Tag Archives: Sarajevo

Yugo p.s. “So, this was Bosnia before the war?” Er…no.

3 Nov

That “self-determination” is just nationalism — and often a fiery, violent kind — writ small and wanting to be bigger, may be one of the most important issues we need to face in the 21st century.

Maybe the most frustrating, teeth-gritting moment of news coverage — in terms of the selective blessing of nationalisms and self-determinations — I’ve ever experienced was a BBC report, which unfortunately I haven’t been able to find and post, that aired on the July anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre the summer of 2016.

At the end of it the BBC reporter was interviewing a Bosnian man, in his forties maybe, selected for his Bosnian-ness — tall and handsome — whose father had been killed by a Serbian sniper in Sarajevo in the 90s.  In their interview on a bridge over the lovely, gurgling Miljacka, he talked about how he was happier that he was the child of that sniper victim and didn’t have to live with the conscience of being the child of that sniper instead.

He then pulled out a photo of his high school class:

“See…

“This guy was Serbian.  This guy was Croatian.  This guy was Croatian.  This guy was Bosnian.  This guy was Serbian…  That’s how it was then.”

“So,” says the dull-tool BBC reporter:

“This was Bosnia before the war?”

“Yes,”

says the Bosnian, shaking his head sadly with the weary, self-righteous pride of the victim,

“This was Bosnia before the war.”

No, buddy.  That wasn’t BOSNIA before the war.  That was YUGOSLAVIA before the war.  AND YOU DIDN’T WANT TO PART OF IT ANYMORE…

So, to paraphrase the identity-politics, American new “left” cliché: “Check your victimhood!”

Yugo ethnic breakdown

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Damir Imamović explains what traditional Bosnian music ‘Sevdah’ is

16 Sep

Thanks to Adnan Delalić for tweeting this video.

A Colombian friend says to me: “That you can all [my blog’s world, Bosnians to Bengalis] listen to what to me sounds like exactly the same music and not get each other on everything else…I don’t understand.”

Me neither.

Börek II — or Burek and the end of Yugoslavia

26 Aug

Börek Nein Danke

(click)

This is a piece of graffiti that appeared in the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana in 1992, at the beginning of the worst period in the Yugoslav wars and after Slovenia had become independent. “Burek [‘börek’ in Turkish, pronounced exactly like an umlauted German ‘ö’]? Nein Danke.” Burek? Nein Danke. “Burek? No Thank You.” What a silly slogan, ja? How innocuous. What could it possibly mean? Who cares? And how can NikoBako maintain the bizarre proposition that a piece of graffiti in a rather pretentious black-and-white photograph is an important piece, in its ugly, dangerous racism, of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Back up then. There are certain — usually material — aspects or elements of Ottoman life in the Balkans, which, even for Christians in the region, despite the centuries of unfortunate hate and reciprocal bloodletting (and no, I don’t think pretending that wasn’t true or that “it wasn’t that bad” is the key to improving relations between us all now; I think the truth is the key), remain objects of a strange nostalgia and affection. They linger on — even if unconsciously, or even as they’re simultaneously an object of self-deprecating humour or considered homely backwardness – as evidence that Ottoman life had a certain refinement and elegance that these societies have now lost. You sense this often intangible and not explicitly acknowledged feeling in many ways. Folks from my father’s village, Derviçani, for example, now go to Prizren in Kosovo to order certain articles of the village’s bridal costume because they can no longer find the craftsmen to make them in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and they’re conscious of going to a traditional center of Ottoman luxury goods manufacture. You feel it in what’s now the self-conscious or almost apologetic serving of traditional candied fruits or lokum to guests. Or still calling it Turkish coffee. Or in Jiannena when I was a kid, when people still had low divans along the walls of the kitchen where they were much more comfortable than in their “a la franca” sitting rooms. 1* Perhaps the sharpest comparison is the way the word “Mughlai” in India still carries implications of the most sophisticated achievements of classical North Indian…Muslim…culture, even to the most rabid BJP nationalist. 2**

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There are some places where this tendency is stronger than in others. Sarajevo and Bosnia are obvious; they still have large Muslim populations though and, after the 90s, Muslim majorities. But Jiannena – which I’ll call Yanya in Turkish for the purposes of this post, the capital city of Epiros and one often compared to Sarajevo: “a tiny Alpine Istanbul” – is also one such place. Readers will have heard me call it the Greek city most “in touch with its Ottoman side…” on several occasions. You can see why when you visit or if you know a bit of the other’s past: or maybe have some of that empathy for the other that’s more important than knowledge.

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About half Greek-speaking Turks before the Population Exchange, Yanya was a city the Ottomans loved dearly and whose loss grieved them more than that of most places in the Balkans. It’s misty and melancholy and romantic. It has giant plane trees and had running waters and abundant springs in all its neighbourhoods, along with a blue-green lake surrounded by mountains snow-capped for a good five or so months of the year. It experienced a period of great prosperity in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century, when it was not only a rich Ottoman commercial city but also a center of Greek education: “Yanya, first in arms, gold and letters…” – and, especially under the despotic yet in certain ways weirdly progressive Ali Paşa, was the site of a court independent enough to conduct foreign policy practically free of the Porte and fabulous enough to attract the likes of Pouqueville and Byron, the latter who never tired of commenting on the beauty of the boys and girls Ali had gathered among his courtiers, as Ali himself commented profusely on Byron’s own. All the tradition of luxury goods associated with the time and the city: jewelry, silver and brassware, brocade and gold-thread-embroidered velvet, sweets and pastries – and börek – still survive, but are mostly crap today, even the börek for which the city used to be particularly famous, and your best luck with the other stuff is in the city’s numberless antique shops.

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identical to yiayia's belt

It also, unusually, and which I like to ascribe to Yanyalıs’ good taste and gentlenesss, has preserved four of its mosques, the two most beautiful in good condition even, and on the most prominent point of the city’s skyline.  It would be nice if they were opened to prayer for what must be a sizable contingent of Muslim Albanian immigrants now living there — who are practically invisible because they usually hide behind assumed Christian names — but that’s not going to happen in a hundred years, not even in Yanya.  Maybe after that…we’ll have all grown up a little.

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janina

And, alone perhaps among Greek cities, only in Yanya can one open a super-luxury hotel that looks like this, with an interior décor that I’d describe as Dolmabahçe-Lite, call it the Gran Serail, and get away with it. 3***

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Digression Bakos. What’s the point? What does this have to do with Yugoslavia? I’m not digressing. I’m giving a prelude. “People don’t have the patience for this kind of length on internet posts.” I don’t post. I write, however scatterbrainedly. And not for scanners of posts. For readers. However few have the patience.

So. Croatians don’t eat börek. The prelude should have been enough for me not to have to write anything else and for the reader to be able to intuit the rest. But for those who can’t…

The graffiti on the wall in the photo at top is dated 1992, but I think it had appeared as a slogan as early as the late 80s when Slovenes and Croats started airing their completely imaginary grievances against Serbian domination of Yugoslavia and making secessionary noises. What it meant is that we, Hapsburg South Slavs, were never part of the Ottoman Empire and therefore never were subject to the barbaric and development-stunting influences of said Empire that Serbs and whoever those others that live south of them were, and therefore have the right to be free of the intolerable yoke of Serbdom. We don’t eat burek. Not only do we not eat burek, but you offer it to us and we’ll refuse in German – “Nein Danke” – just to prove how much a part of the civilized Teutonic world of Mitteleuropa we are. 4*** (I think it was Kundera who wrote about the geographical ballooning of “Central Europe” after the fall of communism, till “Eastern Europe” finally came to mean only Russia itself. ‘Cause as we now see, even Ukraine is part of Central Europe.)

Why this yummy pastry dish was singled out as a sign of Ottoman backwardness and not, say, ćevapi or sarma, I can’t say.

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Ćevapi — köfte, essentially — (above) and sarma (stuffed cabbage) below.

sarma raspakovana

And when I talk about Hapsburg South Slavs I’m obviously talking about Croats, because, let’s face it, who cares about Slovenes? And there may be very few, if any, compelling historical or cultural reasons of interest to care about Croatians either, except, that as most readers must know by now, I consider them the people most singularly responsible for the Yugoslav tragedy. And this post is my chance to come clear about why I feel that way. There may be lots of interpretations of what the “Illyrianist” intellectuals of Vienna and Novi Sad and Zagreb had in mind when they started spouting theories of South Slav unity in the nineteenth century; countless theories about how Yugoslavia or the original Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed; many analyses of what happened in Paris in 1919 and what kind of negotiations led to the Corfu Declaration; and reams of revisionist stuff written about exactly what Croatia wanted out of this union. But, for me, one basic fact is clear: that Croatians were always part of Yugoslavia in bad faith; that they wanted something out of the Serb efforts and Serbian blood that was decisive in defeating Austria in WWI, but that that something was independence, or greater autonomy within an Austria that they probably never expected to be dismembered the way it was – anything but what they felt was being subjected to Belgrade. And that became immediately clear upon the formation of the state when they – being, as Dame Rebecca calls them, good “lawyers” – began sabotaging the normal functioning of the Yugoslav government in any way they could, no matter how more democratic the Serbs tried to make an admittedly not perfect democracy, no matter how many concessions of autonomy Belgrade made to them. If there were any doubt as to the above, even when Radić and his Croatian People’s Peasant Party had turned the Skupština into a dysfunctional mirror image of today’s American Congress, even when a Macedonian IMRO activist working in tandem with Croatian fascists assassinated Serb King Aleksandr in Marseille in 1934, it was subsequently made brutally clear by the vicious death-spree Croatian, Nazi-collaborating fascism unleashed on Serbs during WWII, a true attempt at ethnic cleansing that dwarfs anything the Serbs may have done during the 90s — which is dwarfed again by what Croatians themselves did in the 90s again: the most heinous Nazi regime, “more royalist than the king,” as the French say — more Nazi than the Nazis — to appear in Eastern Europe during WWII.  And they have not been even remotely, adequately,  held to account by the world for any for any of the above; all this ignored, even as the West maintains a long list of mea-culpas it expects Serbs to keep reciting forever.

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King Aleksandr of Yugoslavia (click)

And so, when they got their chance in the 90s, with the backing of a newly united, muscle-flexing Germany, Croatians abruptly and unilaterally and illegally declared their long-wished for (but never fought-for) independence. And so did Slovenia; but again, who cares about Slovenia? It was a prosperous northern republic that may have held the same Northern-League- or-Catalan-type resentments against a parasitic south that was draining its wealth, but it was ethnically homogeneous and its departure left no resentful, or rightfully fearful, minorities behind. But Croatia knew, when it declared its independence – as did, I’m sure, their German buddies – that they were pulling a string out of a much more complex tapestry. And did it anyway. And we all saw the results. 5*****

So when a Croat says “Nein Danke” to an offer of burek, without even the slightest concern about his past reputation and avoiding any German associations, it is for me a chillingly racist and concise summation of Saidian Orientalism, a slogan that sums up not only the whole ugliness of the tragic, and tragically unnecessary, break-up of Yugoslavia, but the mind-set of all peoples afflicted with a sense of their being inadequately Western, and the venom that sense of inadequacy spreads to everything and everyone it comes in contact with. I’ve written in a previous post about Catalan nationalism:

All of us on the periphery, and yes you can include Spain, struggle to define ourselves and maintain an identity against the enormous centripetal power of the center.  So when one of us — Catalans, Croatians, Neo-Greeks — latches onto something — usually some totally imaginary construct — that they think puts them a notch above their neighbors on the periphery and will get them a privileged relationship to the center, I find it pandering and irritating and in many cases, “racist pure and simple.”  It’s a kind of Uncle-Tom-ism that damages the rest of us: damages our chances to define ourselves independent of the center, and damages a healthy, balanced understanding of ourselves, culturally and historically and ideologically and spiritually.  I find it sickening.

(see also: “Catalonia: ‘Nationalism effaces the individual…'” )

We’re signifying animals. And our tiniest decisions — perhaps our tiniest most of all – the symbolic value we attribute to the smallest detail of our lives, often bear the greatest meaning: of love; of the sacred; of a sense of the transcendent in the physical; of our self-worth as humans and what worth and value we ascribe to others; of hate and loathing and vicious revulsion. Nothing is an innocently ironic piece of graffiti – irony especially is never innocent, precisely because it pretends to be so.

And so I find anti-börekism offensive. Because a piece of my Theia Vantho or my Theia Arete’s börek is like a Proustian madeleine for me. Because I’m not embarrassed by it because it may be of Turkish origin. Because I think such embarrassment is dangerous – often murderously so, even. And because I think of eating börek — as I do of eating rice baked with my side of lamb and good yoghurt as opposed to the abysmally soggy, over-lemoned potatoes Old Greeks eat – as an act of culinary patriotism. 6****** And a recognition that my Ottoman habits, culinary and otherwise, are as much a part of my cultural make-up as my Byzantine or even Classical heritage are. Because just like Yugoslavia, you can’t snip out one segment of the woop and warf and expect the whole weave to hold together.

spinach-burek

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*1  One thing judo taught me — or rather what I learned from how long it took me, when I started, to learn to sit on my knees and flat feet — is how orthopedically horrible for our bodies upright, Western chairs and tables and couches are.  (By couch here I don’t mean the sink-in American TV couch, which you sink into until you’re too fat to get out of — that’s another kind of damage.)  Knee and lower back problems at earlier ages are far more prevalent in the Western world precisely because of these contraptions that artificially support and distort our body weight in destructive ways.  I remember older aunts in Epiros, in both Jiannena and the village, being able to sit on a low divan on the floor and pull their legs up under their hips with complete ease — women in their eighties and nineties and often portly at that — because their bodies had learned to sit on the floor or low cushions all their long and very mobile lives; they looked like they didn’t know what to do with themselves when you put them in a chair.  I’m reminded of them when I see Indian women their age at mandirs, sitting cross-legged, or with legs tucked under as described, through hours-long rituals, rising to prostrate themselves and then going down again, and then finally just getting up at the end with no pain and no numbness and no oyyy-ings.

**2  The two masterpieces of this point: the celebration of the sophistication and sensuality of the Ottoman sensibility and a trashing of Neo-Greek aesthetics — and by extension, philisitinism, racism and Western delusions — are Elias Petropoulos’ two books: Ο Τουρκικός Καφές εν Ελλάδι“Turkish Coffee in Greece,” and Tο Άγιο Χασισάκι “My Holy Hash.”  Part tongue-in-cheek, part deadly serious, both books are both hilarious and devastating.

***3  Unfortunately, to build this palace of Neo-Ottoman kitsch that would make Davutoğlu proud, one of Greece’s classic old Xenia hotels, masterpieces of post-war Greek Modernism and most designed by architect Aris Konstantinidis, was torn down, and most of these hotels have suffered similar fates throughout the country, as the nationally run State Tourist Organization was forced to sell off its assets by the privatization forced on Greece then and to this day.

Xenia Jiannena

The Jiannena Xenia, above, built in the old wooded grove of Guraba, just above the center of town, and, below, perhaps Konstantinidis’ masterpiece, the Xenia at Paliouri in Chalkidike. (click)

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Fortunately, Jiannena preserves one of Konstantinidis’ other masterpieces, its archaeological museum, below. (click)

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****4  Ironically, the strudel that Croats and Slovenes imagine themselves eating in their Viennese wet dreams is probably a descendant of börek; and take it a step further: let’s not forget that croissants and all danish-type puff pastry items are known generically as viennoiserie in French.  So the ancestor of some of the highest creations of Parisian/French/European baking arts is something that a Slovene says “nein danke” to in order to prove how European he is.  Talk about the farcicalness of “nesting orientalisms.”

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*****5  Of course, in every case, this assumption-cum-accusation, about the parasitic South draining the North of its resources, is patent bullshit.  Southern Italy, the southern Republics of Yugoslavia, Castille, Galicia, Andalusia, and the southern tier of the European Union today, may get disproportionately more in the allotment of certain bureaucratic funds compared to the tangible wealth they produce.  But they also provide the North, in every single one of these cases, with resources, labor and markets on which that North gets rich to a far more disproportionate degree and stunts the South’s growth in the process.  So haydi kai…

It’s become a common-place — and not inaccurate — observation that the catastrophic economic pressure Germany is today exercising on the nations of Southern Europe for the sake of making some sick moral point is the fourth time it’s wrecked Europe in less than a centurythe third time being when it decided, immediately upon reunification, to show the continent it was a political player again by practically single-handedly instigating the destruction of Yugoslavia.

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patattes

Over-oreganoed and over-lemoned — like much of Greek food — and overdone, over-salted and over-oiled, perhaps the only thing more repulsive than the soggy potatoes Old Greeks bake with lamb or chicken (though one horrible restaurant — which New Yorkers are for some reason crazy about: I mean like “take-the-N-train-out-to-Astoria-and-wait-for-a-table-for-an-hour” crazy — criminally serves them with grilled fish) is the serving of stewed meat with french fries.  You’ve hit the rock bottom of Neo-Greek cuisine when you’ve had a dry, stringy “reddened” veal or lamb dish accompanied by what would otherwise be good, often hand-cut french fries, sitting limply on the side and sadly drowning in the red oil.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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

“In the Land of Blood and Honey”

20 May

A lot of us probably had our doubts about this one – in retrospect, unfair doubts and probably (not a little bit) sexist ones.  La Jolie has made a film about us Balkanians…  How could she possibly understand our mystery, our inscrutable savagery, the complexity of our past?  A Hollywood vanity project, for sure.

It turns out this is a great film.  It’s beautiful as a film: beautifully written, shot, acted (some tragic editing errors or omissions though).  And it’s beautiful and intelligent as ethnography and history as well.  She’s modest about her descriptions of her work, but whatever corner of the collective unconscious belongs to our fucked up little part of the world, she was channeling it.

The film recently “premiered” in Belgrade.  A few dozen people showed up and half of those left after the first few scenes, which tells you how much progress we’re making on the Serbian front.  But it struck me really hard that Jolie didn’t attend either.  I thought it was cowardly and, after the love and intelligence she’s obviously put into the project, just plain stupid on her part. Granted, some of the actors, all Bosnian, meaning Serb and Muslim, have been threatened, had their car windows smashed but, you know, all great art has always provoked…

No really, why was she not there?  I clearly, for whatever historical or cultural or mostly emotional reasons, have a special love for Serbs.  I understand they often come across as — or are even – unruly, contrarian, inat-driven, loose cannons (this word, “inat,” deserves an entry of its own and can’t be wrapped up in a footnote).  But I know that more than anything they want to hear and be heard; they crave a healthy confrontation.  That the nineties continue to be simplistically narrated as the story of their villainy rightly pisses them off to no end and they want the chance, at least, to present another narrative; if they pretend that they don’t give a shit what the world thinks it’s just hurt pride or they’ve just given up trying.  Without wanting to add to the reams of crap written about what macho lunatics they are, Serbs are guys – by which I mean the women too – and if Jolie had gone it would’ve gained her instant balls and street cred’ in their eyes and led to all kinds of productive discussion and exchange; I’m not kidding one bit.  If she had truly wanted to say something about the Balkans or the Yugoslav wars and not just about women, she undid more than half the good she could’ve done.

Jolie with extras

One thing that makes you furious about the isolation that was the result of that pointless separating into dumb little countries is that we don’t otherwise know these actors; we got a near fatal dose of Kusturica while Bosnia was on our screens and then it disappeared.  (See below for some extra photos of all.)  Their performances are flawless and their technical competence is proven, if by nothing else, than by the fact that they pulled off the amazing feat of shooting the entire film in both languages.  Not dubbing or anything.  They shot the entire film twice: once in SerboCroatoBosnoHerzegovinoMontenegrin (to be scrupulously correct but which I’ll just call Serbian from here on) and once in English.  Jolie and her team had something to do with how well this came off too.  They let the actors speak the English they speak, which is literally perfect but has the tiny idiosyncrasies that a non-native speaker’s naturally has.  This is the opposite of what Hollywood usually does, which is write a role for, say, Penelope Cruz, in an absolutely impeccable American English which someone with her incomprehensible accent couldn’t possibly speak and which makes her even more incomprehensible and cripples what might otherwise be a decent performance.  But beyond that, they’re all great.  If this one Sarajevo can produce all these actors it makes you want to live there just to go to the theatre or wait for someone to make their next film.

Of course the two you can’t take your eyes off and can’t get out of your head afterwards are the two leads: the painfully sexy Goran Kostić as Danijel, the Serbian cop thrust into the role of Bosnian Serb army captain, and Žana Marjanović as the inscrutable Ajla, the Muslim woman he falls for, one of those close to six-foot Dinaric beauties that make you hate all ex-Yugos; she goes out in one of the opening sequences in heels, a blue dress and a traditional silverwork belt and makes you want to cry, for all kinds of reasons.  I say inscrutable partly because a South American friend who saw the film described her as “parca,” which means dry or stiff or cold — the same root as “parched” maybe – and I had to explain that that attitude implies nobility in our parts, a posture that Ajla doesn’t slip from even for one moment, despite the hell she’s put through; in fact she clings to it even more desperately throughout, her dignity the only thing she has left, her only weapon against male power.  (“Archontia” is another word I need to give a full entry to at some point.)

Goran Kostić (Danijel) and Žana Marjanović (Ajla)

They meet, fall in love just before the war — he in a spellbound way that would be unbelievable if Kostić’s performance didn’t make it so naively magical that you buy it — and then, under circumstances which also strain belief a tiny bit but which you forgive, she ends up in his “custody” as a female POW, for lack of a better word.  Jolie says some trite stuff in the “Making of…” about a “love story that could’ve ended up in happiness, in marriage and children and what war does to that” but, whether she knows it or not, she’s made a film about something so much more complex and true.  Ajla (Marjanović) is both terrified and in the grips of the acute, aching desires of Stockholm Syndrome, but though Danijel is constantly groping around blindly in her heart, he never knows whether she’s there because she “wants” to be with him or not.  Kostić plays the perfect good soldier and officer — the way perfect good soldiers have always been perfect: he’s brave, tough, loves his men, is completely scared to death the whole time and never finds the slightest relief from the tormenting doubts of what he’s doing.

This is a film about anything but a love story — or it’s about a real love story, since these two are in love not in spite of, but because of, war.  It’s a story about the fear that women feel in the presence of potential male violence, something that no man will ever, ever understand in his gut, and Marjanović, like the painter her character Ajla is, gives you a hundred different shades of that fear; it’s about how men will never stop feeling the temptations of that violence; it’s about how sex and love are always about fear and violence.  It’s about how your tribal affiliations are not the product of the Western media but will burst out of you under the slightest pressure in what you had thought was a forgotten and buried language of hatred; it inverts the traditional Muslim-Christian power structure of the region’s sexual captivity narratives; it confronts your loyalties and asks what they’re worth to you; it throws your capacity for betrayal in your face and challenges you to deny it.  Serbian viewers might have been slightly flattered by the discursive lip service given to the Serbian position in the conflict.  But if the film has any real compassion for that position it’s in how the two lovers end up, a subtle and powerful metaphor for the two societies.*  Ajla is battered to no end — and a horrible one; it leaves you feeling crushed in ways that I am unable to describe and, as a man, wouldn’t try to.  But she achieves a kind of heroic closure ultimately that Danijel never can.  He’s the film’s true tragic figure, driven by a child’s insatiable thirst to be loved that’s impossible to quench and that ultimately destroys him in ways that she’s spared.

(* The absent Croats in this metaphor are that species of bad driver who never gets into any accidents himself but causes them all around him — just a calculating version.)

Get the Blu-Ray if you can.  It gives you a choice between the English or Serbian.  On either DVD or Blu-Ray, watch the “Making of…” segment and definitely see the “Deleted Scenes” because I don’t know what they were thinking when they cut these segments out of the final film.  If it was to fit Hollywood commercial length expectations it was particularly dumb because that audience is just not going to see this film anyway.  There are several segments in there that help you understand the sado-masochistic intensity of Danijel and Ajla’s relationship and how they get to that point.  And there’s one scene of priceless beauty where Ermin Bravo (Mehmet), sings what I think is a “sevdalinka,” a Bosnian love song, to his beloved, Vanesa Glodjo (Lejla) — see both below – a scene that breaks your heart with the realization that even another’s most exquisite tenderness will only relieve the agony of a tragic loss for a brief moment.  Every soul is on its own.

Some of the rest of cast:

Vanesa Glodjo (Lejla)

Ermin Bravo (Mehmet)

Boris Ler (Tarik)

And with Jolie

Ler and Bravo in a great shot (from another, unknown stage production) — again, this city must have great theatre… (photo: Irfan Redzović)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com


Peace, Justice Elude Rape Victims Of Bosnian War

30 Apr

Bosnian Muslim women hold posters with the names of the missing during a protest at the U.N. office in Sarajevo in 2008. Hundreds of wartime rape victims were protesting the decision of the U.N. war crimes tribunal to reject the prosecution’s request for rape charges to be added against two Bosnian Serbs who were on trial for other war crimes.

A story from NPR, one of the U.S.’s saving journalistic institutions.  Read and listen to whole story here: http://www.npr.org/2012/04/30/151688541/peace-justice-elude-rape-victims-of-bosnian-war

And another NPR story from back in early April:

Two Decades After Siege, Sarajevo Still A City Divided

http://www.npr.org/2012/04/05/150009152/two-decades-after-siege-sarajevo-still-a-city-divided?ps=rs

“Even education is strictly segregated. Children from different ethnic groups — often in the same building — follow totally separate curricula.

Ahmet Alibasic, a professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Islamic Studies, says the result is that today, most Muslim, Croat and Serb children are totally ignorant about each other.

“I must admit I am a bit worried, because many of the causes of the conflict are still there,” Alibasic says. “Given the wrong combinations of conditions and circumstances, they might produce another conflict.”

Hopes of restoring Bosnia’s prewar multi-ethnic tapestry have proved elusive. Many Bosnians hope that commemorating the 20th anniversary of the start of the war will revive international attention and stimulate efforts to build a more inclusive society.”

Also, SEE Angelina Jolie’s Land of Blood and Honey.  I know; I had my doubts too, but it’s excellent.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Egypt: The Other Homeland

6 Apr

Another people’s exodus from Egypt… 

I always feel like smirking a bit when I come across the title of Mark Mazower’s 2005 book: Salonica: City of GhostsIt’s not just that “our parts” with their ‘ancient, tribal hatreds’ always seem to be ‘haunted’ in the Western imagination; it’s just that, truly, which of our cities isn’t a city of ghosts?  Salonica, Sarajevo, Istanbul, Izmir?  Beirut, Alexandria, Lahore, Delhi?  Which?

Well, Al Jazeera has produced a beautiful little documentary by Giorgos Augeropoulos about the story of Alexandrian Greeks.  Augeropoulos is apparently the director of a highly praised Greek documentary series and has been pretty vocal in Greece’s recent political and fiscal crisis/rezili, but I had never heard of him before.

Al Jazerera, by the way, has now become my primary source of news.  It’s the only place one can get any serious international news, run from the idiocy of American politics, escape from MSNBC’s twenty-four hour liberal catechism class, and catch genuinely original and — I don’t know how else to put it — sincere documentaries like this.  Watch it when you have the chance.

Below are the complete texts of the two Cavafy poems used at the beginning and end of the documentary, “Candles” and “The City” in both Greek and English.  Single-accent Greek (the appropriately named “monotonic”) literally causes me visual pain — like, I can’t look at it, actually have more trouble reading it — and when used for Cavafy the pain reaches excruciating levels, but I couldn’t find the poems in polytonic versions anywhere on line; those who know what I mean, please forgive me.  And this from “The Official Website of the Cavafy Archive,” malaka: http://www.kavafis.gr/index.asp   …criminal, ntrope.  And I’m beyond certain Cavafy himself, so much of whose work was dedicated to memory, the past, and the continuity of Greek civilization, would have agreed

The English translations are by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard, still the best around, despite the attempts of many others.  Under the Greek version of “Candles” is the Greek actress Eirene Pappa’s performance of the poem set to music by Mimes Plessas.  Below the Greek version of the “The City” is a gorgeous reading of the poem by the truly great actress Elle Lambete, whose stunning Greek face I think readers should have a photo of as a visual reference:

Patricia Storace,  in her Dinner with Persephone: http://www.amazon.com/Dinner-Persephone-Travels-Patricia-Storace/dp/0679744789/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333821533&sr=1-1, the first book I recommend to anyone who wants to get Greece and Greeks (along with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s classic Roumeli: http://www.amazon.com/Roumeli-Travels-Northern-Greece-Classics/dp/159017187X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1333821635&sr=1-1), writes:

“Greek is not a voluptuous language, or a lilting one, but stony and earthy, a language full of mud, volcanic rock, and glittering precious stones…”

Listen to Lambete and you’ll know what she means.

Κεριά

Του μέλλοντος η μέρες στέκοντ’ εμπροστά μας
σα μια σειρά κεράκια αναμένα —
χρυσά, ζεστά, και ζωηρά κεράκια.

Η περασμένες μέρες πίσω μένουν,
μια θλιβερή γραμμή κεριών σβυσμένων·
τα πιο κοντά βγάζουν καπνόν ακόμη,
κρύα κεριά, λυωμένα, και κυρτά.

Δεν θέλω να τα βλέπω· με λυπεί η μορφή των,
και με λυπεί το πρώτο φως των να θυμούμαι.
Εμπρός κυττάζω τ’ αναμένα μου κεριά.

Δεν θέλω να γυρίσω να μη διω και φρίξω
τι γρήγορα που η σκοτεινή γραμμή μακραίνει,
τι γρήγορα που τα σβυστά κεριά πληθαίνουν.

Pappa and Plessas: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0DiYKzHHdY&feature=related

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
 
Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.
 
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.
 
I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

Η Πόλις

Είπες· «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή·
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Όπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις—
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.

Lambete: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y32nzLanljY

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
 
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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