Tag Archives: besa

Montenegro: Land Without Justice

7 Jun

MontenegroAIMG_0346(click)

Montenegro was originally the ultimate destination of this trip, with a quick drive-through of Macedonia, Kosovo to visit the Serbian monasteries and ultimate destination Durmitor national park and the town of Žabljak.  But I’m skipping over Kosovo for now because it was the country that left the deepest, and actually most painful, marks on me and after that Montenegro was simply this placid paradise.

MontenegroE(click)

Because Montenegro is paradise, at least for someone as in love with high country as I am.  Gorgeous mountains, sparkling cold rivers and lakes, deep forests, great meat and dairy products — Switzerland without the Swiss essentially.  So instead of chilly neat-freaks, you find this land of towering mountains inhabited by this race of smiling Slavic giants…who are so gentle and polite that one finds it almost impossible to reconcile them with the Montenegrins of only a century ago that Djilas describes in his book with such emotional complexity and depth.  One can still imagine certain scenes of  Land Without Justice having occurred in the past in Albania or Kosovo or even Macedonia — of course Afghanistan — but not in Montenegro as you experience it today.  It was, paradoxically, of all the countries I visited, the one most lacking in Balkan male posturing and the weird edgy tenseness it brings.  It was very odd.

MontenegroD(click)

I’ve talked about this book a lot because it’s — if not just a literary — a psychological masterpiece.  It describes a society of incredible cruelty and desperation and weaves the simultaneous threads of warmth and pride and love through it so that by the time you’re just one fifth into the book you find that, without realizing it, you’ve suspended all moral judgement of these people and feel only incredible empathy for them, as beings inhabiting not just high altitudes, but the highest, most pathos-soaked peaks of the human condition.  The men are beautiful paragons of manliness and courage and treacherous killers; the women are cruel shrews and sudden swamps of love and tenderness; kin betray kin; a brother stabs his brother in the thigh for the humiliation of being constantly teased by him, so that the bright red blood spurts across the Christmas dinner table, and though they continue to love each other so powerfully they would easily give up their lives for the other, they never speak again; the assertion that the love of a Montenegrin sister for her brothers is above any mother’s is actually an assertion that convinces you; and everyone pursuing with manic drive the one highest emotional satisfaction they know: vengeance.

MonteDur(click)

Below are some selections from the early portions of the novel, when the Djilas clan is establishing a name for itself, while Montenegro is coalescing into something like a modern state and, like everywhere in the Balkans after the Ottomans’ departure, the new governments were exploiting and manipulating the traditions of clan warfare to bring some kind of order to the new society.

Here Djilas writes about his great uncle Marko, an “outlaw,” because they were used to the violent free-for-all that characterized the last few disordered decades of nineteenth-century life in the Ottoman Balkans and were just not used to the authority being imposed by the newly Balkan states’ “governments,” an authority that, as in this case, was often just a settling of old scores by men of the same ilk as the “outlaws.” Here, he describes Marko’s “unmanly” killing – ordered by then Prince Danilo of Montenegro — and how it was avenged by his nephew Aleksa, Djilas’ own grandfather:

“One morning when Marko was awakened, his cave was surrounded. He was lured out by a pledge of truce and met a volley of rifles. The attackers were led by the famous hero and new district captain of the mighty Čorović clan, Alica Čorović. Dying, Marko moved his lips to speak – to curse the treachery or to leave a message – but Akica rammed a rifle butt into his teeth and stopped his last words…

“There was nobody to avenge the dead outlaw… The blood that had been shed might have subsided and been forgotten had not Akica boasted that his cruel deed had been not only official but also an act of personal whim and passion. This has always been possible where authorities are inhuman, and especially so in my country. Then there rose among the Djilas kin a will more savage and indomitable than Akica’s, that of my uncle Marinko’s son Aleksa, my grandfather.

“Two, if not three, years had gone by since the death of Marko, whose personality had caused a new name and new clan to blaze up from the ashes of the humble living and peaceful dying of former serfs. It was spring and Aleksa was plowing the field. His father, Marinko, was tending the flocks in the mountain. Captain Akica Čorović, accompanied by two soldiers, came riding by the field. He stopped his horse and called out a greeting to the lad. Aleksa replied with a murky silence, the only fitting tribute to a murderer. Akica shot back, “Dog, why don’t you respond to my greeting? For I could lay you out to dry as I did your uncle!” The lad left his plowing, hurried back to his mother, and tricked her into believing that his father had sent an urgent demand for his rifle to fight attacking wolves. His mother gave him a blunderbuss from the locked chest. Aleksa intercepted Akica, fired a shattering volley into his chest, and them, with a dagger, carved out pieces of his heart.”

MonteDurmitorIMG_0373(click)

Aleksa then goes on the run too – somehow managing to have a family in the meantime — but eventually is lured into an ambush, equally unheroic and “pabesiko” (Besa-less), by others recruited by the government again:

“Aleksa’s own godfather [they were all soy and koumbaroi too] invited him to a celebration prepared secretly for his death. There, at his godfather’s board, a guest hit Aleksa on the head with a wooden mallet. If they had killed him in a manly way, with a gun and out of doors, there would have been less hatred to remember! But they felled him like an ox. And they threw his body in the middle of the field.

“The authorities in Cetinje had directed the murder; for them not even spiritual kinship was sacred. Many others were tricked in this same manner. Prince-Bishop Njegos had frequently broken his word, though never willingly, but he, at least, had never forced Montenegrins to trample on their most sacred customs. Prince Danilo did not balk at this, and Prince Nikola dispatched his opponents even more silently and without notice. It could not always be so.

“In Montenegro of that time it was not unusual for whole families to be wiped out, down to the last seed. Thus it was decided to destroy the rebellious house of Aleksa Djilas. The murderers of Aleksa set out to kill off all the males in his family. They surrounded his house and called out Aleksa’s younger brother Veljko, who was brave and fast with a gun, and therefore they feared him. Veljko, unsuspecting, came out and was met with a volley of rifle shots. Though wounded, he slipped away in the dark through the bullets and the kives. Aleksa’s oldest son, Mirko, a lad of twelve, fled through the window. The middle son, Lazar, lay hidden by his mother in the manger hay. Aleksa’s father, Marinko, bent and deaf from old age, was innocently warming himself by the fireplace when the murderers broke in and killed him by the hearth. His blood fed the flames and his body was burned. My father, then a year and a half old, was in the cradle. As a murderer swung his knife, one of my grandmother’s kin, who was among the attackers, caught his arm. “It would be a sin – a babe in the cradle!” [That was a sin; and like I said, they were all soy and koumbaroi] And so my father lived. No one touched Stanojka, the oldest child, who was fifteen and had just come into maidenhood; it was not the custom of Montenegrins to take up arms against women.

“The house and the cattle were plundered. The family was left on the bare bloody rock.

“Aleksa’s head had to be rescued, for according to beliefs of that time, a retrieved and preserved head was like the retrieving of one’s honor and pride, almost as though a man had not been slain. None dared except Aleksa’s daughter Stanojka to go and bring the head, to keep it at least from being gnawed by the dogs or dishonored by enemies…

“This land was never one to reward virtue, but it has always been strong on taking revenge and punishing evil. Revenge is the greatest delight and glory. Is it possible that the human heart can find peace and pleasure only in returning evil for evil?”

MontenegroBIMG_0344 2(click)

And Stanojka is only one of the many women who display not only more physical courage than some of the men in the novel, but greater ethical courage as well.  The following passage occurs during WWI and the Austrian invasion of Serbia and Montenegro, when the Montenegrins ripped the invading Austrian army to shreds, just before doing the same to the retreating Serbian army the next year; Montenegro’s “now-I-love-you-now-I-don’t” relationship to Serbia is a difficult and complicated one for me to comprehend and — I admit, as a Serbophile — one that makes me kind of angry.  I was surprised by the passions it still generated there — that, yes.

“As in every criminal deed and dishonor, there sounded out deep from the masses a humane voice, alone among the thousands, but noble and unforgettable. There was a woman, a Montenegrin, who had no more pity for the Austrian army than the rest, but who sorrowed at the human suffering of soldiers in a strange land. She drove her husband, who had taken some soldier’s boots away from him, to find the poor man and restore them to his bare and bleeding feet. She said she did not want the curse of a martyred soldier’s mother to overtake her children. Spare and bony, all bent and sucked dry, she stood before her country and her people, great and pure. Human conscience and compassion are never stilled anywhere, not even in Montenegro in moments of drunkenness from holy hatred and righteous revenge.”

MontenegroC

(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

My Circassians

25 May

AdygeaReaders might remember I’ve had a long-term interest in Circassians since high school.  Of all the peoples collectively known in Turkey as muhacir, the Ottoman Muslims who took refuge in the Anatolian heartland of the Empire as it shrank, probably none had a more torturously, circuitous odyssey to ultimate safety in Turkey than the Circassians.  Here’s a selection about them from a post I wrote in February about why I was boycotting the Sochi Olympics; it wasn’t just for Putin and his filthy, murderous personage, but because the games were being held on land an admirable and honorable people had fought long and hard to keep and had been brutally thrown out of by Imperial Russia:

“And then there are the Circassians.  I became obsessed with Circassians in high school because I had to know who these people were, so physically beautiful apparently, that they held the entire Near East in thrall for centuries.  Circassians were the first reason I ever went into the New York Public Library, because the library at Stuyvesant didn’t have anything on them.  This is also around the time, as a nerdy sixteen-year-old, that I started developing the totally adolescent, romantic fascination I still suffer from, for honor-obsessed, heavily-armed highlanders — Montenegrins, northern Albanians, Pashtuns — who don’t easily let themselves get pushed around by outsiders.   It fed a lonely teenager’s fantasies of empowerment then.  Now, I couldn’t tell you.  Probably still.

“The Circassians lived in a huge swath of plain, foothill and high mountain country in the northern Caucasus.  Most of the sites of the this month’s games are being held on formerly Circassian territory.  This is a map of their general distribution in the eighteenth century, right before Russian expansion southwards began:

Circassia_in_1750

(click)

“For more than a century they fought a brutal tooth-and-nail war against the Russians and their Cossacks.  When they finally capitulated in 1864 it was in Sochi.  The majority, which would not agree to an oath of loyalty to Russia were deported, in what was probably the first campaign of ethnic cleansing of such dimensions in modern history.  For months, the beach at Sochi was a Dunkerque-like humanitarian disaster zone, with tens of thousands of shelterless, starving and diseased Circassians waiting for Ottoman ships to take them to safety in Anatolia or the still-Turkish Balkans or dying on the spot.

Expulsion_map_of_the_Circassians_in_19th_century“It certainly represented the largest civilian death toll of any war up to its time and today, ninety percent of people of Circassian descent live outside their original homeland, mostly Turkey, but also Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.”

(To read the whole post: Ignoring Sochi.“)

And as with Native Americans in North America, as their government was massacring and expelling them, Russian poets and writers like Lermontov, Pushkin and Tolstoy were romanticizing them, sympathizing with them and entering in a love affair with all the peoples of the Caucasus that literary Russia still has not recovered from.  Someone, everywhere, at all times, has a heart and a soul — for whatever good it does.

I had assumed muhacir is constructed from the Arabic “mu = doer of something” plus the roots ‘h’ + ‘j’ + ‘j’ (?) which almost sounds more like “pilgrim” –  as in “Hajj.”  But “mu” turns out to be a passive participle marker of someone who is made to do something, in this case not as in “Hajj, pilgrimage, but  ‘h’ + ‘j’ + ‘r’ as in “Hejira?” which would mean “fleer,” as in those who fled with Muhammad to Medina from Mecca in 622.  That would make more sense than traveller, which would be the “mu-sa-fir” recognizable to any Greeks as an old-fashioned word for “guest,” except to those Neo-Greeks that are so Post-Ottoman that they’re Post-Culture-of-Any-Kind and most certainly Post-Hospitality.  The Muslims that left India after Partition in 1947 to go to the land of Islamic Purity are also known as muhajir in South Asia.  I say that the Circassians’ route was particularly circuitous because many of them were first settled by the Ottoman government in the Balkans — especially Bulgaria and Kosovo (where there’s still a tiny community), where they were used to demographically offset the Christian population and because their warrior reputation would come in handy against Christian rebellions and Russian invasions.  (Though there is one wild episode of the Greco-Turkish War where a band of Circassian çeteler [çetes] in western Anatolia actually aided the invading Greek army.  Go figure.  Any-thing is possible in our part of the world.)  Needless to say with the coming of independence for the nations of the Balkans, they were uprooted again to Anatolia and other parts of the still Ottoman Arab world.

This year is the 150-year anniversary of the final, catastrophic expulsion from their Caucasian homeland and local Circassians (“Çerkes” in Turkish) have been holding demonstrations in front of the Russian Consulate down here on the Jadde (I wouldn’t even lower myself to asking for Putin’s ear) and then closer here to my place in front of Galatasarary.  (Click)

IMG_0777IMG_0775But I was kind of disappointed because I couldn’t get any really good pictures except some like these above.  Then I get on the ferry from Beşiktaş to go to Kadiköy with my cousin, Vangeli, to feed him at the spectacular Çiya restaurant there and visit Beylerbeyi, my favorite Ottoman palace, and by blogger-photographer’s luck right across from me is sitting this handsome Circassian kid from central casting (click):

IMG_0780 He was surprised I knew that his t-shirt said “Адыгэ” – “Adyghe,” which is what Circasians call themselves, written in the Cyrillic script they now use.  I asked him if he spoke the language and he said no, but some other Circassians I found the next day in Pera said that due to a concerted effort on the Turkey-wide community’s part — language classes, theater workshops, radio programs — more Circassians in Turkey of this kid’s age speak more of at least a little bit of the language than their parents do and that interest is increasing.  Insha’allah.  Cool.  So if you don’t respect these people for their legendary beauty, their ferocious warrior rep, the fact that they managed to stave off the forces of Imperial Russia for two centuries, that as the Mamluk military elite they effectively ran Egypt for five-hundred years till Mehmet Ali the Albanian massacred them in a totally, shitty, un-Albanian, pabesiko (“pa” = no + BESA), dishonorable, ambush — see  (“BESA: A Code of Honour,“) — then just admire them for sticking together as a cohesive and living identity after being scattered across the world for a century and a half now.

The suffering of Circassians and all the other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus are laid out in a bit of an uneven but heartfelt and informative book by Oliver Bullough called Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus — here’s his website too (check out some interesting pics): Oliver Bullough: Let Our Fame Be Great.

lofbg-usa-cover-300wUnfortunately, I don’t know if there’s a Turkish translation (or Arabic: Jordan, where Circassians still make up the King’s Royal Guard, Syria and, some extent Israel, is where most Circassians outside of Turkey now live) for young Circassians today to read.

Another book that I do know there’s a Turkish translation of, and is probably the only monograph to deal with the step by step expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims through the nineteenth and and early twentieth centuries, but tracing roots of the process back to even the century before is Justin McCarthy’s Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922Not polemic, not propagandistic, just the facts and figures that speak for themselves.  It should be required reading for every Christian in the former Ottoman sphere.  It’s not exclusively about the Circassian tragedy but there is, as you can imagine, a great deal of material on their experiences.

51qnwpuNCVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Turkish-speaking Circassians should definitely check this book out that’s available everywhere in İstanbul; they’ll learn a lot.  I really hope they get a chance to.  Share this post with friends if you found it interesting.  Feel free to write me with any comments.  And keep the memory alive!.  NB

55696-olum-ve-surgun-death-and-exile-justin-mccarthy

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Besa: A Reader Responds…

14 Apr

Besa: A Code of Honor  (November 20th)

“Niko I have long wanted to leave a comment about this post. I believe that what the Albanaians did for the Jews in sheltering them from the Nazis was courageous, noble and just. And besa is at its roots a tribal, and to a lesser extent, islamic code of honor. You mention Afghanistan-there is in Pashtunistan what is known as the Pashtun code Pakhtunwali which also purports to protect an accepted guest. Pakhtunwali is also tribal and islamic. Was it not this same code that protected Osama Bin Laden after his escape from Tora Bora? Is that same code rightly honored in one instance and rightly deplorable in another? Just a thought…”

NB: It is the same code Rafa.  No, I personally, at least, do not think it’s deplorable in one case and not the other. Honor is absolute, absolute by definition.  For me, the word itself means”no-exceptions”; otherwise it’s not honor. Whether we like its consequences or nor or whether it gets “honored” more in the breach or not is another question.  Those Pashtuns didn’t have a choice.  And you know who to talk to that’s most likely to agree: the American servicemen that were up there.

Prokletije163571

The Проклетије (Prokletije) or Accursed Mountains, that separate — or more likely unite — northern Albania, Montenegro and Serbia.  (Click, for sure; it’s a huge file and it’s gorgeous)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

TIMES letter to the editor: “Albanians and Serbs”

4 Dec

Occasionally something encouraging:

November 28, 2013

Albanians and Serbs

To the Editor:

Casting Light on Little-Known Story of Albania Rescuing Jews From Nazis” (news article, Nov. 19) was no surprise to me. I witnessed the humanity of Albanians toward minority groups when I worked in Kosovo from 2000 to 2002.

I explained to a group of Albanian teenagers participating in an education program that I had begun that we could not truly represent Kosovo unless we involved Serbs, Bosnians and other minority groups. There was silence until a young Albanian girl named Pranvera blurted out in Albanian with enthusiasm, “Why not!”

This was followed by the quiet but firm voice of Labinot, who had lost several male members of his family in the war with the Serbs. He said, “I will not block it.”

Shortly thereafter, five female Serbian teenagers joined our project. One eventually assumed a leadership role in the group. While the project was conducted in English, the Albanian teenagers did not hesitate to use their Serbian language skills to bring the Serbian girls up to speed quickly.

The project continues in Kosovo today. Many of the teenagers from my group completed college and now hold professional jobs.

STEPHANIE V. GREPO
New York, Nov. 19, 2013

 

The writer is director of capacity building at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University.

See previous Jadde post: BESA: A Code of Honor (November 20, 2013)

comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: