Tag Archives: Macedonia

Photos: some wild pics of Macedonian Albanians in Struga, 1954

7 Feb

Wild that people were still wearing traditional clothes as late as the 50s. From the Albanian Historical Society:

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Yugoslavia: Yeah, you found a very cool stamp. Do you have any clue what it means?

12 Nov

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It shows the extreme lengths that the Yugoslav government went to throughout the 1920s and 1930s to hold the country together, under Crown Prince and then King Aleksandar — also known as Aleksandar the Unifier.  At some point during his reign, I think after it became clear that Croatian separatism was determined to obstruct the functioning of the Skupština and the Yugoslav government in any way possible, Aleksandar redrew the constituent regions of Yugoslavia which corresponded to various ethnic groups, and introduced new administrative banovine which were given the ethnically neutral names of the main rivers that ran through each region.

And yet even despite those reforms Serbs still tried to placate Croatian separatists by allowing them — and only them — to retain an ethnic name for its historical region: what’s shown as the “Hrvatska Banovina” on your stamp.

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There is, I think, in much of Serbian pride, or even in Serbian arrogance, a certain sense of what in Greek we call φιλότιμο, “love of honor” crudely put; perhaps a better term would be “noblesse oblige”.  Since Serbs and Serbian blood pretty much created Yugoslavia singlehandedly, by fighting off the Austrians and defeating the Ottomans (along with guaranteeing us possession of Salonica ’cause they kept the Bulgarians busy while Greek Crown Prince Constantine strolled into the city like the conquering hero), you might have expected that they would work to keep a Serbian kingdom ,under the Карађорђевић (Karađorđević) dynasty, where all other ethnic groups — who did nothing to fight for south Slav independence, except tangentially the Macedonians — would simply be subject peoples to the Serbian crown.  Instead, they made a sincere and honest attempt to make the noble experiment of south Slav unity actually work, democratically and harmoniously.  There was even an ideological current running through Serbian intellectual circles of a plan for unification with Bulgaria and even Greece into one greater Balkan state, which would have made it harder for the West to push us around and fuck us up like they did and do; maybe even made us more valuable to the West than Turkey, the tail which wags the Western/US/NATO dog.

And I think King Aleksandar, for all his theoretical faults, was a genuine personification of that sense of Serbian noblesse oblige and ἀρχοντι.

And for his efforts he was assassinated in Marseille in 1934 by a Macedonian separatist in cahoots with the nasty-piece-of-work, Vatican-supported, Croatian Über-Nazi Ustaše.

And that’s what your cool stamp is all about, Charlie Brown.

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King Aleksandar I

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Macron: «᾽Ιδού ὁ νυμφίος ἔρχεται…» Not happy with his Balkan policy, but he’s the only man on the world political landscape today with anything even remotely resembling a redeeming vision.

10 Nov

The future of the EU — Emmanuel Macron warns Europe: NATO is becoming brain-dead

America is turning its back on the European project. Time to wake up, the French president tells The Economist

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During the hour-long interview, conducted in his gilt-decorated office at the Elysée Palace in Paris on October 21st, the president argues that it is high time for Europe to “wake up”. He was asked whether he believed in the effectiveness of Article Five, the idea that if one NATO member is attacked all would come to its aid, which many analysts think underpins the alliance’s deterrent effect. “I don’t know,” he replies, “but what will Article Five mean tomorrow?”

NATO, Mr Macron says, “only works if the guarantor of last resort functions as such. I’d argue that we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States.” And America, in his view, shows signs of “turning its back on us,” as it demonstrated starkly with its unexpected troop withdrawal from north-eastern Syria last month, forsaking its Kurdish allies.

In President Donald Trump, Europe is now dealing for the first time with an American president who “doesn’t share our idea of the European project”, Mr Macron says. This is happening when Europe is confronted by the rise of China and the authoritarian turn of regimes in Russia and Turkey. Moreover, Europe is being weakened from within by Brexit and political instability.

This toxic mix was “unthinkable five years ago,” Mr Macron argues. “If we don’t wake up […] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply.”

Mr Macron’s energetic recent diplomatic activity has drawn a great deal of interest abroad, and almost as much criticism. He has been accused of acting unilaterally (by blocking EU enlargement in the Western Balkans), and over-reaching (by trying to engineer direct talks between America and Iran). During the interview, however, the president is in a defiant but relaxed mood, sitting in shirt sleeves on the black leather sofa he has installed in the ornate salon doré, where Charles de Gaulle used to work.

The French president pushes back against his critics, for instance arguing that it is “absurd” to open up the EU to new members before reforming accession procedures, although he adds that he is ready to reconsider if such conditions are met.

Mr Macron’s underlying message is that Europe needs to start thinking and acting not only as an economic grouping, whose chief project is market expansion, but as a strategic power. That should start with regaining “military sovereignty”, and re-opening a dialogue with Russia despite suspicion from Poland and other countries that were once under Soviet domination. Failing to do so, Mr Macron says, would be a “huge mistake”.

Dig Deeper

Cover leader (November 7th): “A continent in peril”
Briefing (November 7th): A president on a mission
Transcript: Emmanuel Macron in his own words

The Intelligence podcast: “He talked about Europe in almost apocalyptic terms”— Macron’s interview

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Albanian made second official language of Macedonia: Some grown-ups in the room…

18 Nov

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Map_of_minorities_in_the_Republic_of_Macedonia_by_municipality

Photo: Sarajevo gastra and börek…or Börek I

24 Aug

Börek gastra Sarajevo

(click)

These are börek in Sarajevo being baked in a gastra, a strange piece of High Ottoman technology that is still used in much of northern Greece, especially Epiros and the rest of the Balkans, particularly the western parts: Albania, Montenegro (where uniquely in the Serb-speaking world, they call börek pitta like in Greek), Kosovo and southern Serbia — regions, interestingly enough, where börek is a particularly strong regional identity marker and the object of a powerful cult of affection and snobbery.  Every and each börek in these parts is subjected to intense scrutiny; is there too much filling (major demerit points because you’re obviously trying to make up for the poor quality of your phyllo/yufka); is each layer fine enough, but able to both absorb serious quantities of butter and not get soggy, like a good croissant or a good paratha.  Finally, that you use real — and good — butter, which makes almost all commercially sold varieties not worth trying, since using good butter on a commercial scale would make a börek that is prohibitively expensive, and especially in a country of culinary philistines like Greece, store-bought versions are almost inedible, as is most product in Turkey these days too, Turkish street food having suffered a marked decline in quality even as the tourist literature on the country continues to rave about it.  But I have had good börek in Macedonia, in Mavrovo, and in Montenegro, in Žabljak, where the hotel made us a great cheese and a great cabbage one for a hike we went on.  And in a high-end restaurant in Jiannena too; but next to me was an Albanian woman, who first smelled it, pricked at it with her fork, counting the layers of pastry, and then after a few minutes of just staring at it, pushed it away in disgust.  Like I said, it’s an object of great snobbery.  And forget Old Greece.  It’s a standard rule of thumb that the further away in place and time a region of Greece is from the Ottoman experience, the exponentially worse the food gets.  No one south of Larissa can bake a pitta to save their lives, or make a decent plate of pilav for that matter.  Epiros is probably the only place you can still get a nice buttery mound of pilav — like the kind Turks make — with good yogurt.  Southern Greeks seem allergic to rice, and have friggin’ potatoes with almost every meal.  Maybe It’s a Bavarian thing — I dunno.

some really good borek

Reaaally good stuff, in Mavrovo, Macedonia (click)  (See post: Macedonia: Mavrovo, Dimitri and the Two Falcons)

But everything baked tastes better in a gastra, the same root as the word for “womb” in Greek (or “gastritis”): rice and lamb, even zeytinyağlı vegetable dishes.  It’s just incredibly tedious — and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing — to use.  It’s a cast-iron dome, suspended with a very complicated chain mechanism over a stone platform.  You first lift the dome and light your charcoal fire underneath it on the stone platform.  When the fire has been reduced to hot embers, and the cast-iron dome has also gotten nice and hot, you brush the embers aside, position your tepsi of food, lower the hot cast-iron dome, and then pile the still glowing embers on top of the dome.  Usually when they’ve cooled down completely the dish is done.  The picture above shows gastras at all steps in the process.

I dunno really.  Does it make that much of a difference?  Everything is better when it tastes slightly smokey or when a little bit of ash has fallen into it — like Turkish coffee made in hot ashes.  But it’s a ton of work and really impractical.  If, for example, the embers go out completely and you raise the dome and the food isn’t done yet, you have to start the whole process from the beginning.  Arthur Schwatrz, in his ever-best cookbook on Neapolitan food, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania — which, like most good cookbooks these days, is as fantastic a source of history, anthropology and ethnography as it is of good recipes — says that a lot of foods legendary for how long you had to cook them for them to be the “real” article, like a Neapolitan ragù (pronounce with a double “r” and a “g” that sounds like a light Greek “gamma” – “γ”) that should take at least half a day to simmer or no self-respecting Neapolitan would eat it, were never really cooked that long.  Rather, they were cooked on wood fires and braziers, which were constantly going out, had to be relit, while the sauce cooled off and took time to reheat, etc.  Of course, for certain sauces and stews, and the fatty, sinewy cuts of meat we like in “our parts,” this kind of cooking is ideal.  And not just the slow, long heat, but the cooling off and reheating especially.

Naples at Table

Ottoman mangal

(click)

It’s like that other piece of Ottoman high-tech (I don’t mean to make fun, but it wasn’t exactly their strong suit), the mangal home-heater or charcoal brazier. (above)  You’d pile charcoal into it; leave it out in the street until the carbon monoxide burned off, then cover the embers with the lid and bring the whole incredibly dangerous, glowing — and often very large — brass behemoth inside to warm the house, or one hermetically sealed room really.  Then, as my mother used to describe it, you’d get under the blankets or flokates, facing the mangal, so your face would turn all red and sweaty while your back was freezing, and hope you had fallen asleep before it started cooling off or that you had generated enough body heat under the blankets to last till morning.  There were countless stories about families being found dead in the morning, because in the rush to bring this silly contraption into the freezing house, the carbon monoxide often hadn’t burnt off entirely and people would die from poisoning in their sleep.  I can only imagine that their use was required because it was probably tricky to build chimneys in mostly wooden Ottoman urban housing — my mother only remembered them from Jiannena; in her village where the house was stone, there were regular stone fireplaces where you could keep adding wood because the chimney would let the smoke and gas escape — and I’m sure that many of the massive fires that consumed whole mahallades of Ottoman cities over the centuries and killed thousands on certain occasions, were probably caused by one accidentally knocked over mangal somewhere.

And whole neighborhoods would burn down and then be rebuilt in wood again, something I comment on in another post — Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski“:

This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).

More on the symbolics of börek and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the next post.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Upon escaping from Greece…

7 Sep

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How do you go through the work of the poet whose opus consists of the sharpest and most accurate analysis of Modern Greek identity, and find the poem that displays perhaps the most razor-sharp understanding of all of them? I’ve always known that poet was Cavafy, but I wasn’t looking for that one poem or anything, when, just leafing through his stuff a few days before I left Greece this past July, I came upon one of my favorites, the following. Please have a look first:

Going Back Home from Greece (an unbelievably clumsy translation of the Greek title)

Well, we’re nearly there, Hermippos.
Day after tomorrow, it seems—that’s what the captain said.
At least we’re sailing our seas,
the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt,
the beloved waters of our home countries.
Why so silent? Ask your heart:
didn’t you too feel happier
the farther we got from Greece?
What’s the point of fooling ourselves?
That would hardly be properly Greek. 
 
It’s time we admitted the truth:
we are Greeks also—what else are we?—
but with Asiatic affections and feelings,
affections and feelings
sometimes alien to Hellenism. 
 
It isn’t right, Hermippos, for us philosophers
to be like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up! 
 
No, that’s not at all right for us.
For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won’t do.
We must not be ashamed
of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins;
we should really honor it, take pride in it.

— Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

Επάνοδος από την Ελλάδα

Ώστε κοντεύουμε να φθάσουμ’, Έρμιππε.
Μεθαύριο, θαρρώ· έτσ’ είπε ο πλοίαρχος.
Τουλάχιστον στην θάλασσά μας πλέουμε·
νερά της Κύπρου, της Συρίας, και της Aιγύπτου,
αγαπημένα των πατρίδων μας νερά.
Γιατί έτσι σιωπηλός; Pώτησε την καρδιά σου,
όσο που απ’ την Ελλάδα μακρυνόμεθαν
δεν χαίροσουν και συ; Aξίζει να γελιούμαστε; —
αυτό δεν θα ’ταν βέβαια ελληνοπρεπές. Aς την παραδεχθούμε την αλήθεια πια·
είμεθα Έλληνες κ’ εμείς — τι άλλο είμεθα; —
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις της Aσίας,
αλλά με αγάπες και με συγκινήσεις
που κάποτε ξενίζουν τον Ελληνισμό. Δεν μας ταιριάζει, Έρμιππε, εμάς τους φιλοσόφους
να μοιάζουμε σαν κάτι μικροβασιλείς μας
(θυμάσαι πώς γελούσαμε με δαύτους
σαν επισκέπτονταν τα σπουδαστήριά μας)
που κάτω απ’ το εξωτερικό τους το επιδεικτικά
ελληνοποιημένο, και (τι λόγος!) μακεδονικό,
καμιά Aραβία ξεμυτίζει κάθε τόσο
καμιά Μηδία που δεν περιμαζεύεται,
και με τι κωμικά τεχνάσματα οι καημένοι
πασχίζουν να μη παρατηρηθεί. A όχι δεν ταιριάζουνε σ’ εμάς αυτά.
Σ’ Έλληνας σαν κ’ εμάς δεν κάνουν τέτοιες μικροπρέπειες.
Το αίμα της Συρίας και της Aιγύπτου
που ρέει μες στες φλέβες μας να μη ντραπούμε,
να το τιμήσουμε και να το καυχηθούμε.

What gives this poem such pride of place as an analysis of Greek identity? For me, it starts with the simple joy both passengers feel as they’re arriving home – not approaching Greece, but leaving it. “Upon Escaping from Greece” would be my choice for the title’s English translation, because it’s clearly an experience of suffocation that the two friends have experienced that has started to lighten up for them as they cruise east through the breezy waters of the Mediterranean.

