Search results for 'I told you they wouldn't leave him alone'

I told you they wouldn’t leave him alone.

19 Aug

Digging up dirt is their business, and the higher the target, the more cheap glory accrues to their little souls.  We have one of the greatest athletes in history, photographed by one of the greatest artists of our time (do we understand that that’s what the Greeks did?), and they’re worried about the “rules.”  The idea that super high-end professionals likes Phelps’ agent and p.r. people, the entire Louis Vuitton corporate world, and Annie Leibovitz and her p.r. people, all knew about this rule — which is new, by the way — and deliberately flaunted it, is absurd.  But let’s see how this plays out.  There are no limits to people’s pettiness. 

If they take away any medals I’m going after somebody; I’m not kidding.

Beautiful work on Leibovitz’ part — goes without saying.

The other part of the ad below.

“Swimming champion Michael Phelps might be in hot water with the International Olympic Committee after photos of his posing in a bathtub for part of a Louis Vuitton ad campaign were leaked on the Internet.

Phelps was photographed for the campaign in a bathing suit and goggles in a bathtub reportedly by photographer Annie Leibovitz. The photos were released during a time when Olympic athletes are banned from participating in marketing campaigns.

The regulation was introduced this year by the Olympic Committee and is known as Rule 40, prohibiting athletes from participating in advertising from July 18 to Aug. 15, which included periods before and after the Olympic Games.

The photo of Phelps in the bathtub next to a Louis Vuitton bag, however, popped up on the Internet in early August, appearing on Paper Mag and the Los Angeles Times, among other websites.

Athletes who break Rule 40 can face sanctions, including financial penalties and disqualification from games, which can mean a loss of medals, as outlined in the Olympic Committee’s guidebook. 

The U.S. International Olympic Committee and Louis Vuitton declined to comment. Representatives for Leibovitz did not immediately return calls from ABC News.”

For other Phelps posts see: Michael Phelps“;  “An angry man — that is my subject.”; Ποιόν σοι εγκώμιον προσαγάγω επάξιον, τι δε ονομάσω σε, απορώ και εξίσταμαι“…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.” , which explains other Greek heading, or check out tag box at lower right.


The duck and okra and Armenian massacre chapter from Loxandra — “shit happens” — my translation

4 Sep

It’s actually hard to say which came first: whether Maria Iordanidou’s Loxandra was the first literary manifestation of the archetype of a Greek woman of Istanbul, or whether life imitated art and Politisses started unconsciously behaving like Loxandra.  Joyful, funny, hovering and caring around all her loved ones but even strangers – even Turks – worldly for her degree of education and fundamentally cosmopolitan if even unawares, obsessed with good food, and always finding happiness and beauty and pleasure in the world, despite her people’s precarious position in their wider environment.

Iordanidou’s novel captures more perfectly than any other literary representation what Patricia Storace has called the “voluptuous domesticity” that Greeks associate with life in Anatolia and Constantinople.  But what’s always moved me and struck me as so intelligent about the novel — each of the some ten or more times I’ve read it — is that it’s not all fun-and-games and yalancı dolma and Apokries in Tatavla and Politika nazia.  Right along side the pleasure and humor rides a brutally honest portrayal of the “tolerant” and “diverse” Ottoman society that is a favorite fantasy of certain progressives, on both Greek and Turkish sides of the coin.  Iordanidou doesn’t fall into that trap, just as she doesn’t fall into the alternate trap of portraying all Turks as murderous animals, along the lines of Dido Soteriou’s Matomena Homata (Bloodied Lands) or Veneze’s Aeolike Ge (Aeolian Earth).  She simply goes for the starkest realism: Ottoman Turks/Muslims and their subject peoples didn’t live together in harmony but rather lived in parallel universes that rarely intersected; the novel takes place at a time when – as Petros Markares points out in his essay in the book’s latest edition – “life was heaven for the minorities and hell for Muslims.”  But even in that paradise, when the two parallel universes collided, the result was hellish for everyone.

I’ve translated the chapter that takes place during the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in 1896, particularly the shockingly urban episode that occurred in Istanbul.  In August of that year, the Dashnaks, Armenian freedom-fighters-cum-terrorists took hostages at the Ottoman Bank in Karaköy and the operation turned into a mini-civil-battle with groups of Armenians and Turks taking up position on either side of the Galata Bridge. 

From Wiki:


Retribution against the ordinary Armenian populace in Constantinople was swift and brutal. Ottomans loyal to the government began to massacre the Armenians in Constantinople itself. Two days into the takeover, the Ottoman softas and bashibazouks, armed by the Sultan, went on a rampage and slaughtered thousands of Armenians living in the city.[11] According to the foreign diplomats in Constantinople, Ottoman central authorities instructed the mob “to start killing Armenians, irrespective of age and gender, for the duration of 48 hours.”[12] The killings only stopped when the mob was ordered to desist from such activity by Sultan Hamid.[12] They murdered around 6,000[1] – 7,000 Armenians. Within 48 hours of the bank seizure, estimates had the dead numbering between 3,000 and 4,000, as authorities made no effort to contain the killings of Armenians and the looting of their homes and businesses.

Loxandra and her family live through the massacring of their Armenian neighbors in Pera in terror, hiding inside their shuttered house for a week, till they finally run out of water and have to start interacting with the neighborhood vendors.  Iordanidou does take a swipe at Turkish passivity and fatalism though in the closing part of the chapter as Loxandra hears repeatedly from the Turkish merchants she has to deal with, in reference to the killing: “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”  This “Yağnış oldu” chimes like a bell or rather a kick in the gut on the chapter’s last page.  Thousands dead, “their homes looted, their churches destroyed… Yağnış oldu”

Shit happens, in other words.

Loxandra soon starts to forget, or at least pretends to.  In the end, the chapter is a disturbing look at the compromises we make in order to go on living with the Other, despite the evil he may have done you, or you him.  Otherwise life would be intolerable.  For “…too much sorrow doth to madness turn…” Loxandra concludes in the final sentence.

Loxandra: Chapter 5

Glory be to God, because To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to break down, and a time to build up…”

Loxandra just figured that for her to suddenly find herself living in the Crossroad*(1) that meant that her time had come and that this had to be her world from now on.  She accepted her new life the way that she accepted Demetro’s death.  What can you do?  That’s how that is.

The Crossroad was nothing like Makrochori, and the beautiful old life she had there – it was like a scissor had come and snipped it off — slowly became a sweet receding dream.  Cleio started to yearn for twilight in Makrochori, the sky, the sea, their garden and the shade of their plane tree.  She had even lost her father’s library, because during the move to Pera, Theodore had pilfered most of it and now all she was left with were Kassiane, Pikouilo Ali Ağa and Witnesses at a Wedding.  She started to avoid the cosmopolitan life of Pera, which she at first had thought heavenly, and she lamented her lost paradise.  Exactly opposite to her mother.

Because Loxandra never wept for lost heavens.  Nor did she ever go in search of joy.  It was joy that went in search of Loxandra.  And it would usually pop up in the most unexpected moments.  The angel would suddenly descend and stir the waters in the fount of the Virgin of Baloukli and for Loxandra it was like she had been baptized anew.

Glory be to God.  And great be the grace of the Virgin.

The fat little ducklings of August and the okra make good eating.  It’s a sin to let August pass without eating ducklings with the okra.

So on the eve of the Virgin’s Loxandra bought ducklings to cook them with the okra, and despite her exhaustion, she went down into the kitchen to start preparing the birds.  She was especially tired because the day before she had stocked up fuel for the winter.  She filled the cellar with charcoal, and then she’d call the Kurds to come hack up the lumber she would use for the stoves.

In the City at that time, just as your milkman was Bulgarian, your fishmonger Armenian, your baker from Epiros, so your lumber supplier was a Kurd.  So Loxandra called the “Kiurtides” to come chop up her winter stock of lumber.  Early in early morn’ — όρθρου βαθέος — they would dump a good thirty “chekia” of tree trunks and thick boughs and then the Kurds would come, brawny giants from deep in Anatolia in salwar and black kerchiefs wound around their fezzes and with their shiny, well-sharpened cleavers to chop up the wood.  The Kurds were meraklides when it came to their blades.  Even all the way in his village in the depths of Kurdistan, the Kurd could never be separated from his cleaver, and when the time came for him to emigrate his mother would present his cleaver to her son, the way a Spartan woman gave her son his shield.  And when a young Kurd got to an age of fourteen or fifteen and started feeling the first longings of his youth, he never took flowers in hand.  Instead he’d take his knife and go about the mahalades crying out: “Dertim var, dertim”… “I’m in pain, in longing” and would look around to see if any of the shutters or windows all about would open.  The young girl that would first answer his call would open her window and cry: “Dertine kurban olurum”, meaning “I’ll sacrifice myself to your longings”.  And the young man would exclaim: “Bende baltaim burada vururum”, meaning “And so I nail my knife here.” Then he went home and sent his mother to retrieve his knife and at the same time, get to know her future daughter-in-law.

That’s how important the cleaver was for a Kurd.  And you’d be better off cursing out his Prophet rather than saying anything offensive about his cleaver.

Loxandra was afraid of Kurds, just the way she was afraid of Turks.  But when it came to important things like her yearly supply of firewood, well…there was no holding her back nor kid gloves to wear in treating them:

“Does this fit, you son-of-a-dog?” she’d yell, suddenly fearless and waving a big, bulky knot of wood above the Kurd’s head.  “Does this fit, bre, in my stove?”

She would get so angry that she almost might have said something about his cleaver.

But oddly enough the Kurds never got angry and never felt insulted by her, and would do any favor she wanted.  They would stack the chopped up lumber in her cellar and their departure was always warm and accompanied by the usual güle güle and reciprocal good wishes and a light winter, may-it-be, and here…take this for your little boy and here take this for your wife, and all the rest.

That night, Loxandra was exhausted and all night long she saw bizarre dreams of sharp meat cleavers and a big butcher’s block piled with chopped meat.  She just attributed the dreams to her experiences that day with the Kurds.  “Oh”, she thought upon waking: “Ιησούς Χριστός Νικά” “Jesus Christ Victor”…and she went down into the kitchen to brown the ducklings.

How could she know what the future had in store for them?  How could she know that the treaty that was signed eighteen years before in San Stefano had been revised and revised again so that Bulgaria could be an autonomous state, Romania and Montenegro were now independent, Russia took Kars and Ardahan and Batumi, Britain took Cyprus, Greece got Thessaly and a part of Epiros, but the Armenians got nothing out of all that had been promised to them, and they started an uprising, so that Sultan Hamid roused up his people, and he brought Kurds with their cleavers and they had organized a massacre of Armenians…right there…in the middle of the streets of the City…on the eve of a feast day like this…the Assumption of the Virgin…  How could she possibly know all of that?

So, blissful and clueless, she went down to prepare the ducklings, and she was in a happy mood, but in just such a good mood that morning.  The day before they had received a letter from Giorgaki asking for Cleio’s hand in marriage.  The letter was a bit nutty, but what was important is that he wanted to marry Cleio.  It started like this:

“In these difficult moments my mind races to you and only you, my refuge and haven, my peaceful port…”

And riding on that inspiration – and drunk – Giorgaki wrote that he missed his boat and that he had gotten stuck in Genoa with Epaminonda, alone and abandoned and penniless, because, being human, they had had a bit to drink to forget their dertia and night had fallen on them in the alleyways of Genoa, and in the dark Epaminonda had started bugging a Catholic priest: …psss…psss…thinking he was a woman, and the neighbors had gotten all riled up and Epaminonda had gotten arrested, but the Greek consul in the city was a countryman of Giorgaki’s and he got the authorities to release Epaminonda from the holding pen, and in a few days the consul would put them on a ship to Constantinople to celebrate the engagement — that is, if Loxandra accepted him as a son-in-law.  And before closing, he added: “My lips will never again touch even a single drop of alcohol.”

How could she not be happy?!  She set the pan on the fire and as soon as the birds started to soften up, she tasted the sauce to check the salt.  Suddenly she heard the stomp of running feet in the street.

Bre, Tarnana, get up and go out and see what’s going on”, she said to him.

But Tarnana was too tired to go see because to see he had to climb up onto the sink because the kitchen was in the basement. So all he could see the was the sight of running feet.  But Loxandra grabbed a chair for herself and climbed on top of it to get a better view.  And what does she see?  A Kurd with his cleaver in hand was trying to break down the door of Monsieur Artin.(**2)

HA!  The bloody dog, may-a-wretched-year-befall-him!

She got down off the chair and grabbed the large soup ladle.

“Just wait and see what I’ll do to him!”

She gathered up her skirts and ran up the stairs.  But she came crashing into Cleio.

“It’s a massacre, mother, a massacre!” cried Cleio in a semi-faint.

Loxandra paid her no mind.

“What massacre shmassacre you talking about, bre?  Some Kurd is looking to break down Monsieur Artin’s door. Get outta my way!”

Sultana came down too and along with Cleio and Tarnana they stuffed up her mouth so that her cries couldn’t be heard on the street.  They closed the shutters and they all hid in the charcoal cellar.

But even in the cellar you could hear the blows from the street, the running feet, and the dying cries of the wounded.  There would be a short few moments of quiet and then it would start again.  Any time there was a bit of silence, Loxandra would grab her ladle.

“It’s just the Kurds for heaven’s sake, may-the-Devil-take-them-and-carry-them-off! Let me go see what’s happening!”

When the frenzy finally stopped an employee from Thodoros’ office came to bring them some groceries and to see how they were.  He said there had been a mass slaughter of Armenians but that no Greeks had been hurt unless they were harboring Armenians in their house, and Thodoro sent the message that God forbid anyone find out you’ve got Tarnana in the house.  In the Crossroad things had calmed down, but the killing was continuing in the suburbs.

That was enough to finally scare Loxandra and she hid Tarnana under her bed.  She was afraid to get near the window or even open the shutters.  The street vendors started to come by as usual.  The salepçi (***3) came by.  The offal-vendor came by, and as soon as they smelled him the cats started growling.  She locked them up in the charcoal cellar.  “Shut up, bre, they’ll come and cut your throats too.”  The milkman came and knocked.  No one inside made a sound.  We’ll do without milk.  Drink tea.  But on the seventh day the water supplier came by and she had to open up because they were running out.  Hüseyn came in limping and emptied two goatskins into the clay amphora they stored water in. 

Hüseyn says good bye sweetly and soon the egg-seller comes knocking on her window.

“Kokona (****4), Aren’t you going to buy any eggs?”

Loxandra cracked open the window, took a look at him, and thought: “Could my egg-vendor Mustafa be a Hagarene Dog (*****5) too?”

The next morning the street watchman came by to say hello, expecting his usual cup of coffee.

Haydi, Tarnana, make him some coffee.”

She opened up the front door and sat on the steps, thinking again: “Is he or isn’t he?”  Finally she couldn’t contain herself:

Bre, Mehmet, I want you to tell me the truth, but, I mean, I want the truth, ok?  Were you out on the street the other day with the killings?  But tell me the truth.”

“Valah! Billah!  Mehmet wasn’t involved.”

“Oooff… And I was going to say…” And she began to sob.  “Why such madness?  What did poor Monsieur Artin do to them and they slaughtered him like that?  No, Tell me!  What did he do?”

“Vah, vah, vah”, Mehmet said.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the liver vendor a bit later.

“Vah, vah, vah”, said the chickpea vendor too. “Yağnış oldu.”  “That was a mistake.”

Some ten, some twenty thousand people were murdered.  Their homes were looted.  Their churches destroyed.  Whole families were wiped out…“yağnış oldu.”

The dogs licked the blood off the sidewalks and life started again as if nothing had happened.

Tarnana came out from under the bed too, Elegaki came over too and they all got together in the kitchen to prepare the sweets for Cleio’s engagement.  Loxandra wiped her tears and made sweet out of sorrow, because that’s how that is.  And let me tell you something, too much sorrow, well…”that way madness lies.”  I mean, there are limits!


*(1) The Crossroad, Το Σταυροδρόμι, (above) is what Greeks called the spot in central Pera where the now Istiklâl Caddesi (the Isio Dromo or the Grande Rue) intersects with the steep uphill Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (never understood what the New Market, which is what Yeni Çarşı means, refers to) coming from Karaköy, and the Meşrutiyet Caddesi which then takes a curve at the British consulate and ends up — now — in one of the most dismal urban plazas in Istanbul and a run-down convention center, that were built over a pleasant little park that was built in turn over an old Catholic cemetery. Mercifully, one side of the street is still architecturally intact and you still get one of the most splendid views of the Horn and the western part of the Old City from there. By the Gates of Galatasaray Lycée, that’s still the starting place for demonstrations and protests — whatever are allowed, anyway… By the Cité de Pera arcade and the central fish market (never understood why the fish market is up at the top of one of Istanbul’s hills and not on the seafront somewhere) that is full of both trashy, touristy restaurants and really good meyhane finds as well, once almost all owned by Greeks and Armenians.

If Pera is the center of Istanbul, the Crossroad is the center of Pera. And in Greek usage it meant the whole surrounding neighborhood as well.

The old Meşrutiyet Caddesi
The Gates of Galatasaray

(**2) Artin immediately registers to a Greek-speaker as an Armenian name.

(***3) Salep (Salepçi is a salep vendor) is a hot drink made from ground dried orchid tubers, milk I think, and cinnamon on top. It’s supposedly fortifying — in what way common decency prevents me from saying — but aside from the fact that “orchid” comes from the Indo-European root for “testicle” (as in “αρχίδια,” or as in “στα αρχίδια μου”) the finished drink has a slightly creepy, slippery texture and translucent color that definitely reminds one of semen. I happen to really like it, but I don’t know if that’s just because of its status as a historical remnant or oddity. You can find it in Athens too, like on Ermou, still. But it’s a hot drink, meant for wintery consumption, so it’s weird for Iordanidou to have a salepçi coming around on the street in the middle of August.

(4****) “Kokona” is a term used in historical literature to address not just Christian women, but Greek women, Ρωμιές “Roman” women, specifically. It’s never used to address Armenian or Jewish women, for example. It appears in literature and various accounts dating from even early Ottoman times. In the Byzantine Museum here in Athens (the name of which, at some point recently, was changed to the Byzantine and Christian Museumin case we forget that Byzantium was a Christian culture 🙄) there are several pieces of ecclesiastic embroidery: priests’ stoles, Epitaphio shrouds — that date from the 16th and 17th century, and are attributed to specific women: Kokona Angela, Kokona Marigo, so it was more than just a slang term of address. No one I know can tell me the root of the word, nor can anyone say why it was used just for Greek women and not other gâvur/kaffr women.

(5*****) “Hagarene Dogs”Αγαρηνά Σκυλιά – is an obviously unpleasant term used as far back as mid-Byzantine times to refer to Arabs/Muslims. The rub is that it was the first peninsular Arabs and Muslims who themselves identified with the term. Hagar, as we know, was the slave wife of Abraham, who bore him a child, Ishmael, because his own wife, Sarah, was already 80 years old plus and unable to have a child. Then the angels came to visit and told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a child; Sarah heard from the kitchen and laughed. But indeed, she did bear him a son, Isaac. And Abraham promptly tossed Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert, but they were saved by an angel that descended and struck the ground out of which a fresh spring of water gushed:

Hājar or Haajar (Arabic: هاجر), is the Arabic name used to identify the wife of Ibrāhīm (Abraham) and the mother of Ismā’īl (Ishmael). Although not mentioned by name in the Qur’an, she is referenced and alluded to via the story of her husband. She is a revered woman in the Islamic faith.

According to Muslim belief, she was the Egyptian handmaiden of Ibrāhīm’s first wife Sara (Sarah). She eventually settled in the Desert of Paran with her son Ismā’īl. Hājar is honoured as an especially important matriarch of monotheism, as it was through Ismā’īl that Muhammad would come. [my emphasis]

Neither Sara nor Hājar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrāhīm’s prayer in Sura Ibrahim (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.”[20] While Hājar is not named, the reader lives Hājar’s predicament indirectly through the eyes of Ibrāhīm.[21] She is also frequently mentioned in the books of hadiths.

I have no idea why early Arabs chose — not that it was a conscious process, but being unconscious makes its function even more powerful — out of all of Jewish scripture, to consider themselves and Muhammad descended from a scorned slave woman and her unwanted son, the first-born of Abraham cast into the desert, especially given how Ishmael is described in Genesis:

Genesis 16:12 “He shall be a wild man; His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him.”

Unless “a wild man” suited their needs. Almost to an archetypal degree, conquest narratives justify themselves as retribution for a historical wrong, or as a necessary process by which the morally and ethically superior impose themselves on the inferior: from the Israelites and Canaan, to the Romans taking revenge for their defeated Trojan ancestors, to the Turkic Conquest of Rum and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, to the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, to American Manifest Destiny, to Nazi lebensraum to the current Islamist and Turanian rantings of Mister Erdoğan and the bitchy historical insults he’s constantly hurling our way.

And wouldn’t you know, just today, Mr. Erdoğan gives us a Friday sermon that pretty much says it all and in language far less wordy than mine:

“Turkish Conquest Is Not Occupation or Looting – It Is Spreading the Justice of Allah”

Loxandra, of course, doesn’t know any of this. She’s just heard the legends of the “Hagarene Dogs” growling at the walls of the City before the conquest, and imagines them to be real barking dogs who can take human shape and turn into her milkman or egg vendor.

Betty Valasi as Loxandra in the 1980 Greek TV serialization of the novel

And now I need some good salsa, ’cause the legacy of “our parts” — τα μέρη μας — can weigh on you like a glob of hardened lead.


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Strange Border Kidnappings of Serbs in Kosovo — and some thoughts of mine

17 Jun


I haven’t written much, or anything really, about Kosovo, because of all the places I visited on this Balkans trip it was, despite its frantic, chaotic energy, not only a place that still felt deeply scarred itself, but also the place that left its deepest marks on me as well.  It’s a place that hurt me.  And it’s been hard for me to know where to begin to write about it.  An innate warmth and sympathy I feel for Serbs generally left me terribly depressed at the sad state of what’s left of Serbian life in Kosovo.  And yet, simultaneously, l was left overwhelmed and trembling at the mountain of atonement Serbs will have to seek out for themselves for the horrendous crimes they committed there, not just in the 1990s, but throughout the twentieth century, before they can really face a future with a clear conscience.

And then, I found almost all Kosovar Albanians deeply likeable.  I wouldn’t call them friendly exactly — Albanians don’t really do “friendly” — but they were…dashing, shall we say, in a particularly Balkan way that was immensely attractive and were always helpful with directions or anything else we needed while on our journey.  I’m also a sucker for physical beauty and I will swear to any God in the universe that I have never been in a country with such a rich embarrassment of gorgeous people of both genders in my entire life.

But whatever I may have felt about Kosovars, I will believe the most nightmarish things possible about the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), a collection of Berlin club bouncers, heroin smugglers, white slave traders and mob hitmen to whom the world granted the government of an independent country on a silver platter — simply because, as is usually the case in the Balkans, the West had no idea what it was doing and just wanted the whole crazy place and its people out of its hair — while they, the KLA, continue to operate as a semi-incognito organization only slightly less criminal and murderous (and I’m not even sure about the “slightly”) than the drug cartels of Colombia or Mexico.

This story of KLA members abducting Kosovo Serbs, killing them and then selling their organs — especially kidneys — on the black market has been around for a while.  The New Yorker did a story on it back in May of 2013 (posted in full below) that seemed kind of sceptical, but this reportage (video below) by Vice News, an independent news outlet originally from Montreal now based in Brooklyn — and a serious media source we should really look out for in the future; they do great work (see 2013 article about them from The Guardian) — claims that the allegations are now being taken seriously by the Hague and the European Union.

What concerns me is why the story had been forgotten for so long and I think the answer is present and not so subtly coded in The New Yorker article itself.  For about the first, I’d say, two-thirds of the piece, the allegations against the KLA are treated as completely believable.  Then, based on the evidence of one single individual, whom the KLA claims is a Serbian plant meant to discredit it, and the incoherence of his testimony, the article does a complete one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn and suddenly all kinds of doubts are cast on the potential truth behind these KLA crimes.  And then the clear and constant bias of the Western media can be heard loud and clear: the Serb can never just be the victim.  And the not so subtle suggestion is made that these allegations against the KLA might just be another example of Serbs’ supposed pathological propensity for creating nationalist mythologies and martyrdom narratives for themselves and nothing else.

Kudos to Vice News for bringing the story to the forefront again and shame on a publication with the reputation of The New Yorker  for pandering to its readership’s expectations of who the bad guys in the movie always are.

From Vice News:

“In the wake of the war in Kosovo, investigative journalist Michael Montgomery traveled to the Balkans to investigate the mysterious disappearance of Serbs. His scrutiny brought to light evidence that suggested links between a black-market crime syndicate and the upper echelon of the Kosovo Liberation Army—indicating that the end of war doesn’t necessarily mean the end of war crimes.”


The New Yorker story:

A Reporter at Large

Bring Up the Bodies

Kosovo’s leaders have been accused of grotesque war crimes. But can anyone prove it?

by May 6, 2013

Haci Thami130506_r23468_p465Hashim Thaci, the Prime Minister, helped lead the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war. He says, “The K.L.A. was big, and you always have abusers in such organizations.” Photograph by Alex Majoli.

After the conflict in Kosovo ended, in June, 1999, a tribunal in The Hague set out to punish the perpetrators of atrocities. Louise Arbour, the lead prosecutor, described Kosovo—a former province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—as “one vast crime scene.” Her investigators’ primary target was Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb who led Yugoslavia. Milosevic had claimed that Kosovo’s majority group, ethnic Albanians, treated ethnic Serbs like slaves, and armed forces under his control had waged a campaign of mass murder there, slaughtering more than ten thousand Kosovars. NATO, relying heavily on American forces, launched air strikes to stop Milosevic, and received crucial assistance from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main rebel force in the region. K.L.A. scouts relayed Serbian tank coördinates to Green Berets, who passed on the information to American fighter jets. Three months after the air strikes began, Serbia surrendered. Milosevic was eventually arrested and sent to The Hague, where he died in prison, of a heart attack.

In Kosovo, meanwhile, the K.L.A. officially disbanded, but many of its members joined political parties. A party led by Hashim Thaci, the K.L.A.’s political chief, rose to power. In 2008, Thaci became the first Prime Minister of an independent Kosovo. Two years later, Vice-President Joe Biden hailed him as “the George Washington of Kosovo.”

Today, nearly two thousand people remain missing in Kosovo, a country that José Pablo Baraybar, a Peruvian who headed the U.N.’s Office on Missing Persons and Forensics, described to me as “one of the most exhumed places on earth.” DNA technology has helped investigators identify hundreds of bodies, many of them buried in mass graves. But, even in an era of sophisticated forensic science, definitive evidence can be elusive: in one case, the Serbs burned hundreds of corpses in a lead smelter.

Dozens of Serbs have been convicted of war crimes since the fighting stopped, but they were not the only ones responsible for violence. In Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, rumors circulated that, in the summer of 1999, K.L.A. paramilitaries had trucked prisoners across the border to secret detention camps in Albania, where they were tortured and, sometimes, killed. But, in public, Kosovars embraced a “silence taboo,” in the words of Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist in Pristina. The men who led the K.L.A. remained a fearsome presence in the country, posing a threat to anyone who spoke out, and ethnic Serbs were a powerless bloc, falling to less than two per cent of the population. Unlike Argentina, South Africa, and Sierra Leone, Kosovo failed to establish its own truth-and-reconciliation commission.

The task of accounting for the missing was left largely to outsiders. One of them was Michael Montgomery, an American radio journalist who had helped expose the massacre of forty-one Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces in the village of Qyshk, on May 14, 1999. He began amassing troubling stories involving the K.L.A. Multiple sources told him that, in the days after Milosevic’s defeat, the K.L.A. had shipped accused traitors to camps in Albania. A former K.L.A. member recalled guarding seven prisoners in the back of a van, their mouths taped and their hands cuffed, as they crossed the border. A K.L.A. driver said that he had been given orders not to hurt anyone; once his captives were in Albania, they were taken to a house where doctors were present. The driver heard that the doctors sampled the prisoners’ blood and assessed their health. Several sources implied that this caretaking had a sinister purpose: the K.L.A. was harvesting the prisoners’ organs and selling them on the black market.

Montgomery was concerned that these stories might be propaganda planted by the Serbian government, so he tracked down additional sources. Three people recalled taking prisoners to a yellow house outside the Albanian town of Burrel. Another K.L.A. driver told Montgomery that there were only two places where he “brought people but never picked anyone up”: the yellow house and a cream-colored farmhouse near the airport in Tirana, Albania’s capital. The farmhouse, he noted, had a “very strong smell of medicine.” The driver added that he sometimes heard other drivers talking about “organs, kidneys, and trips from the house to the airport.” Since the late nineteen-nineties, Istanbul—a short flight from Tirana—has been a destination for transplant tourism.

In late 2002, a K.L.A. member told Montgomery that the group had made “a fortune” by trafficking body parts, primarily kidneys. C., as Montgomery called the source, claimed that the K.L.A. received about forty-five thousand dollars per body. Most shipments involved body parts from “two or three Serbs,” though C. knew of an instance when the K.L.A. “did five Serbs together.”

In late 2002 and early 2003, Montgomery travelled with a colleague to Albania, carrying a map drawn by his informants. It directed them to the yellow house and to the farmhouse near the airport. But they didn’t knock on the doors. Montgomery thought that they needed stronger evidence before confronting the occupants. “The only way we felt we could report this was if bodies were recovered and matched with missing people,” he told me.

Montgomery decided to put his investigations aside, but he didn’t let the matter go entirely. He sent a memo to the U.N.’s missing-persons office in Kosovo, asserting that, in 1999 and 2000, between one hundred and three hundred prisoners were taken to Albania, where some were dispatched to a “makeshift clinic” that extracted “body organs from the captives.” The U.N. forwarded the memo to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or I.C.T.Y. The tribunal, established in The Hague in 1993, was designed to bring a measure of justice to those who had suffered horrors in the Balkans. The Serbs did not see the tribunal as impartial, and they have remained hostile to it. Tomislav Nikolic, Serbia’s current President, said recently that the tribunal “was founded to try the Serbian people.” In fact, most of the convictions in I.C.T.Y. courtrooms have been of ethnic Serbs, in part because the Milosevic regime made little effort to conceal its crimes. In Qyshk, Serbian militia members responsible for the massacre left behind photographs of themselves posing with machine guns; the images were later used to identify some of the culprits.

The lead prosecutor at the I.C.T.Y. was Carla Del Ponte, an indefatigable fifty-six-year-old lawyer from the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland. She had joined the tribunal in September, 1999, and she had tried dozens of Serbs for crimes against humanity. The K.L.A., she suspected, had committed significantly fewer war crimes, but scale is not exculpatory.

Del Ponte received Montgomery’s memo as she was preparing to indict Ramush Haradinaj, a former bouncer who joined the K.L.A., rose to commander, and then went on to become the Prime Minister of U.N.-administered Kosovo. She intended to charge Haradinaj with “planning, instigating, ordering, committing, or otherwise aiding and abetting” the abuse of dozens of prisoners. The indictment also accused him of participating in “the abduction of persons who were later found murdered.” In documents sent to Del Ponte, Montgomery quoted his source C. saying that Haradinaj “must have known” about organ trafficking, in part because his brother Daut was close to someone “heavily involved” in the trade. (In 2002, a U.N. court convicted Daut, a former K.L.A. member, of involvement in the murder of four political rivals.)

Del Ponte was not alone in her dim view of the K.L.A. President Bill Clinton’s Balkan envoy, Robert Gelbard, had called the K.L.A. a “terrorist group,” and the organization had regularly been accused of gangsterism. In the late nineties, Italian police had arrested an Albanian for trafficking women and marijuana across the Adriatic Sea by speedboat; the suspect confessed to brokering drugs-for-guns deals between the K.L.A. and the Mafia. An Interpol representative, appearing before Congress in 2000, testified that the K.L.A. had “helped transport two billion dollars’ worth of drugs annually into Western Europe.” After the war, critics have alleged, many former K.L.A. members continued to nurture strong ties with the underworld.

Del Ponte knew that securing a war-crimes conviction against Haradinaj would not be easy. Insurgencies tend to be improvised affairs, without battle orders or formal communiqués. The K.L.A. prized secrecy and stealth. Looking to buttress the case, Del Ponte authorized Michael Montgomery to escort a U.N. team to the mysterious yellow house. One morning in 2004, under a low, granite sky, Montgomery, Baraybar—the Peruvian U.N. official—and half a dozen U.N. and I.C.T.Y. personnel travelled, in a convoy of S.U.V.s, down a dirt road outside Burrel. Following protocol, they brought along Arben Dyla, an Albanian prosecutor, who mocked their “silly” expedition. “There are no Serbs here,” he told the group. “But, if anyone did bring Serbs here and killed them, that would have been a good thing.” (Dyla denies making this remark.)

They arrived at the yellow house that Montgomery had seen a year earlier—only now it was white. Baraybar got close enough to determine that, beneath a thin coat of fresh paint, “the thing was yellow.”

The owner reluctantly let them inside. Baraybar, who was trained in forensic science, pulled on a white Tyvek suit and walked around the place. It smelled stale and sour. He sprayed Luminol—a chemical that causes traces of blood to glow—and identified a stain on the living-room floor. The owner explained to a translator who was part of the U.N. contingent that his wife had given birth at home; later, he said that the blood had come from a slaughtered animal. “Do you slaughter chickens in your living room?” Baraybar asked me. “It was quite bizarre.” Moreover, the stain had a square edge, as if blood had dripped off the corner of a table. “Is that proof of anything?” Baraybar said. “No, it isn’t. But it’s a clue.”

At one point, Baraybar went into the back yard, and noticed a pile of trash inside a thicket of brush. He dug past food scraps and plastic and retrieved gauze, syringes, drip bags, vials, an empty bottle of Tranxene, and an empty foil packet of Buscopan. He called a doctor at the U.N., who told him that Tranxene was an anti-anxiety drug and Buscopan a muscle relaxer and anti-spasmodic; both could be used to sedate patients. Baraybar asked the owner about the pharmaceuticals. He said that a nurse visited the house “on occasion” and doled out pills and medical supplies. Baraybar found the explanation “incoherent.” He placed the items in Ziploc bags, along with a fragment of cloth that he deemed “consistent with surgical overalls.”

There was a cemetery near the property, and when Baraybar walked over to it locals confronted him and told him to leave. The U.N. investigators decided to return to Pristina. Baraybar shipped the Ziploc bags to The Hague, and Del Ponte’s team inspected the material. Though suspicious, it wasn’t strong enough to anchor a case, and it couldn’t be connected to Haradinaj. Archivists at the I.C.T.Y. filed the objects away. Eventually, someone threw them out.

Del Ponte pressed ahead with prosecutions, but she discovered that it was extremely difficult to secure witnesses. A Kosovar who had testified in the murder trial of Haradinaj’s brother Daut was gunned down; an internal U.N. document noted that the Kosovar had been expected to deliver “vital” testimony in “other war-crimes cases.” Another witness told the court that “there were persons . . . whose names don’t even appear on witness lists, because they have been killed.” The I.C.T.Y. had a witness-protection program, but it was largely ineffective. Although public transcripts protected witnesses by using pseudonyms, defendants learned their identities before trials, and, during proceedings, sat only a few feet away from them. “Who were we protected from?” one witness told me. “Everyone in the court knew me.” In April, 2008, judges in The Hague acquitted Haradinaj, but they noted their “strong impression that the trial was being held in an atmosphere where witnesses felt unsafe.” (No evidence has come to light connecting Haradinaj to organ trafficking. His lawyer denied that his client had committed or sanctioned any crimes, and said that it was “false and defamatory” to suggest that Haradinaj’s acquittal was “tainted by intimidation.”)

The prosecution of Fatmir Limaj—a former K.L.A. leader and a close confidant of Prime Minister Thaci—had unravelled in similar fashion. In February, 2003, Limaj surrendered at a ski resort in Slovenia, where he was vacationing with Thaci. Limaj was accused of overseeing a detention camp, in Llapushnik, Kosovo, where prisoners were subjected to beatings, starvation, and torture. Two of his deputies were also indicted.

Del Ponte wouldn’t need to prove that Limaj wielded an axe or fired a pistol—only that he knew about atrocities and did not stop them. Her prosecution was guided by the legal theory of “command responsibility,” which dates to the fifteenth century, when Peter von Hagenbach, a governor under the Duke of Burgundy, was tried, convicted, and beheaded for presiding over the brutal occupation of a town in the Upper Rhine. “Not only was this the first recorded international war-crimes trial; it was the first recorded trial in which a commander was held responsible for crimes by his subordinates,” David Luban, an expert on war crimes at Georgetown University, told me. After the Second World War, tribunals vigorously applied the doctrine of command responsibility to Japanese and Nazi officers.

According to an internal I.C.T.Y. document from 2004, Limaj’s relatives and associates launched a campaign of “serious intimidation of and interference with potential witnesses.” Two men showed up at the house of one witness and warned him not to testify, adding, “If you make the mistake of going there, you will be dead.” Someone called the wife of a second witness and threatened, “You will be liquidated.” A third witness withdrew after a relative overheard a group of men, at a café in Pristina, saying of any people who testified against Limaj, “We will burn them, their families, and their houses.” A fourth witness refused to meet an I.C.T.Y. investigator, explaining that he “did not want to die.” Nazim Bllaca, a former K.L.A. member, told me, “This is how the Limaj case ended.” On November 30, 2005, the tribunal acquitted Limaj, though the judges observed that a “context of fear, in particular with respect to witnesses living in Kosovo, was very perceptible throughout the trial.” (A relative of one of Limaj’s indicted deputies was convicted of contempt, because he “knowingly interfered with” a witness.)

Bllaca says that he participated in more than a dozen violent acts on behalf of former K.L.A. members, including murder, kidnapping, and witness intimidation. Now under witness protection, he has testified in two cases, both of which have led to convictions. “It was very simple,” he told me. “We worked in three lanes. Kill collaborators, kill Hague witnesses, and kill L.D.K. people”—members of the Democratic League of Kosovo, the chief rival of the party led by Thaci and Limaj. In the months after the war, many L.D.K. members were murdered; one was killed at home on his couch, and another was assassinated on a street in Pristina, in the middle of the day.

In a leaked 2005 memo, Germany’s foreign spy service asserted that Haradinaj and other Kosovar leaders had inoculated themselves against criminal investigations by leveraging their connections in Kosovo’s military and intelligence agencies, and throughout the Balkan underworld. Kosovar leaders had avoided “getting their hands dirty” even as their henchmen engaged in tactics such as contract killings and bribing officials.

Last year, I met with Limaj in Pristina. He denied any responsibility for prisoner abuse. When I asked him whether he had directed his subordinates to frighten witnesses into recanting testimony, he said, with a pinched smile, “I was in The Hague. If someone here did something which was wrong, this person has to respond.” After Limaj was released from detention, Kosovars celebrated in the streets of Pristina.

