Tag Archives: Bosnians

Bosnian History (@BosnianHistory) has fantastic pictures of Old Bosnia

10 Jan

Lifted by me without permission — hope she forgives me:

“Les Bosniaques en marche”, 1890
A couple from Kreševo, date unknown
At the fountain in Sarajevo, early 20th c.
Mostar 1898
Bihać, 1908
Bosnian Christian left, Bosnian Muslim right, date unkown
Bosnia: coffee and mangal, date unknown
Bosnian costumes, date unknown (the beauty, variety and opulence of Balkan female dress always blows me away, especially as the West has traditionally thought of the Balkans as a poor part of the world.)
Bosnia, dance, no further information (I love the movement of the colored salvar — the women’s long baggy pants.)
House and family in Herzegovina, date and location unknown (along with ethnic/religious affiliation of those pictured; but the women aren’t wearing salvar — see previous photo — which traditionally identified a woman as Muslim in the Balkans; I’m assuming they’re Croats or Serbs)
Mostar (date unknown): among other things, an illustration of the ridiculously phallic competition to make church towers higher than minarets — and it’s only gotten worse today.
Sarajevo, 1890, guessing, from left to right, Croatian, Serbian and Muslim women.
Sarajevo, 1892 (the gorgeous lattice work of the round cumba on house on left.)
Serbian woman from Herzegovina, date unkown, one of @BosnianHistory ‘s loveliest photos.
Travnik, 1900, love the low divan, coffee and cigarette (staples of civilized Ottoman life) and the partial smirk on the second from left woman that’s the only thing that comes close to a smile. In Dinner with Persephone by Patricia Storace, the best travel book on Greece since the earlier work of Patrick Leigh Fermor, which I give to all friends who are going to Greece for the first time, Storace writes: “The initial glance here is inquisitive, investigative. There are no easy smiles given away in Greece. It hasn’t yet been ascertained that your existence deserves a smile.” The huge, pearl-white teeth smile is, I think, an entirely American invention: the relentless positivity of the American psyche (Like, why are you smiling?) until the crazy smile descends into total psychosis.
Tuzla 1902
Bosnia urban couple, no further info, but an illustration that urban dress throughout the Balkans was basically a variety of Ottoman urban dress; the wildly imaginative costumes belonged more to the rural population.
Bosnia, no further info, but another image of Ottoman coffee “tea ceremony”. People swear, till today, that coffee made in the ashes of a mangal, like in the photo, tastes far superior to coffee made by any other contraption.
Bosnian Croats (no further info), hence, I guess, the resemblance to Catholic nuns’ headress.
Jajce, 1941
Bosnian bride and father-of in more contemporary image. Again, it’s obvious that these costumes cost a fortune for families. Luckily most of the gold is inherited. And I love the male vanity of dad. Montenegrin men (the butchest of Balkan butch) dress in similarly extravagant stuff, and if I’m not wrong every male in Montenegro still has a traditional outfit made for him for ceremonial occasions. The Male in nature?
Kolo in Busovača, 1926
Busovača, 1926
Sarajevo, girl at fountain, 1920s
Mostar, 1950s (relatively late, but Greek rural women wore traditional clothing until the 50s – 60s as well.)
Mostar, 1912
Mother and child in Sarajevo, 1947. This may be my absolute favorite: stylish 40s fashion and traditional niqab-like item.
Sarajevo, Logavina, 1904
Sarajevo, 1938
Sarajevo bakery, Eid/Bayram, 1910. Sorry man, but the niqab must be a real pain-in-the-*ss.
Latinluk, Sarajevo, 1933, Sephardic women on a stroll (Does anyone know what “Latinluk” means? In Turkish it literally means the “Latin-ness”
Sephardic women (or as caption says “Spanish women”) in Sarajevo, early 20th c.
Urban garb, Sarajevo, early 20th century. And an image of the much-commented-on height of Bosnians.
Tuzla, 1911
Woman in traditional dress, Mrkonjić Grad, Bosnia.
Muslim women in Sarajevo, 1925
Young men smoke nargilé (hookah) and play music, Sarajevo, 1898


comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Photo: Sarajevo 1938

15 Jan

Hhmmm… Dunno, does it look as much older to anybody elseas it does to me? My only source is Bosnian History @BosnianHistory and WorldPress site: Bosnian History. So maybe she can help us out.

The largest single collection of her photos are here: “…beautiful old photos of Bosnia

Sarajevo 1938


Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.

Photo: Musa-paša Mosque in Nova Kasaba, Bosnia

30 Dec


Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list — at nikobakos@gmail.com.

Photo: Herzegovina drought, 1917

30 Nov

From Bosnian History @BosnianHistory:


Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.

Wait…you mean, Kosovars can be racists too? And to their fellow Muslims?

22 Nov

From Balkan Insight:

Kosovo’s Bosniaks, Struggling to Survive Between Albanians and Serbs


Write us: with comments or observations, or to be put on our mailing list or to be taken off our mailing list, contact us at nikobakos@gmail.com.


Rezili — Greek volunteer thugs in 1990s Bosnia

10 Nov

A stain on the Greek conscience, an obscene manipulation of Orthodox identity and brotherhood, an affront to the suicidal bravery of Greek and Serbian resistance against Nazism during WWII (in its German, Hungarian and especially its Croatian variants), and a gross mockery on what for me is the still moving idea of a long, historical Greco-Serbian bromance.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 6.49.51 PM

What did you 380 morons about this tweet?

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

NYT: Armenian Genocide — “For too long, Turkey bullied America into silence. Not anymore.” — Samantha Power

30 Oct

Not 100% sure how I feel about this; see “Screamers: Genocide: what is it and why do we need the term?.  I voice my major apprehensions there.

But “bully” is such an apt term for the Turkish Republic and the Turkish body politic (“thug” also comes to mind), that I think anything that puts Turkey in its place is a positive development.

29Power-sub-superJumboCredit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

Power’s money quotes:

Although Turkish officials may see the vote as retaliation for Turkey’s recent forced displacement of Syrian Kurds, that operation — as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sweeping human rights crackdown in Turkey and his purchase (over American and NATO protests) of a Russian air defense system — simply reduced the impact of Turkish blackmail.


First, as a baseline rule, for the sake of overall American credibility and for that of our diplomats, Washington officials must be empowered to tell the truth.

Over many years, because of the fear of alienating Turkey, diplomats have been told to avoid mentioning the well-documented genocide. In 2005, when John Evans, the American ambassador to Armenia, said that “the Armenian genocide was the first genocide of the 20th century,” he was recalled and forced into early retirement. Stating the truth was seen as an act of subordination.

When I became ambassador to the United Nations in 2013, I worried that I would be asked about the Armenian genocide and that when I affirmed the historical facts, I could cause a diplomatic rupture.

Second, when bullies feel their tactics are working, they generally bully more — a lesson worth bearing in mind in responding to threats from China and Saudi Arabia. The Turkish government devotes millions of dollars annually to lobbying American officials and lawmakers: more than $12 million during the Obama administration, and almost as much during the first two years of the Trump presidency. Turkish officials have threatened to respond to genocide recognition by suspending lucrative financial ties with American companies, reducing security cooperation and even preventing resupply of our troops in Iraq.

On Friday, the Turkish ambassador warned that passage of the “biased” House resolution would “poison” American-Turkish relations, and implied that it would jeopardize Turkish investment in the United States which provides jobs for a “considerable number of American citizens.”

It is easy to understand why any commander in chief would be leery of damaging ties with Turkey, an important ally in a turbulent neighborhood. But Turkey has far more to lose than the United States in the relationship. The United States helped build up Turkey’s military, brought it into NATO and led the coalition that defeated the Islamic State, which carried out dozens of attacks on Turkish soil. Over the past five years, American companies have invested some $20 billion in Turkey.

If Mr. Erdogan turns further away from a relationship that has been immensely beneficial for Turkey in favor of deepening ties with Russia or China, it will not be because the House voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. It will be because his own repressive tactics are coming to resemble those of the Russian and Chinese leaders. [my emphases]

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“The Balkans in Rightwing Mythology” — Read the article (past the touching Srebrenica graphic); it’s not about the “Balkans” in Rightwing Mythology; it’s — AGAIN — only about SERBIA in rightwing mythology

4 Oct

You’d think that just to cammo their biased asses, these people might occasionally write about someone else, to then make it easier to go back to blaming Serbs again.  Here’s some suggestions:

* Croatia: Are there any people on the planet, not just Europe, who have gone more scot-free of being confronted and taken to task for their more-Nazi-than-the-Nazis, vicious, genocidal, more-of-their-population–slated-for-elimination-than-any-other-Nazi-collaborating state, Vatican-blessed murderous project than Croatians and the Ustaše?

* Has anybody written a biography whose title might be: “Subtle Brother: The Rise and Fall of Alija Izetbegović and his plan for a Muslim Bosnia.”?  Maybe Mr. Delalić could include a foreword or afterword there about Bosnian Muslim collaboration with the Ustaše.


* “Kosovo: an Experiment in Mafia Statehood”


* “Operation Storm: The Story Behind NATO-armed Croatia and the Yugoslav Wars’ Single Greatest Episode of Ethnic Cleansing.”

or on a lighter note:

* “Buenos Aires: Here We Come!  How the Papacy Spirited Away the Leaders of Fascist Croatia to Latin America So They Could — and Did — All Avoid War Crimes Prosecution.”

You can squeeze stuff that inspires contemporary nut-cases out of the noxious right-wing ideology contained in each of those I think.  Just to distract people so that you can then return to your usual agenda — Serbia.  Particularly rich, of course, to have this all come from Germans, who don’t seem to realize that their hyper-earnest, Mea Culpa Show is getting really boring, but has also hypocritically and ironically made them the self-appointed, moralizing arbiters of the rest of humanity’s behavior: like, in some perverse way, ‘they should know’ — know it when they see it.

And almost all the murderous right-wing psychos, that think Karadžić is a hero and that they list in the article, are Germans or Teutons of some sort.  So maybe the fault, dear Germans, lies not in Greater Serbian Nationalism but in yourselves.

Ah, then one last idea: how about “Instant Independence: Slovenia, Croatia and How Germany led Europe into Mass Death and Destruction for the Third Time in One Century.” ?


The Balkans in Rightwing Mythology
by Adnan Delalić and Patricia Zhubi for Die Wochenzeitung (Switzerland)
11 April 2019 (original post in German)

Racist memes, nationalist myths, and crude conspiracy theories: within the ideology of the New Right, southeastern Europe appears as a transitional space where the future of the West is being decided.

Investigations into the 15 March 2019 Christchurch attack took on an international dimension ten days later when federal security and intelligence agents searched Martin Sellner’s apartment in Austria under orders from the prosecutor’s office there. Sellner is a leading functionary of the Austrian Identitarian Movement (Identitäre Bewegung Österreich, or IBÖ). He came under the authorities’ scrutiny because of a €1,500 donation he had received from the Christchurch shooter in January 2018.

After the search, Sellner portrayed himself on YouTube as a victim of state repression. While politicians and commentators argue about the nature of the IBÖ, its members organize demonstrations and solidarity actions and drum up social media and financial support from around the world. A donation does not make Sellner an accomplice to a massacre—but there are ideological bridges that connect the Identitarian Movement (also known as Generation Identity) as well as other extreme rightwing groups to the Christchurch mass-murderer.

Undesirable Foreign Foods

Attempts to distinguish the IBÖ from “ordinary” rightwing radicalism are specious not only because Sellner, according to media reports, used to paste swastikas on synagogues in his youth; beyond that, he belonged to the social circle around Austrian Holocaust denier Gottfried Küssel, whose blog Alpen-Donau.info was removed from the internet by the Austrian interior ministry in 2011. This kind of increased legal and police pressure led to the founding of the IBÖ a year later, which attempts (in the tradition of Alain de Benoist, an early progenitor of the New Right) to replace völkisch-nationalist vocabulary with terms carrying less historical baggage—terms like “identity.”

In a YouTube vlog from early 2015, Sellner posed—with hipster glasses and a sharp part in his hair—in front of a food stand menu offering burgers, hotdogs, and Bosna sausages. His goal: to educate his viewers about Austrian cuisine and undesirable foreign foods. Austrians! Do not eat at McDonald’s—and certainly not at kebab stands, the epitome of “multicultural capitalist mania”! In this online broadcast, Sellner sells the message additionally with his choice of t-shirt (available at his online store…). Upon it are the words “Restore Europe, Remove Kebab, Restore Empire.” Precisely this reference, “Kebab Remover”—a racist internet meme endorsing the genocide of Bosnian Muslims—was on display both on the Christchurch terrorist’s weapon as well as in his manifesto. Sellner has also cracked wise on Twitter about being in “Remove Kebab Mode.”

The Christchurch shooter referred to the Balkans in other ways as well. On the way to committing his act of terror, he listened to a song honoring the Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadžić, who would only a few days later be sentenced to life in prison at the Hague. In addition, the shooter is alleged to have traveled to several countries in the Balkan region in order to visit the sites of historic battles. The engravings on his weapons with the names of figures from Serbian, Montenegrin, Polish, and Spanish history also point to a deep fascination with struggles against the Ottoman empire. Southeastern Europe, in the imagination of the New Right, is a kind of transitional space where Christianity and Islam clash.

This motif is not new, and has many variants, alternately glorifying the Spanish Reconquista, the defense of Vienna, or the Russian-Ottoman wars. Karadžić referred to the genocide at Srebrenica as “just and holy”—in his view, his troops had prevented the establishment of an Islamist caliphate. The Norwegian rightwing terrorist Anders Breivik, in turn, called Karadžić an “honourable Crusader and a European war hero.” Occasionally, the motif appears in reference to a supposed transnational Muslim conspiracy against the Christian West, in which Serbia is presented as the bulwark against a neo-Ottoman invasion of Europe. The Christchurch shooter referred to Kosovar Albanians as “Islamic occupiers.”

An Appealing Trope

There are other points of contact. The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto was titled “The Great Replacement”—clearly named after the racist conspiracy theory popularized by Renaud Camus, an ideological godfather of the New Right in France. In his imagination, Europe’s white, Christian population is being systematically replaced by predominantly Muslim “invaders” from Africa and the Middle East. There are many variations on this demographic panic. It is the glue that holds the Fascist International together.

It can be observed as a central motif in the Greater Serbia ideology of Radovan Karadžić, which purports that Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims are secretly pursuing a “demographic jihad.” In the SANU [Serbian Academy of Science and Arts] Memorandum of 1986, a milestone of Serbian nationalism, it is claimed that the high birthrate of (predominantly Muslim) Kosovar Albanians is a central component of their drive for an ethnically pure Kosovo. The former Bosnian-Serb general Ratko Mladić justified war crimes against Bosnian Muslims with the claim that the Islamic world possesses, if not an atomic bomb, then a “demographic bomb.” Breivik, for his part, refers to this as an “indirect genocide.”

The obsession with birthrates and these paranoid theories of intentional displacement and replacement do not necessarily lead to violence—but they do mentally prepare their proponents for it.

The Islamophobia inherent to the ideology of Greater Serbia, in which traditional and contemporary motifs are bound together, is emerging in the globalized context as an appealing trope for the Fascist International. The specter of multiculturalism can only be overcome with a fundamental reordering of space along ethnic dividing lines that faded out of relevance long ago. The aim of this “racism without races” is the establishment of ethnically homogeneous societies, side by side but separate.

In September 2018, Sellner took part in a torchlight march “in honor of the heroes and saints of 1683.” In this case, Vienna symbolized the bulwark against past and future Islamic invasions. “I don’t get how there can be people from the Balkans who spit in the faces of their forefathers and their defensive struggle against the Ottomans,” tweeted Sellner in June 2017. So Islam must be fought and defended against—but without violence, apparently: “Rightwing terrorism is, like all other kinds of terrorism, to be morally rejected,” announced the leading identitarian figure immediately after the Christchurch attack. How this is supposed to work, when—judging from slogans like “Stop the Great Replacement!”—the Ottoman army is already pounding at the gates, is unclear. War symbolism and fear-mongering only fit into the self-conception of the “moderate migration critic” when rhetorical fear-mongering can be cleanly separated from real terrorism.

No matter how much Renaud Camus and Martin Sellner try to distance themselves from the terror attack in Christchurch, the insistence of the IBÖ that it is not a radical rightwing movement is simply untenable. The fight against this ostensible “replacement” and the IBÖ’s concomitant declaration of war on multicultural society are not “moderate” positions. The claim that coexistence is impossible is not meant merely as a description of conditions but rather as a goal. For Karadžić it was not only about the fight against Islam. Tolerance and the multicultural character of Bosnia were also to be erased and made impossible for generations to come.

Ideological Cocktail

The ideas that became socially acceptable with the rise of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s soon found their concrete political implementation. What emerged was an ideological cocktail of racism, demographic panic, conspiratorial paranoia, and revanchism that ultimately proposed an urgent need for action against an allegedly existential threat. The destruction of the Other became necessary to ensure Our survival. Karadžić still argues to this day that he was acting defensively against a “toxic, all-destructive Islamic octopus.”

It is not particularly surprising that paranoia about demographic “invaders” also takes an antisemitic shape. The Serbian nationalist cult director Emir Kusturica, for example, is among those who pin the blame for the “refugee crisis” on the Jewish American billionaire George Soros. According to social theorist Moishe Postone, modern antisemitism is not merely a form of racism, but at the same time a way of explaining the world which promises mistaken paths out of one’s misfortune. We can understand conspiracy theories like “the great replacement,” which declare as enemies both the weakest among us as well as global elites, in a similar manner. Islam and Judaism overlap as bogeymen, as both sublate the particularity of individual nationalisms. Unity is imperative in fighting the great enemy.

Karadžić’s ideology is neither unique to the Balkans nor the result of “centuries-old blood feuds.” It also is not a genuinely Serbian phenomenon. Rightwing radicalism does not have a country of origin; it derives inspiration from everywhere. The ideological store of the Fascist International feeds on various traditions and regions. What has evolved is a globally available repertoire of nationalist myths, symbols, and tactics to choose from. Events in Bosnia and Kosovo show what kinds of consequences such ideas can bring—and not just there.

Berlin historian Patricia Zhubi studies the past and present of antisemitism and the transnational structures of the radical right. Bosnian-German sociologist Adnan Delalić does research on Islamophobia and genocide, among other things.

Translated by Antidote and printed with the kind permission and help of the authors.

Featured image: artwork by Bosnian-American Samir Biscevic displayed at a ten-year commemoration of Srebrenica at UN headquarters in New York in 2005.

“Screamers:” Genocide: what is it and why do we need the term?

7 Nov


I watched “Screamers”* the other night, a 2006 documentary by Carla Garapedian about an Armenian-American synthpunk group based in California, who go around, among other things, “screaming” about the Armenian massacres of the early twentieth century and issues of genocide recognition generally.  They’re shown on tour, comparing Armenian experiences to those of Rwandans, Cambodians — Jews conspicuously less so — soliciting the support of U.S. congressmen, interviewing British aristocrats, Harvard professors and their own great-aunts and grandfathers telling their own story of the events they describe as the Armenian Genocide, all in an effort of course to get the Turkish government to acknowledge the “Genocide” as such.  And it left me with the usual thoughts I have on this issue: that this word – “genocide” – which is supposed to name an evil particular to our time and by naming it hopefully eradicate it, has come to be so overused as to be meaningless, was vague from its beginnings and has come to obscure more than it reveals about the phenomenon, if there is such.

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor who originated the term, described it as such:

By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of an ethnic group . . . . Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups . . ..

T. Marcus Funk in Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court says genocide is “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part of an ethnic, racial, caste or religious, or national group.” 

“…in whole or in part…” is controversially vague enough.  Then, how “deliberate and systematic” does it have to be to qualify?  And if its victims are members of any “ethnic, racial, caste, or religious, or national group,” is that not so all-encompassing as to include most of humanity?  What sets genocide apart then from any mass killing?  That it’s done to a socially or ethnically identifiable group?  Mass killing – apart from shootings in American shopping malls or movie theaters – is usually committed on such a group.  And by emphasizing that a “group,” usually an ethnic or minority group, is the object, it creates the unspoken assumption of irrationality, though most of the events we call genocides have and had a very rational end and, to be effective, must have used fairly rational means.  And thus I wonder if the word mystifies and, more importantly, decontextualizes to a point that ultimately may do more harm than good.

Obviously, our region gives us a variety of useful examples to look at.  Now, I often get emails here — most simply rants that I don’t bother publishing — in which I’m told that I am defeating the stated purpose of this blog by favoring one group over another or being so obviously preferential in some of my affections or animosities.  I’m told that I’m panderingly philosemitic; I don’t know about the “pandering” part, but otherwise, yes.  I’m accused of being both pro-Israeli and anti-Israeli, and anti-Palestinian and possessed of a blind good faith in Palestinian intentions and an enabler of their “tactics,” whatever that means; I guess if I can be all those things at once I may be doing something right.  I’m accused of being anti-Croatian: let’s leave that one to the side for a moment.  But mostly I’m accused of two things: that I’m pro-Turkish — this usually by angry Greeks — and that I’m a shameless apologist for Serbian criminality.

And here there is some truth: the two peoples may not much appreciate being linked in my heart, but one of the many reasons that I may have a special affection for Turks, or at least find myself defending them so often, is also one of the many reasons I have a special affection for Serbs: I think the two have historically been the most unfairly maligned groups in the region.  And that brings us back to the larger genocide discussion obviously.

It has always irritated me that critics of Serbia, both in the nineties and to this day, dutifully rehearse the main highlights of the “Serbian myth”: traumatic defeat at Kosovo; continued resistance to the Ottomans; among first to struggle for independence in the Balkans; a sincere if often faulty and undemocratic attempt to actually go through with the noble experiment of South Slav unity, only to have those attempts undermined from the get-go by a Croatia that was always a member of that union in bad faith; always supporters of Western causes only to be stabbed in the back after; further traumatic WWII memories – and then just blow them off as if none are legitimate, that they’re just the “mythical” or fictional building blocks of a national pathology that explains Serbs’ vicious behavior during the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

Nobody is denying the unscrupulous manipulation of the Serbian group ‘psyche,’ starting in the late eighties, by some of the most criminally opportunistic, thuggish politicians to emerge out of post-Cold War Europe.  Nobody denies the horrible war crimes of Serbs and Serbian paramilitaries, especially in the great victims of the Yugoslav wars, Bosnia and Kosovo.  But the simple fact is: Serbs had absolutely no reason to feel secure about their future in the states that emerged from the break up of Yugoslavia, especially not in Croatia, the West’s darling.  During WWII, the NDH, the Independent State of Croatia, the Ustaša, had a greater percentage of its population—Serbs, Jews and Gypsies — slated for elimination than any other of the Nazi’s puppet states in Eastern Europe.  The plan for the Serbs specifically was the famous “thirds” plan: kill one third, expel one third, convert the other third to Catholicism (the Ustaša was also fanatically Catholic and its support by the Vatican is one of the Catholic Church’s ugliest twentieth century moral “lapses”).  The numbers are uncertain, as always in these cases, but several hundred thousand Serbs were killed by the Croatian regime and – unfortunately – its Bosnian collaborators during the war.  Ustaša Croatia was the only one of the Nazi puppet states whose tactics even the Germans found excessive, and had to be told by Berlin to “tone it down” a little, because their viciousness was giving undue impetus to a Serbian resistance movement that was becoming increasingly difficult for the Germans to keep under control.  The reasons that post-Yugoslav Serbs might have felt insecure in independent Croatia or even an independent Bosnia are not simple “myths,” pathological obsessions with historical wrongs – especially when Tudjman’s Croatia started making all kinds of fascist noises again as soon as it gained recognition from its German buddies.

Turkey.  It’s maddening that what happened in early twentieth-century Turkey is never put into the broader historical context of the previous two centuries by groups like the Screamers or others who are bent on forcing Turkey to acknowledge the events as genocide.  You can talk and talk and argue and explain and then you come across a passage somewhere that condenses and puts it all into perspective.  The following is from Karen Barkey’s Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective.  Towards the end of a chapter where she’s discussing the deterioration of interethnic relations in the nineteenth-century empire, the penetration of European economic influence and the benefits that that created for Ottoman Christians and from which Muslims were excluded, she writes:

“If major misgivings regarding ethnic and religious difference and disparity were already well-rooted in the empire, competition and communal strife only got worse as Muslim refugees from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Crimea were settled in Anatolia.  Between 5 and 7 million refugees, mostly Muslims, were settled by the Ottoman government throughout the nineteenth century, mostly in Anatolia.  Kemal Karpat argues that between 1856 and 1876 at least 500,000 Crimean Tatars and 2.5 million Muslim immigrants from the Caucasus were settled in Anatolia, the Balkans, northern Syria and Iraq.  Not long after, in 1877-1878, the Caucasian population that had been settled in the Balkans was resettled in Anatolia together with a million others, mostly Muslims from the Balkans.  Another 2 million took refuge in Anatolia until 1914.  By the time of World War I, the immigrant [refugee] population of Anatolia represented nearly 40% of the total population. Such immigration, originating in the nationalist movements and independence politics of the Balkans, the Russian Wars, and the Ottoman defeats, brought in another element of Muslim discontent that not only altered the demographic balance of the empire, but also exacerbated social and economic tensions.”  [emphases mine]

Do we understand that?  Charles Simic has written: “Nationalists everywhere are unmoved by the suffering of people they hurt.”  But are the above figures enough to penetrate the armor-plated narcissism of the nationalist or even dent it?  Might some clubbing over the head be in order?  Let’s repeat them and see: in 1914, the year we’re supposed to think that Turks suddenly had a collective psychotic episode and just started massacring millions of people for no reason, 40% — forty percent – of the population of Anatolia, roughly the territory of contemporary Turkey, consisted of Muslims who had escaped from the various parts of the shrinking empire, usually under conditions that could be clearly labeled “genocidal” or definitely characterized as “ethnic cleansing” though for some reason they are not, and often, as Barkey alludes to, after having been brutally displaced twice in one or two generations: like the Bosnians who had settled in Salonica after 1878 and again in 1908, in such numbers that they gave their name to a neighborhood in that city, only to have to move once more to Anatolia in 1913; or the millions of Circassians, driven en masse out of their Black Sea homeland by Russia in the 1860’s and settled in the Balkans only to have to move on to Anatolia after Bulgarian independence.  Forty percent!  That is almost twice the percentage of incoming refugee population that Greece staggered under in the 1920s after the Population Exchange, and in an Empire that had dragged itself into a World War it was woefully unprepared to fight.

And here’s where we get to the question that every ethically honest Greek or Armenian has to ask himself: what did we expect Turks to do at that point?  Give up even what they had left?  Pack it up?  Go back to the Red Apple Tree?**  To expect that at some point Ottoman Muslims/Turks were not going to fight back in order to hold on to something, a state and territory of their own, is delusional in ways that only as totalizing an ideological structure as nationalism can produce.


(what was a really fascinating, eye-opening book for me — highly recommended…)

At no point during the long blood-soaked mess of the past two centuries have Serbs or Turks been guilty of anything that everybody else wasn’t also doing.  Thus, one of my primary objections to the use of “genocide” as a term is that it becomes part of a tool in a chronology of preference, a political expedient for stigmatizing the bad guy of the moment.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when European powers were obsessing with how they were going to divide the crumbling Ottoman Empire among them, there were only Muslim perpetrators of massacre in the region, never Christian ones, only the “unspeakable Turk.”  Only a tiny group of more objective observers at the time of Gladstone’s hysterical campaign asked themselves how “speakably” the Bulgarians and their Russian supporters behaved toward the Muslim population of Bulgaria in the 1870s; only Trotsky had the intelligence and conscience to report the truth about the degree and intensity of Russian/Bulgarian atrocities against the Muslim population of those lands in the 1870’s and nearly resigned from his assignment as a reporter of a Kiev newspaper as a result — he could no longer stand to physically be around the sickening violence (See Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova‘s excellent: “War and Memory: Trotsky’s War Correspondence from the Balkan Wars”  for an excellent account of Trotsky’s reporting and, through it, his brilliant and morally courageous mind; how that mind and its obvious compassion became so twistedly cruel when he turned it on his own people and country a few decades later is one of the mysteries of Bolshevik perversity.)

Later in the century, after the Cold War gave Turkey a kind of favored nation status in the Muslim eastern Mediterranean, Turkey could and still essentially can do no wrong, even if it does conduct, like in Cyprus, campaigns of what elsewhere would be called ethnic cleansing or violates the human rights of its minorities and majorities on a systematic basis.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Serbia was “gallant little Serbia” standing up to the Austrians, beating back two massive assaults by Austria-Hungary, almost crossing the Danube into Austrian territory itself; only when Germany came to its aid was Serbia successfully defeated, and even then while putting up some of the most suicidal and vicious resistance in military history.  Serbia was a staunch supporter of the Allies in both World Wars – essentially the liberators of the Balkans in the First World War especially.  But by the end of the same century, when Serbs refused to play along with the West’s plan for what the New Balkans would look like, they were turned into pathological savages, and locked into a pariah status from which they have still not been allowed to fully emerge.

(To switch regions and periods for a moment, and examine the selective use of terminology, we never speak of the “genocide” of urban Germans or Japanese, do we, though they were a civilian population subjected to barbaric, mass, incendiary murder on a staggering scale and of questionable strategic uses and motivations other than punitive ones.)

But perhaps my most important objection to the word “genocide” should have become obvious from the above: mass murder and expulsion is what happens during nation-state formation and labeling this kind of mass murder and expulsion with some rare-orchid terminology obscures that fact.  As long as the legitimizing principle of the modern state is ethnic/tribal identity there will be groups who by their very cultural and/or religious character cannot uphold that legitimacy and will be oppressed by it.  And the time will come when they will have to be dealt with in some way or other, either through acculturation or removal, especially if their status leads them to separatist desires.  There is no such thing ultimately as genocide.  To observe the former Ottoman sphere, which is as good as any for our purposes, the rules are: form a state by grabbing as much land as you can and keep it by eliminating those who would be opposed to being part of your state.  It’s painful to say, because Bosnians got semi-trapped and stumbled into declaring independence by their two ravenous neighbors and suffered more than any in the Yugoslav conflict: but there was no Bosnian genocide, no attempt to eliminate the cultural/ethnic group that Bosnian Muslims were from the face of the earth.  There was the brutal, systematic, cruel ethnic cleansing of Muslims from parts of Bosnia that Serbia — and, of course, Croatia — wanted to hold on to because those Bosnians wanted to be part of a separate state of their own.  There was no genocide of Anatolian or Pontic Greeks, as many Greeks have lately started referring to the events of the nineteen tens and twenties.  There were decades of chronic, inter-communal violence, a war by an invading state, and the elimination of those that supported that invasion, and mostly not even through violence or by force, but by mandatory fiat agreed upon by the leaders of the countries in question.***  It’s painful to say – they’re a familiar people, one I admire, like, am close to — but as extensive as it was, as systematic and vicious in ways that set a terrible precedent for the rest of the century, it’s hard for me to call what happened to Armenians in the early twentieth century genocide. The CUP — the Young Turks — have always seemed to me to have been a bunch of loose cannons: a nefarious, often eccentric, make-it-up-as-you-go-along group of giant egos who seemed to be talking past each other most of the time and did their best in essentially ending the Ottoman Empire in the messiest way possible; and the Armenians were their single greatest victims.  But the fact remains: a people (Armenians), in a state (the Ottoman Empire) that was being torn in a million different directions, tried to form an ethnically separate state of their own (though they constituted a majority in no single region of the territory in question), and yes, often did so through violence, armed means and with outside military help.  And they were stopped.  That it was horrifying and its dimensions staggering would be obscene to deny.  That it’s some “special” form of violence — qualitatively and not just quantitatively different — and not just an extreme example of what fundamentally happens during nation-state formation is simply unsustainable as a theory for me.  I had an Armenian-American friend, and we obviously didn’t see eye to eye on these issues.  I remember him once being incensed by what he called the “macho” insensitivity of a Turkish guy who had been arguing with him and who had said: “If we hadn’t done it to you, you would have done it to us.”  Well, it’s sad, but that’s probably the truth.

No one in Screamers, not the experts or the humanitarians, not the musicians themselves, link what they want to call ‘genocide’ to the dominant political state formation of our time.  No one sees it as inevitable that if an “ethnic, racial, caste or religious, or national group” serves as the principle legitimizing force of state organization, that then some other “group” will have to be removed.  And the Helsinki Agreement’s contradictory support of both “minority rights” and “the right to self-determination” has, needless to say, been of no help in sorting out issues of this kind; Yugoslavia was the best proof of the amateurish, do-gooder thinking behind such ideas.

In fact one wonders if it was a Jew who invented the term because he and his were really the only one victims of the irrational beast we want to call genocide and are now using rather indiscriminately all over the place.  Because I can think of only one case in history where a people were not engaged in war with another country, nor in armed or any other kind of civil conflict with the surrounding population, who did not have a separatist agenda within the states they lived in or irredentist designs on parts of neighboring states, who did not constitute any kind of threat – at least real threat – to the society around them (were, quite the opposite, in fact, among those societies’ most productive and talented members), and yet became the object of a villainizing myth of incomprehensible irrationality  that marked them for complete extermination anywhere in the world they were to be found — and that is the case of the Jews.  And since we have “Holocaust” or “Shoah” for that singular episode of human horror, do we need  “genocide” at all?

I hope I haven’t insulted — worse — hurt anyone.  I hope this is the beginning of a bigger discussion.


* Check out the film’s Wiki site; one slightly unethical thing it does is to link the great Hrant Dink’s assassination in 2007 with the the fact that he appeared in the film the year before.  There’s also some slight misrepresentation in a scene where they show Turkish nationalists trashing a fifty-year commemorative exhibit here in Istanbul of the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955 and call it an “Armenian and Greek exhibit.”

** I have no idea of the origin of this myth, or whether it developed in late Byzantine or Ottoman times, but in Greek folklore the homeland of the Turks is a place in some distant indeterminate East called the Red Apple Tree, He Kokkine Melia, and in traditional messianic thought, when the City and Romania (what the Byzantines called their polity) were brought back under Christian rule, the Turks would go back to “the Red Apple Tree.”  Ironically, Constantinople itself was known to Muslims as the Red Apple, the prize conquest, in the centuries before the fall.  I have no idea if the two myths grew out of each other or are some kind of bizarre mirror images that paradoxically developed in opposition to each other.

*** And let us all here be disabused at once of the idea that the Population Exchange agreed to at Lausanne was something that Venizelos and his government reluctantly agreed to because circumstances had made any other solution impossible.  Lefterake, our Cretan levente, was enamoured of population exchanges and similar plans far before Lausanne or even 1919.  He thought that the section of the Aegean coast that the Allies gave Greece at Paris in 1919 was eventually going to be Hellenized through exactly such a voluntary departure of its majority Muslim population, thus giving a kind of tacit approval to the atrocities committed during those years by the occupying Greek army, and, always the careerist and opportunist, one of his earlier strategies at the Paris Peace Conference had been to promise Bulgaria eastern Macedonia (Kavalla, Drama), and move its Greek population into western Macedonia where they would offset the Slavic majority of those regions, in order to coax the allies into giving him Ionia — he was a twentieth-century nationalist social engineer of the crudest kind from the beginning.  For the definitive placing of responsibility for the disastrous Asia Minor campaign on Venizelos’ shoulders, plus an extremely competent analysis of the destructive consequences of his egotistical, polarizing political style on twentieth-century Greek political life, see Michael Llewellyn Smith’s Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919-1922 — an excellent account of the entire period and a great place to start if, like me, you have embarked on a minor ideological mission to dismantle the entire Venizelos myth.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Ionian Vision

Un Verano en Nueva York*

13 Jul

Queensborough Bridge (photo: Matt Lawson)

I don’t often get the chance to aimlessly stroll around the City much anymore – I mean Manhattan, not that City – but especially in the summertime, when New York is hot like it is today but not unbearably so, so many of it’s sensory delights, especially its human ones, are on display everywhere that if I get the chance, I can’t stop walking, eating, drinking things, and checking people out — the perfect tourist in my own city.

My shrink was unusually cute today and I had a really good time with him and that only added to my kefia and energy.  I walk straight down 5th to St. Patrick’s to give my saludos to St. Anthony, since he’s my most best beloved in the Catholic pantheon, and then turn off 5th to Madison because I can’t deal with any tourists but myself, though I’ve been finding European tourists to be significantly less obnoxious recently – and significantly less, generally — now that they don’t have any money either.

I know where I’m going anyway – at least for starts.  I’m making a bee-line for faloodeh.  Don’t ask me wtf…  I must have been dreaming about it last night and sleep-walking (which I did a lot of as a kid) when I posted that piece about faloodeh:  “This is what I want in this heat: Faloodeh”,  because it was posted at 7:00 a.m., which is the middle of the night for me, and when I got up at my usual time I didn’t even remember having put it up.  But I have faloodeh on the brain right now, man, and am heading straight for the only place in New York where I know I can get it, an Iranian restaurant on 30th St. called Ravagh.

It’s better than the fantasy had been, which usually can’t be said about almost anything in life.  Look at it; it even looks beautiful.  It’s got that perfect color palette that everything Persian does, always pushing the limits of saturation but never becoming gaudy or tacky.

Faloodeh (click)

Ravagh is a pretty good place, at least in the opinion of this non-Iranian.  The appetizers are nothing to get hopped up about, but the kebabs are great, as are the khoresh and the great pomegranate and walnut fesenjun, but I’m also a sucker for any food with fruit and nuts in it, not only taste-wise but ‘cause I’m also historically stimulated by it.  In Persian food we find tastes and combinations that have, certainly, disappeared from Greek tastes (?) (a Neo-Greek can vomit if he finds so much as one raisin in his dolma) but from increasingly flattened and simplified Turkish tastes too.  Iranians, however, are still geniuses, as I said in my trance this morning, at subtle sweet-and-sour combos, at using spices without having to overwhelm you with an indigestible quantity of onion-garlic-ginger canvass on which to use them, like a lot of Indian food does, and for appreciating the taste and aroma of every herb and green thing that this earth can give us.

(It’s also the work-place of one of the most attentive waitresses and the most beautiful Uzbek woman in the world; no exaggeration, this is one of the most gorgeous women in New York, the female equivalent of one of Hafez’ dangerously beautiful young Turkish men: “Zabaan-e-yaar-e-man torki wa man torki nami daanam,”  “The language of my friend is Turkish, but I know no Turkish.”  Ok, that’s not Hafez; it’s Amir Khusrau, but I can’t think of any Hafez right now…)

I head downtown after that to the East Village to see my favorite Hanuman in the city.  Midtown’s blank Wasps, smart-looking Jewish guys and buff borough boys in tight dress shirts and ties start giving way to sweet, ethnically unidentifiable guys with lots of tattoos and scrawny beards.  I pass Mono on the way and see its beautiful, sweaty ham sitting in the window and think: ok, maybe later.

I’m irritated again my Daddy Bloomberg’s traffic lights that tell you how many seconds you have to get across a street before you’re flattened by a flock of taxi cabs.

I see New Yorkers running, frantic, across the street; New Yorkers, as long as I’ve known them, waited till they formed a critical mass on any street corner and simply marched together into the middle of the street, stopping traffic at will.  Now he’s got us running.  I wish again he would just go back to Boston.  It’s already the city that he wants to turn New York into; why is he bothering with us?  They’ll love him there.  Give him a fourth and even fifth term, make him Czar of Massachusetts Bay colony.  Just go.  Go away.

“They save lives!”  Ok.  I don’t know if they do.  But even if they do, a civilization where the saving of life is of consistent and constant greater concern than its quality, where not only do lives need to be saved but all risk — germs in bathrooms, kids getting their knees scuffed — needs to be legislated out of them, a world where, as James Hillman put it: “quantity of life is at all costs more important than quality…” is a civilization we’re not going to be very happy to have lived so long to see.

Anyway, I adore this particular Hanuman that I’m on the way to see because it’s a gigantic brass murti and he’s in his kneeling pose, which I love, because it shows off his big thighs and his great forearms holding his mace over his shoulder and the huge chest he has to have to hold that heart so enormous that God himself and everyone He loves can fit into it.  They never dress him there either, because it’s a difficult pose to dress, so whenever you go he’s always there gleaming in all his bare muscled glory, ready to go to war for Ram and his Kingdom, or for anyone who loves Ramji the way he does.

The problem is that this temple is in the East Village and its whole community is white people, which means it’s really not a Hindu temple or mandir at all but an East Village center for non-stop yoga classes or kundalini workshops, so you’re almost never allowed in for a little bit of darshan and peace and quiet with your god.  I’ve tried to suggest in the past that maybe there should be some more “open” time for someone like me.  But you can’t complain there either because these white “Hindus” have gotten modern Hinduism so frighteningly mixed up in their heads with Buddhism and any other New Age stuff they think they believe in, that if you complain and look even remotely irritated, they look at you sadly like you’re accumulating bad karma and they have no way of helping you.  On top of that, there’s only flower offerings permitted, because – I swear – laddoo and peda and other mithai have “lots of refined sugar and saturated fat” in them, so you can’t even walk away from aarti there (yes, they have aarti every evening at least) with a good piece of prasad and its gratifying sweetness in your mouth.  I really want to ask these people what it is they’re saving their bodies for sometimes; they ever heard of that whole dust to dust bit?

Again, I don’t get to see my Hanuman.

This is the pose of Hanumanji I love most, a little one at a Jackson Heights shop.  Now imagine him nine feet tall and all gleaming brass, like he is at that temple. (click)

I remember the ham at Mono though.

Casa Mono is the restaurant really; it’s part of the Batalli empire but it’s actually a very intimate place with hands down the best Spanish food in New York, and I think as good as anything I’ve ever had in Spain as well.  I always wait, no matter how long it takes, for a seat at the bar by the open kitchen because you get to see the mens’ performance there and it’s good to see men sweat and handle knives and fire and and meat and heat (the night there’s a woman behind there I won’t return, I swear; I’ll just suffer without Mono for the rest of my life**).  You also get to watch the growing status, knowledge and confidence of New York’s Mexican workers there too, their steady rise to the top, the same trajectory we followed decades before, and the way that — not only Mexican hard work — but Mexican wit and playfulness, which almost everyone now understands some of, have become the esprit de corps glue that holds together so many excellent New York restaurants like this one.  There’s often a Mexican or Ecuadorian trainee behind the counter, and a guy who I think is the line’s number two, a sexy tatooed-up Ed Norton look-alike that I really love.  But if you’re especially lucky you’ll get to see head chef Anthony Sasso back there cooking, a guy with a body that looks like he used to be an Olympic diver, who never sweats, and who cooks with such ease and elegance and what Patricia Storace (in her description of turn of the twentieth-century Greek politician Ion Dragoumis) calls “…that most erotic of qualities in a man: the capacity for sustained concentration…,” that it’s hard to take your eyes off of him, and that I, at least, only manage to do so for fear of making a total ass of myself and because I want to let the guy do his job.

But Mono is for a really good dinner when you’re feeling rich and want to drop a lot of money on good wine that Ashley, the least pretentious and most generous sommeliere in the city, will help you out with.  Today I just drop by at their annex next door, Bar Jamon, a place I also love, though if you don’t catch it at the beginning or end of the shift it’s always torturously crowded.

(It’s enough I haven’t given these places aliases; I’m not telling where they are on top of it; not everyone deserves to know.)

Jose is there today.  Great!  A Spaniard.  After being sweetly told to go away at the gringo ashram because they were cleaning their chakras or something, I need an aggressive welcome and from a people who aren’t afraid of a little aggression.  Jose always makes me happy because he’s a super-majo kid from Zaragoza in Aragon.  Majeza is a very Spanish term that encompasses such a complex of qualities that it’s difficult to explain, especially in English, which is tragically lacking in a comparable term, as its speakers (aside from the Irish) are in most of its qualities.  It means openness and frankness and humour and swagger; it means being hospitable without being in anyway servile; it means being able to put away copious amounts of wine and pig meat; being friendly and spirited and generous while always maintaining a kind of stylish dignity and flair; it partakes of some of the qualities of Greek and Turkish leventeia in that sense; in fact, it’s a word with a certain undoubtable Balkanness about it.  Soon after the term appeared in, I think, the late eighteenth-century, working-class barrios of Madrid, it almost immediately became associated during the Napoleonic Wars with the city’s street kids, who terrified the French with their suicidal bravery, so it probably originally implied a quickness to pull a knife too and no squeamishness about seeing a little bit of your own blood shed as well.  That doesn’t apply anymore, though the ferocity into which demonstrations in Madrid have descended these days makes you think twice about that; I’m proud of the angry tenacity of Spanish protests, mashallah; don’t know what they’ll accomplish but it’s good to know Spaniards can still be scary; that anger has become such a stigmatized, pathologized emotion in our civilization (“You know…I think you have a lot of anger…”) is partly what’s let banks and governments get away with what they have over the past few decades and generally has brought us to the civilizational crisis we find ourselves in.  No, it’s not the other way around.  In any event, courage is still certainly an implied element of being majo.  There’s a great, chapter-long analysis of majeza in Timothy Mitchell’s Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting, if you’re interested and can get your hands on it.


Jose’s bearing, humour and way of talking are the epitome of majete; I’m glad to see him, I’m hot, my feet hurt (“erkekler…pabucim sikiyor…”) and I ask him for a glass of anything cold and white.  He immediately comes up with a great Albarino, a Galician wine I usually don’t like but this particular one is beautiful.  I think of a gorgeous woman I was in love with a few years ago with blue-emerald eyes so intense they looked fake (actually her parents were Canarian – she just grew up in Santiago — so those eyes were probably Berber and certainly not Galician); she was beautiful, a good kid, and a little nuts – but beautiful.

“So a Greek and a Spaniard get together,” the joke goes — and of course these days they compare notes on how fucked up their respective countries have become.  I tell Jose that I think Spain is salvageable but that Greece seems in danger of just slipping off of the face of the earth at some point soon.  He’s not so confident.  He says people in Spain are “learning to be poor again,” getting used to a life with “un plato de alubias” — a plate of beans — a proverbial Spanish expression for just-bare-subsistence poverty.  He’s probably around thirty and he says bluntly that his generation in Spain is destroyed; that they’re going to hit their late thirties and early forties without any job experience and that unless you’ve got family money, your only option is emigration, like “old-time Gallegos” we both say in sync.  (Galicians in Spain are like Epirotes in Greece, the archetypically emigrating region, so much so that in much of Latin America all Spaniards used to be collectively referred to as “Gallegos.”)

My heart goes out to him and I respect his straight-eyed stoicism and I think he’ll be ok because he seems strong.  As hard as I try, though, my heart doesn’t go out to Greeks of his generation nor do I respect them.  I think they’re cry-babies who would be scared shitless – or worse, think it beneath them — to work in a bar in New York the way Jose does and that they deserve – richly — to relearn the cultural lessons of emigration and being poor again.  Three decades of illusory prosperity created an unbearable type of human being in Greece, a nouveau-riche culture of entitled provincials, cold, petty snobs who are snobs the way only the truly provincial can be – and I’m talking about Athens more than the provinces.  (Athens is a city I genuinely love, but it probably ranks first in the world in thinking itself more sophisticated than it really is.)  (Plus — I’m always confused a little by Cypriots, who arguably enjoyed a more solid prosperity for a longer time but never became so insufferable, and who all Athenians are always mercilessly condescending towards: incessantly mocking their clannishness, their still healthy respect for Church tradition, the beautiful musicality of Cypriot dialect.)  I’m pained by the genuinely poor and the old and the sick and the heroin addicts who are suffering and dying in Greece, and murderously angry at Frau Merkel (“murderously”…you can quote me; I think she’s a criminal and should be gone after), who needs to pay banks back and dresses it up as one of her daddy’s Lutheran sermons.  But that urban, middle-to-upper-middle-class, twenty-five to forty-five-year-old demographic in Greece…they can just go back to washing dishes in Chicago again like our grandfathers did as far as I care.  Let ‘em start from scratch; see what kind of culture they can come up with this time.

(As I listen to Jose I remember that the terrifying Catalan Company, who are still a by-word for monsters and boogey-men in parts of the Balkans — “…like Catalani and the Devil,” Albanians say….Albanians — weren’t actually Catalanes at all, but savage Aragones highlanders: Jose’s ancestors. 

The “Companyia Catalana d’Orient,” were a bunch of murderous, mercenary nut-jobs, the Blackwater of their day (I forget what Blackwater is called today) that had started off fighting in the Reconquista in Spain.  But like the Greek-Arab Akritai-Ghazi of the Anatolian frontier, they were a mixed bag, originally mostly Arab-speaking Almogavars, an Arab word meaning “scout,” the “Muslims” eating pork and downing wine like good Iberians, the “Christians” proud that they raped nuns, looted monasteries and occasionally threatened the Pope.  The only things these guys were loyal to were killing, looting and each other, in that order.  This is their hymn:

    Aur! Aur! Desperta ferro!

    Deus aia!

    Veyentnos sols venir, los pobles ja flamejen:

    veyentnos sols passar, son bech los corbs netejen.

    La guerra y lo saqueig, no hi ha mellors plahers.

    Avant, almugavers! Que avisin als fossers!

    La veu del somatent nos crida ja a la guerra.

    Fadigues, plujes, neus, calors resistirem,

    y si’ns abat la sòn, pendrèra per llit la terra,

    y si’ns rendeix la fam carn crua menjarem!

        Desperta ferro! Avant! Depressa com lo llamp

        cayèm sobre son camp!

        Almugavers, avant! Anem allí a fer carn!

        Les feres tenen fam!

Listen! listen! Wake up, O iron! Help us God!…Just seeing us coming the villages are already ablaze. Just seeing us passing the crows are wiping their beaks. War and plunder, there are no greater pleasures. Forward Almogavars! Let them call the gravediggers! The voice of the somatent is calling us to war. Weariness, rains, snow and heat we shall endure. And if sleep overtakes us, we will use the earth as our bed. And if we get hungry, we shall eat raw meat. Wake up, O iron! Forward! Fast as the lightning let us fall over their camp! Forward Almogavars! Let us go there to make flesh, the wild beasts are hungry!

Boy, people don’t like war like they used to, do they?  Even Marine chants aren’t this hard-core.  Or do they?  And it’s just shape-shifted into something else?

I think they were actually involved in one of the Crusades and then at one point one of our last moronic emperors had the brilliant idea of inviting them as mercenaries to help fight off the Ottomans.  What scheming idiots, except for poor, tragic Constantine, the Palaiologoi were — and poor Kyr Gianne Cantacouzino, so beloved by Cavafy, trying to hold together the mess they created.  And they weren’t even good schemers, which is one thing Greeks usually do well. Even Constantine tried to interfere in the succession of Mehmet II in a pathetic way that had worked before but by that point the Turks were on to them already.  He sent a delegation to Edirne to remind the new Sultan’s vezir that they held Mehmet’s brother Orhan as a guest in Constantinople, a veiled threat of provoking another succession civil war among the Ottomans, which wasn’t hard to do given the brutally absolutist methods Ottoman succession practices involved.  I always loved the balling-out the Greek diplomats got from Halil, Mehmet’s vizier:

“You stupid Greeks, I have had enough of your devious ways.  The late Sultan was a lenient and conscientious friend to you.  The present Sultan is not of the same mind.  If Constantine eludes his bold and imperious grasp, it will be only because God continues to overlook your cunning and wicked schemes.  You are fools to think you frighten us with your fantasies, and that when the ink on our treaty is barely dry.  We are not children without strength or reason.  If you think you can start something, do so… All that you will achieve is to lose what little you still have.”

This is what they were left with in 1400.  At the time of the above event, which was fifty years later, they had lost Salonica too and almost all of the Thracian hinterlands of C-town itself.  But it was still “The Empire of the Romans.”

As for the Aragoneses the century before, they succeeded in inflicting some damage on the Ottomans at first, but had soon attracted Turkic and Greek freelancers into their ranks and of course went on a decade-long plundering spree in both Byzantine and Ottoman lands, including Mount Athos, where no Catalan was allowed to enter until recently, and only upon payment of reparations by the government of Catalonia; those monks have Byzantine memories, man.  After devastating the countryside of what remained of the Byzantine empire, they established a Duchy for themselves at Athens by taking it from some other Frangoi, which was eventually absorbed by the Ottomans, of course, though the King of Spain still carries the title, “Duke of Athens,” which the Spanish Crown inherited through the Kingdom of Aragon.)

I snap out of my historic daydreaming and pay for my Albarino and my incredibly expensive plate of ham, which was totally worth it.  It was Iberico ham from pata negra pigs from Extremadura that eat free-range, mostly acorns, so the meat is grained with a velvety fat that has an incredibly nutty taste to it and a texture unlike any other kind of pork fat.  It wasn’t allowed into the U.S. until recently because the F.D.A. or whoever had concerns about the health standards under which the pigs were raised, like they’re worried about raw milk cheeses and I don’t know what else.  I think of how irritated I get when I have to fill out an American customs form when I’m coming to the U.S. and I get to that question about whether I have any agricultural products on me.  I’m like: “Are you serious, United States of America?  Are you really asking me this question?  You?  The origin of all the plastic, poisonous, carcinogenic garbage food on the planet?  You’re really worried about two lemons from a family orchard or some sausages I might have with me and the havoc they’re going to wreak on America’s ecosystem and agriculture?  Really?”

Jamon Iberico at Mono (click)

I wish Jose well, hope to have enough money to see him again soon because I’m broke these days, and head for the N back to Queens.  I expect more stimulation on the subway and am not disappointed.  But the first thing I notice is a great drawing, by an artist whose name I’m too stupid to note, that covers the entire ad space above the bench opposite me.  It’s a Bemelman-like drawing of New Yorkers on a subway bench, like the one we’re all sitting on and they’ve got it posted on both sides of the car, in fact.

I immediately do a double-take because it looks like two of the characters in the drawing are two little Dropolitisses, women from my father’s villages in southern Albania, with their distinctive white headdresses, like my grandmother here in the last photo we have of her.  (click on all)

Then I look closer and notice their sneakers and schoolbags and realize they’re two Muslim high school girls sharing an IPad.  I smile, because the implications of and reasons for confusing the two are so obviously telling.

On the bench below the drawing are two big, sun-burnt Irish construction workers, in cut-off jeans and work-boots, t-shirts with dried sweat stains on them, who are so exhausted that they are falling asleep on each other.  Somehow, though, I know they’re gonna go for a pint when they get off the train, no matter how exhausted.  At the other end are three lanky, Bosnian giants, who have to keep their legs doubled up against their midsections practically to keep them from stretching across the whole subway car.  I stare at them with a dumb unconscious stare, listening to the subtle tonality of Serbo-Croatian (or “Bosnian”), as they goof around with each other, and I think they’d be fun to drink with – if they drink (they probably drink…).  Then suddenly the image of all that manhood and youth decomposing and scattered around the ground in pieces flashes before my eyes (I’ve had Srebrenica on the brain for the past few days too, not just faloodeh), and I snap out of it.


In the middle of these two bunches of heavy-weights is a super-elegant Pakistani kid, with a white-stitched topi on his head, with the v-shaped opening that Sindhi topis have though I don’t know where he’s from, and a carefully trimmed beard that’s always a sign of observant-but-not-nuts to me.  He’s got cool blue suede Adidas on and perfectly ripped jeans so you can see the hair against the color of his skin on his thighs and shins.  He’s got a worn wooden tespih wound around his left wrist along with a thick leather wrist-band and about half a dozen multi-color, tie-on bracelets that could’ve been bought on the beach in Cancun on his right.  But on top of it all he’s wearing a stunningly beautiful, blindingly white, short-length kurta, completely unbuttoned down to the middle of his chest, with a dense white-on-white chikan-like embroidery around the collar and button panels that even from across the subway car I can tell is exquisite (my mom taught me to recognize good needlework; she was a very skilled embroiderer herself).  I know this simple summer kurta and its kind of embroidery can cost as much as a good sherwani, and I wonder where he’s going or coming from to be wearing such an expensive piece of clothing.  He’s also got his sunglasses balanced behind the back of his head, and they don’t slide off during the whole subway ride.  This is Desi majeza.  He’s a sight.  I wonder if they’ve found a suitable girl for him yet, or if he’s even going to tolerate family choices in that kind of thing; see, that’s the thing; his whole get-up and attitude make it impossible to gauge exactly how “traditional” he is, a frequent dilemma in a city where the cultural self is so malleable, and which – aside from how handsome he is – is what makes him so fascinating to look at.  He could be the perfect obedient Muslim son; he could be a D.J. somewhere or a dancer regular at Bhangra Basement at S.O.B.’s or an ecstasy dealer, or all or any combination of those.  I bet he drinks.  I bet he fasts for Ramazan though.  I then start wondering what Whitman, who loved the men of New York so deeply: “manners free and superbopen voices–hospitalitythe most courageous and friendly young men…” would have done with the material New York would have to offer him these days.  He wrote with such passion of a totally white city; he might’ve been overwhelmed by this one.

I like betting to myself where people are going to get off the subway based on sociological info, and, of course, the Irish guys and the Pakistani get off at Queensborough Plaza to take the 7 train, the Irish guys to Sunnyside or Woodside, the cool Pakistani kid to Jackson Heights or Elmhurst.  And sure enough the Bosnians follow me to Astoria.  I think to myself that I should get a camera and a business card for this blog so I look semi-professional and not like a freak asking people if I can take their picture with my lame Blackberry.

The N train (photo: Matt Lawson)

In Astoria I catch the end of vespers at Hagia Eirene.  This is a church that used to be the territory of fundamentalist, Old Calendar, separatist crazies but has rejoined the flock on the condition that it was granted monastic status (and I have no idea what that means).  But it has somehow got its hands on a great bunch of cantors and priests who really know what they’re doing.  I’m impressed.  I brought friends here for the Resurrection this year and for the first time I wasn’t embarrassed.  If I hadn’t invited them back home afterwards I would have stayed for the Canon.  Only one cantor now at vespers but he’s marvelous and the lighting is right and the priest’s bearing appropriately imperial.  It’s incredibly heartening to see our civilization’s greatest achievement — which is not what the Frangoi taught us about Sophocles or Pericles or some half-baked knowledge of Plato or a dumb hard-on about the Elgin marbles or the word “Macedonia,” but this, the rite and music and poetry and theatre of the Church – performed with the elegance and dignity that it deserves.

From the wall paintings at Hagia Eirene: St. Demetrius above, my patron saint, and his best army buddy, St. Nestor, below, executed together by the Emperor Maximian in Salonica in 306 A.D., because Nestor, with Dimitri’s blessing, killed the Emperor’s favorite gladiator in the arena.  Nestor was beheaded; Dimitri run through with lances — a story.  (Click)

I end up back in Sunnyside, which has become a heavily Turkish neighborhood in recent years.  The amazing thing is what a complete range of Turkish society the community consists of.  Every kind of Turk: from gorgeous young Istanbullu girls (who have disconcertingly started to destroy their beautiful faces with bad nose jobs, like Iranian girls), to old women in flowered salvar squatting outside on the steps of the neighborhood’s Art Deco apartment buildings, picking through lentils in a big sini.  On the corners are Turkish guys hanging out or you pass one every few yards as you walk down the street (“…icim sikiliyor”) and once again I curse the fact that “man torki na midaanam.”

Ah, here’s some Hafez:

“I am the slave of the eyes of that Turk who, in his sweet drunken sleep,

Has a canopy of musky eyebrows over the adorned rose-bed of his face.”

(Sorry I don’t know the Farsi.)

 Of course these guys don’t look like Hafez’ Turk would have, don’t have the eyes he would have, nor do they look like the Uzbek beauty that served me my faloodeh earlier in the afternoon.  These are “our Turks” and though quite a few do, the majority don’t bear much resemblance to their Turkic forebears anymore.  I said that once in a conversation with some Greeks – “our Turks” – to distinguish the inhabitants of Turkey from Central Asian peoples (I don’t know what we were talking about that making that distinction would have been necessary) and I got a blank stare from everybody.  But after a brief pause I realized that it felt good to say, that it was heart-warming to say: “our Turks.”  Plus, anything like that I might say that pisses off Greeks gives me a thrill that can’t be described.

I was once so mad for a Turkish guy from Sunnyside years ago that I learned how to write: “___________, you’re beautiful” in Ottoman script and graffitied it all over the neighborhood.  I thought it would be like a coded love-letter from his ancestral past and that somehow, some day, God would see to it that it were decoded for him.  Thank God that I don’t think He ever did because today I’m mortified to even remember that I did something like that — not that it’s exactly out of character.  I have much to be mortified over; and it takes much longer than you think to convert humiliating regrets into “ah-youth” nostalgia.  And I wasn’t so young either.  It’s just this guy was a knock-out.  He’d walk into a bar and my knees would get shaky; I’d have to be trashed to talk to him without stuttering.  I had to let it out somehow or I would’ve died.

I drop into my favorite Irish pub on Queens Boulevard, for a beer and to wait for a friend and, sure enough, it’s full of dusty, sweaty construction workers who couldn’t go home without a pint.  Despite the influx of Turks and Greeks and Roumanians and Armenians (it’s one of the mysteries of New York immigration that peoples who can’t stand each other back home choose to settle in the same neighborhoods when they get here), Sunnyside is still one of the city’s hard-core Irish neighborhoods, with a population of both old-time Irish-Americans and young Irish kids.  These last had stopped coming for a while, but now have sadly started again, afflicted by the eternal curse of this beautiful, heroic people.  But they, for sure, are tough enough for anything.  When you talk to them about things in Ireland, they’re attitude is basically: “Ah…young folks leaving again…things were good for a while, ya know, and now we’re back to the same old….cheers…”

The 7 train in Sunnyside.  The only attempt ever made in New York to make an elevated train attractive.  (click)

There was a genre of Ottoman literature known as the “shehrengiz,” the “shehrashub” in its Farsi prototype, which was basically a tour of a particular city cataloguing in detail all its beautiful people: men and women, but mostly young men — echoes of Whitman again.  Walter Andrews and Mehmet Kalpakli in their fascinating and highly idiosyncratic The Age of Beloveds: Love and the Beloved in Early Modern Ottoman and European Culture and Society translate the term as “city-thriller” or “city-disturber.”  One of the longest extant ones is about Gumulcine oddly enough (Komotene), ironic because the only thing that distinguishes modern Gumulcine from any miserable northern Greek city and makes it interesting and quite beautiful is its Turkish population.  People have called this corner of Greece the last remaining part of the Ottoman Empire and it truly feels that way.  The Turkish marketplace there is particularly fascinating, because of its abundance of coffeehouses and borekcidika, but also because of the beautiful traditional jewelry that’s still made in the city and sold in its numerous shops.  This isn’t the mass-produced crap of Jiannena; this is stuff of real artistry.  Wonder what the boys who worked in its sixteenth-century jewelry workshops looked like; they were obviously of high poetic caliber.

(Once when I was in Komotene I had spent the morning in the Turkish market neighborhood and later on, for some reason, walked back through its streets during siesta time, when all the shops were shuttered.  I saw that the iron gate of every single shop in the marketplace had “1955” graffitied on it, the year of the anti-Greek riots in Istanbul – see one of my first posts “The Name of this Blog”.  I thought it was the creepiest, most cowardly kind of nationalist intimidation that I’d ever seen; it still turns my stomach to remember it.)


One more beer as it starts getting dark.  Today I lived my own New York shehrengiz.  Sorry for the rambling length of this post, or if any part of it was embarrassingly personal; feel for me.  I felt compelled to write it — my prose shehrengiz.  It started with the faloodeh.  It’s what a hot summer day in New York can do to you.

I am he that aches with amorous love;

Does the earth gravitate? does not all matter, aching,

         attract all matter?

So the body of me to all I meet or know.

— Walt Whitman


*The name of this entry is the name of one of the all-time greatest hits of the legendary Puerto Rican salsa band, El Gran Combo, “Un Verano en Nueva York” , “A Summer in New York:”  “If you want to have fun, full of enchantment and delight, all you have to do is live a summer in New York.”  Of course, given how hellish summer in New York can be, especially for inner-city residents, especially back in 1970, I always had this weird suspicion that this song was some kind of sick joke…

**Of course as fate would have it — or I must’ve insulted some goddess, Artemis, or Durga Ma probably — a couple of months after I wrote this there was suddenly a woman behind the kitchen bar at Mono and of course she’s great and of course I keep going.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

%d bloggers like this: