Tag Archives: Belgrade

Ireland told-you-so: “I don’t think there’s any real support for violence, but you can see how quickly things can unravel…It’s very bleak, and it is something to worry about.”

21 Nov

New York Times piece about things coming to a head in Ireland: “Northern Ireland Is Sinking Into a ‘Profound Crisis’” :

As the standoff drags on, and polarization increases, people find it harder to envisage Northern Ireland as an autonomous entity. “We’re back to this binary situation where people either see it as a problematic part of the U.K. or as a part of united Ireland,” said Graham Walker, a politics professor at Queen’s University, Belfast.

**************************************************************************************

My previous Ireland posts, the top more Ireland-specific, at bottom a broader look at nation and minorities:

Is England ready for fresh Irish blood on its hands?

15 Sep

This is not a question I ask glibly or to be deliberately provocative.  In fact, I think I was a little too glib in my earlier opinions about the issue of Brexit and Ireland and I’ve been sobered up a bit.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at a summit of the EU, Brussels, June 2017

And it’s The New York Review of Books’ excellent piece by Fintan O’Toole, Brexit’s Irish Question“, that made me think a little more carefully about the whole issue.

I suggest everybody read the whole article since it’s open to the public, but I think even it pulls its punches a bit too much and doesn’t realize the degree of danger this “question” poses.  This is not “Brexit’s Irish Question.”  This is England’s Ireland Problem.  AGAIN.  STILL.  A reversion to form.  Before 1999.  Before 1921.  So all parties, but especially England, not Britain, should tread very carefully.

A good if rather lengthy summary/call out are the following three paragraphs from the piece:

“The Republic of Ireland was one of the most ethnically and religiously monolithic societies in the developed world. Its official ideology was a fusion of Catholicism and nationalism. The anti-homosexuality laws reflected the dominance of the Catholic Church, which was also manifest in extreme restrictions on contraception, divorce, and abortion. While the vast majority of its population was repelled by the savage violence of the Irish Republican Army’s armed campaign against British rule across the border in Northern Ireland, most agreed with the IRA’s basic aim of ending the partition of the island and bringing about what the Irish constitution called “the reintegration of the national territory.”

“But the Irish radically revised their nationalism. Three big things changed. The power of the Catholic Church collapsed in the 1990s, partly because of its dreadful response to revelations of its facilitation of sexual abuse of children by clergy. The Irish economy, home to the European headquarters of many of the major multinational IT and pharmaceutical corporations, became a poster child for globalization. And the search for peace in Northern Ireland forced a dramatic rethinking of ideas about identity, sovereignty, and nationality.

“These very questions had tormented Ireland for centuries and were at the heart of the vicious, low-level, but apparently interminable conflict that reignited in Northern Ireland in 1968 and wound down thirty years later. If that conflict was to be resolved, there was no choice but to be radical. Things that nation-states do not like—ambiguity, contingency, multiplicity—would have to be lived with and perhaps even embraced. Irish people, for the most part, have come to terms with this necessity. The English, as the Brexit referendum suggested, have not. This is why the Irish border has such profound implications for Brexit—it is a physical token of a mental frontier that divides not just territories but ideas of what a national identity means in the twenty-first century.”  [My emphases]

The passage’s conclusion pretty much says it all.  As the second decade of the twenty-first century comes to a close, and as Ireland approaches 100 years of freedom from almost 800 years of English rule, Ireland will enter the historical record as having taken a step forward and England as having taken a step backwards.  Good riddance, to be frank, as I have to say so against some pretty deep Anglophile sentiments.  It took me till much too late in life to realize that the best thing to do to an irate lover who loudly announces he’s not talking to you anymore is to ignore him, but that is what the European Union is rightly and justly doing to Britain.  And Britain is doing exactly what the “irate lover” always does when you call his no-talking bluff: trying to somehow work his way back into the position where he can regain at least some of the power that he forfeited with his drama so that he can manoeuver a bit.  But it’s not going to work.  Europe is genuinely tired of the drama.

The issue here is that it’s unconscionable that England’s drama should again be made Ireland’s.  Here’s a political map of the past two decades of Northern Irish life:

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 10.58.26 PM

What the map shows really clearly is that, as the percentage of Protestants in Northern Ireland has declined, the two groups have actually — during almost twenty years of what we have liked to imagine was peace — grown further apart and polarized into staunchly Sinn Féin Republican constituencies and Protestant DUP constituencies.  As the Review article points out Sinn Féin supporters in a non-EU Northern Ireland will now be deprived of the ability to have either or both Irish and British citizenship, something to which I cannot see them taking to very kindly.  I also do not see supporters of DUP, a corrupt bunch of thugs that represents the absolute worse of the English Reformation’s traditions of Guy Fawkes’ Day, anti-Catholic hatred and racism (no, Catholics aren’t always the bad guys), easily giving up their attachments to London.

But that’s exactly what London has to do.  England left Ireland in 1921 with a sizeable chunk stuck between its teeth that, like a pitbull, it would not let go of and which is why we find ourselves where we are today.  It left India in 1947 like a teenager who sheepishly goes off to sleep at his girl’s after his friends have trashed his parents’ place while they were away.  It left Cyprus in 1960 exactly the same, a time bomb ready to go off — which did.  Under no condition should England be allowed to leave a similar mess this time.  Time for the international community to make the English clean up after themselves.

The international community and NATO more specifically did not support Portugal in its attempt to hold on to Goa after Indian independence.  That means the UK neither, obviously.  It’s now time for the world to tell the UK to entirely and finally Quit Ireland, its closest and perhaps most deeply brutalized colony.  I’m usually not so intransigent on these issues, but the historical record calls for a complete rejection of any attempts by Irish Protestants to keep England involved in Irish affairs by “protecting” them or their rights; complicated compromises only kick the can down the road.  The historical record calls for a complete rejection of even a syllable of their “position.”  The historical record calls for a referendum, which Unionists will lose, and calls for London to make it clear to them that they are being cut loose.  Let them keep British citizenship if they want.  Come up with a resettlement scheme for them if that’s what they want, immigrants that the English can live with since they can’t tolerate detestable, lazy, dirty Poles.  Otherwise, bye-bye guys…

But if Theresa May and her government of buffoni were ethical enough or had the balls to do something like that, they would have started that process already, instead of still talking gibberish about everything like they are.

This might end badly.  Let’s hope not.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion

13 Aug

26 plus 6 equals 1

Check out the Times article from a few days ago: “On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace“.

I was once dragged by force into a corner by a Lebanese friend at a party in Cambridge and told to never ask anyone Lebanese their religious affiliation, I guess because I probably just had done.  Of course, I still ask. Like I implied in my Turkish post a few days ago, pretend unity (that you’re a passionate Erdoğan supporter and I’m not, or if you’re Maronite and I’m third-generation Palestinian doesn’t mean that we can’t still be “unified”), can only become real unity if differences are acknowledged. (*1)

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 3.46.29 PM

I’ve had not dissimilar experiences with Irish folks if I’ve ever tried to talk about religion or Ulster or “the Troubles.”  I once asked a guy at an Irish bar in Queens who was from Northern Ireland if he was Catholic, and I got a blank and frankly angry stare in response, and with so much alcohol and testosterone in the mix, realized quickly I should shut up and look the other way or change the topic.  A female bartender who heard the one-sided exchange said to me softly: “not a good idea to ask people those things…”  Ok.

pPJAwhu n ireland religionMap of Northern Ireland with distribution of Protestants (red) and Catholics (green) according to age group, showing a clear demographic decline of Protestants.

I also hear Irish anger at what they think is an out of touch diaspora that funded continuing IRA violence when the Irish themselves on both sides were starting to get tired of the violence and the fences were starting to come down — though that’s slightly disingenuous — in the early days these diaspora funders were heroes — and, as a non-metropolitan Greek, immediately assuming that the “diaspora” is “out of touch” or stuck in a time warp is a seriously irritating train of thought; there’s lotsa ways we’re more in touch than you lot.

So I’m really setting myself up as an easy target since I’m not even Irish or Irish-American.  But I feel I can’t be silent as the English decide the future of any part of Ireland again.

I know that the Brexit vote came as a shock to a lot of Americans, as we were forced to confront the fact that the English are not all that smart, and can be as jingoistic, xenophobic, ignorant and proudly “know-nothing” as Americans can be.  And I say the English because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the European Union — in Northern Ireland, particularly, in percentages that would indicate a large number of Protestants voted to stay as well — and they should now be free to decide their own fates free of London.

Sometimes I feel that my views on the ethnic nation-state and minorities come across as selective and sort of random to readers, so let me take this moment to clarify a bit.  I am, of course, against the brutal assimilationist policies of the nation-state and a supporter of minority language and cultural rights.  On the other hand, I’m also against a minority holding an entirely polity hostage because it refuses to conform with the conditions of living in a state where they don’t hold numerical superiority.

There’s a great and frustrating passage in Rebecca West‘s beautiful Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where her Serbian (and half-Jewish) tour-guide is arguing with a Croatian intellectual in Zagreb; “but you are not loyal” says the Serb:

Croat: You treat us badly.  How can we be loyal?

Serb:  You’re treated badly because you’re not loyal.

Croat:  How can we be loyal if we are treated badly?

Serb:  If you were loyal, you wouldn’t be treated badly.

Croat:  When you treat us better, we’ll be loyal.

Serb:  As long as you’re not loyal you can’t expect to be treated better.

And on and on and on…

Rebecca-West

(Rebecca West, who along with disconcertingly smart and honest, was clearly a real babe as well — broke a lot of hearts and refused to forgive when hers was…cool.  As Lauren Cooper would say: “Forgiving is for l-o-o-o-o-z-u-u-h-h-z-z!!!”)

Of course, we saw, during WWII, just after West’s second trip, and then again by the end of the last century, that Croatians had no intention of being loyal to Yugoslavia no matter how much bending-over-backwards to ‘treat them better’ Belgrade did.

img_0973 BLGF worn

Or take Catalans again, in a state where as a minority they are treated exceptionally well.  Still, with full language and cultural rights, they feel Madrid is oppressing them and they want full independence, threatening to rip apart the fabric of a country that has made impressive democratic achievements over the past few decades.  And those of you who bought the public relations crap about how “hip, cool and Mediterranean” Catalonia is, and who spend your tourist money in Barcelona and the Balearics have only contributed to the discriminatory tendencies of Catalan chauvinism and the worsening crisis of Catalan separatism.  Try Galicia or the Basque Country if you want to see parts of Spain that are not part of the Castilian center, but where ethno-linguistic difference has made its peace with the Spanish state and society has agreed to co-existence.  Or if they’re too rainy and un-Mediterranean for you, go to Córdoba and Granada (skip Seville, too Catholic and bull-obsessed), poorer parts of the country that need your money and where you can buy the public relations spin of Edward Said instead, who once outrageously made the claim that 60% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, (or maybe the spin of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and wallow in Al-Andalus nostalgia.

spain_910_1492

Spain4 autonomous regions

Even more and very closer to home: my father’s Greek minority village of Derviçiani in southern Albania.  My early-days romance with the village is kinna over and I feel free to express things that I’m angry at myself for not saying to the faces of people there earlier.

EpireDuNOrd1913

I’d love to ask: what the f*ck do you want exactly?  They have Greek primary and secondary education; they have Greek churches (a Church about which few of them know anything or take seriously in any way, or have bothered to learn about in order to address the consequences of four decades of enforced atheism, but they have them); the Albanian Orthodox Church itself — meaning not just Greek minority churches, but the Church of Orthodox Albanians — in fact, is headed, run and staffed by Greeks, (extremely enlightened ones, I have to admit), the way the Arab Orthodox Churches of the Levant were for so many centuries; they have, I believe, two political parties that have members who sit in the Albanian parliament.  If their villages are experiencing slow to rapid depopulation, it’s not the fault of Albanians or Tiranë; they were simply trapped — Greeks and Albanians together — in a Stalinist cage for fifty years and now are free to leave: the villages of Greek Epiros started hemorrhaging inhabitants soon after WWII, and neighboring Albanian villages, both Christian and Muslim, are also emptying of young people.  Still, they’re hostile to neighboring Albanians; still, they want autonomy for “Northern Epiros,” which for some of them stretches half-way up to the middle of Albania (I don’t care if “the stones speak Greek all the way to Dyrracheio/Durrës” — The. People. Who. Live. There. Now. Don’t. And don’t want to be part of a Greek autonomous region. 2**); still, they make Muslim girls get baptized if they want to marry any of their precious boys, μη χέσω (thank God Albanians still wear their Islam kind of lightly or these poor girls would be in serious trouble) and will ostracize any Christian daughter or sister who falls in love with and marries a Muslim; still, they get offended, even a hip, British-educated nephew does, if you visit the pleasant, well-watered, historical Muslim village of Libohovo — Albanian Libohovë — across the valley and you come back and say it was very nice and that the young people there don’t seem much different than ours.  Of course, this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the conversation from Black Lamb… above indicates, so that when you put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 on August 15th and the Albanian police has to come and take it down, then you’ll just end up on the bad side of the Albanian authorities and ordinary Albanians’ retaliatory instinct and the vicious cycle will just keep going.

neolaia derbitsanis flagA flag of the Youth of Derviçiani, which, just by wild and completely invented coincidence, happens to have been “founded” in 1914, the year there was a short-lived experiment in Northern Epirote autonomy, which was squashed by Italian objections, because Italy considered Albania within its sphere of influence.  Obviously not a sign of just the “youth” of the village — there was no Youth of Derviçani in 1914.  And if there are still any doubts, the Palaelogan double-headed eagle lays them to rest.

(Really, is there anything as idiotic as a flag?)

But back to Ireland.  I think Ulster Protestants caused enough “troubles” by acting — with the hypocritical support of England — like they were a besieged minority that couldn’t be part of the Irish Republic.  So if a majority of Northern Irish voters chose to exit the Brexit, that’s a golden opportunity just dropped out of the heavens into our laps to correct an egregious historical wrong.  The invasion and conquest of Ireland, its depopulation and the ripping to shreds of its society, culture and language did not start with the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century.  It started with the Normans and the Plantagenets, and then the Tudors and the Stuarts and, finally, Cromwell and his Taliban, and it was a grueling, vicious, murderous process, as violent, or more, as any of Britain’s other colonial wars and right on Europe’s front door, and the Plantation of Ulster itself and the rest of Ireland was a conscious colonial policy of appropriating land and settling poor Protestant Scots and northern Englishmen in the country in order to “civilize” it and break Irish resistance to English hegemony.

Ireland_Protestants_1861-2011

If the above maps seem to indicate that a large number of Protestants left the Irish Republic in the twentieth century because they didn’t feel comfortable without the English crown’s protection, that’s unfortunate (it was not so unfortunate in cases where the Anglo-Irish elite felt they had to flee when their expropriated land was re-expropriated) but that can’t be a justification for the continued amputation of the country.

It’s a classic strategic move, though.  Ulster Protestants are not a socioeconomic group comparable to the Anglo-Irish landowners; they were always as squire-ridden as their Catholic neighbors and are still pretty much on equal footing in that sense.

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the socially laissez-faire modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant, aggressively evangelizing, social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the c-ontemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.

White Mughals Dalrymple

Freedman_bureau_harpers_cartoonA Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 sketch from Harper’s Weekly.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 6.56.34 PM

Recent White supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — thanks to @JuliusGoat: “Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.”

The colonial power — or just the colonized mind — then disingenuously but actively seeks to right these wrongs and protect the embattled minority.  The results?  A Lebanon torn apart by Maronite phobias and Palestinian victim-entitlement; the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Franco; a Greece completely isolated from its nearest and closest — in every sense — neighbors; an India where British response to the Rebellion effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims (4 ****) — Dalrymple shrewdly locates one of the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism in that disenfranchisement and the Deobandi Islam it created 5 *****; the Ku Klux Clan and the murder of Emmett Till and Donald Trump; the vicious Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in French Algerians having to flee the country entirely to a France where they’re still a bulwark of reaction and racism, and the still bad blood between Algerian immigrants and natives in that country.

(I thought about adding Cyprus to that list, that’s going on forty-some years of division after the 1974 Turkish invasion, but didn’t, because Turkish Cypriots actually were an embattled minority, and Greek Cypriots have to do some moral self-searching about their terrorizing, or passively supporting the terrorizing, of their Turkish neighbors, before they blame either Turkey or the Greek junta for f*cking things up for them.)

I was against the Scottish independence referendum of a few years ago because I’m against separation and the putting up of borders generally.  But then the apparently stoned British electorate went and separated itself from the rest of Europe, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales even, or Cornwall or the Isle of Manx or Jersey and Guernsey for that matter, want independence from England now, England will have only brought that down on its own head.  If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the European Union then de facto reunion with the Republic will have occurred; I would just like de jure recognition of that facto too, so that there’s no more excuse for meddling in Irish affairs.  Irishmen have done a lot of genuinely hard work confronting the demons of their own past in recent years; today’s Ireland is a democratic, pluralist, morally progressive society where the Catholic Church’s death-grip has been broken.  That Ulster Protestants can’t live there in peace and security and without English protection is a ludicrous idea.

So let it happen, and if Ulstermen don’t like it — sorry to sound like a reactionary nativist — but they’re free to go back to Scotland where they came from.  Or if they want they can come here and join their distant cousins in Kentucky and the Ozarks.  I’m sure President Trump will consider them the “right” kind of immigrants.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

*********************************************************************************

1 * It’s a little reductive, but I think it’s not outrageously so to see the Lebanese Civil War as essentially, or initially,  a conflict between Maronite demographic panic and paranoia (not entirely unjustified) and Palestinian entitlement of the oppressed (even more justified); every other group seems to then have had no choice but to choose sides.  Then add Israel — which arguably started the whole problem — and Syria to the mix, και γάμησέ τα.

2 ** Of course, Northern Epirote Greeks’ δήθεν innocent desire for autonomy is completely disingenuous — though we’re supposed to think that Albanians are too stupid to get that — and is really just a prelude and first step to independence and union with Greece, though they’re a demographically fast-dwindling percentage of the population of the region they lay claim to.  That’s not a deterrent, however; all you have to do is believe that all Orthodox Albanians are reeeeeeeally Greek and you’ve solved your demographic issue, since Muslim Albanians are just turncoat intruders in the region as far as Northern Epirotes are concerned.

The only obstacle that would then be left is to get Albanians to forget what happened to the Muslim Albanian Çams of western Greek Epiros (Albanian: Çamëria, Greek: Τσαμουριά Tsamouriá) during WWII, when they were subjected to massacre and expulsion in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greek right-wing resistance and had to flee to Albania.

Chameria_map2

I still haven’t figured out how, as Muslims, they escaped the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s; it would’ve been a more merciful fate.  I also haven’t figured out how the tsamiko, a dance of central and southern Greece, got its name.  Or else, what clues to a forgotten past the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name was Çames provides; almost all our last names are Albanian — with the Greek male nominative -s ending added to them — as in Bako-s — but as far as I know there’s no clan in our villages whose last name is actually the name of an Albanian sub-ethnic group.  See: (Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather“.

Scratch a Greek and find an Albanian, I guess…  Or a Vlach…  Or a Slav of some sort…  (See: Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI)

This kind of issue always reminds me of the Puerto Rican expression from a song of I dunno what period: “¿Y tu abuela donde está?” or ¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?“And where’s your grandmother?” i.e., before you get all high and mighty and Whitey on us, show us the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen.