In December, 2007, Del Ponte stepped down as the lead prosecutor, saying that it was “time to return to normal life.” She soon published a memoir, “Madame Prosecutor,” in which she recounted her successes in chasing Italian mobsters, Rwandan genocidaires, and Serbian generals. But she fumed about her inability to make charges stick against the K.L.A. The Limaj and Haradinaj investigations were “the most frustrating” part of her time in The Hague—and proof that “impunity shrouds powerful political and military figures” in Kosovo. She voiced her suspicion that the K.L.A. had trafficked the organs of prisoners, and offered an account of her team’s visit to the yellow house.

Del Ponte told me that “the international community” had shown a “fear-driven reluctance to apply the law” in Kosovo, adding that the United States had displayed “no political will to find out the real truths.” The K.L.A. had been a reliable ally of the Americans during the war, but it struck Del Ponte as hypocritical for the U.S. to ignore possible crimes by the group’s leaders, given the U.S. condemnation of Serbian misconduct. She also felt that allowing alleged perpetrators of war crimes to achieve leadership positions in Kosovo undermined the country’s prospects for stability.

After the publication of Del Ponte’s book, the Council of Europe decided to look deeper into the matter of organ trafficking. It assigned the task to Dick Marty, a senator from Switzerland who represented his country at the council, and who had looked into alleged human-rights abuses across the continent. His team had located C.I.A. “black sites” in Poland and Romania, and had exposed the murder of political opponents in Chechnya. Marty sent several investigators into the field. Experts in the region told him to expect a challenge, noting that the criminal networks in Albania and Kosovo were “probably more difficult to penetrate than the Cosa Nostra.”

Just as Marty’s team was getting to work, Hashim Thaci became the Prime Minister of Kosovo. In February, 2008, a month after taking office, he declared Kosovo’s independence. Joyous crowds in Pristina launched fireworks, and a giant yellow sculpture, forming the word “newborn,” in English, was installed in a plaza. Thaci stood before Kosovo’s parliament and declared, “From this day onward, Kosovo is proud, independent, and free.”

Not everyone saw Thaci in heroic terms. The 2005 German intelligence document claimed that, after the war, Thaci presided over an organized-crime empire whose leaders came from the Drenica Valley, in central Kosovo. The Drenica group allegedly coördinated its activities with Albanian gangsters throughout Europe, engaging in money laundering and maintaining links to arms and drug smugglers. According to the German report, the group kept a “professional killer” in its employ.

Not long after Thaci became Prime Minister, Lutfi Dervishi, a urologist in Pristina, began pushing to open a transplant clinic. In Kosovo, doctors need official approval to perform such operations, so Dervishi turned to a former associate, Shaip Muja, a surgeon who was working as Thaci’s health adviser. Muja made several inquiries, and in March, 2008, Dervishi opened a clinic. During the next eight months, two dozen organ transplants took place there.

That October, a young Turkish man, who had agreed to accept twenty thousand dollars for one of his kidneys, arrived at the clinic in Pristina. The kidney was removed and placed inside a seventy-four-year-old Israeli man, who had paid ninety thousand euros for it. The operations were performed by Dervishi and by a Turkish surgeon, Yusuf Sonmez, who is known in the Turkish press as Dr. Frankenstein, for his prominent role in the black-market organ trade. (Buying organs from volunteers is outlawed everywhere in the world except Iran; Luc Noël, a doctor at the World Health Organization, told me, “Human bodies should not be the source of financial gain.”)

The Turkish donor was released from the hospital while he was still woozy, and, when he got to the airport, police officers began questioning him. He said that he had donated a kidney, but the officers were suspicious and raced to the clinic, where they arrested Dervishi and his son. (Sonmez had fled.) The clinic was shut down, and Dervishi, his son, and three others (including Sonmez, who remains a fugitive) were charged with human trafficking and organized crime by the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo. The trial is currently under way, and a verdict is expected soon. According to the indictment, high-ranking Kosovars were complicit in the clinic’s activities and encouraged health officials to grant a bogus license.

Two days after prosecutors released the indictment, Dick Marty, the Swiss senator, published the results of his investigation. Marty claimed that Thaci and the Drenica group, which included Fatmir Limaj, had built a “formidable power base in the organized criminal enterprises” in the late nineties, and had exerted “violent control” over the heroin trade in the region. During and after the war, Marty wrote, Thaci was the “boss” of a “network of unlawful activity”—one that included a constellation of detention camps in Albania, where some prisoners were subjected to abuse, including torture, murder, and organ harvesting. One of the “leading co-conspirators,” Marty suggested, was Shaip Muja, the surgeon who became Thaci’s health adviser. Marty identified four sites, among them the yellow house outside Burrel, that had served as “way stations” in an organ-trafficking trade. At the farmhouse near the Tirana airport, prisoners were killed, “usually by a gunshot to the head,” before “being operated on.”

The sale of organs at Dervishi’s clinic, Marty wrote, indicated that Kosovars had continued organ trafficking after the war, “albeit in other forms.” He concluded, “Signs of collusion between the criminal class and high political and institutional office bearers are too numerous and too serious to be ignored.” He acknowledged that Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo had been “appalling,” but insisted that the dynamic of violence was “more complex” than many had assumed: “There cannot and must not be one justice for the winners and another for the losers.”

His accusations had an explosive effect in Kosovo. Thaci called Marty’s report “an attack” on “Kosovo, the Albanian people, and me, but also against the U.S., the U.N., and NATO.” Thaci appeared on an Albanian television program and threatened to expose every Kosovar and Albanian who had assisted Marty, saying, “These individuals will be disgraced.”

In private, Thaci spoke with less bravado. He fretted to friends about whether he could still look his eleven-year-old son in the face. He summoned the American, French, German, Italian, and British envoys. “He was rocked,” Jean-François Fitou, the French Ambassador to Kosovo at the time, recalled. Thaci offered to resign if they considered him a diplomatic liability. They discussed Marty’s report. Although it was based on a sustained investigation, it did not provide conclusive details of any single crime, nor did it name sources, other than identifying them as “distinct and independent” K.L.A. insiders. Moreover, Marty’s findings carried no judicial weight. The ambassadors told Thaci that, unless hard evidence emerged, he could count on their support.

Last spring, I flew to the Balkans and visited Serbia’s Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, in Belgrade. I traded my passport for a security badge, and was escorted upstairs to see Bruno Vekaric, a deputy prosecutor. Vekaric, a Serb who started his job in 2003, has helped secure the convictions of dozens of people for war crimes—nearly all of them Serbs. He has pursued the organ-trafficking allegations as intensely as anyone. His goal, he has said, is to find out “who committed those monstrous crimes, who was capturing and killing people for trafficking in their organs.” He is not the only Serbian government official who speaks as if it were an established fact that the K.L.A. trafficked organs. Such officials contend that the problems with securing witnesses at the Limaj and the Haradinaj trials, coupled with the discarded evidence from the yellow house, strongly suggest a coverup. Recently, Serbia’s minister of justice said that the I.C.T.Y. had “spat in the face of Serbian victims.”

Vekaric, who had invited me to visit, excitedly led me into a boardroom, its windows obscured by venetian blinds. At the end of a table sat a man wearing a black baseball cap that shaded his eyes. Vekaric introduced him and offered to let me conduct an interview, provided that I used a pseudonym for the man, who was in Serbia’s witness-protection program.

He was thirty-nine years old, with a mustache and a broken nose, and asked that I call him Adrian. Half Albanian, he grew up in Switzerland, where he became part of a community of Albanian expatriates. In 1997, he joined the K.L.A. Upon enlistment, he said, he went off to train with the French Foreign Legion. Then he travelled to Albania. Once there, he said, he headed toward the border with Kosovo, stopping at a camp near Kukes. Michael Montgomery and Dick Marty have both identified Kukes as the site of an abandoned factory that the K.L.A. transformed into a weapons depot, a barracks, and a jail.

“I met some doctors and started training with them,” Adrian said. “They told me how to take organs out, how to put them aside, and how to transport them.” One of the doctors, he noted, was Lutfi Dervishi—the urologist from the transplant clinic in Pristina.

One day in the spring of 1998, Adrian’s commander stepped on a land mine while on patrol in Kosovo, suffering grave injuries. Adrian and five others carried him, on a stretcher, to the Albanian border, but he died along the way. A van arrived at the border to pick up the commander’s body. Adrian accepted a ride, and was dropped off near the village of Helshan, where another K.L.A. camp had been established—a few tents and a converted schoolhouse. Adrian noticed that two senior K.L.A. leaders were present: Jakup Krasniqi and Sabit Geci. Krasniqi was then the spokesman for the K.L.A., and is now the president of Kosovo’s parliament. Geci headed the K.L.A.’s military police.

This was a crucial turn in Adrian’s story. In July, 2011, a European Union court found Geci guilty of war crimes, based on evidence of prisoner abuse at Kukes and another camp, Cahan. Former K.L.A. officials had long denied the existence of detention camps in Albania, but the Geci trial proved otherwise, and marked one of the most prominent convictions to date of a K.L.A. leader. The judges rendered their verdict after sixteen witnesses, most of them former captives, testified to scenes of depravity.

A Kosovar Albanian I’ll call Enver testified about being detained in Kukes, along with his brother. They had been accused of being spies—charges that they denied. One night, the guards took Enver and his brother into an interrogation room. Enver said that Geci watched as guards beat another prisoner, clubbed him with a rubber-wrapped baseball bat, and rubbed salt into his wounds. Geci himself beat the prisoner with a crutch. He pistol-whipped Enver, and told his men to beat him with metal bars; Enver repeatedly lost consciousness, and they tortured him further by dunking his head in water. On another occasion, the guards at Kukes fitted him and his brother into bulletproof jackets and fired Kalashnikovs at their stomachs until they collapsed. Later, a guard shot Enver’s brother in the knee. Enver begged for help, but his brother bled all night and died the next day.

After saluting Geci and Krasniqi at the camp in Helshan, Adrian told me, he was summoned to the converted schoolhouse. The K.L.A. officers there knew him, and were aware of his medical training. “There were school desks, three in a row, that formed a table,” he said. Three doctors, including Dervishi, stood around the table. K.L.A. guards dragged in a young man—“nineteen or twenty years old”—and lifted him onto the desks. “I didn’t know who he was or his nationality at the time,” Adrian said. The young man’s face was covered with fresh-looking bruises.

Someone tore off the young man’s shirt and splashed rubbing alcohol over his chest. Guards grabbed his wrists and ankles. Adrian suddenly realized what was happening: the prisoner’s organs were to be harvested. He gripped a scalpel and “started cutting” into the young man’s chest. Adrian recalled hearing him scream, in Serbian, “Bože pomozi mi! Nemojte to da mi radite!” (“God help me! Please don’t do this to me!”)

“That was when I figured out that he wasn’t an Albanian,” Adrian told me. Next, he sawed through the rib cage with a bayonet. While two doctors, standing across the table, lifted the prisoner’s ribs, he carved out the heart as it was still pulsing. The young Serb died.

Adrian said that he placed the heart in a box filled with preserving liquids. He put the box in a small cooler and carried it outside to an idling green Volvo 704 sedan. He fitted the cooler into the trunk’s spare-tire cavity. The entire procedure took about forty-five minutes, though to Adrian it “felt like an eternity.” Before he left the camp, Geci congratulated him and slapped him on the back.

Six months later, Adrian said, he received orders to collect a cooler from a house outside Burrel—the notorious yellow house. Adrian said that a doctor, in scrubs, met him at the door and handed him the cooler. Adrian drove to a military airport near Tirana, where a guard opened a gate to a runway. “Then we saw a private jet,” Adrian said. “It had a Turkish flag on the back of the plane.” I now grasped why Vekaric had been so eager for me to meet Adrian: his eyewitness account filled gaps that had stymied prosecutors and investigators for years.

When I asked Adrian if these episodes had darkened his view of the K.L.A., he said that he had “made a wall” in his mind and continued fighting for the group, and for another separatist movement. But in 2002, he said, “I had a problem with my conscience.” He renounced both groups but stayed in Kosovo. Not long afterward, he said, a former K.L.A. commander retaliated by kidnapping him, beating him, and administering electric shocks. He complained to a U.N. police officer; the assailant was eventually convicted of battery. Soon afterward, Adrian said, someone tossed a grenade at his home. He went into hiding, in various Balkan countries, before finally heading to Belgrade and seeking protection from the Serbian authorities.

I asked him if he felt like a traitor.

“I’m not speaking against the Albanian people,” Adrian said. “I’m speaking against people who committed crimes. I gave up everything I had in Switzerland to fight for the K.L.A., so I am not a traitor or a spy. I’m just trying to become a good person. It’s been enough for me to hide all these things in my life. I cannot do it anymore.”

He admitted, though, that he still had some secrets. “There are too many things, too many stories, too many murders that no one has ever heard about,” he said. “Many people saw things. If all of them speak as I speak, these cases would be resolved.”

Adrian’s testimony was striking, but it also seemed to connect one too many dots. By his account, he had participated in the barbaric murder of a Serb, received praise from a notorious war criminal, taken a suspicious package from a doctor at the yellow house, and delivered this parcel to a plane bound for Turkey. And his description of the surgery seemed bizarre: why, for example, had the Serb not been fully sedated?

I decided to see how much of Adrian’s story checked out. The K.L.A. had indeed encamped in Helshan, and in 2004 prosecutors presented in court the testimony of someone who claimed that a K.L.A. veteran had beaten him and administered electric shocks; the initials of the accuser matched those of Adrian’s real name. That same year, the BBC reported that a grenade had been lobbed at the house of someone sharing Adrian’s real name. But most of the story was difficult to authenticate. Dervishi, who was under indictment, and Geci, who was imprisoned, refused to talk. Krasniqi denied ever visiting Helshan in 1998 and told me that the episode Adrian described “could only be constructed in legends and films.”

Prem Shekar, a cardiac-transplant surgeon at Harvard Medical School, told me that Adrian’s tale was medically implausible, starting with the rubbing-alcohol detail. A heart transplant requires a truly sterile environment, he said: “If you take a heart that is harvested in a contaminated scenario, the recipient will get a terrible infection.” He disparaged the notion of removing a warm, pulsing heart. Typically, the heart is injected with a cardioplegia solution while it is still inside the donor, paralyzing the organ. “Only once the heart has cooled and stopped can you take it out,” he told me. Shekar also doubted Adrian’s claim that he had sawed through the Serb’s ribs. In hospitals, Shekar said, hearts are harvested through a “midline split”; a sternal saw is used to crack the breastplate in half. Moreover, a heart can last only four to six hours outside a body. There was simply no way you could transport a heart from a remote camp in Albania to a hospital in Turkey, and then complete a lengthy operation, without the heart failing first. The surgery that Adrian described, Shekar said, would suffice only as “an extremely primitive form of torture.”

I did find Adrian’s supposed commander—the one who had allegedly stepped on a land mine—on a list of K.L.A. martyrs. But the official date of death was May, 1999, a year later than Adrian had indicated. Then I scanned the roster of K.L.A. veterans, but Adrian’s name was not on it. He told me that authorities in Kosovo were “doing their best” to erase his memory from the archives.

I interviewed Adrian four times—twice in person and twice over Skype—and the disparities piled up. Even after I notified him that the commander’s date of death was 1999, he insisted that the Helshan episode had taken place in 1998. “I saw a lot of dead people,” he replied, opening the possibility that he had mistaken the commander for someone else. Originally, he claimed that he hadn’t seen Lutfi Dervishi, the urologist, since that day in Helshan; a month afterward, he said that he had seen Dervishi “later on, way after the war,” at a reception in Kosovo.

He told me that he now lived with his wife in Belgrade; his ex-wife was in Kosovo, and was related to a “very high-level, V.I.P. person.” I tracked down one of Adrian’s relatives in Europe and called her to ask about these purported family connections. (Adrian refused to tell me his ex-wife’s name, or the names of any former K.L.A. fighters who could corroborate his story.) The woman laughed, dismissing Adrian as a pathological liar who had never belonged to the K.L.A. but had served time in Germany for dealing drugs. I discovered that Adrian also had a police record in Serbia, which included vehicle theft, threatening an official with an axe, and lying to police.

Meanwhile, Adrian, under the auspices of Serbia’s Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor, was sharing his tale with others. He got a very receptive hearing from Serbian state television, which, on September 10th last year, broadcast a ninety-minute documentary, “Anatomy of a Crime.” The opening twenty minutes featured Adrian—his face obscured and his voice distorted—describing how he cut out the heart of the young Serb. Vekaric, the deputy prosecutor, also appeared, telling the host, “We absolutely are convinced that he did what he says he did.”

The program’s message was clear: just as Serbian leaders had been held accountable for war crimes, Kosovar leaders needed to be held accountable for the kinds of acts described by Adrian. Within days, Adrian’s story was disseminated around the world, as the A.P., the Telegraph, and other media outlets published summaries of the program. An Agence France Presse report, which quoted Adrian describing how “the blood started pouring” as he made incisions in the rib cage, bore the headline “GRUESOME DETAILS ON WARTIME KOSOVO ORGAN HARVESTING.”

In July, 2010, an appeals court in The Hague granted prosecutors another opportunity to try Ramush Haradinaj, the former K.L.A. commander. (The tribunal does not prohibit double jeopardy.) Not long afterward, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor in Belgrade notified prosecutors in The Hague that it had found a witness—one of Haradinaj’s subordinates in the K.L.A.—who had firsthand knowledge of Haradinaj’s misdeeds. That November, a prosecutor from The Hague, Paul Rogers, flew to Belgrade to meet the prospective witness.

Rogers approached the meeting with caution: it seemed unusual for a crucial witness to emerge five years after the indictment. He was also concerned about the possible bias of the Serbian government. But he assigned the witness a number, Eighty-one, and heard him out. In the summer of 1998, Eighty-one said, three men—one Serb and two Roma—were arrested by the K.L.A., accused of collaborating with Serbia, and thrown into a basement near the village of Jabllanice, in southern Kosovo. Haradinaj came to check on the captives. For the inspection, the three prisoners were taken into a courtyard. A Haradinaj lieutenant, nicknamed Toger, sliced off one of the Serb’s ears, while another lieutenant, nicknamed Maxhup, beat the Roma men with a baseball bat. Later, Eighty-one said, Toger cut out one of the Serb’s eyeballs with a knife.

Rogers noticed some inconsistencies in Eighty-one’s narrative, but people often waver when relating disturbing memories. Certainly, the account conformed to suspicions that prosecutors in The Hague had long held about K.L.A. leaders. And so, in November, 2011, Eighty-one flew to The Hague to testify, and underwent ten hours of direct examination in the courtroom.

Haradinaj’s lawyer, an Englishman named Ben Emmerson, leafed through a stack of Eighty-one’s previous statements. “The first account you gave to the prosecution was that only one of the boys’ ears was cut off and that it was cut off by Maxhup and that it was the Roma’s ear,” Emmerson said. “The second account you gave was that only one of the boys’ ears was cut off, but that it was cut off by Toger and that it was the Serb boy’s ear. . . . Now you’re saying two ears were cut off—one of a Roma and one of the Serb.” Emmerson also said, “I appreciate that it’s difficult for you to keep up with the various versions that you’ve given—but that’s because you’re making them up.”

At one point, Eighty-one blamed poor translation for the confusion. Emmerson produced a copy of a document that Eighty-one had signed earlier, attesting to the accuracy of the translations. “This is theatre!” Emmerson said. “The reason why you can’t keep them straight is because they’re all inventions.”

During closing arguments, Rogers conceded that Eighty-one’s testimony had been a disaster, and requested that the judges “ignore that evidence” while contemplating their verdict. Emmerson, in turn, said that Eighty-one was “so slippery with the slime of dishonesty that one felt the need to wash one’s hands.”

A few days later, Emmerson told me he was certain that Eighty-one had been “actively tutored” by Serbia’s intelligence agencies. Last November, Haradinaj was acquitted a second time; the judges cited Eighty-one’s “unreliable” statements as a factor.

Reading the transcripts of Eighty-one’s testimony, I noticed several similarities between him and Adrian. Both had offered unusually detailed accounts of K.L.A. savagery. Both had spent considerable time in the company of Serbian officials. Both had grown up in Switzerland. Both had a rap sheet in Serbia. In their testimony, both emphasized the importance of rank and mentioned saluting K.L.A. leaders—observations that could help prosecutors make a “command responsibility” argument.

I also learned something about the 2004 case in which Adrian had apparently testified to being kidnapped and abused by the former K.L.A. soldier. In March, 2007, the Supreme Court of Kosovo had ordered a retrial, arguing that the accusations were not “in any way corroborated by evidence.” Three years later, the prosecution withdrew its charges. At the time, the case had seemed another example of K.L.A. fighters evading accountability. Now it seemed one more instance of fabulation by Adrian.

Many questions remained. Had the Serbian government, frustrated with its inability to find conclusive evidence of Kosovar organ trafficking, deliberately planted a false story? When, and why, had Adrian begun working for Belgrade? Had his criminal record made him vulnerable to exploitation by the Serbian government? And why, if he was a trained Serbian asset, was he so incompetent?

Then, there was the role of Bruno Vekaric, the prosecutor in the Belgrade office. In his country, he told me, he had been criticized for prosecuting mainly Serbs and for his coöperation with The Hague. Was Vekaric hoping to demonstrate his patriotic credentials by advancing Adrian’s story? When I asked Vekaric if he had been duped by Adrian or was complicit in his fiction, Vekaric responded, “Maybe he is a liar. But in this organ-trafficking story I am sure he is right.”

When I last spoke with Adrian, over Skype, I asked him to confirm that he was also known as Eighty-one. He put on a blue baseball cap and tugged it over his eyes. Pushing himself away from the table, he mumbled something, in Serbian, to a female handler off-screen. She appeared in the frame and said, “He does not want to speak anymore.”

Forensic police procedurals like “C.S.I.” are predicated on the idea that every murder leaves behind a trail of evidence, however faint. In reality, some crimes prove impossible to trace. Conspiracies are hatched in dark rooms; corpses are dissolved in acid; witnesses take secrets to their graves.

Several K.L.A. leaders have survived repeated prosecution. After Fatmir Limaj, Thaci’s confidant, was acquitted in The Hague, the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo charged him with torture and prisoner abuse at a second camp. Prosecutors had persuaded a former guard, Agim Zogaj, to talk. At the camp, Zogaj had kept a diary that contained the names of prisoners. According to a report in Koha Ditore, a Kosovo daily, a “plus” or a “minus” sign beside the name signalled whether the prisoner had been freed or executed—in some cases, on Limaj’s orders. But in September, 2011, a month before Limaj’s trial began, Zogaj was found hanged in a park in Duisburg, Germany—an apparent suicide. The judges declared the diary inadmissible and acquitted Limaj. In November, 2012, however, the judges reversed their decision on the diary, and a retrial is expected to begin soon. Limaj is currently under house arrest in Pristina. A spokesman for the E.U. justified Limaj’s detention by citing the risk that he might tamper with evidence.

A senior E.U. war-crimes investigator told me he was certain that “criminality in Kosovo has not been accounted for.” Yet Serbia’s efforts to promote Adrian’s story had clearly backfired: such tactics only made it easier for the lawyers representing K.L.A. leaders to protest that their clients were victims of slander. Michael Montgomery said that Bruno Vekaric’s office in Belgrade had, in its investigation of organ trafficking, “gone out of its way to screw up everything.”

Nevertheless, the E.U. investigator told me, “With the appropriate degree of rigor, I remain convinced, it is possible to account for the most severe crimes in Kosovar Albanian factions, the K.L.A., and their affiliates, even the most complex criminal conspiracies to traffic human beings for organ extraction.” In August, 2011, the E.U. formed a “special investigative task force” to sort out the organ-trafficking saga once and for all—including the possible role of Kosovo’s leaders.

The E.U. has put an American prosecutor, Clint Williamson, in charge of this effort. Before taking the job, Williamson, a former United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, examined the material gathered by Dick Marty’s team, and concluded that a full-scale investigation was merited. Williamson, an experienced diplomat, knows Kosovo well, and a decade earlier he had worked in The Hague, helping to draft the indictment against Milosevic. It would be hard to depict him as inexperienced or partisan.

Williamson set up his office in Brussels, in a nondescript E.U. government building that is protected by twenty-four-hour surveillance and a secure communications network. He told me that the failure to have a proper reckoning in Kosovo had left a “dark cloud” over the Balkans. He plans to finish his probe in 2014.

Court records pointed to glaring oversights in some previous prosecutions of K.L.A. leaders. For example, a witness in the trial against Sabit Geci—the military-police chief convicted of abuses at Kukes and Cahan—testified that one of Thaci’s top advisers had driven him to Kukes, but the judge dismissed the comment, saying that the adviser was “not a defendant in this trial.” Why hadn’t the prosecutor pursued this potential link between Thaci and Kukes?

There were other possible leads. A former detainee in the Cahan camp has said that guards there “put guns at our heads and made us beat, shoot, even sodomize other prisoners.” He noted, “Our torturers were our fellow-Albanians, the K.L.A., who were supposed to be fighting for our freedom.” The detainee, who remembered Limaj giving orders, said that, at one point, Thaci came in, looked at the prisoners, and “saw that we were tied up, injured, and in such a dirty place.” Thaci and Limaj “knew exactly what they were doing to us.” Parts of the detainee’s story eventually appeared in Le Monde, but prosecutors have not picked up the thread. (At least one other witness has placed Thaci at a detention camp: Enver, the prisoner accused of spying, recalled seeing Thaci at Kukes, wearing civilian clothes.)

In 2011 and 2012, Williamson travelled to Albania. He told me that he considered Albania, not Kosovo, the “single most important operational zone” for the K.L.A.’s alleged crimes. One place of particular interest is the farmhouse by the airport—the spot where, according to Marty, kidneys were removed from prisoners who had been shot in the head. (The owner of the farmhouse, which is in the village of Fushe-Kruje, denies any wrongdoing; he filed a claim to sue Marty for defamation, but the claim was thrown out.)

Williamson admits that the chances of finding a “smoking gun” are slim, since so much time has passed since crimes allegedly occurred. If corpses had to be moved, or videotape destroyed, it was probably done years ago. Without physical evidence, Williamson will have to rely almost entirely on testimony. He noted, “It’s one thing for people to talk to Marty or talk to a journalist. It’s quite another to participate in a criminal investigation where you ultimately have to go into a courtroom and point your finger at very powerful people.” That said, Williamson spent several years working in the Justice Department’s organized-crime-and-racketeering section, and he had found that, with the right combination of incentives, protective measures, and appeals to conscience, “even the most intractable insiders will turn witness.”

Last year, I met Prime Minister Thaci in his office, on the second floor of a drab fourteen-story tower in central Pristina. Jean-François Fitou, the French Ambassador to Kosovo, had told me that Thaci was “the Mick Jagger of the K.L.A.,” and Thaci is indeed dashing, with a clean smile, carefully groomed hair, and a buttery complexion.

Within the K.L.A., Thaci had been known as the Snake—a reference to his slippery evasion of Serbian authorities. The nickname, it seemed, was still appropriate. “Until the war broke out, the Serbs wanted to imprison me,” he said. “In wartime, they tried to kill me. After the war, they tried to compromise me, to destroy my reputation.” Thaci denies having ever been connected to a criminal syndicate and says that he was unaware of any prisoner abuse.

At one point, the conversation turned to Sabit Geci. Germany’s spy agency reported that Thaci had maintained “very good contacts” with him, but Thaci disputed this, saying, “To be frank, he was not my friend.” As we talked about Geci’s crimes, Thaci’s face turned the color of gravel and his smile contorted, as if he could taste his reputation souring on his tongue. “The K.L.A. was big, and you always have abusers in such organizations,” he said. It was almost five o’clock, and many of his aides and assistants had gone home for the day. He sank into a black leather chair and unfastened the top button on his shirt.

If Williamson found conclusive evidence that the K.L.A. had trafficked the organs of prisoners, Thaci said, “that would leave the worst legacy for Kosovo and our people.” But “never did something like this happen” with his knowledge. “That’s why I gave my full support to the task force,” he said. “In order to have the truth prevail.”

The late-afternoon sun slanted across the room. “I give my full support to justice,” he added. “I will be on the side of justice, no matter who is on the other side.”

Regaining his color, Thaci said, with a grin, “The only laws I have violated were Milosevic’s laws. And I feel very proud of that.”



Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013

1 Nov

Taksim Square protest

“Oh, is that what it’s called?” I remember saying to myself when last summer’s protests erupted, and I suspect I was joined by quite a few lovers of İstanbul and even natives when they found out that the scruffy, forlorn lot north of Taksim and behind the Arab nargile places along the Cumhurriyet actually had a name.  I may have spent about four or five accumulated months of my life in İstanbul over the years and I think I’ve been inside this park once; one look is enough — and the much bandied-about slogan about “saving the last green space in central Istanbul” becomes comical.  A sudden nostalgia for the place sprang up at the time; everyone suddenly had memories of playing there as a child, but they didn’t seem very convincing.  Nobody cares about Gezi park.  Or did last summer.

What young Turks cared about was Taksim, but even more the string of neighborhoods south of Taksim to Karaköy and their enormous importance in the life of İstanbul.  Proof enough – and weighty proof at that – is that serious civil disobedience began in the area back in the spring, not when the government tried to start construction in Gezi, but when it tried to impose limitations on alcohol consumption in the neighborhood.  Remember the alcohol – it’s a central part of our story, enough for us to maybe have called the whole upheaval the Rakı Revolution and not the Taksim/Gezi protests.  But somehow the press and the people itself forgot that.  Somehow that got lost as the movement morphed into a catch-all protest with a not particularly convincing “green” bayraki propped up as its mascot in a shabby, dirty park.

Unclear?  Yes.  It is to me too and I’m sorting it out as I write.

It goes like this: Pera and Galata — because those are the core areas of the municipality of Beyoğlu that really concern us (Taralabaşı too but as a side show, another story) — were, until the middle of the previous century, heavily Greek.  And Armenian and Jewish, but Greek enough so that pidgin Greek was the quarter’s common means of communication till the early nineteen-hundreds. Pera and Galata were centers of non-Muslim life in İstanbul and Pera and Galata were where you went to drink.  Not a coincidence obviously.  And Pera and Galata are still where you go to drink and party – in fact even more than ever.  And that’s why the fact that attempted restrictions of alcohol consumption set off the civil disobedience of 2013 is so important.

The tourist literature and the press never tire of calling this the center of contemporary Istanbul and tourists who used to stay in Sultanahmet and wonder at the eerie emptiness of the old city’s streets at night have finally started to discover the area – the “Old New Town” as Alexandros Massavetas calls it in his loving, lyrical Going Back to Constantinople: a City of Absences.  And truly, as I’ve written before, these neighborhoods dominate the contemporary social and cultural life of İstanbul in a way that’s not comparable to any other major metropolis I’m familiar with.



The neighborhoods we’re talking about, Beyoğlu, with Pera (“over there” in Greek, meaning from the old Byzantine/Ottoman city) at its center. (click)

And here we run into our first paradox, or the origins of a chain of paradox: that this now central “heart” of İstanbul began as a space of marginality.  The Byzantines originally put some of their unwanted Catholics there: Galata’s mother city is actually Genoa.  In Ottoman times, Christians and Jews lived there and made wine and everybody else came there to drink it.  While not an exclusionary, extramural ghetto of any sort – to their credit the Ottomans didn’t often do that kind of thing – it was sort of the wrong side of the tracks: the Ottoman equivalent of the suburbs or the across-the-river Zoroastrian neighborhoods in Iran where Hafez and company went to drink the infidel’s wine and torment themselves with the beauty of the innkeeper’s son: the other side of town, the refuge of disbelief and transgression, of unorthodoxy and the unorthodox in every sense.  The alcohol…

The nineteenth century marked Pera and Galata’s – Pera’s especially — transformation into uprent enclaves: gentrification avant-la-lettre in effect.  The Christian-ness of the area only attracted more of them, then foreign Europeans; the influx of non-Muslims from the rest of the city concentrated its gavur character even more deeply.  There were foreign embassies.  Foreign embassy cultural activities followed.  Cafés.  Theaters.  Neoclassical Row houses and apartment buildings in an eclectic mix of local versions of the Neoclassical or Art Nouveau.  All the apparatus of contemporary European urbanity developed: a place of often obscene display of non-Muslim privilege that reminds one of Durrell’s Alexandria or descriptions of the foreign concessions in Shanghai before the revolution, and increasingly alienating to the average un-Westernized Muslim.  But a city.  One as we mean it.  In the Benjaminian sense.  With everything that the modern city at the time implied and still does: socializing and the public space, boulevard culture, entertainment, exteriority…  WOMEN…  Alcohol, of course…  And with Kyr Panos’ taverna and Monsieur Avram’s textile shop still flourishing alongside.


The Jadde at its height, probably early Republican times, by the gates of Galatasaray Lycée (above).  This was the neighborhood known as the Staurodromi by Greeks, the “crossroads” because it’s where the Grande Rue meets Yeni Çarşı Caddesi (the New Market — not sure what that referred to — food market around Balık Pazarı?)  (Click)  Bottom photo is by Ara Guler*

And then all the Kyr Panoses and the Monsieur Avrams went away, for reasons readers know and this blog touches on often and will inevitably look back at again.  And this “center of the city” sat in a kind of rancid aspic for a few decades until a young and dynamic and sophisticated Turkish society reclaims it.  And it comes alive again.  And yet the paradox still stands, now sharper than ever (though how conscious and to whom is very much up for debate and may be my real question): that this is the cosmopolitan center of İstanbul; but what made it cosmopolitan were populations that don’t live there any more, but whose legacy is in both the air and breath of the place and in its physical matter itself.  And what we, Turks today, do about that – how we reconfigure a center of our city so laden with the presence and absence of others in order to suit our contemporary needs – is, to a great extent, what progressive Turks and Erdoğan were fighting about last summer.  Not Gezi park.

Some of Erdoğan’s ideas don’t seem so bad to me; a tunnel for one (already built?), that as I gather goes under in Dolapdere and emerges somewhere in Kabataş I think, that would finally free Taksim, never an aesthetically promising piece of real estate, from having to be a major traffic circle,  though Harvard’s Hashim Sarkis’ idea that: “We know from the 1960s that pedestrianizing everything doesn’t work…Managing the balance is better…” makes sense, and I often wonder about the wisdom of having pedestrianized the İstiklal itself.  The (now aborted?) reconstruction of the Ottoman barracks may turn out to be a piece a kitsch, but you never know.  In Moscow, for example, much that was destroyed by Stalin has been carefully reconstructed and it’s lovely; and some of the rest unnecessary, and garish – and often silly.  Either way, I wouldn’t miss the park.

The true big elephant in the Taksim room is a big old elephant of a Greek church that lords over the whole space.  The church of the Hagia Triadha is one of the post-reform churches of İstanbul, churches that were built during the Tanzimat, when traditional restrictions that imposed visual discretion and inconspicuousness on non-Muslim places of worship were lifted and Greeks in İstanbul built some very conspicuous –and often conspicuously ugly — churches.  The Hagia Triadha is actually one of the lovelier of them – it reminds me of the Balyan mosques a little – and gives you a real sense of just how confident Greeks in the City felt in the late nineteenth century.  But its presence is almost impudent; I can only imagine how more traditional Ottoman Muslims must have felt as they saw these giants go up after the 1850s, and to be honest as I’ve walked by at times even I’ve found myself overtaken by what I can only describe as a mild shtetl-anxiety and thinking: “But so big?  And right here?  Can this be good for the Jews?”  So you can imagine that to Erdoğan and the Turkish Islamist mind its bulk must be doubly provocative, and presents a problem that needs to be solved.  The “central square” of the “modern center” of İstanbul just can’t be left looking so…well…so Christian.



The church of the Hagia Triadha alone and surrounded by its kebab shops.  (Click on both)

0053 - Istanbul - Taksim Square - Hagia Triada - Orthodox Church


And another aerial view of the church, the school and surrounding area that gives a clearer idea of layout (click)

So Erdoğan is going to make good on a long-term promise/threat to build a large mosque there to balance out the religious character of the space.  First, he’s going to tear down the circle of döner and kokoreç stands that surround the Hagia Triadha and the neighboring Zappeion, once İstanbul’s most elite Greek school for girls, which is a shame because a circle of smoking lamb fat wafting around the billowing clouds of a church’s incense was always a beautiful olfactory image to me – this is what the Temple must’ve smelled like – and because neighborhood partiers will be deprived of much-needed early morning sustenance.  But philistines like Erdoğan don’t like the smell of lamb fat – probably too familiar — or as Auntie Mame might have said, when you’re from Kasımpaşa you have to do something, so the döner stands will have to go.  And I originally had no sources for this other than my own suspicions, but I was wondering if the döner stands aren’t part of the church’s vakoufia (religious trust properties) and that removing them is another act of expropriation of Greek community real estate that has been going on steadily for decades now; and the Greek community is indeed split into warring camps already about whether taking down the stands is expropriation of parish property or is a good thing; only Greeks can be reduced to a community of about a thousand people, mostly over seventy, and still find energy to bicker about everything; but then there are two Jews left here in Kabul — two –and they’re not speaking to each other over some maintenance issue concerning their one synagogue.  Anyway, the official claim, however, is that the food stands will have to go – get this — in order to make the church more visible so that it and its new neighboring mosque can clearly stand side by side as confessional brothers in the new, beautified Taksim.  Turkey has tried desperately over the past few decades to gain political and cultural capital through gross multicultural gestures of this sort.  This has to be the most nauseating example to date.**

The English-language coverage of the protests paid only the scantest attention to issues of this sort.  Even this piece from the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman: “In Istanbul’s Heart, Leader’s Obsession, Perhaps Achilles’ Heel,” about the reconstruction of Taksim managed to not include a single photograph of the Hagia Triadha, which is quite hard to do actually and, were I a bit more of a conspiracy theorist, would think might be intentional.  As to the former ethnic composition of the area, all reference to the area’s former cultural and linguistic character is colored by the inability of Western — whether American or European — thinkers, to think about multiethnic societies outside of the immigrant societies they know.  In this piece also from the Times that prompted my Tarlabaşı series, “Poor but Proud Istanbul Neighborhood Faces Gentrification,” Jessica Burque says: “Migrant workers have a long history of living in Tarlabaşı, dating from the early 1900s when Greek, Jewish and Armenian craftsmen lived in the area” — no sense that they had belonged to the city for generations, centuries before 1900.  And the above referenced article by Kimmelman refers to Beyoğlu as an area where: “poor European immigrants settled during the 19th century.” — no sense that these people were natives of the city, often of communities that predated the Ottomans, or that they were essential component parts of Ottoman society, from other parts of the empire perhaps, but not outsiders or “immigrants.”  There’s often some vague reference to the buzzwords “diversity” and “cosmopolitan” and no serious mention of what drove the “cosmopolitans” and “migrant workers” away; again a perception that seems informed by seeing this all through the prism of the American immigration experience: as if Pera were a neighborhood on the 7 train, let’s say, and its Dominicans have now moved on to the greener suburban pastures of Bayside.

Unfortunately I don’t know if the Turkish press made any reference to the area’s former social composition when covering the protests or if any Turks did at all.  The closing of İnci, the patisserie, is what most brought this all home to me: “the closing of the historic Emek cinema and a much-loved pastry shop…”  There was quite a fuss about İnci apparently, but was any mention made at the time that this had been one of the last Greek businesses in the neighborhood?  There are two more left in all of Beyoğlu I think, İmroz, the restaurant on Nevizade and, perhaps the only growth industry in Greek İstanbul, a coffin-maker’s near the Panayia in Stavrodromi.  Inci had been there since 1947.  I leaf through Speros Vryonis’ massive “The Mechanism of Catastrophe”*** to the pages containing K. Ioannides’, a journalist from the Salonica-based Macedonia newspaper, cataloguing of ransacked Greek businesses in the area, which means all of them, without exception.  On just the İstiklal Caddesi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi, Pasaj Evropa, Yüksek Kaldırım and Perşembe Pazarı there is a list of three-hundred and twenty-nine businesses.  And you really have to marvel and wonder at whether the Greek “daemon” is more than a myth.****  After the financial decimation of the community by the Varlık Vergisi, the “estate tax” of the 1940’s, when discriminatory taxation against minority groups had wiped out many, and sent many of those who couldn’t pay to forced labor camps, Greeks had bounced back to dominating the retail business of these central neighborhoods in less than a decade – only, of course, to have it all definitively trashed a few years later.  And, sure enough, there it was, at number 27 on the list: “Pastry shop İnci of Loukas and Lefteres.”  When people mourned the loss of İnci last summer, was there any sense that something more than a charming old patisserie was disappearing?  Or that this was a place that had bounced back from total loss in one Istanbul tragedy and then went on to continue serving the city for more than fifty years?

İnci, before and during protests, after closure.



inci (5)



What do I want exactly?

All – I thought a lot about whether I should use “almost all” in this sentence and decided against it –because all the hippest, funkiest, most attractive, gentrified neighborhoods in the historic parts of İstanbul are neighborhoods that were significantly, if not largely, minority-inhabited until well into the twentieth century: not just Pera and Galata, but Cihangir and Tarlabaşı, and even Kurtuluş — of course — and up and down the western shores of the Bosphorus and much of its eastern towns too, and central Kadiköy and Moda and the Islands.  (And if serious gentrifying ever begins in the old city it’ll be in Samatya and Kumkapı and Fener and Balat; I wouldn’t put any big money into Aksaray or Çarşamba just yet.)  If young Turks are fighting to preserve the cosmopolitan character of areas made cosmopolitan by a Greek presence, among others, is it a recognition of that presence, however vestigial, that I want?  Yes.  Is it because some recognition might assuage some of the bitterness of the displacement?  Perhaps.  Is the feeling proprietary then?  Does the particular “cool” quality of these neighborhoods that protesters have been fighting to protect register for me as a form of appropriated “coolness?”  I’m afraid that yes, sometimes it does.  In darker moments this spring and summer, these Occupy Gezi kids annoyed me: “What’s wrong mes p’tits?  The Big Daddy State threatening to break up your funky Beyoğlu party?  Do you know the Big Daddy State made life so intolerable for the dudes who made Beyoğlu funky that they not only had to break the party up, but shut down shop altogether and set up elsewhere?  That your own daddies and granddaddies probably stood by and watched, approved even?  Do you know that now?  Do you care?”

taksim4Cleaning up in a Greek neighborhood after the pogrom of 6-7 September 1955.  I’ve spared readers and myself more and worse photos. (Click)

No one in New York would think of talking about the Lower East Side, for example, or the Bronx, without due respect to the Jewish role in the formation of those areas and, by extension, every aspect of New York culture.  You mourn the passing of every Ratner’s and Second Avenue Deli even if you aren’t Jewish and even if five of them take their place in Kew Gardens or Borough Park.  Or to use a significantly more heated example: if the young white professionals now moving in large numbers into Harlem refused to acknowledge that Harlem’s atmosphere, style, musicality — that the whole Harlem phenomenon — were  largely African-American contributions to the city’s life, wouldn’t any culturally or historically conscious New Yorker find that problematic or reprehensible; not to mention how the neighborhoods Blacks would feel (and do…)  And Jews and Blacks were never driven out of New York by a systematic campaign of violence, harassment, confiscation and forced expulsion.

Therefore: If 2013’s protests then – at least İstanbul’s –were at their core about protecting aspects of the essential urbanity of İstanbul, and Greeks played such a large role in shaping that urbanity, shouldn’t that be acknowledged?  If Turkish society is playing out – again, at least in İstanbul – its most intense culture wars on a ghost blueprint of vanished minorities, then wouldn’t making that a more explicit part of the contest be immensely productive – all around?

But these grudges are usually not this deep and usually don’t last long.  Partly because I’m always on the side of the partiers – any partiers.  Partly because I trust the growing consciousness and honesty of most young Turks.  The protesters as a rule behaved so civilly and politely, their chants and slogans so witty and intelligent for the most part, that you couldn’t help but be impressed.  As opposed to Erdoğan and his party’s grand Haussmanian plans, I think they didn’t really want much: Gezi was just a convenient object.  I think they want the area neither Islamized and Neo-Ottomanized or “re-Republicanized” as it were.  I think they’re tired of those two poles, and as a close friend of mine said, they want another option.  I think they wanted the neighborhood to stay as it is and always has been: a place of pleasure and freedom and difference, of uncomfortable, musty cinemas that offer something more interesting than the suburban multiplexes, of Art Nouveau cafes, no matter how garishly over-renovated or turned into fast-food lunch shops, of badly lit meyhanes that you have to know to find, a couple of gay bars, of mini-skirts and transvestites – both separately and together — everything that the strange sensuality of Istanbul offers and the freedom to not be told how and when to enjoy it.  Every man’s inalienable right to want a sweaty glass of rakı and some leblebi or a good mojito when he wants it.

Protesters in Istanbul

And they’ll win too.  Just as Hafez says:

Might they open the doors of the wine shops

And loosen their hold on our knotted lives?

If shut to satisfy the ego of the puritan

Take heart, for they will reopen to satisfy God.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                — Kabul, November 2013


* Two more of Güler’s most famous photographs:



While there’s no documentation that the subjects of these photos are Greek, the period, the neighborhood they were taken in and — well — just their look, seem to say so.  Ara Güler was a prolific photographer whose work has been sadly overexposed by excessive postcard-ization.  He once famously said: “Today, 13 million people live here. We have been overrun by villagers from Anatolia who don’t understand the poetry or the romance of Istanbul. They don’t even know the great pleasures of civilization, like how to eat well. They came, and the Greeks, Armenians and Jews, who became rich here and made this city so wonderful, left for various reasons. This is how we lost what we had for 400 years.”

He was called a racist by many leftists for that comment.  But who pays them any heed?  His website: Ara Güler: Official Website

** For more of my thoughts on the hypocrisies of multi-culti İstanbul nostalgia see my early piece The Name of this Blog, and my series Tarlabaşı I, Tarlabaşı II, and Tarlabaşı III .  Especially see Amy Mills’ Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul  based on her research in the Bosporus suburb of Kuzguncuk, where she argues that nostalgia for the cosmopolitan actually serves to erase minorities and discrimination against them from public memory and reinforce Turkish Republican ethnic homogeneity.  I think that’s exactly what’s happening in Beyoğlu.

*** Speros Vryonis The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom Of September 6 – 7, 1955, And The Destruction Of The Greek Community Of Istanbul is a magisterial life’s work and piece of historical journalism that covers the one night of September 6-7, 1955 in which a pogrom organized by Adnan Menderes’ Demokrat Parti destroyed practically the entire commercial, financial, ecclesiastic, educational and domestic infrastructure of the City’s Greek community.  I had put off reading it for quite a while — because the subject matter is upsetting and it’s long and detailled — but I was really impressed when I finally did.  I hadn’t realized the exact extent of the damage: 4,500 Greek homes, 3,500 shops and businesses (nearly all), 90 churches and monasteries (nearly all), and 36 schools destroyed and 3 cemeteries desecrated.  I hadn’t known that so many homes had been destroyed, leaving a large part of the community of then 80 or 90,000 or so homeless and destitute and that, as opposed to the traditional account of one old monk being burned alive, some 30 people were actually killed and many raped.


The Menderes government initially, and stupidly, tried to portray this as a spontaneous outbreak of nationalist fervor against Greeks over growing Cyprus tensions, but it was actually an extremely well-planned and executed military manoeuvre (every Turk, after all, is a soldier born) carried out and directed by local cadres of the Demokrat Parti who knew their neighborhoods and its Greek properties and institutions well and through the use of Anatolians brought in from the provinces; I guess they were afraid that local İstanbullus, who knew and lived with these Greeks, would not be as easily destructive, though the record of how the city’s Turks did act during the riots is hardly edifying.  As all products of the nationalist-militarist mind, the plan was an extremely stupid move as well.  It brought the economy of Turkey’s largest city to a virtual standstill, at a time when the country was in deep economic doldrums to begin with, by ripping out its retail heart, so much of it being in the hands of Greeks and other minority groups, and in the immediate aftermath there were chronic shortages of basic supplies in the city because distribution networks had been completely severed and even bread — so many bakeries being Greek and Epirote, especially, owned — was hard to find.  It temporarily made Turkey an international pariah (though in that Cold War climate that didn’t last too long) and eventually played a role in bringing the Menderes government down and costing him his life — thought that all is well beyond the scope of this post, this blog and my knowledge.  Vryonis’ analysis is brilliant if you’re interested.

It’s become axiomatic that the riots were the beginning of the end of Greek Constantinople; the community struggled and tried, but this time things were shattered — physically and psychologically — beyond repair.

**** The Greek Daemon, “daemon” in the Roman sense of the word of animating genius — “To daimonio tes fyles” — is the idea that Greeks are resourceful enough to prosper anywhere and under any conditions — Patrick Leigh Fermor’s belief in their ability to “spin gold out of air” — and the repeated tragic setbacks and almost immediate comeback of the Greek community of İstanbul after nearly every catastrophe to befall it in the twentieth century tempts one to believe in its truth.  Thus, one of the most poignant elements in the Constantinopolitan story is their almost masochistic refusal to leave — what it took to finally make the vast majority abandon the city they loved so much was just too overwhelming in the end however.

There is one important corollary to the “Greek Daemon” myth, however: it only operates for Greeks outside of the Greek state itself, and unfortunately history seems to continue to bear this out.


“An angry man — that is my subject.”

2 Aug

That’s my favorite opening line of any translation of the Iliad by W.H.D. Rouse.  Granted, it takes its liberties with the wordiness of the original Greek:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,

πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προί̈αψεν

ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν

οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή

and the more literal translations: “The wrath do thou sing, O goddess, of Peleus’ son…” (A.T. Murray).  Fagles’ “rage” is better than “anger” and closer to the Greek “menos,” which, perhaps for no other reason than that it’s the first word in the Iliad, is truly terrifying, but the curtness of Rouse’s opener conveys the message better; he’s angry – too angry for too many words; don’t talk to him; better to not even get too close.  He’s angry and, in fact, his anger is the subject; it’s the whole story.  He’s begged, cajoled; nothing works.  His best friend pleads with him – yok.  He’s offered gifts and treasures far surpassing the one insignificant thing they took from him but the taking of that thing has so lacerated his rightly gigantic ego that he won’t budge.  The Achaeans send their wisest to plead with him – the ones he himself respects the most – and he and Patroclus roast their best meats and pour their best wine for them, in what is literature’s seminal account of Middle Eastern hospitality: not because of the kebab or the wine, but because the feast is entirely about the honour of the host and pleasing the guests is irrelevant.  This guy, especially, has no interest in pleasing his guests; once he’s done his duty as a host he sends them packing with a litany of insults to deliver to Agamemnon that would leave a Russian truck driver’s ears ringing.

Rage is good.  I always thought so and think we’ll suffer as a society now that we’ve banished it to the corner where all our stigmatized emotions sit.  It just needs to be channeled, motivated by something other than blind ego: namely, by fully aware ego.  Even Achilles — once his rage stops being about his bloated self and becomes attached instead to his love and grief for his friend — goes to work decimating the Trojans, delivers some of the most deliciously bloody sections of the Iliad, and stages a wake the likes of which I’m envious that I’ll never attend: with games, massive quantities of food and drink, and the sacrifice of scores of sheep and goats and beautiful horses and twelve Trojan princes.

Achilles’ Rage (no more info)

Achilles’ sacrifice of the 12 Trojan prince POW’s at the funeral of Patroclus. Part of a wall painting in the Francois Tomb, Vulci, 350-330 BC. Museo Torlonia, Rome.

So you see it needs to be given the form of discipline, just as everything needs form; not tempered or minimized or put in contact with its feminine side – please, God…  Women have the right to and are certainly, perfectly and obviously capable of rage as well; but it’s not to be domesticated.  I’ve been watching athletes use it or succumb to it all summer now.

We all know I’ve been watching my man Phelps closely.  He’s not just a hero of mine and one of the greatest athletes of all time; I just wanted so badly to see him stick it to the bloodthirsty mobs who, back in 2009, were howling for his just crowned and anointed head because he had smoked some pot.  My heart sank after that first event, the 400m individual medley: fourth place?   I couldn’t believe it.  I thought they had gotten to him, psyched him down, the Lochte-mania.  In fact, the mobs did immediately start trashing him: “oh, he’s just been coasting a lot…” “oh, maybe at his age…”  What?!  He’s almost a year younger than Lochte!  As he stormed out to the lockers in a rage, I hoped he hadn’t succumbed to Djokovitis, the racket-smashing loss of concentration that’s plagued Nole since the spring.  I knew inside he was hanging his head.  Then silver in the relay, ok.

But then he came in second in the 200m butterfly, the event that he’s had in his pocket for almost a decade, so silver just wasn’t good enough, even if it tied him to Larisa Latynina, the Russian gymnast from the 1960s with the record of eighteen Olympic medals that she had held for forty-eight years.  Or because that was the medal that tied hers.  That was precisely the medal he had wanted to be gold.  He got out of the pool, looked at the clocks, threw his swimming cap back into the lane and stomped off again.

But there was something different about his anger this time, an “I’m better than this…” tone.  And sure enough, he came right back out and surpassed Latynina, who was watching in the stands, with his nineteenth medal – a gold one this time — in the 4x200m relay.

From Duncan White at The Telegraph:

“Nothing fuels Michael Phelps like anger. After failing to even get on the podium in the 400 metres medley and being beaten by the closest of touches in the 100m butterfly, he had plenty of frustrated fury to work with.”

Latynina was great:

Larisa Latynina won 18 Olympic medals in gymnastics for the Soviet Union, but she attended swimming Tuesday night. Michael Phelps was racing. He was trying to beat everyone in the pool and Latynina’s record as well. And when the moment came, she knew exactly what a great champion should do. She put on her lipstick.

Latynina joked in recent weeks that it was time for a man to be able to do what a woman had done long ago. And that it was too bad Phelps was not Russian.

Russian gymnast Larisa Latynina, winner of 18 Olympic medals, waving to the crowd during the women’s team final.  (Rolf Vennenbernd/European Pressphoto Agency)

This year in New York, Latynina did meet Phelps and presented him with a medal she had won in a Soviet-American dual meet in 1962. She found him “very simple, smiley, lovely to talk to.” They discussed training and, Latynina said, Phelps acknowledged that he had wearied of swimming and was ready to retire after the London Games.

She understood.

“I think a person should go for sport only as long as they get pleasure from it,” Latynina said. “As soon as they stop enjoying it, they should stop.”

And like she had been the lucky charm — or the older athlete mom that got to our Cancer Mikey’s heart (they’d met before — see article), our man has been cruising on gold ever since.  But I think that it’s just that he took control of his rage.

“Nothing fuels Michael Phelps like anger. After failing to even get on the podium in the 400 metres medley and being beaten by the closest of touches in the 100m butterfly, he had plenty of frustrated fury to work with.”

You wouldn’t think it, eh?

For other Phelps posts see:

“Ποιόν σοι εγκώμιον προσαγάγω επάξιον, τι δε ονομάσω σε, απορώ και εξίσταμαι”“…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.” , which explains the title of the previous Greek post; and “I told you they wouldn’t leave him alone” or my original 2009 “Michael Phelps” and check out tag box at lower right.


Michael Phelps

26 Jul

Another favorite athlete.

Michael Phelps, of course, has been let out of the mothballs of American moralism for a few months now.  He brought his polis glory at Olympia, did good by the friggin U.S. of A for a long time and then was clapped in the stocks and packed away into a closet for the major crime of having taken a bong hit of some plain old weed like everyone else.  Subway, I think, never totally withdrew their sponsorship, but, in general, the kid was abandoned for years till some commercials started reappearing again recently – but the whole thing, until the absolute eve of the Games, has been kind of low key and sotto voce.  “60 Minutes” had an interview with him Sunday night that I didn’t stand to watch for cringe of the sorries and guilts and mea-culpas that his p.r. people are probably still making him recite.  In any event, it’s obvious from the spate of light porn ads we’ve been subjected to that Ryan Lochte is the media’s swimmer sex-star for these Olympics, though there’s no indication — as London preliminaries have shown — that he’s as fierce a swimmer as Phelps.

Here’s a piece that I wrote back in 2009 when Mikey committed his major crime because I was so enraged by the whole incident, complete with American sheriff huffing and puffing about putting the bad guy away.  It’s not just about Phelps; it’s about athleticism, manhood, heroism and the twisted, perverted notions of all of the above that contemporary America suffers from, and as America goes, the rest of our world; one always wants to hope not, but one’s hopes are usually disappointed.


February 2009


I’m writing to everybody because I think it’s important for as many of us as is possible to speak out against one of our most recent episodes of moral nonsense: the Michael Phelps issue with the bong picture and the whole issue of the criminalization of marijuana generally

My main intent is not to argue in favor of the decriminalization of marijuana use, but I have to start there to move further.  There are people better equipped than I am to argue that case, but I just need to state clearly that keeping marijuana use illegal is ridiculous and that eventually it’ll be recognized as an even bigger and more futile moral absurdity than Prohibition was.  Unfortunately that recognition will not help the people who have been harassed and incarcerated for it, the young people whose records have been pointlessly marred with meaningless arrests, the minors trapped in America’s private jail gulag, or those whose already underprivileged lives have been damaged irreparably by these laws.

I’ve never even smoked pot, but the moral randomness of this position is so mind-boggling that it makes my hair stand on end.  I’m not a doctor or a biochemist, but I can tell you for a fact that marijuana use is not even close to as destructive as even casual alcohol use can be.  And I can tell you with even more certainty that it’s not nearly as damaging to the body and spirit as the garbage that two-hundred million obese Americans shovel into their mouths every day without any legal interference at all.  McDonald’s will kill you or radically lower the quality of your life far faster than pot will – in fact, I think it should be illegal.

But beyond that, what I most want to put out there is my disgust at the spiritual and aesthetic bankruptcy of American culture that this whole circus has once again revealed: not just the trite outrage, the moralizing, the canned language of the ridiculous apologies and Protestant confessions, or the Puritan hand-wringing which always carries with it that nasty whiff of pure persecution that it has so often slid into in our history and into which it can easily slide again.  Spiritual and aesthetic bankruptcy are equivalent states – I can’t think of a better way to put that right now; how about “it is meet and right” to honour the beautiful — and even more than the unjust scapegoating and even real civil rights abuses this kind of stupidity can lead to, it’s another kind of emptiness that galls me: the fact that Michael Phelps is nothing for us but someone we can rip apart like this; that we’ll commodify him or trash him, but no sense of greater meaning ever comes from who someone like him is.

What do I mean?  I mean that in a healthy civilization Michael Phelps would put on his crown of laurels, call a press conference and say: “I’m Michael Phelps and fuck all y’all…”  And he wouldn’t even raise his voice.  “Look at me. I got fourteen gold medals. I’m a god.”  And step away – sorry, no questions.  Because gods don’t even apologize for their crimes, much less their little pleasures that are none of your business anyway.   But he can’t do that because we’re too little.  We’ve lost the sense of awe or worship or grandeur that could have received that.  We no longer understand a radical assertion of self; shitty selfishness we get alright — in the disgusting immorality of our politics and of our business and economic practices — but a radical assertion of power or beauty or manhood just freaks us out and we’re blind to the spring of good things that assertion can become for all of us.  We don’t know what to do with him.  We don’t even know how to destroy him, how to dismember him and eat him like some captive Aztec deity in the hope that we’ll gain some of his strength that way or be saved or whatever it is one wants out of absorption of the numinous.  So we make this magnificent kid grovel and humiliate himself for no reason.  And then we feel better about our own misery and impotence and impoverished spiritual world.

Carlyle said: “Great souls are always loyally submissive, reverent to what is above them; only small, mean souls are otherwise.”  Mean souls is right.  The whole sickening schadenfreude again, which that poor pendeja Paris Hilton didn’t even deserve, much less Phelps…  The wholly squirrelly attitude of  “ha, ha, big stud who thought he was above the law gets taken down a notch…put in his place…” even from intelligent quarters like the New York Times, like this inane piece of pettiness and daddy-preaching from George Vecsey.  We’ve lost any sense of real pride in a phenomenon like Phelps, but we’re all so quick to point out hubris when we think we see it.

Everybody is so happy to call him a dork now, a stoner, a callow fratboy.  But if we see him as nothing but a callow fratboy, that’s our problem, not his; it’s because we don’t recognize the Divine in anything anymore.  If you can look at Michael Phelps and not see the innocence of a Parsifal or a Galahad, you’re the callow one.  And if you don’t see that innocence, it’ll never be transformed into the heroism or strength of a Parsifal or a Galahad either.  You’ll dumb him down and box him in with ethical pettiness — meaning castrate him — so he stays like you.  You just see fratboys, so you’ll get fratboys; all that’s proof of is how far your spiritual imagination extends and that we’ll continue to progressively slide even further into a nation of callow fratboys than we already have.  Every culture gets the culture it deserves.

Kellogg’s dropped their sponsorship of Phelps….  Oooooo….  We’ve let Kellogg’s – Kellogg’s, malaka! the cereal! the vendor of bad carbs and high fructose corn syrup! — become a voice in this fake moral debate.  I wonder what the folks at Oscar Meyer have to say…or Wonderbread…or Pop-tarts, though I’m sure one company owns all of them.  We obviously haven’t turned a single page since the 50s then, and we deserve no sympathy.

Meanwhile, the first thing I thought when I saw that photo and the only real moral issue that it raises for me — the issue of who that scumbag was, the “friend” or fellow partier who took that picture and distributed it to the media — isn’t ever even mentioned!  The betrayal, the cheapness, and the way we cheaply use this traitor’s cheapness as an opportunity to do our moralizing and to turn Phelps into Hester Prynne, that he was probably even rewarded for it…. THAT doesn’t seem to scandalize or bother anybody!  Apparently betrayal and opportunism are now American moral ideals but the simple pleasure of a bong, enjoyed by a kid who more than deserves it and made us so proud…THAT’S a crime….

So, here’s some Cavafy that I think says it all — at least for those who “understand and step aside:”

One of Their Gods

“When one of them moved through the marketplace of Seleucia
just as it was getting dark—
moved like a young man, tall, extremely handsome,
with the joy of being immortal in his eyes,
with his black and perfumed hair—
the people going by would gaze at him,
and one would ask the other if he knew him,
if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.
But some who looked more carefully
would understand and step aside;
and as he disappeared under the arcades,

among the shadows and the evening lights,
going toward the quarter that lives
only at night, with orgies and debauchery,
with every kind of intoxication and desire,
they would wonder which of Them it could be,
and for what suspicious pleasure
he had come down into the streets of Seleucia
from the August Celestial Mansions.”

(Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

So step aside creeps and shut up — and be grateful you were there to see him pass.

(Below is the original Greek and a Spanish translation too)


Ένας Θεός των

Όταν κανένας των περνούσεν απ’ της Σελευκείας
την αγορά, περί την ώρα που βραδυάζει,
σαν υψηλός και τέλεια ωραίος έφηβος,
με την χαρά της αφθαρσίας μες στα μάτια,
με τ’ αρωματισμένα μαύρα του μαλλιά,
οι διαβάται τον εκύτταζαν
κι ο ένας τον άλλονα ρωτούσεν αν τον γνώριζε,
κι αν ήταν  Έλλην της Συρίας, ή ξένος. Aλλά μερικοί,
που με περισσοτέρα προσοχή παρατηρούσαν,
εκαταλάμβαναν και παραμέριζαν·
κ’ ενώ εχάνετο κάτω απ’ τες στοές,
μες στες σκιές και μες στα φώτα της βραδυάς,
πηαίνοντας προς την συνοικία που την νύχτα
μονάχα ζει, με όργια και κραιπάλη,
και κάθε είδους μέθη και λαγνεία,
ερέμβαζαν ποιος τάχα ήταν εξ Aυτών,
και για ποιαν ύποπτην απόλαυσί του
στης Σελευκείας τους δρόμους εκατέβηκεν
απ’ τα Προσκυνητά, Πάνσεπτα Δώματα.



Cuando uno de ellos atravesaba el ágora
de Seleucia al caer la tarde,
en la figura de un hombre joven, alto y hermoso,
perfumada la negra cabellera
y la alegría de la inmortalidad en sus pupilas,
los que al pasar le contemplaban
se preguntaban uno a otro si alguien acaso le conocía,
si era tal vez griego de Siria o un extranjero. Pero algunos
que le observaban más atentos
comprendían y se apartaban.
Y mientras él, bajo los pórticos,
entre las sombras se perdía y la luz tenue del crepúsculo
hacia los barrios que despiertan
sólo en la noche para la orgía,
la embriaguez y la lujuria y todo género de vicios,
admirados se preguntaban cuál de entre ellos era éste
y por qué placer equívoco
hasta las calles de Seleucia descendía desde la augusta
beatitud de sus moradas.

Versión de José Ángel Valente

For other Phelps posts see:  “An angry man — that is my subject.” “Ποιόν σοι εγκώμιον προσαγάγω επάξιον, τι δε ονομάσω σε, απορώ και εξίσταμαι”“…απορώ και εξίσταμαι.” , which explains the title of the other Greek-heading post; and “I told you they wouldn’t leave him alone” or check out tag box at lower right.


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