Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tamo Daleko, Daleko od mora. Tamo ze selo, Tamo ze Serbiya.

I did not know what to expect from Serbia. A guide book can only tell you so much about a place, and it's usually restricted to descriptions of cultural monuments and directions on how to find them. For places like Paris, Rome, or London, where historical sites are carefully preserved with ample funds and great care to give the citizenry and tourist a grand view of each places past and present achievements, your Frommer's or Lonely Planet guide is quite useful. But Belgrade is different. Sure it has its own unique set of cultural sites, but unlike the aforementioned Western European capitals, Belgrade's attractions seem confused in their diversity - here an Austrian fortress, there a uniquely Serb orthodox church, and between a smattering of Turkish buildings - and sometimes dilapidated for lack of funds and by war. Museums in Serbia are not much more useful in helping one understand the country. Many I have visited are more repositories of information and artifacts, light on analysis and English language translations. If there is any visibly explicit clues that can hint at the mentality of the people in Serbia and inform about their history, they are most likely to be found in the street graffiti, skeletal remains of bombed out buildings, and the nonstop nightlife of Belgrade.

To attain a more filled out conception of modern Serbia one must go beyond these visible clues and talk to the people. On our somewhat short sojourn in Belgrade, we were lucky enough to do this. For me the political talks that we had were the most rewarding part of our stay in Serbia, for, as I have said before, the sites only tell part of the story of the region, and without a historical narrative - which is pretty much universally known by young and old alike - they are insipid and without life.
Very shortly after arriving in Belgrade we got our first taste of the political awareness that vivifies life in this city. We were lost late at night in the complex streets of Belgrade trying to find our hostel, and a young newly-graduated doctor offered to help us. On our short walk to our hostel he informed us that he was currently unemployed, unable to find a job as a doctor in Belgrade. He asked us where we were traveling and we told him where we had been and where we were going, adding that we had just crossed over from Montenegro that day. Noticing the perturbed expression that came over him I noted the recent split of Montenegro from Serbia. He responded tersely that he won't go to Montenegro anymore due to their insistence on independence. Later on our walk he added that being a doctor, he was not political, something I found hard to believe.
The next day we went out with a Serbian friend named Marina whom we met through In her original email she made clear that she was not, like the doctor, politically minded, though over coffee she was able to explain the current and historical situation of Serbia much better than a similarly self-described "non-political" American could recount American politics and history.
After coffee we took a tram to Ada Ciganlija - a long island on the Sava river chock full of outdoor activities, bars and eateries - to see how Belgraders spend their free time in the Summer. As we lounged about drinking a beer on one of the many beaches that run along the island, Marina got a call from a friend who was going to a punk rock concert with other couchsurfers.
The other couchsurfers did not make it, but Marina's friends were there. Very quickly one of her friends, Nickola, struck up a lively political discussion with the purposefully incendiary remark that he "doesn't like America". I explained that I don't blame him, that I would probably have difficulty appreciating a country after being on the receiving end of its massive air bombardments only a few years prior. From this spirited beginning Nickola told of his coming of age experience during the NATO military campaign, how he and friends were "like kings" during those times when everything was chaos and no one was in charge. Another friend came and joined our discussion. He was the bassist for the band Give Me Your Lips - GYM for short - and also had much to say on the topic of Serbia, Kosovo, and his grandfather's fight against fascism as a partisan in WWII. Both Nickola and his friend explained how ridiculous it was that they should be so informed about politics, how it is the pathetic outcome of the chaotic dismemberment of Yugoslavia and how they wished they could live more normally: more apathetically.
At the same time they appreciated their first hand experience of history. They recounted their experience at Slobodan Milošović's funeral, how they were the youngest people there and how they relished the fact that he was dead and they were still living and moving on to a hopefully brighter future.
Al and I did more exploring the next day, saw some sites, but felt once against that we were unable to grasp at the essence of the city. We opened our Lonely Planet guide infrequently and only for the map. We did visit the Military Museum, a repository of weapons, with a modern annex dedicated to the recent fight against the "terrorist" KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) and NATO. We saw pieces of a stealth bomber that was shot down in 1999, numerous bomb fragments including three pieces of highly-toxic depleted uranium munitions used against Serbia. Seeing a war from this perspective should be mandatory for all Americans.
The second hostel we stayed at featured a rotating retinue of overseers, and one of the nights we were there we met one very interesting older man who lived right above the hostel and was looking over it as a favor to the owner. He had been an engineer for a large and successful state-run construction company in the former-Yugoslavia. He had traveled all over the world, from Iraq to Mongolia, working on large projects. As Yugoslavia collapsed he witnessed the size of his construction projects shrink and shrink until the company went belly up. I could tell that this was very sad for him.
He was very knowledgeable about history and gave all those listening a very thorough introduction to Serbia. He despised Milošović for the corruption and doom he brought to the country, and saw the current situation in Serbia as worrying, especially since the same corruption as in Milošović's day was still, by his estimation, alive and well. Hearing the perspective of this man who had been through the ups and downs of Yugoslavia was especially interesting, though also quite sad, for things had fallen far from the old days. Still, he was about to receive his pension, though undoubtedly less than what he probably expected when he was younger and his company was, at least in appearance, thriving.
That same night we met up with other hostel guests along with two recently arrived Serbians from Australia and went out for a few beers. The two Serbians were both refuges. Vlad was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and left the country as a refuge when he was 15. After finding the Serbia of Milošović hostile to their needs, his family was granted a pass to Australia, where he had lived for the last fifteen years. His friend Davor was originally from Croatia. His family, like many other Serbs, were pushed out of their homes and fled to Serbia, where they received the same rough treatment from Serbia and so also moved to Australia.
I talked to Davor most of the night. He was very political, and knew a great deal about the history of the former-Yugoslavia. He was the first person I have met that was a reader of the World Socialist Website, a definite plus in my book.
Davor was also passionately pro-Serb, especially when it came to Kosovo. He saw the situation as based on simple historical facts: Kosovo was Serbian and always had been. It holds a unique and important place in the Serbian national identity, being the place where in 1389 Stephen Lazar fought the Ottoman Empire and lost, condemning Serbia to over 500 years of occupation. Since the time of Sultan Murad's conquest of Kosovo and Serbia, the demographics of Kosovo have changed, with large numbers of Muslim Albanian's moving in and now calling it home. The conflict is rooted in problems very familiar to the situation in Israel. But in this case the United States along with a few other NATO countries decided that Kosovo was to be separated from Serbia, something that became a reality a few month ago.
While at this moment many Serbians seem resigned to the fact that, when it comes to such international disputes, they would rather commit to repairing fences with the rest of the world and eventually joining the EU, Davor believes that Serbian national identity will reawaken and Kosovo will come back to Serbia. More worrisome is his belief that the unsteady demographic balancing act holding parts of Bosnia and Croatia together - with Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians, living in reluctant peace - cannot continue forever, and eventually the Serbs will demand autonomy, which could quite possibly lead to more bloodshed.
It is hard to tell without more reading whether this analysis of the situation is accurate. It could be that, like the Jewish Diaspora's relationship to Israel, the Serb diaspora is more apocalyptic than those living in the region who are now, after years of deprivation, just looking for economic prosperity. We shall see.
Throughout our trip in the Balkans I have been reading a book written by Rebecca West in the 1930's called "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" about her travels through the region. At the border between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina I got to the section of the book where the title of the book is discussed. The Black Lamb, taken from a sacrificing ceremony for fertility Ms. West witnessed in Macedonia, symbolizes to West the disgusting mystical beliefs humans illogically hold in which they think that by destroying life in one form man can create life in another. The Grey Falcon imagery is taken from an ancient Serbian poem which describes the choice Stephen Lazar had to make at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 of defeat to the Ottomans with heavenly glory or victory with temporal power and self rule.
The choice the Serbian Tsar Lazar made all those years ago at Kosovo was to be the sacrificed black lamb and to choose the heavenly glory offered by the gray falcon. Those choices, Ms. West comes to understand, are the scourge of those who wish to be good, and in the process sacrifice doing good. Those who hold up the goodness in life would rather be sacrificed for their goodness than to aim for victory which would allow the manifestation of goodness. It is in Yugoslavia, Serbia specifically, a place "which writes obscure things plain, which furnishes symbols for what the intellect has not yet formulated," where West is able to realize this indelible conflict in human existence that resonated severely in her time at the brink of the most destructive war in human history.
Today it seems that we - in the liberal community of the U.S. specifically - have forgotten how to think in the terms symbolized by the black lamb and grey falcon. We are caught in a despicable war in Iraq which has jaded many to the fundamental questions of goodness and what things are worth fighting for. In Serbia the question still lingers, even as many try and ignore it. The question of what the goodness worth fighting for is, who holds it, and which side is offering to work for its fulfillment still remains. Those we talked to on our short stay in Serbia are forced to deal with these questions as very few Americans ever are, and regardless of whether they choose to approach it nationalistically or otherwise, the fact that the questions still remain is important. As in Rebecca West's time, Serbia is still the place to go to grapple with the eternal problems of human existence.

From Sarajevo,

1 comment:

Filip said...

good to hear you two are having fun on your escapades. hope serbia treated you well i cant wait to visit the place. are you still holding your stance on the kosovo argument? it will be interesting to hear what exactly you have heard from serbs....some well written stuff there as well beats the shit outta my amateur blog guy
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