Tag Archives: Montenegro

Photo: Sarajevo gastra and börek…or Börek I

24 Aug

Börek gastra Sarajevo

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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

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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

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

12 Jul

TENNIS-GBR-WIMBLEDONGetty Images (click)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. When you came to class.”

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

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

And I felt vindicated.

Do you have your answer now, M.?

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

But see you before then.

Djokunnamed

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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

Montenegro: Land Without Justice

7 Jun

MontenegroAIMG_0346(click)

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

MontenegroE(click)

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

MontenegroD(click)

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

MonteDur(click)

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

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

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

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

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

MonteDurmitorIMG_0373(click)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

 

Al Jazeera — After the Floods, Unity and Compassion…yeah.

20 May

Mmmm….güzel.

Sorry to be the grinch here, but it’s always just a little too late, isn’t it?  This is the flip-side of the: “we all lived so happily together before — I don’t know what happened…” that people love to mumble when the actual slaughtering has started and has picked up speed: “We all lived so happily together.”  Then when it’s all over, hundreds of thousands have been killed, hundreds and thousands have been displaced, centuries-old communities, their cultures, traditions, ways-of-life been lost forever — we’re all “Unity and Compassion” — “Brotherhood and Unity.”

Shouldn’t be too churlish about it.  But it’s Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan writer, who writes in his “A Thousand Splendid Suns” that: “It seems axiomatic in human behavior that no man regrets the damage he’s done until it’s so great that it’s irreparable.”  So, haydi, go clean up your mess together now — literally and figuratively — and stop making such a fuss of how “humanitarian” or “soulfully generous” it is of you to be helping each other out.  ‘Cause it makes me laugh – the icing on the cake of the destruction you wrought.

And readers, see previous posts to see how you can help all the flood-stricken countries that were once part of the noble experiment of a place called Yugoslavia.

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After the Balkan floods: Unity and compassion: The Balkans floods have unleashed an unprecedented humanitarian response that cuts across borders.

During the last week, countries in the Balkans have experienced extremely heavy rain – the amount of rainfall expected over the period of three months, fell on the region in only three days, bringing about catastrophic floods. The rain has stopped, but the force of water has caused horrific destruction. Bosnia and Serbia have declared a state of emergency, and flooding has in recent days also reached eastern parts of Croatia. Entire cities are submerged. The map of the flooding shows that large parts of Serbia and a third of Bosnia and Herzegovina are under water; a territory larger than Slovenia is currently flooded. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, more than a million people live in the affected areas.

Consequences of the floods

The floods have caused not only infrastructural destruction. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced across the region. Al Jazeera Balkans has reported that over 16.000 people have been evacuated in Serbia, 10,000 in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina alone, and hundreds in Croatia. The number of victims has still not been released. As the water recedes, it is expected that more bodies will be found and the death toll will rise.

The rains have brought not only flooding, but also landslides. The poorest are often the ones who are hit the hardest during natural disasters, and this one was no different. It is heart-breaking to see that the people who have been rebuilding their houses after the war have now lost everything again. Entire villages in Bosnia have been buried due to landslides and there is nothing but the rooftops emerging from the ground to testify that these places were once inhabited. More than 200 active landslides have been identified in the eastern part of Bosnia.

The water has also inundated minefields in Bosnia, a remnant from the 1992-1995 war. The unexploded devices are likely to become a problem during the clean-up. Economic losses and health consequences are also a concern. Thousands of hectares of agricultural land in Bosnia and Serbia have been flooded, which will have an imminent impact on food distribution and prices this year. In the future, recovery of agriculture in these areas will likely be a challenge, as the soil has been contaminated by the flood water. The disaster is also expected to have epidemiological consequences, due to the shortage of clean drinking water and medicines.  

Finding unity in the face of disaster

Although the destruction and loss brought by the floods have caused much pain and suffering across the region, the citizens’ voluntary mobilisation has been overwhelming. Images of this disaster have motivated thousands to join the relief efforts by donating, collecting the essentials, and distributing food, water and medicine to the affected people. The response has served as an example of unity, solidarity and humanity.

In Serbia, thousands of volunteers have joined the police and army in building barriers which have prevented the river Sava from overflowing in the town of Sabac. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, although the politicians still remained in their respective areas, rescue troops and rafting teams crossed the real and imagined borderlines, going from Bihac to Doboj, and from Foca to Zenica, in order to help their fellow citizens, regardless of their ethnicity or political party affiliation.

Soldiers in both countries have been working around the clock for days to help with the evacuation, food, water supplies and shelter. Students and youth organisations in Bosnia have organised volunteers to assist with the clean-up. On May 18, 500 students went from Sarajevo to help with recovery of Maglaj, Zavidovici and Olovo. Buses, trucks and essential aid have been provided by local transport companies and private businesses.  

Hotel owners have provided free accommodation for the displaced. Initiatives of private individuals have also sprung up on social media; people throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina have offered through Facebook, shelter to those who have lost their homes. Diaspora in Europe and abroad immediately responded with contributions. Convoys of humanitarian assistance collected by Bosnians, Serbs and Croats living abroad are waiting to cross the borders and reach affected areas.

Regional solidarity at this time of need has been just as heart-warming. Neighbouring countries have sent rescue teams and humanitarian assistance. The solidarity which has emerged from the disaster has been uplifting. After the 1990s war and 20 years of hate speech, humanity still prevails. Montenegro has put all their resources at disposal of Bosnia and Serbia, and Macedonia has sent in rescue teams, humanitarian and technical assistance. In just one day, citizens of Macedonia collected more than $60,000 for Bosnia through humanitarian phone lines. Croatia, whose border towns have also been flooded, declared that, together with Serbia and Bosnia, they will apply for European Union funds for the post-disaster recovery, in order to assist the three countries in dealing with the consequences.

In Bosnia, the United Nations has given $400,000 in financial assistance for relief efforts and EU Forces have assisted rescue work in the country. Rescue teams from Slovenia, Luxembourg, UK, Austria and Russia have also joined in.

What can you do?

The disaster has caused terrible floods, and our neighbourhoods, villages and towns have been completely submerged. Livelihoods and homes have been completely destroyed. As we await another wave of floods, we take refuge in the humanity, empathy and solidarity we have witnessed so far at home and abroad. It will take years, and billions in financial aid, for Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia to recover from the disaster. Funds will be needed for medical treatment, clean-up and sanitation of the affected areas and re-building of both houses and lives.

There are various ways to help and get involved, either by actively assisting those in need, if you are in the area, or through donations. Many reputable organisations have opened accounts for this purpose, including the Red Cross Bosnia, Red Cross Croatia,  Red Cross Serbia, Novak Djokovic Foundation, Government of Serbia, and Association Pomozi, just to mention a few. Please visit their websites and contribute what you can, or at least – help spread the word.

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

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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.”

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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

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Žablak, Montenegro, the town kafene today.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Off to ex-Yugoland

25 Apr

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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.

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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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