3 *** This fetishizing of the Mediterranean as a region, a lost paradise of cosmopolitanism and healthy diets, drives me nuts.  Everyone is suddenly “Mediterranean.”  The big laugh, of course, is that Turks are Mediterranean.  Then comes the less funny one about Croatians being Mediterranean, whereas Serbs are clearly not — Croats wanting to have it both ways, and be Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean at the same time — even if they’re from neolithic Herzegovina and about as neanderthal themselves as their Serbian and Muslim neanderthal neighbors; Istrians have sealed their Mediterranean-ness by buying every Italian restaurant in New York City’s boroughs, and of course the largely Italianate Dalmatian coast seals in most Europeans’ minds the idea of Croatia as a country on the f*cking M-E-D-I-T-E-R-R-A-N-E-A-N.  Actually, the closest example to Croatians’ appropriation of a largely Venetian Adriatic is the Turkish appropriation of Greek Aegean imagery, in tourist and p.r. language, on both the Anatolian coast and in Imbros and Tenedos.

Just as nicely condescending is the saying from some-where in the Iberian periphery that “de Madrid no se ve el mar,” “you can’t see the sea from Madrid.”  Supposedly a jab at Castillian casticismo, and inward-looking provincialness.  No, you can’t see the sea.  That’s why Castille is such a beautiful, high plateau, dry and bright and chilly and Romanesque and stunning in its emptiness and vastness.

A White Turk friend once dragged me to Sorrento on our trip to Naples and Campania, which I knew would be a mistake, because it would be and turned out to be a tourist-swamped, hellish Thomas Cook holiday trap because it was “on the sea.”  (but one makes concessions to one’s travelling partner’s fantasies.)  We cut out as soon as we could and headed to Ravello, up in the mountains away from the sea and she was blown away by how beautiful it was.

And what happens to Greeks like me? who are from a part of the Greek world that is clearly more Balkan in every way than it is Mediterranean?  What do we have to do to join the club?

4 **** William Dalrymple is a great historical writer who does what professional academics can’t do because they’re so specialized that they can easily say: “Sorry, I don’t work on that period” when you ask them anything they don’t know.  The breadth and depth of his knowledge on South Asia is truly amazing and he makes it all interesting and stimulating for the layman without dumbing it down.  When I first started this blog I wrote to him asking to reproduce some of the passages on the British destruction of Mughal Delhi contained in his book, The Last Mughal, and he immediately and generously shot back with an email that said: “Go for it.”  Thanks again.

So check out those posts here and here and here .  Better yet, buy the book.

5  ***** Worth reproducing here in whole:

“Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

“The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

“One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”

the-last-mughal

See also his magisterial The Return of a King on nineteenth-century Afghanistan, which I have a few issues with, particularly his conclusions, but which was a couldn’t-put-it-down one for me.

Dalrymple return

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Spain and Catalan domino effect and Barca: has the European Union encouraged orgy of separatism and regionalism?

21 Sep

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 1.28.07 PM

The most thuggish, corrupt sport on the planet chimes in on Catalan independence.  Bloody everybody’s got an opinion.

Apparently there were rallies for a Basque referendum all over the Vascongadas in recent weeks as well, and soon the pendejito of Spanish regionalism, Galicia, will want independence too.

Is there anyone out there who knows of any studies of how European Union ideology and policy have supported regionalism and separatism in the past decades?  That a German “go-ahead” on Slovenian and Croatian independence lit the fuse on the Yugoslav bomb has, I think, become a commonly accepted view in recent years, even for the most anti-Serb-minded Westerners.  But is it the EU’s promise of support — meaning funds — what feeds these movements?  i.e., is the idea: “If I have a direct line to Brussels then I don’t need Belgrade or London or Madrid” at the root of most of it?  That would mean that Catalans are really not separatists but a form of closet centrists (which certainly proved true of Croatia); that they think they don’t need a tie to this parasitic peripheral center — Madrid — when they themselves can be parasites on a more central center, Brussels.  Any thoughts?

And Brussels, of course, is not doing what it should be doing: telling Catalans that if they want out of the borders of a EU country then they’re out of the EU entirely, which is also the secret message that the West refused to send to Croatia in the 80s, sending it on its merry path with the consequences we all know of.

Something for all you enablers of Catalan delusions of grandeur who supported them with your tourist dollars over the past couple of decades to think about.

See Ryan Heath’s Josep Borrell warns of Catalan ‘domino effect’ in Politico (“The veteran Spanish Socialist politician — himself a Catalan — says that the independence argument is based on a myth.”)

Screen Shot 2017-09-21 at 2.27.09 PM

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Ireland — Gimme a break; I can’t believe this is even up for discussion

13 Aug

26 plus 6 equals 1

Check out the Times article from a few days ago: “On Irish Border, Worries That ‘Brexit’ Will Undo a Hard-Won Peace“.

I was once dragged by force into a corner by a Lebanese friend at a party in Cambridge and told to never ask anyone Lebanese their religious affiliation, I guess because I probably just had done.  Of course, I still ask. Like I implied in my Turkish post a few days ago, pretend unity (that you’re a passionate Erdoğan supporter and I’m not, or if you’re Maronite and I’m third-generation Palestinian doesn’t mean that we can’t still be “unified”), can only become real unity if differences are acknowledged. (*1)

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 3.46.29 PM

I’ve had not dissimilar experiences with Irish folks if I’ve ever tried to talk about religion or Ulster or “the Troubles.”  I once asked a guy at an Irish bar in Queens who was from Northern Ireland if he was Catholic, and I got a blank and frankly angry stare in response, and with so much alcohol and testosterone in the mix, realized quickly I should shut up and look the other way or change the topic.  A female bartender who heard the one-sided exchange said to me softly: “not a good idea to ask people those things…”  Ok.

pPJAwhu n ireland religionMap of Northern Ireland with distribution of Protestants (red) and Catholics (green) according to age group, showing a clear demographic decline of Protestants.

I also hear Irish anger at what they think is an out of touch diaspora that funded continuing IRA violence when the Irish themselves on both sides were starting to get tired of the violence and the fences were starting to come down — though that’s slightly disingenuous — in the early days these diaspora funders were heroes — and, as a non-metropolitan Greek, immediately assuming that the “diaspora” is “out of touch” or stuck in a time warp is a seriously irritating train of thought; there’s lotsa ways we’re more in touch than you lot.

So I’m really setting myself up as an easy target since I’m not even Irish or Irish-American.  But I feel I can’t be silent as the English decide the future of any part of Ireland again.

I know that the Brexit vote came as a shock to a lot of Americans, as we were forced to confront the fact that the English are not all that smart, and can be as jingoistic, xenophobic, ignorant and proudly “know-nothing” as Americans can be.  And I say the English because Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against leaving the European Union — in Northern Ireland, particularly, in percentages that would indicate a large number of Protestants voted to stay as well — and they should now be free to decide their own fates free of London.

Sometimes I feel that my views on the ethnic nation-state and minorities come across as selective and sort of random to readers, so let me take this moment to clarify a bit.  I am, of course, against the brutal assimilationist policies of the nation-state and a supporter of minority language and cultural rights.  On the other hand, I’m also against a minority holding an entirely polity hostage because it refuses to conform with the conditions of living in a state where they don’t hold numerical superiority.

There’s a great and frustrating passage in Rebecca West‘s beautiful Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, where her Serbian (and half-Jewish) tour-guide is arguing with a Croatian intellectual in Zagreb; “but you are not loyal” says the Serb:

Croat: You treat us badly.  How can we be loyal?

Serb:  You’re treated badly because you’re not loyal.

Croat:  How can we be loyal if we are treated badly?

Serb:  If you were loyal, you wouldn’t be treated badly.

Croat:  When you treat us better, we’ll be loyal.

Serb:  As long as you’re not loyal you can’t expect to be treated better.

And on and on and on…

Rebecca-West

(Rebecca West, who along with disconcertingly smart and honest, was clearly a real babe as well — broke a lot of hearts and refused to forgive when hers was…cool.  As Lauren Cooper would say: “Forgiving is for l-o-o-o-o-z-u-u-h-h-z-z!!!”)

Of course, we saw, during WWII, just after West’s second trip, and then again by the end of the last century, that Croatians had no intention of being loyal to Yugoslavia no matter how much bending-over-backwards to ‘treat them better’ Belgrade did.

img_0973 BLGF worn

Or take Catalans again, in a state where as a minority they are treated exceptionally well.  Still, with full language and cultural rights, they feel Madrid is oppressing them and they want full independence, threatening to rip apart the fabric of a country that has made impressive democratic achievements over the past few decades.  And those of you who bought the public relations crap about how “hip, cool and Mediterranean” Catalonia is, and who spend your tourist money in Barcelona and the Balearics have only contributed to the discriminatory tendencies of Catalan chauvinism and the worsening crisis of Catalan separatism.  Try Galicia or the Basque Country if you want to see parts of Spain that are not part of the Castilian center, but where ethno-linguistic difference has made its peace with the Spanish state and society has agreed to co-existence.  Or if they’re too rainy and un-Mediterranean for you, go to Córdoba and Granada (skip Seville, too Catholic and bull-obsessed), poorer parts of the country that need your money and where you can buy the public relations spin of Edward Said instead, who once outrageously made the claim that 60% of Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin, (or maybe the spin of Al Qaeda and ISIS) and wallow in Al-Andalus nostalgia.

spain_910_1492

Spain4 autonomous regions

Even more and very closer to home: my father’s Greek minority village of Derviçiani in southern Albania.  My early-days romance with the village is kinna over and I feel free to express things that I’m angry at myself for not saying to the faces of people there earlier.

EpireDuNOrd1913

I’d love to ask: what the f*ck do you want exactly?  They have Greek primary and secondary education; they have Greek churches (a Church about which few of them know anything or take seriously in any way, or have bothered to learn about in order to address the consequences of four decades of enforced atheism, but they have them); the Albanian Orthodox Church itself — meaning not just Greek minority churches, but the Church of Orthodox Albanians — in fact, is headed, run and staffed by Greeks, (extremely enlightened ones, I have to admit), the way the Arab Orthodox Churches of the Levant were for so many centuries; they have, I believe, two political parties that have members who sit in the Albanian parliament.  If their villages are experiencing slow to rapid depopulation, it’s not the fault of Albanians or Tiranë; they were simply trapped — Greeks and Albanians together — in a Stalinist cage for fifty years and now are free to leave: the villages of Greek Epiros started hemorrhaging inhabitants soon after WWII, and neighboring Albanian villages, both Christian and Muslim, are also emptying of young people.  Still, they’re hostile to neighboring Albanians; still, they want autonomy for “Northern Epiros,” which for some of them stretches half-way up to the middle of Albania (I don’t care if “the stones speak Greek all the way to Dyrracheio/Durrës” — The. People. Who. Live. There. Now. Don’t. And don’t want to be part of a Greek autonomous region. 2**); still, they make Muslim girls get baptized if they want to marry any of their precious boys, μη χέσω (thank God Albanians still wear their Islam kind of lightly or these poor girls would be in serious trouble) and will ostracize any Christian daughter or sister who falls in love with and marries a Muslim; still, they get offended, even a hip, British-educated nephew does, if you visit the pleasant, well-watered, historical Muslim village of Libohovo — Albanian Libohovë — across the valley and you come back and say it was very nice and that the young people there don’t seem much different than ours.  Of course, this attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the conversation from Black Lamb… above indicates, so that when you put up the flag of Autonomous Northern Epiros 1914 on August 15th and the Albanian police has to come and take it down, then you’ll just end up on the bad side of the Albanian authorities and ordinary Albanians’ retaliatory instinct and the vicious cycle will just keep going.

neolaia derbitsanis flagA flag of the Youth of Derviçiani, which, just by wild and completely invented coincidence, happens to have been “founded” in 1914, the year there was a short-lived experiment in Northern Epirote autonomy, which was squashed by Italian objections, because Italy considered Albania within its sphere of influence.  Obviously not a sign of just the “youth” of the village — there was no Youth of Derviçani in 1914.  And if there are still any doubts, the Palaelogan double-headed eagle lays them to rest.

(Really, is there anything as idiotic as a flag?)

But back to Ireland.  I think Ulster Protestants caused enough “troubles” by acting — with the hypocritical support of England — like they were a besieged minority that couldn’t be part of the Irish Republic.  So if a majority of Northern Irish voters chose to exit the Brexit, that’s a golden opportunity just dropped out of the heavens into our laps to correct an egregious historical wrong.  The invasion and conquest of Ireland, its depopulation and the ripping to shreds of its society, culture and language did not start with the Potato Famine of the nineteenth century.  It started with the Normans and the Plantagenets, and then the Tudors and the Stuarts and, finally, Cromwell and his Taliban, and it was a grueling, vicious, murderous process, as violent, or more, as any of Britain’s other colonial wars and right on Europe’s front door, and the Plantation of Ulster itself and the rest of Ireland was a conscious colonial policy of appropriating land and settling poor Protestant Scots and northern Englishmen in the country in order to “civilize” it and break Irish resistance to English hegemony.

Ireland_Protestants_1861-2011

If the above maps seem to indicate that a large number of Protestants left the Irish Republic in the twentieth century because they didn’t feel comfortable without the English crown’s protection, that’s unfortunate (it was not so unfortunate in cases where the Anglo-Irish elite felt they had to flee when their expropriated land was re-expropriated) but that can’t be a justification for the continued amputation of the country.

It’s a classic strategic move, though.  Ulster Protestants are not a socioeconomic group comparable to the Anglo-Irish landowners; they were always as squire-ridden as their Catholic neighbors and are still pretty much on equal footing in that sense.

But everybody has to be better than somebody, or else you’re nobody.  So, just like Catalans have to think they’re really Mare-Nostrum-Provençal Iberians (3 ***) and not part of reactionary Black Legend Spain; or Neo-Greeks have to think that they’re better than their Balkan neighbors (especially Albanian “Turks”) because they think they’re the descendants of those Greeks; or the largely lower-middle class, Low Church Anglican or Presbyterian or Methodist Brits who fled their socioeconomic status back home and went out to India in the nineteenth century in order to be somebody, had to destroy the socially laissez-faire modus vivendi that had existed there between Company white-folk and Indians, creating an apartheid and religiously intolerant, aggressively evangelizing, social system that laid the groundwork for the unbelievable blood-letting of the Indian Rebellion of 1857; or, perhaps history’s greatest example, poor whites in the American South (many, ironically, of Northern Irish Protestant origin) that had to terrorize Black freedmen back into their “place” because the one thing they had over them in the old South’s socioeconomic order, that they weren’t slaves, had been snatched away (and one swift look at the c-ontemporary American political scene shows clear as day indications that they’re, essentially, STILL angry at that demotion in status); or French Algerians couldn’t stomach the idea of living in an independent Algeria where they would be on equal footing with Arab or Berber Algerians.  So Protestant Ulstermen couldn’t tolerate being part of an independent state with these Catholic savages.

White Mughals Dalrymple

Freedman_bureau_harpers_cartoonA Bureau agent stands between armed groups of whites and Freedmen in this 1868 sketch from Harper’s Weekly.

Screen Shot 2017-08-13 at 6.56.34 PM

Recent White supremacist rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — thanks to @JuliusGoat: “Imagine if these people ever faced actual oppression.”

The colonial power — or just the colonized mind — then disingenuously but actively seeks to right these wrongs and protect the embattled minority.  The results?  A Lebanon torn apart by Maronite phobias and Palestinian victim-entitlement; the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Franco; a Greece completely isolated from its nearest and closest — in every sense — neighbors; an India where British response to the Rebellion effectively disenfranchised Indian Muslims (4 ****) — Dalrymple shrewdly locates one of the beginnings of modern Islamic fundamentalism in that disenfranchisement and the Deobandi Islam it created 5 *****; the Ku Klux Clan and the murder of Emmett Till and Donald Trump; the vicious Algerian War of Independence, which resulted in French Algerians having to flee the country entirely to a France where they’re still a bulwark of reaction and racism, and the still bad blood between Algerian immigrants and natives in that country.

(I thought about adding Cyprus to that list, that’s going on forty-some years of division after the 1974 Turkish invasion, but didn’t, because Turkish Cypriots actually were an embattled minority, and Greek Cypriots have to do some moral self-searching about their terrorizing, or passively supporting the terrorizing, of their Turkish neighbors, before they blame either Turkey or the Greek junta for f*cking things up for them.)

I was against the Scottish independence referendum of a few years ago because I’m against separation and the putting up of borders generally.  But then the apparently stoned British electorate went and separated itself from the rest of Europe, and if Scotland and Northern Ireland and Wales even, or Cornwall or the Isle of Manx or Jersey and Guernsey for that matter, want independence from England now, England will have only brought that down on its own head.  If Northern Ireland votes to stay in the European Union then de facto reunion with the Republic will have occurred; I would just like de jure recognition of that facto too, so that there’s no more excuse for meddling in Irish affairs.  Irishmen have done a lot of genuinely hard work confronting the demons of their own past in recent years; today’s Ireland is a democratic, pluralist, morally progressive society where the Catholic Church’s death-grip has been broken.  That Ulster Protestants can’t live there in peace and security and without English protection is a ludicrous idea.

So let it happen, and if Ulstermen don’t like it — sorry to sound like a reactionary nativist — but they’re free to go back to Scotland where they came from.  Or if they want they can come here and join their distant cousins in Kentucky and the Ozarks.  I’m sure President Trump will consider them the “right” kind of immigrants.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

*********************************************************************************

1 * It’s a little reductive, but I think it’s not outrageously so to see the Lebanese Civil War as essentially, or initially,  a conflict between Maronite demographic panic and paranoia (not entirely unjustified) and Palestinian entitlement of the oppressed (even more justified); every other group seems to then have had no choice but to choose sides.  Then add Israel — which arguably started the whole problem — and Syria to the mix, και γάμησέ τα.

2 ** Of course, Northern Epirote Greeks’ δήθεν innocent desire for autonomy is completely disingenuous — though we’re supposed to think that Albanians are too stupid to get that — and is really just a prelude and first step to independence and union with Greece, though they’re a demographically fast-dwindling percentage of the population of the region they lay claim to.  That’s not a deterrent, however; all you have to do is believe that all Orthodox Albanians are reeeeeeeally Greek and you’ve solved your demographic issue, since Muslim Albanians are just turncoat intruders in the region as far as Northern Epirotes are concerned.

The only obstacle that would then be left is to get Albanians to forget what happened to the Muslim Albanian Çams of western Greek Epiros (Albanian: Çamëria, Greek: Τσαμουριά Tsamouriá) during WWII, when they were subjected to massacre and expulsion in a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Greek right-wing resistance and had to flee to Albania.

Chameria_map2

I still haven’t figured out how, as Muslims, they escaped the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of the 1920s; it would’ve been a more merciful fate.  I also haven’t figured out how the tsamiko, a dance of central and southern Greece, got its name.  Or else, what clues to a forgotten past the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name was Çames provides; almost all our last names are Albanian — with the Greek male nominative -s ending added to them — as in Bako-s — but as far as I know there’s no clan in our villages whose last name is actually the name of an Albanian sub-ethnic group.  See: (Easter eggs: a grandmother and a grandfather“.

Scratch a Greek and find an Albanian, I guess…  Or a Vlach…  Or a Slav of some sort…  (See: Albanians in Greece and the “documentary that shocked Greece” from SKAI)

This kind of issue always reminds me of the Puerto Rican expression from a song of I dunno what period: ¿Y tu abuela donde está?” or ¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?“And where’s your grandmother?” i.e., before you get all high and mighty and Whitey on us, show us the Black grandmother you’ve got hidden in the kitchen.

3 *** This fetishizing of the Mediterranean as a region, a lost paradise of cosmopolitanism and healthy diets, drives me nuts.  Everyone is suddenly “Mediterranean.”  The big laugh, of course, is that Turks are Mediterranean.  Then comes the less funny one about Croatians being Mediterranean, whereas Serbs are clearly not — Croats wanting to have it both ways, and be Mediterranean and Mitteleuropean at the same time — even if they’re from neolithic Herzegovina and about as neanderthal themselves as their Serbian and Muslim neanderthal neighbors; Istrians have sealed their Mediterranean-ness by buying every Italian restaurant in New York City’s boroughs, and of course the largely Italianate Dalmatian coast seals in most Europeans’ minds the idea of Croatia as a country on the f*cking M-E-D-I-T-E-R-R-A-N-E-A-N.  Actually, the closest example to Croatians’ appropriation of a largely Venetian Adriatic is the Turkish appropriation of Greek Aegean imagery, in tourist and p.r. language, on both the Anatolian coast and in Imbros and Tenedos.

Just as nicely condescending is the saying from some-where in the Iberian periphery that “de Madrid no se ve el mar,” “you can’t see the sea from Madrid.”  Supposedly a jab at Castillian casticismo, and inward-looking provincialness.  No, you can’t see the sea.  That’s why Castille is such a beautiful, high plateau, dry and bright and chilly and Romanesque and stunning in its emptiness and vastness.

A White Turk friend once dragged me to Sorrento on our trip to Naples and Campania, which I knew would be a mistake, because it would be and turned out to be a tourist-swamped, hellish Thomas Cook holiday trap because it was “on the sea.”  (but one makes concessions to one’s travelling partner’s fantasies.)  We cut out as soon as we could and headed to Ravello, up in the mountains away from the sea and she was blown away by how beautiful it was.

And what happens to Greeks like me? who are from a part of the Greek world that is clearly more Balkan in every way than it is Mediterranean?  What do we have to do to join the club?

4 **** William Dalrymple is a great historical writer who does what professional academics can’t do because they’re so specialized that they can easily say: “Sorry, I don’t work on that period” when you ask them anything they don’t know.  The breadth and depth of his knowledge on South Asia is truly amazing and he makes it all interesting and stimulating for the layman without dumbing it down.  When I first started this blog I wrote to him asking to reproduce some of the passages on the British destruction of Mughal Delhi contained in his book, The Last Mughal, and he immediately and generously shot back with an email that said: “Go for it.”  Thanks again.

So check out those posts here and here and here .  Better yet, buy the book.

5  ***** Worth reproducing here in whole:

“Following the crushing of the Uprising, and the uprooting and slaughter of the Delhi court, the Indian Muslims themselves also divided into two opposing paths: one, championed by the great Anglophile Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, looked to West, and believed that Indian Muslims could revive their fortunes only by embracing Western learning.  With this in mind, Sir Sayyid founded his Aligarh Mohamedan Anglo-Oriental College (later Aligarh Muslim University) and tied to recreate Oxbridge in the plains of Hndustan.

“The other approach, taken by survivors of the old Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, was to reject the West in toto and to attempt to return to what they regarded as pure Islamic roots.  For this reason, disillusioned pupils of the school of Shah Waliullah, such as Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi – who in 1857 had briefly established an independent Islamic state north of Meerut at Shamli, in the Doab – founded an influential but depressingly narrow-minded Wahhabi-like madrasa at Deoband, one-hundred miles north of the former Mughal capital.  With their backs to the wall, they reacted against what the founders saw as the degenerate and rotten ways of the old Mughal elite.  The Deoband madrasa therefore went back to Koranic basics and rigorously stripped out anything Hindu or European from the curriculum.*

*(It was by no means a total divide: religious education at Aligarh, for example, was in the hands of the Deobandis.)

“One hundred and forty years later, it was out of Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan that the Taliban emerged to create the most retrograde Islamic regime in modern history, a regime that in turn provided the crucible from which emerged al-Qaeda, and the most radical and powerful fundamentalist Islamic counter-attack the modern West has yet encountered.”

the-last-mughal

See also his magisterial The Return of a King on nineteenth-century Afghanistan, which I have a few issues with, particularly his conclusions, but which was a couldn’t-put-it-down one for me.

Dalrymple return

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Börek II — or Burek and the end of Yugoslavia

26 Aug

Börek Nein Danke

(click)

This is a piece of graffiti that appeared in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana in 1992, at the beginning of the worst period in the Yugoslav wars and after Slovenia had become independent. “Burek [‘börek’ in Turkish, pronounced exactly like an umlauted German ‘ö’]? Nein Danke.” Burek? Nein Danke. “Burek? No Thank You.” What a silly slogan, ja? How innocuous. What could it possibly mean? Who cares? And how can NikoBako maintain the bizarre proposition that a piece of graffiti in a rather pretentious black-and-white photograph is an important piece, in its ugly, dangerous racism, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Back up then. There are certain — usually material — aspects or elements of Ottoman life in the Balkans, which, even for Christians in the region, despite the centuries of unfortunate hate and reciprocal bloodletting (and no, I don’t think pretending that wasn’t true or that “it wasn’t that bad” is the key to improving relations between us all now; I think the truth is the key), remain objects of a strange nostalgia and affection. They linger on — even if unconsciously, or even as they’re simultaneously an object of self-deprecating humour or considered homely backwardness – as evidence that Ottoman life had a certain refinement and elegance that these societies have now lost. You sense this often intangible and not explicitly acknowledged feeling in many ways. Folks from my father’s village, Derviçani, for example, now go to Prizren in Kosovo to order certain articles of the village’s bridal costume because they can no longer find the craftsmen to make them in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and they’re conscious of going to a traditional center of Ottoman luxury goods manufacture. You feel it in what’s now the self-conscious or almost apologetic serving of traditional candied fruits or lokum to guests. Or still calling it Turkish coffee. Or in Jiannena when I was a kid, when people still had low divans along the walls of the kitchen where they were much more comfortable than in their “a la franca” sitting rooms. 1* Perhaps the sharpest comparison is the way the word “Mughlai” in India still carries implications of the most sophisticated achievements of classical North Indian…Muslim…culture, even to the most rabid BJP nationalist. 2**

49614968

There are some places where this tendency is stronger than in others. Sarajevo and Bosnia are obvious; they still have large Muslim populations though and, after the 90s, Muslim majorities. But Jiannena – which I’ll call Yanya in Turkish for the purposes of this post, the capital city of Epiros and one often compared to Sarajevo: “a tiny Alpine Istanbul” – is also one such place. Readers will have heard me call it the Greek city most “in touch with its Ottoman side…” on several occasions. You can see why when you visit or if you know a bit of the other’s past: or maybe have some of that empathy for the other that’s more important than knowledge.

49611950

About half Greek-speaking Turks before the Population Exchange, Yanya was a city the Ottomans loved dearly and whose loss grieved them more than that of most places in the Balkans. It’s misty and melancholy and romantic. It has giant plane trees and had running waters and abundant springs in all its neighbourhoods, along with a blue-green lake surrounded by mountains snow-capped for a good five or so months of the year. It experienced a period of great prosperity in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century, when it was not only a rich Ottoman commercial city but also a center of Greek education: “Yanya, first in arms, gold and letters…” – and, especially under the despotic yet in certain ways weirdly progressive Ali Paşa, was the site of a court independent enough to conduct foreign policy practically free of the Porte and fabulous enough to attract the likes of Pouqueville and Byron, the latter who never tired of commenting on the beauty of the boys and girls Ali had gathered among his courtiers, as Ali himself commented profusely on Byron’s own. All the tradition of luxury goods associated with the time and the city: jewelry, silver and brassware, brocade and gold-thread-embroidered velvet, sweets and pastries – and börek – still survive, but are mostly crap today, even the börek for which the city used to be particularly famous, and your best luck with the other stuff is in the city’s numberless antique shops.

ioannina-epirus-greece-the-antiqe-market-hip

identical to yiayia's belt

It also, unusually, and which I like to ascribe to Yanyalıs’ good taste and gentlenesss, has preserved four of its mosques, the two most beautiful in good condition even, and on the most prominent point of the city’s skyline.  It would be nice if they were opened to prayer for what must be a sizable contingent of Muslim Albanian immigrants now living there — who are practically invisible because they usually hide behind assumed Christian names — but that’s not going to happen in a hundred years, not even in Yanya.  Maybe after that…we’ll have all grown up a little.

ioannina165

janina

And, alone perhaps among Greek cities, only in Yanya can one open a super-luxury hotel that looks like this, with an interior décor that I’d describe as Dolmabahçe-Lite, call it the Gran Serail, and get away with it. 3***

IMG_0213

IMG_0215

44471198

Digression Bakos. What’s the point? What does this have to do with Yugoslavia? I’m not digressing. I’m giving a prelude. “People don’t have the patience for this kind of length on internet posts.” I don’t post. I write, however scatterbrainedly. And not for scanners of posts. For readers. However few have the patience.

So. Croatians don’t eat börek. The prelude should have been enough for me not to have to write anything else and for the reader to be able to intuit the rest. But for those who can’t…

The graffiti on the wall in the photo at top is dated 1992, but I think it had appeared as a slogan as early as the late 80s when Slovenes and Croats started airing their completely imaginary grievances against Serbian domination of Yugoslavia and making secessionary noises. What it meant is that we, Hapsburg South Slavs, were never part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore never were subject to the barbaric and development-stunting influences of said Empire that Serbs and whoever those others that live south of them were, and therefore have the right to be free of the intolerable yoke of Serbdom. We don’t eat burek. Not only do we not eat burek, but you offer it to us and we’ll refuse in German – “Nein Danke” – just to prove how much a part of the civilized Teutonic world of Mitteleuropa we are. 4*** (I think it was Kundera who wrote about the geographical ballooning of “Central Europe” after the fall of communism, till “Eastern Europe” finally came to mean only Russia itself. ‘Cause as we now see, even Ukraine is part of Central Europe.)

Why this yummy pastry dish was singled out as a sign of Ottoman backwardness and not, say, ćevapi or sarma, I can’t say.

Cevapi54

Ćevapi — köfte, essentially — (above) and sarma (stuffed cabbage) below.

sarma raspakovana

And when I talk about Hapsburg South Slavs I’m obviously talking about Croats, because, let’s face it, who cares about Slovenes? And there may be very few, if any, compelling historical or cultural reasons of interest to care about Croatians either, except, that as most readers must know by now, I consider them the people most singularly responsible for the Yugoslav tragedy. And this post is my chance to come clear about why I feel that way. There may be lots of interpretations of what the “Illyrianist” intellectuals of Vienna and Novi Sad and Zagreb had in mind when they started spouting theories of South Slav unity in the nineteenth century; countless theories about how Yugoslavia or the original Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed; many analyses of what happened in Paris in 1919 and what kind of negotiations led to the Corfu Declaration; and reams of revisionist stuff written about exactly what Croatia wanted out of this union. But, for me, one basic fact is clear: that Croatians were always part of Yugoslavia in bad faith; that they wanted something out of the Serb efforts and Serbian blood that was decisive in defeating Austria in WWI, but that that something was independence, or greater autonomy within an Austria that they probably never expected to be dismembered the way it was – anything but what they felt was being subjected to Belgrade. And that became immediately clear upon the formation of the state when they – being, as Dame Rebecca calls them, good “lawyers” – began sabotaging the normal functioning of the Yugoslav government in any way they could, no matter how more democratic the Serbs tried to make an admittedly not perfect democracy, no matter how many concessions of autonomy Belgrade made to them. If there were any doubt as to the above, even when Radić and his Croatian People’s Peasant Party had turned the Skupština into a dysfunctional mirror image of today’s American Congress, even when a Macedonian IMRO activist working in tandem with Croatian fascists assassinated Serb King Aleksandr in Marseille in 1934, it was subsequently made brutally clear by the vicious death-spree Croatian, Nazi-collaborating fascism unleashed on Serbs during WWII, a true attempt at ethnic cleansing that dwarfs anything the Serbs may have done during the 90s — which is dwarfed again by what Croatians themselves did in the 90s again: the most heinous Nazi regime, “more royalist than the king,” as the French say — more Nazi than the Nazis — to appear in Eastern Europe during WWII.  And they have not been even remotely, adequately,  held to account by the world for any for any of the above; all this ignored, even as the West maintains a long list of mea-culpas it expects Serbs to keep reciting forever.

Alexander

King Aleksandr of Yugoslavia (click)

And so, when they got their chance in the 90s, with the backing of a newly united, muscle-flexing Germany, Croatians abruptly and unilaterally and illegally declared their long-wished for (but never fought-for) independence. And so did Slovenia; but again, who cares about Slovenia? It was a prosperous northern republic that may have held the same Northern-League- or-Catalan-type resentments against a parasitic south that was draining its wealth, but it was ethnically homogeneous and its departure left no resentful, or rightfully fearful, minorities behind. But Croatia knew, when it declared its independence – as did, I’m sure, their German buddies – that they were pulling a string out of a much more complex tapestry. And did it anyway. And we all saw the results. 5*****

So when a Croat says “Nein Danke” to an offer of burek, without even the slightest concern about his past reputation and avoiding any German associations, it is for me a chillingly racist and concise summation of Saidian Orientalism, a slogan that sums up not only the whole ugliness of the tragic, and tragically unnecessary, break-up of Yugoslavia, but the mind-set of all peoples afflicted with a sense of their being inadequately Western, and the venom that sense of inadequacy spreads to everything and everyone it comes in contact with. I’ve written in a previous post about Catalan nationalism:

All of us on the periphery, and yes you can include Spain, struggle to define ourselves and maintain an identity against the enormous centripetal power of the center.  So when one of us — Catalans, Croatians, Neo-Greeks — latches onto something — usually some totally imaginary construct — that they think puts them a notch above their neighbors on the periphery and will get them a privileged relationship to the center, I find it pandering and irritating and in many cases, “racist pure and simple.”  It’s a kind of Uncle-Tom-ism that damages the rest of us: damages our chances to define ourselves independent of the center, and damages a healthy, balanced understanding of ourselves, culturally and historically and ideologically and spiritually.  I find it sickening.

(see also: “Catalonia: ‘Nationalism effaces the individual…'” )

We’re signifying animals. And our tiniest decisions — perhaps our tiniest most of all – the symbolic value we attribute to the smallest detail of our lives, often bear the greatest meaning: of love; of the sacred; of a sense of the transcendent in the physical; of our self-worth as humans and what worth and value we ascribe to others; of hate and loathing and vicious revulsion. Nothing is an innocently ironic piece of graffiti – irony especially is never innocent, precisely because it pretends to be so.

And so I find anti-börekism offensive. Because a piece of my Theia Vantho or my Theia Arete’s börek is like a Proustian madeleine for me. Because I’m not embarrassed by it because it may be of Turkish origin. Because I think such embarrassment is dangerous – often murderously so, even. And because I think of eating börek — as I do of eating rice baked with my side of lamb and good yoghurt as opposed to the abysmally soggy, over-lemoned potatoes Old Greeks eat – as an act of culinary patriotism. 6****** And a recognition that my Ottoman habits, culinary and otherwise, are as much a part of my cultural make-up as my Byzantine or even Classical heritage are. Because just like Yugoslavia, you can’t snip out one segment of the woop and warf and expect the whole weave to hold together.

spinach-burek

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************

*1  One thing judo taught me — or rather what I learned from how long it took me, when I started, to learn to sit on my knees and flat feet — is how orthopedically horrible for our bodies upright, Western chairs and tables and couches are.  (By couch here I don’t mean the sink-in American TV couch, which you sink into until you’re too fat to get out of — that’s another kind of damage.)  Knee and lower back problems at earlier ages are far more prevalent in the Western world precisely because of these contraptions that artificially support and distort our body weight in destructive ways.  I remember older aunts in Epiros, in both Jiannena and the village, being able to sit on a low divan on the floor and pull their legs up under their hips with complete ease — women in their eighties and nineties and often portly at that — because their bodies had learned to sit on the floor or low cushions all their long and very mobile lives; they looked like they didn’t know what to do with themselves when you put them in a chair.  I’m reminded of them when I see Indian women their age at mandirs, sitting cross-legged, or with legs tucked under as described, through hours-long rituals, rising to prostrate themselves and then going down again, and then finally just getting up at the end with no pain and no numbness and no oyyy-ings.

**2  The two masterpieces of this point: the celebration of the sophistication and sensuality of the Ottoman sensibility and a trashing of Neo-Greek aesthetics — and by extension, philisitinism, racism and Western delusions — are Elias Petropoulos’ two books: Ο Τουρκικός Καφές εν Ελλάδι“Turkish Coffee in Greece,” and Tο Άγιο Χασισάκι “My Holy Hash.”  Part tongue-in-cheek, part deadly serious, both books are both hilarious and devastating.

***3  Unfortunately, to build this palace of Neo-Ottoman kitsch that would make Davutoğlu proud, one of Greece’s classic old Xenia hotels, masterpieces of post-war Greek Modernism and most designed by architect Aris Konstantinidis, was torn down, and most of these hotels have suffered similar fates throughout the country, as the nationally run State Tourist Organization was forced to sell off its assets by the privatization forced on Greece then and to this day.

Xenia Jiannena

The Jiannena Xenia, above, built in the old wooded grove of Guraba, just above the center of town, and, below, perhaps Konstantinidis’ masterpiece, the Xenia at Paliouri in Chalkidike. (click)

Eot-paliouri-1962-2

Fortunately, Jiannena preserves one of Konstantinidis’ other masterpieces, its archaeological museum, below. (click)

100_6975_-_Kons.Ioan1

****4  Ironically, the strudel that Croats and Slovenes imagine themselves eating in their Viennese wet dreams is probably a descendant of börek; and take it a step further: let’s not forget that croissants and all danish-type puff pastry items are known generically as viennoiserie in French.  So the ancestor of some of the highest creations of Parisian/French/European baking arts is something that a Slovene says “nein danke” to in order to prove how European he is.  Talk about the farcicalness of “nesting orientalisms.”

croissant

*****5  Of course, in every case, this assumption-cum-accusation, about the parasitic South draining the North of its resources, is patent bullshit.  Southern Italy, the southern Republics of Yugoslavia, Castille, Galicia, Andalusia, and the southern tier of the European Union today, may get disproportionately more in the allotment of certain bureaucratic funds compared to the tangible wealth they produce.  But they also provide the North, in every single one of these cases, with resources, labor and markets on which that North gets rich to a far more disproportionate degree and stunts the South’s growth in the process.  So haydi kai…

It’s become a common-place — and not inaccurate — observation that the catastrophic economic pressure Germany is today exercising on the nations of Southern Europe for the sake of making some sick moral point is the fourth time it’s wrecked Europe in less than a centurythe third time being when it decided, immediately upon reunification, to show the continent it was a political player again by practically single-handedly instigating the destruction of Yugoslavia.

******6

patattes

Over-oreganoed and over-lemoned — like much of Greek food — and overdone, over-salted and over-oiled, perhaps the only thing more repulsive than the soggy potatoes Old Greeks bake with lamb or chicken (though one horrible restaurant — which New Yorkers are for some reason crazy about: I mean like “take-the-N-train-out-to-Astoria-and-wait-for-a-table-for-an-hour” crazy — criminally serves them with grilled fish) is the serving of stewed meat with french fries.  You’ve hit the rock bottom of Neo-Greek cuisine when you’ve had a dry, stringy “reddened” veal or lamb dish accompanied by what would otherwise be good, often hand-cut french fries, sitting limply on the side and sadly drowning in the red oil.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014

7 Sep

beograd-1910Belgrade 1905 (click)

*****************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

“Post”-something. Not post-apocalyptic or Blade Runner-ish or all the nonsense that people used to write about the city in the nineties or after the war (when, maybe, I don’t know, it did feel like that), but definitely the sense that something is over and no one has any real idea of what this is now or what’s coming next. A certain optimism about the future though, which is probably just an inherent trait of its inhabitants, both leavened and sobered by the kind of biting black humor that’s not the only thing that reminds me of Russians.

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

You’re already one foot out of, or may have already left the Balkans here. This was particularly striking to me after seeing so much of the southern Balkans just a month or so ago. Where I have come from, I mean, to compare to? Argyrocastro is an Ottoman jewel in stone; Ochrid a truly archontiko little city. The rest: Tirana, Podgorica, Tetovo, Skopje, the garish hideousness of Priština; were all obviously Ottoman wood-and-plaster hovels until the communist cement blocks went up.

Here you’re in Mitteleuropa already, in a city in that never was — except for temporary occupations — but could’ve been, a handsome Hapsburg town. It’s most beautiful from the opposite shores of the rivers that hem it in all around, with the city high on the bluffs overlooking its entire region. It reminded me of Kiev a little in this sense, though a much more recent city in terms of basic architectural stock and without Kiev’s glut of spectacular Baroque churches; in fact, until the first Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century, the population was predominantly Muslim. (Actually there’s hardly any religious architecture of any quality or beauty at all. There’s the small, pretty Baroque cathedral of the city just outside the walls, in what was probably the suburb where Christians were allowed to live in Ottoman times and that’s about it. All the city’s other churches that I saw are these genuinely grotesque Neo-Serbo-Mediaeval monstrosities of Orthodox nationalism; the kind they’re building all over Greece now too.)

Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra Streets — the main pedestrianized drags — and the Cathedral spire at bottom.  (Click on all)

IMG_0851

IMG_0857

IMG_0841

IMG_0849

IMG_0859

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

But you understand a great deal about Serbian history just by standing up on the peak of the Kalemegdan fortress, the sprawling castle that covers the highest, northernmost peak of the peninsula and you realize that you’re standing on the last, frontline hill of Balkan rock, where the Danube meets a whole huge complex of river networks from north and south and that the expanse of green mixed with suburb spreading out in front of you is the beginning of the vast Pannonian plain that stretches out to the Carpathians in one direction and eventually the northern European flatlands that flow all the way to the Baltic in the other. (See map at top.) Apparently and according to Misha Glenny, the Ottomans called Belgrade the “darul-al-jihad,” the House of War (though why this wouldn’t apply to so many other places, I don’t know) and you can see how easily defensible but also temptingly assailabale the site is; it’s the one place you have to control to continue your drive either north or south.

Belgrade-Kalemegdan-at-dawnThe Kalemegdan (click)

Kalemegdan from across Sava(click)

You also realize just how far north – when you think that Stefan Dušan’s empire stretched as far south as the Gulf of Corinth and he often held court east of Salonica at Serres – the center of gravity of the Serbian nation has shifted over the centuries, to lands so completely different, even ecologically, the flora and fauna, that it becomes easier to isolate a glorious mediaeval past in some mythic compartment in the nation’s head – the two sides of the Aegean, in our case, for example, were never so different – and that that can have all sorts of psychological consequences. I’m, of course, thinking of Kosovo mostly, but more on that later…

DusanTerritory_14cStefan Dušan’s empire at its height (click)

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Lots of leafy attractive streets, at least in the neighborhoods that stretch immediately south and east of the Kalemegdan. Funky sidewalk cafes and bars. Only a couple of very late nineteenth-century neo-classical structures. Most of the city seems to be a twentieth-century creation: attractive Art Nouveau and Art Deco apartment houses; some later stuff that could kind of be described as late Bauhaus-y even, like some neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; more proof that Yugoslavia was far cooler than any other communist country and more reason to be pissed off that things ended they way they did. A certain shabbiness, that I thought only added to its charm, but that made me wonder what’s going on economically. There’s way too much high quality housing stock in potentially high quality neighborhoods sitting there looking empty and uncared for and under the right circumstances the whole place seems primed to launch into a massive gentrification and real estate boom. If I had any extra cash lying around I’d buy something now. In any event, for a city that’s been beaten up badly three times in less than a century – maybe not as bad the third time but in a manner just as morally reprehensible – it’s looking ok.

(Click on all)

IMG_0828The Rakia Bar, my favorite spot in all of Belgrade, delicious rakia made from anything imaginable, quince was my favorite, lugged three bottles of it with me, supposedly to share with friends in New York, but they all got swilled down in Russia.  The Rakia Bar is the site of the famous: …rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković… post from July.  (I think whether you say ‘rakia” or rakija” is a regional dialect difference, with the palatization that the “j” represents more common in “south-western” dialects: — western Bosnian, Herzegovinan, Montenegrin. — but not sure.  I know that “river” is “reka” in some regions and “rjeka” in others.)

IMG_0822

IMG_0826

IMG_0825

IMG_0837

IMG_0840

IMG_0823

IMG_0824

IMG_0829

IMG_0830

And some of the city’s few remaining Ottoman-era, or at least Ottoman-style, buildings.  The top being the residence of some saint or something — the bottom the royal residence of some Obrenović mistress I think.  Very uncharacteristically of me, I just wasn’t into too much historical research while there.  The city is just too much fun.

IMG_0836

IMG_0853

IMG_0854

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

The food is great; predictable but always competent and consistently delicious. A bodybuilder’s paradise: every plate comes piled so high with a mountain of grilled protein that no normal-sized person can be expected to pack it away, but appetites here, in every sense, are big. A vegetarian’s nightmare: and if you persist in your adherence to that silly creed, expect to eat a lot of very good tomatoes – in the summer at least – with huge grated piles of a great cheese they have that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feta and brindza. If you’re a vegan…and/or have gluten issues too so you can’t eat the great bread either or even try the börek, then maybe arrange for sessions to be fed intravenously at a local hospital or just don’t come at all.

(Click on all)

cevapi

Cevapi 2hotel-italia

Dormitor-huge-mixed-grill

dscn2917

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

On the sign and menu of an otherwise sedate, old-fashioned feeling Bosnian restaurant with great ćevapi, the ubiquitous little köfte, a homey cellar place that feels like an old Moscow traktir or something… If anyone can explain the symbolic intention behind it, they get my Umberto Eco semiotics award for 2014.  Really, can anyone tell whether this is supposed to be a joke or not?

(Click on both)

IMG_0811

IMG_0816

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

Much more in keeping with Serbs’ smart, cerebral, black humor: this t-shirt, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, which I thought was priceless: “It’s a matter of Princip.” Fantastic…

(Click)

IMG_0845

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

The language is – excuse my language – a total hard-on. I’ve already got my affinity for Slavic phonemes from my Russian days — though sometimes it seems they came out of the womb with me – and on top of it it’s tonal, too, with rising and falling stress and long and short vowels like classical Greek. The combination is magically sexy and something I could listen to for hours dumbly without understanding barely a word. It also makes it, unless you’ve dedicated some serious study to it phonetically, almost impossible to pronounce correctly. The street I lived on was called “Dobračina,” for example, in Dorćol (from the Turkish “dört yol” — “four roads.”)  And taking my cues from my Russian, which is really no great help since it has free stress and constantly surprises you also, I would say: “Do-bra-či-na.” But whenever it was repeated back to me it sounded like “Do-bra-či-na” or Do-bra-či-na” or even some combination of both, but never like what I had said; the lack of dynamic stress makes it sound like emphasis comes scattered in varying degrees of strength all over a word and not just on one syllable. Tempting to take it up. But I have to resist NikoBako tendencies to scatter my energies all over the place at once and never quite acquire full mastery of anything. Maybe later.

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

The place’s greatest pleasure is its people. They have a quality that I’ve always struggled to express in English but is nearly impossible and makes me constantly have to resort to other languages. The somewhat dated Spanish “altanero” works – “alto” is your cue there – as does the more popular term still in use in Spain, the complex of traits referred to as “majo,” which I’ve tried to describe several times elsewhere (such as in this post: Un Verano en Nueva York).  “Αγέρωχη” works, the word Cavafy uses to describe Anna Comnene, which Keeley and others, I think, mistakenly translate as “arrogant” or “haughty,” but which for me means something like “breezily confident” and again could almost be a cognate for the Spanish “airoso.” But it’s a type of confidence that isn’t entirely about your ego, but one that obliges you to be open and generous and welcoming with others as well. The media and its pundits have fed us so much crap since the nineties about Serbs’ pathological and self-aggrandizing sense of their own heroism, that it’s impossible to even tell what’s true or not. But if they are that conscious of their heroic mantle, they certainly wear it lightly, like a people who have nothing to prove to you or really could give a shit about what you think of them. This means almost none of the tough guy, hyper-butchness we might be conditioned to expect. In fact, despite the borderline cockiness, women and men are almost always polite and unfailingly warm; sweet and tender even, like Russians when they get in their Russian moods. And with Serbs you don’t have to pry off the cast-iron mug first to get to the sweet part like you have to do with Russians.

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

One great thing about Serbian women, aside from leggy and sexy and gorgeous and everything else you’ve heard: they’re real pals. This is going to sound totally sexist to some, but I didn’t mind the first time I was called sexist in my life and it certainly won’t be the last. They have this uncanny ability to hang out comfortably with guys. They’re not cloyingly clingy. They don’t demand attention through passive-aggressive silence or sulking and they speak freely but without forcing themselves into the center of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their man or his friends. It’s simply this extremely attractive capacity to go along with the rhythms and patterns of male camaraderie without sacrificing any of their femininity. Serbian men should consider themselves extremely lucky.