Cavafy has become an object of a resurgent cult in Greece, partly due to last year’s 150-year celebration (he was born in 1863), that’s a kind of an “emperor’s-new-clothes” phenomenon for me; not because his new clothes aren’t real, but I feel that few Greeks actually know what it is they’re suppose to be liking so much. I much prefer people who just say up front that they don’t like him. He’s “childish” they say, in response to his prose-like, early modernist experiments. These are the people who like their poetry with a capital “P”; they want it to rhyme: “φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό…” and they want it to have epic scale heroics and ‘the thousands dead under the axles’ and ‘the living giving their blood’ in the heroic deed of ‘making the sun turn,’ along with some myrtle and oleander and jasmine thrown in for Aegean effect. (What if you’re from Epiros and you don’t know from oleander and jasmine, just tsouknida and pournari?) Others only like a very emphatically stressed “some” of his poems: these are the ones turned off by his sexuality, but who feel they can’t say so openly in 2014 – or to me. (And the degree to which that whole part of his work, a good half, was ignored by the official festivities – they wanted only “Ithaka” or “Waiting for the Barbarians” or “The City” — was amazing.*) The Messenger for example, found a publisher for his paternal grandfather’s, my great-grand-uncle on my mother’s side, fascinating memoirs, which span the whole period from the late nineteenth century and the end of Ottoman rule to WWII. Except his grandfather met a Jewish guy who screwed him over when he was a young immigrant in New York in the 20s and he included the unfortunate phrase: “Hitler was right for doing what he did to them.”**  The publisher thought maybe that line should be cut. But the Messenger stuck to his cast-iron principles and insisted it be left as is, because it would be “censorship” to remove it.  Hardly an upholder of the most liberal sentiments on issues of that kind, I have a feeling that if the comment hadn’t been about Jews, he wouldn’t have minded the censorship so much. Just a few months earlier, for example, he hadn’t thought it was “censorship” to cut a slightly too homoerotic line from a Cavafy poem he read at his father’s funeral, for fear that our landsmen, our chorianoi, would be scandalized.

These elements and others: that Cavafy preferred the tragic dénouement to the epic climax; the unconsummated to the fulfilled; that he preferred the coded to the open and disclosed, and not out of choice; but learning to love what fate had made him, he learned to love the beauty of code – its poetry — the furtive touch over some cheap handkerchiefs; that he loved the ethnically and culturally and religiously mixed margins of Greek history and the poignancy of characters who had to straddle those margins and did not write a single poem about its Attic glory days (who are all these half-breed Egyptians and Parthians and Jews and other exotic anatolites he’s always making us read about anyway? Where’s Pericles and Aristotle?); that he understood life and humanity as fundamentally amoral, and morality as a convenient weapon to be used against the unfortunate few or often just a bad joke. All this did not do much to endear him to his contemporaries, along with the fact that he famously disliked Greece and especially Athens (the latter kind of unfair in my opinion: Athens at that time must’ve been at its most beautiful and charming), and the straight, homophobic white boys of the Generation of the ‘30s in particular, despite Seferis’ famous eulogy, had no time for him. The most vehement, Theotokas (unfortunately, one of my favorite Greek writers otherwise) scathingly declared Cavafy, in his Free Spirit, a “dead end” (a common trope, whether conscious or not: the gay man begets no issue and is thus fundamentally allied with death); that his modernism was an experiment that had been taken to its logical conclusion and that the Alexandrian was now a decadent (same difference), a point of departure for what Greek letters should move on from next and not a road open for them to continue down.

That right there is the grand and egregious error. Because Greek culture and identity – in a way that makes any sense to who we are today – simply didn’t exist until the Hellenistic (and then Roman/Byzantine) periods that Cavafy chose, almost exclusively, to write about in his historical poems. The conglomeration of Indo-European tribal units who all spoke dialects of similar languages and had started coalescing into larger city-state forms of political organization by the mid-first millennium B.C. have nothing to do with us. They may have started calling themselves “Hellenes,” but let’s not forget that the Iliad does not contain one, single, blessed mention of that holy word, and was compiled only a century-and-a- half or so before the Golden Periclean Age we’re so obsessed with.

It was because he was fascinated with the true origins of Greek identity, the cauldron of cultural mixture that Alexander created that later became condensed into a more distilled Greek-speaking, Orthodox idea, that Cavafy wrote about those periods so widely and studied them so deeply. And being from such deep aristocratic Constantinopolitan roots and an Alexandrian, how could he not have felt that basic idea on a gut level.

This is another reason the mention of the words “Macedonia” and “Alexander” makes my hair stand on end. The Macedonians (by which I mean Slav Macedonians) are ridiculous in their attempt to appropriate Alexander as a phenomenon of their own culture, though many observers have written about how this conscious policy of “antikvatsiya” (“antiquization”) on the Macedonian government’s part is, partly, a response to Greek intransigence on every other grounds. But you can see from how Greeks respond to Macedonian moves that Greeks don’t get Alexander either. Alexander is not a culminating point of Hellenic history, where the great hero brought Hellenic civilization to the “borders of India.” Alexander is not even a Greek herohe very early in his career quickly became déraciné, as Mary Renault keenly observed. Alexander is where Greek history starts. It’s all really the other way around. Alexander is what brought the East, and its incomparably greater and older civilizational achievements, to us. He drove us deep into contact with that wider world, cementing what had always been our bonds to those lands and those peoples he grew to love so much, and giving us as much in return, actually more, than what we gave them. He created the great creolized cultural space that a universal, cosmopolitan Greek identity was first born in and that later – when the name for “universal, cosmopolitan identity” changed, due to political circumstances, from “Greek” to “Roman,” – changed along with it, but which left the Helladic peninsula — or “the Hellenic” generally — behind permanently as a focus of any kind. Until the twentieth century.

Alexander Renault

Hermippos and his friend, Greeks going home to Antioch in Syria or Seleucia in Mesopotamia, can’t be Greek in Greece. It suffocates them. They don’t fit into that nonsense, antiquarian straightjacket. It’s “beneath” them, as Greeks, to reject the wider world that they’ve long been an intimate and inseparable part of. Greek means cosmopolitan to them and they can’t be Greeks without that quality. It would be the most provincial thing for them to do, to act like provincials who try to hide their “easterness”:

“…like some of our petty kings
(remember how we laughed at them
when they used to come to our lectures?)
who through their showy Hellenified exteriors,
Macedonian exteriors (naturally),
let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
a bit of Media they can’t keep back.
And to what laughable lengths the fools went
trying to cover it up!”

Eastern Mediterranean(click)

The nation-state is bound up inseparably with provincialness. And narrowed tribalism. And provincials hide. Not true Greek men. Cavafy’s “petty kings” are the Neo-Greek bourgeoisie, from the statelet’s origins down to our day, with their still immovable disdain for the East, who don their ancient fineries and try to make the world call them Hellenes and have no clue how ridiculous they’re being. Provincials dissimulate – not true Greek men — and that dissimulation has been the main thread of Neo-Greek culture since the late eighteenth century, so much so that all perspective has been lost. Hermippos and his buddy aren’t provincials. They’re Greek alright – from some of the richest, most sophisticated and Greekest cities in the world; but they understand the larger cultural context they’re a part of, and they’re too supremely secure in their Greekness to put down the Egypt and Syria that ‘flow in their veins.’ Greece tries to take that away from them. I imagine the Athens they had to go study at as a kind of tired old Cambridge, MA, still resting on its now dried-up laurels. But they’re too Greek to let Greece do that to them. Sorry to get repetitive. It’s an attempt to make the paradox – a wholly healthy and natural one – sink in.

Greece still tries to do that to you. And in the crisis mode it’s in today, it tries even harder because its sad inhabitants’ perspectives have become narrower and narrower to the point where they see nothing of the rest of the world and there’s simply very little language left you can share with them. “Η φτώχεια φέρνει γκρίνια,” the Greek says – “poverty makes for kvetching” — and though many people I know have faced the current crisis with the best kind of Greek dignity and humor in the face of adversity, too many others have lapsed back into ideological craziness, or just a frustrated lashing-out bitterness, or were always there but kept it hidden and now think that it’s more okay to express things openly; it’s hard to tell which.

One friend or relative has become a Golden Dawn apologist if not supporter: “What’s a young man who loves his country supposed to do?” I dunno; but half of Dostoevsky is about what to do with the unguided idealism of strong young men and phenomena like Golden Dawn wasn’t one of his answers; he strictly warned us against them, in fact. Another wants to take a DNA test to make sure he has no Albanian genes: actually believes such a thing exists – a chromosome for Albanian-ness and a test that will detect it. And this is one of those uncomfortable situations we’ve all been in where this is coming from the spouse of a good friend, so you have to keep your silence and you can’t just say: “That’s nice _______, Hitler and the Nazis were into that kind of thing too.” If I could I would’ve also asked if he wanted to see my DNA chart too, which is probably chock full of “Albanian-ness” and if he would then feel the need to maybe keep me away from his daughters. Another is still obsessing, as we go on twenty-five years since the break-up of Yugoslavia, on the “Macedonian issue.”*** And after hours of mind-bogglingly pointless conversation – “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into,” said Jonathan Swift — you take a step back and realize that that’s all that’s ever mattered to this guy. The hundreds of thousands dead produced by the Yugoslav disaster, the millions displaced, the destruction of the last part of the former Ottoman sphere where there was still some hope of survival for a multi-ethnic society, the greatest bloodletting in Europe since WWII, right on our doorstep…  He doesn’t give two shits, nor has he let one blessed thought or idea on that series of calamities occupy even one of his brain cells for a second. All he cares about is the “Macedonian Issue.” Twenty-five f*cking years later. And he doesn’t find such narcissism the least bit obscene.  “The world is burning, και το μ**νί της Χάιδως χτενίζεται.”  I won’t translate.

Whether or not they’re becoming more extreme or just showing their true colors more, it’s certain that I’ve become more radical – not in my ideological positions, which are what they always were – but in my inability to tolerate their stupidity and growing narrow-mindedness. I’m always ready to leave Greece when the time comes, but this time it had become truly unbearable. There were just too many people that it had become too uncomfortable to even be around. And stumbling on this half-forgotten Cavafy poem was no accident I feel.

And so I took that great big breath of relief that Hermippos and his friend took on the deck of their boat as the shores of Cyprus came into view when I myself left for Serbia back in July. I had to get out of this place – and disassociate myself from it and its inhabitants — if the fact that I’m Greek was going to continue to be to at all tolerable to me. I’ll always love arriving; with the new flight path south over the Attic midlands passing right over the town and beach — over the very apartment building — where I spent my childhood summers, I’ll always choke up a little at the sight of the brown hills of Attica. But when I’m ready to leave, I gotta go – and fast – and this year more urgently than any other.

And I can see myself spending more and more of my future time in “Greece” in Albania with my relatives – “deep” Greeks who don’t have the ball-and-chain of a nation-state tied around their ankles; in Istanbul – with smart young Greek and Turkish kids who are trying to do something intelligent and productive about our relationship; maybe in Cyprus – which Kosmas Polites called the last surviving remnant of his beloved lost Ionia and where I have friends to whom I owe long over-due visits; or just here in Queens — where every block and street corner and subway stop and church bears a piece of my Roman-ness.

Because Greece, man… Greece just cramps my Greekness.

Egypte, Alexandrie, le front de merAlexandria (click)

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* And the thing is, if you ignore his erotic poems, I find it hard to believe that most people can even understand, much less really appreciate, the rest — the historical poems.  Who understands the religious and cultural sociology of fourth-century Alexandria enough to have the proper context to apprehend all of “Myres: Alexandria, AD 340”?  Who the hell knows where Commagene is?  Or who Alexander Jannaios was?  Or what a handsome Jewish prince is doing with the name Aristovoulos?  Or why he was murdered and “those sluts Kypros and Salome” are now gloating in private?

** It’s amazing.  And disturbing.  Anti-semitism and the extent of its popularization and the accessibility of its language.  Not only can one accusation of unethicalness — and from a Greek at that! — be used to tar a whole people, but Jews are the only people with whom that one charge leads straight to the gas chambers so easily, in people’s minds and on people’s tongues.  Not “what a sleazebag.”  Or “what a nation of sleazebags.”  But straight to “Hitler was right…”

*** Yes.  Believe it or not.  The “Macedonian” “issue.”  More on that to come.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Montenegro: Land Without Justice

7 Jun

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?”

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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.”

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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