Letter from Belgrade

By Myrna Kostash | November 24, 2001

Greetings from Intermezzo Cafe in downtown Belgrade across the street from a kiosk that sells delicious cabbage pies, a cosmetics shop, Plato Bookstore (the city’s most interesting jumble of books current and superannuated plus thriving business in selling pirated CDs), and the Filozofski Fakultet (pedagogy, ethnology, sociology and history – I’m not sure about the philosophy). The city is wan enough without it also being winter, clouded-over and dark by late afternoon, so Intermezzo is a welcome haven of soft, peachy lighting, mellow R&B soundtrack, scrubbed brick, charming waitpersons (male) and tea served in lovely large blue porcelain cups.

I’m here because I maxxed out on the (free) time available at the Canadian Embassy’s Cultural Centre (4 hours a day) further uptown. To walk along Knez Milosh (King Milosh) Street towards the Embassy these days always gives one pause for reflection: you walk past the grim dereliction of the bombed-out military buildings that were destroyed by the NATO bombardments and remain unrepaired. Either this is deliberate, in that the ruins serve as a reminder of the West’s infamy (one interpretation) or of Milosevic’s war-mongering (a less probable interpretation), or it is simply a sign that the current governments have more pressing economic responsibilities.

(The NATO bombings are not always a lively topic of conversation. In fact, at a couple of social evenings I’ve been at, conversation was largely replaced by joke-telling. "We want to be normal, like you Canadians," explained a friend’s husband after one such evening, not unkindly. "We’re sick of politics. You want to talk politics? We’ll send you Milosevic. Better yet, how about American bombers over Edmonton?" But when the subject does come up, it’s usually to say that the bombardments were a horrific experience and virtually indescribable. One person who did try to describe them is a professor of American literature in Novi Sad, a city just north of Belgrade included in my lecture tour, that came under attack because of its petrol refineries and its bridges across the Danube. There was a final night of carpet bombing: "The skies were on fire, and the earth growled and heaved as though the jaws of Hell were opening up to receive us." This brought to mind Byzantine iconography of The Last Judgement in which the earth has split open into monumental slabs of rock that seem to have been vomited up from the bowels of the Abyss. The professor kept on giving her lectures on literature at the university throughout the bombings – even lecturing about American Post-Modern Literary Theory – because the students seemed to have such a "psychological need" for conversation about civilization.)

When anti-Americanism is expressed, it is as black humour. Joke: "Fly American Airlines! We take you right to the office." Or as a mordant, "Now the Americans know what it feels like to be terrorized." Or, as a prank, they send each other letters dusted with "anthrax" flour. [As for whether Serbs can yet feel what it must have been like for Sarajevans, say, to be terrorized, all the signs are that it is still "too early" to talk about that, although there are those courageous spirits active in civic society who have always had the gift of imagination.] Where once there were kiosks selling kitschy Serbian nationalist memorabilia and pictures of Serb guerrilla-poster boys active in Croatia and Bosnia, there are now postcards showing photographs of the destruction of Serbian cities and countryside. And that black humour again: "Greetings from The Hague!" below a caricature of Milosevic behind bars. And [in English]: "Fuck your Coke, Fuck your pizza, We still have our slivovica.")

Speaking of Milosevic. I made the observation to my old friend, Milan Nikolic, that, while watching tv the night before, I was struck by the poetic justice of the fact that the quality of the visuals on the channel operated by the once-repressed, much-abused, culturally-heroic B92 was bright and clear, while the channel projecting footage of Milosevic giving testimony at The Hague showed only a grey, blurry outline of a man lost in a seeming snowstorm. Sic transit gloria…Not so fast, said Milan. "There are still those in society here who can be appealed to when Milosevic defies the court, arguing it has no legitimacy." And, days later, in a conversation with Ivan Cholovich, whose collection of essays about Serbian political anthropology is soon to be published in English, concurred: "Society is solidly nationalist. Serbian ‘spirituality’ is the new consciousness of the working class. And the dominant discourses remain Serb victimization and innocence. To go before the media demanding that Serbs take responsibility for the wars in the rest of Yugoslavia is to risk wounding national feeling." Milan again: "There are 2 ideological fundamentalisms at work among us. One is around the issue of Milosevic at The Hague: Serbia is the pure victim of dark forces in the West. The other is that all Serbs are guilty for all of it and should be punished."

The economic crisis is real enough, although it is a typical post-1989 trick in this part of the world to contrive to be in economic crisis even as people cram cafes such as these and shop in cheerful, well-stocked foodshops and carry shopping bags from The Colors of Benetton and pack the huge cinema hall to see The Diary of Bridget Jones – all of this activity being accompanied by inflationary prices. (Don’t even ask what the Canadian dollar is worth these days.)

I note certain normalities, such as the fact that the buses are frequent and that fares are regularly collected. However, not all buses are created equal. There are those which come as comfortable hand-me-downs from Germany and Norway, and then there are those Yugo rattletraps, falling apart at their seams, their metal cladding banging out a sharp percussive rhythm in time to the potholes in the road. (And all buses, regardless of provenance, come to a dead halt for protest marches, such as the one I observed from the immobilized #29 bus at which a very small group of Serbs whose relatives have disappeared in Kosovo were trying tearfully and desperately to get the attention of Belgrade citizens if not the world’s, which remains transfixed by Albanian losses.) I note the smart renovation of the downtown post office in curvaceous Mondo Euro style, the spiffy new kiosks, their eaves "branded" by Nescafe and Winston, the ubiquity of mobile phones (in a country where the telephone system is not yet up to par), and there are no blackouts of heat and electricity, unlike a year ago.

But I am not fooled. Years ago, way back in the Yugo-80s, it was patiently explained to me (and this is equally true of London, Toronto, Vancouver…) that,to keep the market alive and kicking, out of a population of a few millions you only need a few thousands who can afford to lollygag about the cafes. What you don’t see and the market doesn’t care about is the superfluous million or so who are cold, hungry and helpless. Or who somehow eke out an economic existence even while proud Yugo enterprises have long since ceased operation (or soon will, as in today’s news announcement that the government is buying new vehicles not from Zastava but from Puegeot) and utility rates go up inexorably, and September 11 has put paid to much of the funds coming in from abroad that sustain the NGOs, and the economic ministries remain ga-ga about IMF-style shock therapy. ("There are no social democratic economists here," quoth Milan.)

A neighbour in the building where I am being hospitably accommodated (by the parents of friends in Edmonton) is a saleswoman in a shoe shop. She earns 100 Deutschmarks a month. The 2-room apartment she rents and shares with her student-daughter costs 200 DM. I raise my eyebrows quizzically. "I sell sunglasses during the summer at a street stall."

The afore-mentioned Milan Nikolich, one-time student militant, political prisoner and sociologist, now runs a kind of research institute on social policy, and never fails to have the Big Picture. I dropped in on him at his office in the city centre, up on the second floor of a gloomy and rubbishy building around the corner from the Aeroflot offices (I do not necessarily make a connection). His offices are pleasant enough, filled with energetic young people to whom this whole project of correcting totally fucked-up social policies is going to be turned over eventually.

Milan sits imposingly at a large desk, leaning back into a broad leather chair into which his girth expands to fill all the available volume, and tells me straight off that no one should underestimate the enormous changes in the year-and-a-bit since the October 5 Revolution that drove out Milosevic. "Think of it: We Serbs were isolated and despised in the world, people felt hopeless, criminality and corruption went unchallenged (outside dissident circles), the media were kept on a very short leash, and so on. Now we are more ‘normal.’ But if you look at what still has to be done the changes seem to have brought us forward only about this much." And he indicates the space between two pinched fingers.

Afterwards, we go for supper – roast pork and cabbage – in the restaurant favoured by the journalists at the newspaper, "Politika," across the street. Looking around at my subdued fellow diners in the brightly-lit dining room, I wonder about what exactly they represent from the long and chequered life of their newspaper, the oldest daily in the Balkans (founded in 1903). Under Tito, the paper was of course under Party management but managed nevertheless to publish well-regarded journalism, especially in the field of foreign affairs. But under the management of goons from Milosevic’s party, the paper became so vulgar as to be unreadable. Come the Revolution, the editor-in-chief fled the country, reportedly to run a hotel in Cuba (huh?). He’s back, with a new newspaper.

Milan continues, poking at the cabbage and potatoes (he’s been forbidden meat because of his gout): "Unemployment is at 50%. People still list themselves as employed at plants that haven’t operated for years or paid their workers. We have had an out-migration of 200,000 people, our best and brightest, while up to a million refugees are still unsettled. Some of the elderly have returned to villages in Croatia and Bosnia, in order to die ‘at home.’ There’s no money for any of it: reconstruction of social services, transportation, energy infrastructures, schools, hospitals, ecological clean-up, you name it." So people fall back into a despairing cynicism: the Revolution "made no difference."

A friend, he relates, was offered a few ministries from Hell (including Energy and Social Policy) which he rejected, being able to predict the trajectory of events in such a job. "He would begin with big ideas, work 18 hours a day, and get nowhere because there’s no money. And where do you start? When a house is falling down, what will save it? propping up the kitchen ceiling? nailing down the linoleum? People feel disappointed by you and let down, accuse you of theft and cronyism, get mad at you and, to top it off, vandalize your car. You lose your own confidence. Who needs this?"

Apparently, there have been meetings between some human rights activists and South Africans experienced with their country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Is Serbia ready for or willing to have such a commission? I asked Milan. "We can’t change the past. In the meantime, it’s the future that can defeat us." On the other hand, the indefatigible human rights activist, Drinka Gojkovic (you can read about her in Erna Paris’s stunning narrative of history and memory,
Long Shadows is busy at a Documentation Centre that will put 9 people in the field, mainly in Bosnia to begin with, to begin the pain-staking but perhaps healing process of simply documenting the disappearance or death of everyone in every community ("a kind of Yad Vashem of the Yugo wars") as best as these losses can be documented.

In Belgrade I gave a lecture at the Centre for Women’s Studies called "The Post-Modern Canadian Woman," drawing on the research included in my book, "The Next Canada." It was well-received by about 30 people. In the discussion that followed, I asked what was the role model for young Serbian women today if not feminism? Answer from several voices at once: "Sponzerusha!" If I understand this phenomenon correctly, it means the young lovelies who work as trophy dates for rich men and who may or may not offer sexual services but who are believed to have the life of Riley: expensive clothes, dinners in swank places, transportation by Mercedes, and the admiration of Guys Doing Deals. The hope is somehow to be "set up" by one’s sponsor and "get ahead" in this flattened country of theirs. Judging from the sarcasm of the audience at the Women’s Studies Centre, things don’t work that way. (At my lecture in Novi Sad I took advantage of my captive audience – some 60 very attentive and responsive students – to reinforce older role models. "Sisterhood is powerful!" "If you want a job done, ask a woman." "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." They were amused.)

Of course there are alternatives for women here beyond being "sponsored" or "oppressed." There are women in good jobs who live independently or in good marriages. And there is the age-old companionship of women (I’ve been invited into it myself, on several occasions here in Belgrade) who sit down together on benches in their gardens or in their small flats, make coffee, bring out the bottle of home-made plum brandy, puff on their cigarettes, and let ‘er rip – about the woes of women who depend on or, conversely, serve doggedly, or even love their men. As the young man said in the discussion at the Centre in Belgrade: "Serbian women’s biggest problem is Serbian men. They’ve been emasculated by the last 10 years, they’ve lost their father figures, and now don’t want to or don’t know how to be husbands and fathers." (I waited for one of the women to say: Get over it. No one did. But they did turn and stare at him with a fishy eye.)

And what about Saint Demetrius? I hear you ask. I was in Belgrade on Mitrovdan (St Demetrius Day), November 8 according to the Old Calendar, and, finding no church dedicated to him, I went instead to two small churches built almost side by side on historic Kalemegdan Hill with a superb view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. (The Danube still has no river traffic thanks to all the bombed-up junk that lies unrecovered in its depths.) It was a gorgeous Fall day, warm and full of light. (Next day, true to folklore which believes that St D Day is the first day of winter, the weather became nasty. In Thessaloniki, the weather had turned on the eve of St D. Peasants aren’t stupid. On the other hand, there is a folk belief here, I learned from an ethnologist, that on Mitrovdan you can predict what kind of winter it’s going to be by the way an ox lies down and sticks out its legs – or not.) I managed to endure about 15 minutes of the Liturgy in the first church but the singing of the (admittedly volunteer) male cantors was so teeth-screechingly awful that I decided to leave rather than lose all my reserves of Orthodox Christian piety. I went next door to the Church of St Petka (or Paraskeva) who seems to be particularly beloved judging from the quantity of icons of all sizes and styles overlying each other and the steady number of people coming and going who were venerating her. They were also filling up plastic bottles with blessed water ladled out of blue pails under a sign that read: "Please, only one litre per person!" It was a very pleasant atmosphere, very homey and feminine. Not exactly St Demetrius Great Martyr and Warrior….

But perhaps it’s close to what Prof. Dushan Bandich is researching out in the villages of 9 different regions of Serbia, under the rubric "Popular Orthodoxy." By this he means, he told me, the belief that to be Serb is to be Orthodox – and the other way around. Eighty per cent of his respondents believe all saints are Serbs. Their belief in God is equally woolly, given 50 years of official atheism in Yugoslavia. Question: "Do you believe in God?" Answer: "Yes." But then ask the question another way. "Are you sure that God exists?" Answer: "How should I know? I’ve never seen Him."

Over at the Faculty of Theology I had a very congenial interview with the young priest and professor, Father Vladimir Vukasinovic. We spent 3 hours talking in the Faculty’s conference room, interrupted periodically by a series of tall, broad-shouldered and handsome priests each of whom greeted me with the utmost pleasantness, even gallantry. (This could drive a girl back to church on a regular basis!) I related to Fr. Vlada some of the points made by the ethnologists I’ve been interviewing and in response he spoke with compassion and humour about the shortcomings of his flock (he serves at 2 urban churches, including the above-mentioned St Petka). His approach as a priest is to take people as they are, who they are, when they come to him, not to condemn their misunderstandings and imperfections but gently to show them the correct Christian practice (for example, the difference between the bread prepared for the family saint’s day and that prepared for the Eucharist). "They have a nostalgia for the communal experience of the Eucharist." He once accepted a bag of used women’s clothing, including underwear, from a Roma family who were concerned that the saint have enough to wear.

For almost 50 years Yugoslavia was an atheist nation, officially. Much the same kind of back-sliding occurred during the Ottoman centuries when many villages simply didn’t have priest or church. According to Fr. Vlada, in Orthodoxy prayer is dialogic: there is no prayer without priest and people together (there is no such thing as private prayer, in other words) yet the villagers – according to ethnologist Petar Vlahovich – would try to celebrate Eucharist anyway, taking their icons out into the woods and using the buds of trees for the Eucharistic bread (?!).

But even more than compassion and humour, Fr. Vlada expressed joy in the sheer materiality – realness – of the world. He told me he had his own moment of "spiritual rebirth" when he realized that everything around him was there to help him communicate with God and build His house, "even the stones in the field." So he is very sympathetic to people’s need for a "somatic" experience of the church: receiving holy oil on their foreheads, smelling incense, kissing and touching icons, eating blessed bread. "I do not criticize this. You cannot understand Christianity without understanding materiality." He will consecrate people’s homes and icons and even cars, arguing this is a kind of "activation" through prayer, "like plugging a hair dryer into the socket," and a way of including prayer in everyday life. A prayerful attitude to life is not reserved for Sunday morning in church.

I could go on, but you get the idea, I think: I was smitten by Otac (Father) Vladimir, and if he had offered to be my spiritual guide, I would have tossed aside my knapsack right there and then and donned sackcloth and ashes. (How does one put on ashes, actually?)

(For those of you who are not interested in intra-Orthodox arguments, feel free to skip the next bit.)

There was a further illumination from Fr. Vlada which has since been rejected – vigorously, even indignantly – by other Orthodox True Believers I’ve talked with here. It concerns the "specificity" of the Serbian (or any other national) Orthodox church. When I asked him to tell me what was specific to Serbian Orthodoxy, he replied by citing the doctrine of "Inculturation." I admit I have never heard of any such doctrine (but that isn’t saying much) and I listened with interest.

It goes something like this: "The Gospel message of Christ is embodied in a specific culture. In the same way as through the Incarnation God takes on human flesh, in Inculturation the Gospel takes the soul and flesh of a culture or ‘ethnos.’ Every culture is able to receive and give its own flesh to the Gospel. (The main mistake of Roman Catholicism and Protestant missionaries was that they did not respect this, did not understand, for instance, that a man in Zimbabwe doesn’t need to be a Dutch Calvinist.) When the Gospel came to Serbia from the Greeks, the Greek church didn’t wish to destroy everything in the national life of the Serbs – so we still have the tradition of the ‘Slava,’ for instance [celebration of a family’s saint, continued from the pagan idea of family deities]. Becoming a Christian is a radical act but it does not delete everything else about a person.

"Inculturation is not a finished process because nations are always changing. The world is not given once and for all, nor do we need to forget the old. We do need to distinguish what is good and should survive from the past. So, for example, the idea of ‘Heavenly Serbs’ – that Serbia is a special nation and Serbs are better than other people – is one of the most manipulated and evil-used ideas, including among some priests. But the opposite extreme – that one’s nation doesn’t matter, only being Orthodox is important – is also a mistake. Christ’s point was that in the Heavenly Kingdom the personality is saved and that which it is built on – family, ethnos, sex, nature – is saved in each of us."

I was very intrigued by this argument and tried it out in other conversations, where it received a chilly reception. A Philosophy professor at the university in Niksic, Montenegro [another destination on my lecture tour] with a particular interest in theology as well, insisted with sharp emphasis that Orthodoxy is not a "national religion" of peoples; in fact, "in Orthodoxy nationalism is forbidden. The universality of Orthodox culture is rooted in the very beginnings of Christianity when the Church Fathers were developing Christian doctrine. It is a mortal sin to believe in an ethnic church." On the other hand, the good professor did aver that "the mentality of the peoples who enter Christianity is different; it’s a community of people with their differences but who are united in a catholic faith. There is a liturgical unity but you enter it with your own identity."

On reflection this seemed to be close to "inculturation" and so I tried the idea again, with Prof. Misha Rakotsija, Byzantinist at the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Nish, southern Serbia. (They’re not doing very well to judge from the appalling story he told of how second-century tomb frescoes were lost – crumbled away like dust – when a road was widened.) What is specific about Serbian Orthodoxy? His answer: "Serbian Orthodoxy doesn’t exist. Orthodoxy is one thing, not many, and it is not true Orthodoxy to argue for this idea of ‘inculturation.’ Orthodoxy is always beyond nationality. Our faith is often identified with our nationality because of our history but this is wrong and has done great harm to the Serbian people. Similarly, there are no *Serbian* icons and frescoes: it is all Byzantine. Orthodox peoples in the Balkans have never quarrelled – the quarrels were all politics."

But even he, in his indignation, summarized thus: "Ethnic specificities are peculiarities not differences among people." Which just may be "inculturation." [Note to self: nail this baby down with some incontrovertible theology!]

An aside: As a Byzantine art historian, Prof. Misha is acutely aware of how his field of research is still marginalized if not outright pushed over the edge into a black hole by western byzanto-balkano-phobia. "We are part of that world – Greek in art, Roman in law, Christian in faith – that was preserved for the west right through to the Renaissance. Western Europe still denies its heritage in Byzantium." And he told us that next year in Brusselles a new museum of European culture and civilization will open that begins the story with Charlemagne. Even the protests of Greece’s Minister of Culture did not prevail. "Might is right." And so some 800 years of European civilization at the other end of the continent disappear – its inhabitants presumably living phantom lives until ‘Europe’ finds them while wandering around on a Crusade – much as though the history of England began with the invasion of the Normans! Presto, no Celtic, Pictish, or Anglo-Saxon history.

End of digression.

Back to the present. Which, these days in Serbia is the season of the "Slavas." The Slava is peculiar to the Serbs among the Slavic cultures; it is the overlay by Christianity – the celebration of a family’s patron saint – of the pre-Christian ritual dedicated to the household deities. Although I’ve been told that usually a priest is involved – he visits the family, blesses the house and the Slava bread [kolach] – I’ve only been present for the eating and drinking, which are prodigious. This year the Slava of St Michael Archangel (huge numbers of families are under his patronage as are other huge numbers under that of St Nicholas, St George and St Demetrius) fell on a Fast day, i.e. Wednesday. [I know Friday is a Fast day because that was the day of the week my mother always cooked fish, and on the church calendar Fridays were always represented with a little graphic of a fish – but Wednesday???] So the two Slava dinners I was invited to in Nish featured huge tables planted at the centre with a Slava candle and the kolach and covered end to end by small plates of an ingenious variety of meatless dishes – from marinated fresh vegetables to cheese pancakes to fish salads to baked beans to stuffed peppers to whole baked fish – around which the company sat for several hours, stabbing at the food while raising bottomless glasses of home-made spirits, wine and beer, in toast after toast after toast [Zhivili!]

Friday November 24 I give a lecture at the Student Cultural Centre in Nish called "Travel Notes about Orthodoxy." (Constantine the Great was born here so I am directly inspired.) Saturday November 25 I arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria – a 160 km distance that takes 4 hours by bus. It’s all because of the shoppers and their cargoes of cheap goodies. (Don’t even ask how much I didn’t have to pay for a bunch of CDs here.]

So, as I prepare to leave Serbia, I have two overlapping and concurrent stories from the time I spent here. One was the news story of the "mutiny" of the Special Forces troops, the so-called Red Berets, who blockaded highways into Belgrade for several days to protest their involuntary involvement in the arrest of 2 Bosnian Serb soldiers who were whisked off to The Hague instead of to Belgrade. [There is very little respect for the Hague Tribunal here but that is another story, or trip.] The other is of the story I heard from a young doctor I met at one of the Slava parties He had recently been in Thessaloniki where, having parked his car in a little street behind the Basilica of St Demetrius, he locked up and started down the street to the shops. He didn’t get very far: he was transfixed, on the sidewalk about 50 metres from the church, by an intoxicating smell of gorgeous sweetness. He went into the church and discovered that a German tourist group had the same experience. It was, he knew, the "myron," the miraculous scented oil that flows from the bones of St. Demetrius in the church. There are no bones, of course….

4698 w. Posted November 24, 2001


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