******************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************************

And on a related and final note: it’s not a myth; it’s a fact that I’m sorry to report is true. One out of three people you pass on the street deserves a head-turn and a second looking-over; you simply can’t stop yourself. One out of…I dunno, I’m just stupidly throwing out numbers here…six or seven…or at least one person in every kompaniya/parea let’s say, are simply knock-outs: tall, long-and-strong-limbed, great noses, good jaws and a higher percentage of crazy green-hazel eyes than I’ve seen in any other country. It’s dizzying. And they know it too and there’s no false humility about it either and of course that only concentrates the effect.

Sorry, only the one pic below, which isn’t even mine.  I’m still too shy to photograph people without having a press i.d. round my neck.

Anyway, there are places you go to and say: “That was nice…” and then they go into your travel archives.  And then there are places that you know, as you’re leaving, you’re not finished with.  Belgrade I’m not finished with.

Belgrade street scene(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Belgrade: Wimbledon 2014, rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković…

12 Jul

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDONGetty Images (click)

“What’s with you and all the Djoković?”

This is M. in Belgrade, after the sixth or seventh rakia, giving me a hard time about my Nole cult. M. is an old Serbian student of mine from New York. He’s one of my favorites actually; out of the nearly ten years I taught English at CUNY, he’s one of those special ones that I can count on one hand. Funny, charismatic, super-smart – when he came to class – he was a real asset to have.

“I was your best student,” he says, a propos of nothing and with characteristic modesty.

“Yeah, when you came to class,” I say.

We live ten minutes from each other in New York but never see each other – bumped into each other at some bars a couple of times – except that every year at Orthodox Easter he comes to my house. But I haven’t been home for Easter for the past three years, so we didn’t see each other then either. Except for one night, two nights ago, the stars arranged for us to both be in Belgrade together and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get some long-due drinking done.

So this is M. getting all up in my face Serbian style:

“If you’re such a fan, why are you here? Why aren’t you in Montenegro at his wedding trying to get a picture?”

I didn’t even know Djoković was getting married this weekend and M. knows I’m too old and probably knows enough else about me to know I’m not some idiot groupie:

“Like the other groupies…” he says nevertheless. “You could try to take a picture of him with the bride…one with the bride alone…one with…”

The thing is his teasing is so good humored it makes you wanna jump right into the ring with him and take him on, so it’s always fun and it only makes you like him more. I also came away from the evening feeling good because M. and I barely know each other actually, but a bunch of his friends showed up and it was obvious how loved he was by all of them and that was nice to see; I like when my instincts about a person are correct even when I don’t have much evidence to go by.  But he’s relentless…

“You could try to get a picture of the dog…”

Well for M. or anybody, if you still don’t know what my Djoković thing is about and how it relates to my Serb thing and how possessive and defensive I get about both, you haven’t been reading my blog very regularly. So let me try again. Back to Wimbledon…

I don’t think any real tennis aficionado could’ve asked for a better Wimbledon 2014 – unless you have the frankly hilarious misfortune of being a Nadal fan, in which case you deserve your fate and I’ll tell you when it’s ok to come out of your room and stop being embarrassed. For Djoković it was no easy climb. Great tennis all the way, but he wasn’t granted anything. With Čilić, with Raonić, with Dimitrov, there was practically not a single give-away. He had to wrestle every point from the hands of the universe.

Of course the finals match between him and Federer was a friggin’ dream. It was everything you want from good tennis, from good sport, competition, art, or a good war even: matched skill and guts, intelligent tactics, constant reversal and coming back from behind – and the masochistic pleasure or knowing that even if your guy loses, he’ll have lost to someone you respect. This was one of those matches that the phrase “toe-to-toe” was invented for. At no single point during the more than three hours did either man have enough of a numerical lead to allow his supporters to relax for a few minutes. Neither of them was ever more than just one step ahead of the other and that never lasted long enough for you to take even half a breath.

I watched the game in an empty Greek bar with a friend of mine and don’t think I actually sat back on my seat for a second. And I don’t know whether it was the emptiness of a bar in suburban Athens, perhaps, on a hot July, Sunday afternoon — the hours of high summer heat in Attica still turn the city into a desert — but this was the first time that Djoković’ loneliness on the court struck me so hard. Existentially.  How completely lonely he sometimes seems.  Of course, that day, Wimbledon had to do with it as well. For a variety of reasons we all know, Novak’s always been considered the kind of odd man out in the tennis world despite his stupendous capabilities as an athlete, and Wimbledon is clearly the most classist of all tennis venues where that would show up in its starkest form. I don’t know if it was the shots that the Greek network we were watching was being fed, but not once during the whole match, were the cameras able to get even a single shot of the crowd looking satisfied or anything but stressed whenever an exchange went well for Nole; except occasionally from Becker and his team; no one from his family even seemed to be there — getting ready for the wedding circus I can now presume, but didn’t know at the time. Unlike the always cool French, who’ll applaud you for your art no matter who you are or where you’re from, like the standing ovation they gave Djok for his battle against the Catalan that left him in tears at Roland Garros, here there was the unmistakable look of British and other jet-set spectators at a sporting event in the grip of pure class terror: that their suave Swiss aristocrat would lose to this Balkan nut-job…and at Wimbledon.

I remembered that shitty little article by Lauren Collins that The New Yorker had run last September — The Third Man — about Novak, which kept essentially asking whether he can learn how to act like a proper tennis player: “Can he make us like him?” Like you guys are the arbiters of what exactly and he needs your liking?  And all my pro-Serb and pro-Nole nerves got twisted into knots again, like when I had first read it. The whole article was just dripping with condescension and I thought to myself that if Collins had written an article like that about an athlete from a “country of color,” The New Yorker would have been faced with a howling riot of censoring anger and cries of racism. “Is Nole too ghetto for Wimbledon?” Collins had essentially wanted to know. She could’ve consulted me and I would’ve come up with at least twenty terms from half a dozen Balkan languages for “ghetto” that she could have used.

Then the fifth set started and it became clear that both men knew this was it, life or death, especially because it started to become clear that physical and – from the tightness of the game and competition – nervous exhaustion had started to set in. And Nole got that look he gets late in matches, where he alternates between a look of steely professionalism and hunger that’s ready to rip his opponent to shreds, and this strange watery-eyed look of almost spiritual exaltation, looking dreamily skyward, or gazing down at the ground blankly. And this latter look, though beautiful, is a little worrisome because it means he’s either going to start playing like a man possessed by some god and steamroll whoever he’s up against into the ground – or just start f*cking up and making a royal mess of everything.

It became clear that he was in a state of deity-possession almost as soon as the set started. And then he stopped looking lonely to me. Instead we was simply magnificently alone, the akritas fighting it out on the marble threshing-floor, the young kraljević single-handedly taking on the hostile hordes of pink frangoi in their sun-screen and appropriate hats.

NOLEUSE1404667649000-AFP-531415517Glyn Kirk, AFP/Getty Images (click)

And Federer hit the ball into the net and it was all over. And Nole cracked open; not up, open — like the cracks that Leonard Cohen says let the light get in, except the light here was not flooding in but out of him in this great luminous glow. I don’t know what mad idea of redemption or humility or gratitude was going through his crazed Slavic mind when he knelt and started eating the grass off the court, but in the back of my mind I could hear some Serbian Sonya Marmeladova crying:

“This is what you shall do! Go at once, this very moment to the crossroads and kiss the earth which you have defiled and bow down to the world and say: ‘I am grateful. I am humble. I am grateful. I am humble.’”

And then the tears of that gratitude and humility started flowing and I haven’t even wanted to watch any of the post-game interviews or read anything; I just want to be left with that image of him holding the cup and bawling. Weeping copiously.  Like a man.

wimbledon-men-novak-djokovic-wimbledon-trophy_3169070Getty images (click)

My sense here in Serbia is that there’s a little bit of a conflict between Djoković’ status as saintly national hero and the celebrity circus that’s constantly flowing around him, and that that’s what M.’s cynicism was about with the wedding and all. But a girl, I., who was in M.’s kompaniya that night: very smart and pretty, who speaks absolutely native-speaker American English and who is always running what’s apparently one of Serbia’s fastest-growing websites from from her IPad – which she was doing that night – while still managing to remain front and center of any conversation she happens to find herself in, says that’s the girlfriend and the media’s fault, not his, and that it really irks her.

“What does ‘irk’ mean, M.?” I decide to play professor with him, addressing him by his last name.

“It means like when something bother-… What do you mean what does it mean?!  I know what it means.  I was your best student!”

“Yeah. When you came to class.”

I. also talked some about some genuine darkness that was part of Nole’s childhood, the details of which are common knowledge here, but I’m not going to get into because it’s part of this blog’s journalistic policy not to go there with cheaply personal and especially hurtful personal issues, and especially not with someone I love and admire and who’s as much of a hero of mine as Djoković is. But let’s just say the redeeming, protecting hero archetype is a structurally core part of his psyche.

“He’s a beautiful man and he has a beautiful soul,” I. declared, definitively ending that conversation, as I imagine she must definitively end others when she wants to.

And I felt vindicated.

Do you have your answer now, M.?

Out of respect for this spectacular victory and the Djoković-and-tennis tolerance of my readers I promise there will be no Djoković or tennis at all until the U.S. Open.

But see you before then.

Djokunnamed

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Note:  Speaking of “marble threshing-floors…”  The court at Wimbledon is in such shit state that it can only be called a grass court in the most ideally Platonic terms.  Really; cute British shabbiness has its limits.  Beer and probably piss-stained pub carpeting is one thing.  A court where most of the playing is done on parched, packed, rock-hard dirt, made that much more treacherous by the fine layer of sand it kicks up and coats itself with, is another.  It definitely put a cramp on both players’ styles at several moments during the match and there were times where it even looked like it could cause dangerous injury.  With Nole I didn’t know whether his super-human flexibility would protect him or if it would make his propensity for taking acrobatic risks that much more risky.  Either way, do something.  It’s one of those things that’s not charming about England anymore.

%d bloggers like this: