Tag Archives: Macedonia

Maria Todorova and “A Falcon drinks water from the Vardar”

2 May

I wrote in “A Falcon drinks water from the Vardar”: Good-bye to Macedonia”  that:

“The six simple lines of this beautiful Macedonian song:

A falcon drinks water from the Vardar.
Oh Jana, white-throated Jana.
O falcon, hero’s bird, Have you not seen a hero go past?
A hero go past with nine heavy wounds?
Nine heavy wounds, all from bullets.
And a tenth wound, stabbed with a knife.

…encapsulate all you need to know about the Balkan cult of blood and tragic masculinity, which is the root of everything horrific you’ve read and heard about the region, yet, fortunately — or unfortunate, at least,  for those who, as they say, can’t hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time — the foundation for everything so stunningly beautiful about it.”

imagining the balkans

Maria Todorova, the Bulgarian historian, writes in her Imagining the Balkans, a book which does for the Balkans what Said’s Orientalism  did for the Arab Middle East, that — I don’t have the book with me, this is a very rough summary and paraphrase — the West’s constantly describing the Balkans as “male” is one of the primary ways of exoticizing it and stigmatizing it as inherently violent and backwards.  She’s right.  I want to avoid that.  And yet, it’s hard.

(Click on all photos.)

Men in Montenegrin cafe, date unknown.

Montenegrin men in cafe

Traditional Montenegrin male costume, all red and gold braid — I’ll find a color one.IMG_0409Men in traditional costume in Cetinje, Montenegro’s old royal capital – date unknown — and traditional coffeehouse in Cetinje.IMG_0535


Žablak, Montenegro, the town kafene today.


FK Rudar Pljevlja won the first double in the four-season history of Montenegrin football, with their three trophies also making them the young nation’s most successful club.



Serbia’s water polo team at London Olympics 2012.

3511340708_6831b076e3_o copyThe Montenegrin team.

London Olympics Water Polo Men

The cover of Said’s Orientalism contained a detail from the 19th-century painting The Snake Charmer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904) — painting used on first edition of Said’s book. (Click)


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Montenegro: Baptized in the Tara

2 May

Τό’χα τάμα.  I had promised myself I’d do it.  The river and the canyon are spectacular.  Like an idiot I dove right in and got the most vicious ice cream headache in the world in one second flat.  I could only bear about two more minutes in the freezing waters.  But I never felt cleaner in my life.

IMG_0362 IMG_0357 IMG_0358(click on all)

Unfortunately, the bridge over the beautiful river is pretty ugly, since Montenegro isn’t in the European Union and can’t get a zillion dollars from Brussels, so they can pocket half of it and then hire Santiago Calatarava to build them some spectacular eagle span across the canyon with whatever’s left.  Like Greece.


Note: I’m still in Montenegro but will be jumping back and forth between countries, so expect “redux” posts on Macedonia and Kosovo.

The Tara canyon — the river barely visible — from further up on Durmitor (click).


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“A falcon drinks water from the Vardar” — good-bye to Macedonia

27 Apr

Left Macedonia this morning and crossed into Kosovo; in Gračanica now, where we found the most amazing place to stay right by the famous monastery, and a world away from the horrible mess of Priština.

The six simple lines of this beautiful Macedonian song:

A falcon drinks water from the Vardar.
Oh Jana, white-throated Jana.
O falcon, hero’s bird, Have you not seen a hero go past?
A hero go past with nine heavy wounds?
Nine heavy wounds, all from bullets.
And a tenth wound, stabbed with a knife.

…encapsulate all you need to know about the Balkan cult of blood and tragic masculinity, which is the root of everything horrific you’ve read and heard about the region, yet, fortunately — or unfortunate, at least,  for those who, as they say, can’t hold two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time — the foundation for everything so stunningly beautiful about it.  This is what Rebecca West understood so profoundly and in her soul and why she loved and defended the region’s peoples with such unapologetic passion.  This is what Milovan Djilas accepts with such love and intelligence, when he describes his Homeric people as capable of the most profound sweetness and tenderness in the midst of the grossest violence and destitution — again, with no apologies and no judgements, just true understanding of the their humanity.  The Macedonian transliteration is below.  You get it or you don’t.

The photographs are extraordinary.  Balkan female dress — which all over the southern Balkans is an entire civilization in itself — reaches the apogee of richness and complexity across this swath of southern Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and the rest of Old Serbia.  More about Macedonia to come.

More sokol pie,
Voda na Vardaro,
More sokol pie,
Voda na Vardaro.

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

More oj sokole,
Ti junacko pile.
More neli vide,
Junak da pomine,

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

Junak da pomine,
S’devet luti rani
S’devet luti rani,
Site kursumlii

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

A desetta rana,
So noz probodena.
A desetta rana,
So noz probodena.

Jane, Jane le belo grlo
Jane, Jane le krotko jagne.

And another beautiful Macedonian song, “Jovano, Jovanke.”  “Mor’ Gianno, mor’ Giannoula” closest translation into Greek.  Jovana, Gianna…Joan, more exact translation is, again,  impossible with English’ lack of diminutives.

