a glendi….” the kefi proponent protested.
“Exhibit C,” I persisted. “Also much loved among Epirots: «Έπεσε από το φράχτη, κύρα Γιώργαινα, ο Γιωργάκης σου,» or if you prefer, this: «Λενίτσα μου, τον άντρα σου, πάνε να τον κρεμάσουν.» Among songs about people falling from fences, or being taken away to be hanged, I supposed the only kefi that could possibly arise, would do so when the song actually stops and the person’s misfortune ceases to be rubbed in their face. If the Epirots, as archetypal Greeks partake of the kefi tradition, then why do all of their celebrations traditionally begin with a funeral dirge?”

“No that is not what I mean,” Mrs Kefi asserted herself. “I’m talking about that devil may care, who worries about what happens tomorrow, let’s have fun, spend all our money on a good time and «έχει ο Θεός» attitude we have. Going to the bouzoukia, blowing our cash on a bottle of whisky and καλή παρέα.»

“Are you sure that this more Black Eyed Peas, than Greek?” I countered. “Aren’t attitudes encapsulated in such lyrics as “Tonight's the night, let's live it up/ I got my money, let's spend it up/ Go out and smash it like oh my God,” more relevant to a certain western sub-set of socio-economic wage earners than our own people? After all, I seem to remember that the price of dance tickets and the cost of potatoes, meat and other comestibles served therein appear to be of prime concern at the Annual General Meetings of sundry Greek brotherhoods about town. And back in the homeland, the cost of vegetables and the immanence of tax concessions are perennially a feature of prime time new bulletins. Furthermore, I seem to harbour memories of being subjected to repeated interrogations by friends from Greece as to the cost of living in Australia, including but not limited to the cost of bread, milk, petrol and clothing, the basic wage, the tax brackets and the banking regime, even as we were out at the so-called bouzoukia, my answers being received with a stock «εμείς στην Ελλάδα γλεντάμε,» only to have them ask for a loan the next day.”

“Stop twisting my words,” the apostle of Kefi enjoined angrily. “Just because you were obviously born without a funny bone doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t have a good time, Mr Killjoy. Sheesh. Obviously it is you who aren’t Greek, otherwise you would understand what I’m talking about. Xeftila.”

Some months after this exchange took place, I found myself attending a Greco-Lebanese wedding. Seated providentially to my right was, my kefi-advocating friend. I watched her intently, her face frozen in horror as the newly-wed couple entered the reception, thronged by ululating and dancing relatives obscuring the photographer. I watched her cluck her tongue in disapprobation as the MC vainly implored the Lebanese guests, too intent on dancing and having a good time, to sit down, in order to allow the speeches to take place. Upon the advent of the moustachioed genius Tony Hanna’s classic “Yaba yaba lah,” my Greek-Australian composure deserted me and surrendering to kayf, I threw myself into the dance, ululating with the best of them. As I did so, I noticed that all the Greeks in the room were still seated at their tables, glaring at the dancers contemptuously. Eventually, when the musical mood switched from Lebanese to Greek, I observed that of the Greek guests, only a very small proportion were going through the motions of a stately and rather lacklustre kalamatiano. They did so defiantly, as if staking an important cultural claim upon the floor, in a somnolent manner, utterly devoid of joy. 

Leaving any sort of void in the dance floor among the Lebanese is perilous, for kayf abhors a vacuum. Instantaneously, the floor was flooded with ululating dancers, first attempting the intricate steps of the kalamatiano and then, finding them of little interest, discarding them for infinitely more lively steps of their own, the sound of the ubiquitous dawla dictating the beat.
Exhausted and covered in sweat, I found my way back to my table, only to see a distressed Mrs Kefi in the process of being forcibly removed from her seat and dragged towards the dance floor by some exuberant Lebanese beauties. She looked at me pleadingly, one perfect eyebrow raised in a mute cry for help, finger marks of enthusiasm leavning their marks obtrusively upon her fake tan. “Surrender yourself to the kayf,” I advised gravely. “Aiwa habibti, shushla!”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 June 2018