Only translation — from my half-assed Russian, which actually served me in good stead in all these countries — of transliterated lyrics I can make out from the one verse given:

“Jovano, Jovanke
Kraj Vardarot sedish, mori
Belo platno belish
Belo platno belish dusho
Se na gore gledash”


“Gianno, mor’ Giannoula, You sit on the banks of the Vardar,

“Washing your white linen, and glancing off into the mountains.”

(I think – can anybody help us with the rest of the translation)

The “Jovano” video is also beautiful, and has some interesting photos: the first shot is of a gathering at the monastery of Sveti Jovan Bigorski, the defending mountain fortress of  Macedonian Orthodoxy (more on that later), and the third photo — all of them really —  is pretty amazing in showing how little male body language in “our parts” has changed over the centuries.  That’s the connection of the two pics on the blog’s homepage, but nobody got it.  Here are some more boys from my village at Easter; maybe that’ll make it more obvious.


Notes: I don’t know if these two songs above are composed “folk” songs, analogous to “Gerakina” or “Xekinaei mia psaropoula” in Greek, but the lyrics are stark enough to seem authentic.  In those Greek “folk” songs I’m talking about, their “composed” status is made obvious by not only the melody but the conspicuously over-folksy content of the lyrics.  The “folk” did not sing about the mundane details of their everyday life — going to get water from the well or mending fishing nets.  They sang about nature, about love, about the pain of emigration, about death,  and about the heroic exploits of their men and often their women.  A friend of mine from Naousa in Greek Macedonia, the town just south of Vodena that is famous for its carnival celebrations, says both “More Sokol” and “Jovano” are played as instrumentals in that region, the gypsy musicians who play them usually being the carriers of songs and musical forms from country to country and region to region.

Also surprising: “more,” a word, like “bre,” used all across the southern Balkans, means “hey you” or “yo” or “oh, listen”…I dunno, a vocative case pronoun basically — does that sound right Philopomeon?  In Macedonian it has Greek gender endings: “more” and “mori.”  How did that happen?  That was the only way I knew that Jovano was a female and not a male name.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Off to ex-Yugoland

25 Apr


Ochrid, Macedonia

This was the summer that I would finally do it.  Me and a friend are off for a two-week tour through Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro.  (And yes, we’re calling it Macedonia and if anybody has a problem with that….emmm…tough shit; don’t read this blog.)  This is effectively the second leg of my journey; the first part was a visit to the monastery of Hilandar on Athos.  If I have the time and money I may do a Sarajevo to Belgrade run later in July.

I think you have to understand the degree to which I’ve saturated myself in everything about this part of the world for twenty-five years to understand my excitement.  When we crossed the border into Macedonia last night I nearly pissed on myself.  If you want to come with me on this trip in spirit you’ll get your hands on Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, a book written about her trips through Yugoslavia in the 1930s that is so by far the best, most perceptive, most loving book ever written by a Westerner about the Balkans that it might as well be the only book ever written by a Westerner about the Balkans.  Everybody I know in New York rushed out and bought it in the nineties because it was getting touted everywhere as the thing to read in order to understand the Yugoslav wars, and then dropped it about a quarter — if that far — of the way through because they decided it was too pro-Serbian — Western liberals generally liking to have their preconceived notions about places they don’t know shit about validated for them.  The reason I’ve inhaled all 1,100 pages of this book about four times is best expressed in Christopher Hitchens’ brilliant introduction to the 2007 re-edition, Hitchens being one of the only intellectuals of our time to understand the brilliance of West’s mind, and the complexity and depth of her thought about not just Yugoslavia or the Balkans, but about masculinity and gender, war and pacifism, nationalism, fascism, anti–semitism, and just about all else:

“She never chances to employ the word, but Serbo-Croat speech has an expression that depends for its effect not on the sex lives of humans, but of animals. A “vukojebina” – employed to describe a remote or barren or arduous place – literally a “wolf-fuck,” or more exactly the sort of place where wolves retire to copulate. This combination of a noble and fearless creature with an essential activity might well have appealed to her. The term – which could easily have been invented to summarize Milovan Djilas’s harsh and loving portrayal of his native Montenegro, Land Without Justice – is easily adapted to encapsulate a place that is generally, so to say, fucked up. This is the commonest impression of the Balkans now, as it was then, and West considered it her task to uncover and to praise the nobility and culture that contradicted this patronizing impression.


Sveti Naum39628346Sveti Naum, Ochrid (click)

(You’ll also find yourself a copy of Djilas’ stirring, disconcertingly moving book as well.)

Land without Justice

I’m getting a good connection almost everywhere, but I may not have time to write a lot in the next few days — you’ll probably get some photos with quotes from West — because we’ll be on the road a lot.  But next week we’re anchoring for five days on Durmitor in Montenegro, near a town called Žabljak, apparently the highest inhabited village in the Balkans, and then I’ll probably have time to write some.  Till then…

Ochrid, Easter Friday 2014


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Balkan Trilogy

5 Jul

Olympic year or not, London has always had it all over us in terms of theater — in variety, quality, daring and in its still central role in the city’s life:

“Perhaps the most logistically ambitious part of the festival was Globe to Globe, in which leaders of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater spent nearly two years lining up 37 international theater companies to mount one of the plays in their native languages at the Globe over six weeks this spring. The shows included a new “Balkan trilogy” with theaters from Serbia, Albania and Macedonia each performing one of the three parts of “Henry VI” — not coincidentally a play about civil war — as well as productions of “The Comedy of Errors” from the Afghan troupe Roy-e-Sabs and “The Merchant of Venice” from the Habima theater company of Israel (which drew protesters waving Palestinian flags).”

Give the guys a break, dudes, they’re doing “The Merchant of Venice.”

And Afghans doing “The Comedy of Errors” is too perfect.

London, 1666 (click)


The Cradle of Democracy

28 Jun

The new Greek Parliament was sworn in today, including the eighteen MP’s of the Nazi “Golden Dawn” party (down from the twenty-one seats they had won in the May elections).  Here they’re shown refusing to stand as the three Turkish MP’s from the the country’s Thracian Turkish minority are sworn in.  Actually, it’s illegal to call them “Turkish;” that’s why all media channels in the world fall in line with the the Greek government and you’ll only hear them referred to as the “Muslim” MP’s.

The official state line is that since some 30 to 40 percent of the minority consists of Bulgarian (Pomak)-speaking Muslims, it’s wrong to call them all Turkish, the Greek state being long known for its concern for minority identities and endangered languages.  As far as I know, it’s still illegal to call them Turks — just the ridiculous term “Greek Muslims,” which is something I don’t know how an EU member-state gets away with.  Till the early 2000’s it was illegal to refer to the Slavic language spoken in the country’s northwest as either Macedonian or Bulgarians as well; you had to refer to it as “ntopia” — “localish.”  Calling it either Macedonian or Bulgarian, if you happened to be a speaker of it, could land you in jail, and people there are still jittery about using it in public, will switch to Greek when a stranger comes around or wanders into one of their villages with its fake, new Greek name and don’t like to answer any questions concerning the issue.  This was probably once the numerically predominant language in Ottoman Macedonia, but most of its speakers were expelled from its central and eastern regions during the Balkan Wars and only a tiny island is left in the western Greek provinces of Emathia (Karaferia), Pella (Vodena), Kastoria (Kostur) and Florina (Lerin).  Again, it’s hard to know numbers with any accuracy, due to assimilation, shame or remnant fear.

And this proud Hellenic pallikari, Ilias Kasidiaris (below), Golden Dawn’s spokesman, is now sitting free as an MP in the Greek Parliament despite the double assault immortalized by the video below (see also my previous post: Dateline Athens: From Bad to Worse)

An arrest warrant in Greece only lasts forty-eight hours, but Greek police knew where he was the whole time — even Greek police are not that incompetent — the whole country knew.  Apparently the statute of limitations on assault and battery is pretty short as well.  In any event, he now has parliamentary immunity, I think.  But he has other standing felony charges against him too; I don’t know the details.

And here’s some  pre-election cheer I had missed:

“A Far Right party has threatened to remove immigrants and their children from hospitals and nurseries in Greece if it gains power following Sunday’s general election.

Golden Dawn issued the warning at an election campaign rally in Athens, drawing loud applause from an audience.

According to the Guardian, Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros said: ‘If Chrysi Avgi [Golden Dawn] gets into parliament, it will carry out raids on hospitals and kindergartens and it will throw immigrants and their children out on the street so that Greeks can take their place.'” [my emphases]

Panagiotaros is this stud here, who declared Kasidiaris’ assault on Dourou and Kanelle “an act of manliness.”


According to Amnesty International’s 2007 report on Greece, there are problems in the following areas:

The US Department of State’s 2007 report on human rights in Greece identified the following issues:

  • Cases of abuse by security forces, particularly of illegal immigrants and Roma.
  • Overcrowding and harsh conditions in some prisons.
  • Detention of undocumented migrants in squalid conditions.
  • Restrictions and administrative obstacles faced by members of non‑Orthodox religions.
  • Detention and deportation of unaccompanied or separated immigrant minors, including asylum seekers.
  • Limits on the ability of ethnic minority groups to self-identify, [my emphasis] and discrimination against and social exclusion of ethnic minorities, particularly Roma.

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The Banner Photos

7 Apr

A few people have asked what the two photographs at the top of the blog are of and, even more, what their juxtaposition is supposed to mean?

The photo on the left is of a coffeehouse in Istanbul at the turn of the previous century.  The photo on the right is one taken by me in the mid-eighties of children in the Vlach village of Samarina in the Pindos mountains, near the watershed that separates Epiros (where my family is from) from western Greek Macedonia.  As for the relationship between the two, I’ll leave that to readers to ponder or figure out if they care to.  As a certain Nasreddin Hoca joke (Mullah Nasreddin in Iranian lands) much beloved by my father says: “Well, if you don’t know, go home…”

Maybe I’ll make a competition out of it…

Again, any questions: what’s a Vlach? where’s Epiros? why do I call it Greek Macedonia?  Please ask.


Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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