Letter from Macedonia

By Myrna Kostash | December 18, 2011

Macedonia.  A fightin’ word…

This post from Macedonia includes observations about two cities: Skopje, the capital city of  FYROM [Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia], and Thessalonica, Greece’s second largest city and the capital of Greece’s northern province, Macedonia. I include them both in “Macedonia,” not only for the historical reason that they both occupy territory once called Macedonia before the Balkan Wars (1912-13) divided it up among Yugoslavia, Greece and Bulgaria, but also for the much more interesting reason that both cities make a very big fuss about the ancient Macedons, Philip II and his boy Alexander, as ancestors.

Actually, they have been doing this for a very long time, and the Thessalonians do it with some justification: the royal seat of the House of Macedon was located in Pella, near Thessalonica; the magnificent Macedonian golden hoard from important gravesites (such as that of the above-mentioned Phillip) was excavated at Vergina, 80 km from Thessalonica; and the city of Thessalonica itself may not improbably be said to have been founded and named for Alexander’s half-sister. However, it is much more contentious to claim that today’s Greeks in Macedonia are in a direct line of descent from the Macedons of yore, given the mish-mash of peoples who crisscrossed these terrains over the centuries or even to claim that the Macedons of yore were Hellenes. (Aristotle, himself born in Macedonia and who tutored the young Alexander, didn’t think they were.)

In any event, I suppose that today’s Thessalonians wouldn’t be nearly so exercised about this identity if it weren’t for parallel and competing claims by their ex-Yugoslav neighbours to the north in Skopje, who have also got it into their heads (the heads of ultra-nationalists, that is) that they too are descendants of the Macedons. In order for this to be even remotely viable, the modern FYROM Macedonians would have to be indigenous to the territory they live in and not descendants of a much later migration of people (much later, as in 1000 years later), namely the Slavs who entered the Balkans in the 6th century. Which is what every sane person knows to be the case.

(An aside here for a mention of Bulgaria, of its important city, Plovdiv, originally known as Philippopolis because it was founded by Philip II of Macedon – him again – and to whom the Plovdivians have erected a statue in the middle of the semi-excavated Roman stadium: sensibly, the Plovdivians do not claim to be Macedonians.)

I have known of these issues for some time but nothing prepared me for the sight of Skopje’s central square, Macedonia Square, since I last saw it 3 years ago. In the centre now rears an 8-storey-high equestrian statue of Himself (Alexander the Great, coyly named only as The Warrior in official circles), at the base of which roar several lions who also serve as spouts for water sprays in a fountain that is very popular with citizens.)

At one end of the square has also been erected a monumental statue of Justinian – “The holy and right-believing Emperor Justinian I (483-565 CE)” –  said to have been a Slav and born in a village near the Roman town of Scupi, today’s Skopje. So far, so historical. But at the other end of the square, equally monumentally, sits Tsar Samuil, claimed by today’s Macedonians but historically known as a Bulgarian Tsar and who lost a terrible battle in 1014 to the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, forever after known by the sobriquet, The Bulgar-Slayer.  So far, so Bulgarian. But Samuil also once resided in Ohrid, in present-day FYROM, and so presto! he becomes a Macedonian Tsar. Just off the Square the finishing touches are being put to a massive (in the style of a)Triumphal Arch. “What triumph?” my friend, a retired literature professor, Ljubica snorts. “We don’t have triumphs, we are always being crushed by our neighbours.”

Among other reasons, this fantastical historiography is why some of my friends in Skopje refuse to go downtown: they are embarrassed, even humiliated. Equally egregious is the current program of constructing a series of public buildings along the Vardar River (the same river that flows down to Thessalonica where it is known as the Axios). By their imperial scale these buildings rival – I swear – those of Imperial Rome, not to mention those of Imperial Constantinople – but the effect, in this small, economically-struggling, hapless republic, is to reduce it to the downright puny.

But there is a third reason to loathe this bombastic self-display of the current government: when I asked my friends where on earth the money is coming from to build such extravaganzas, they shrugged and said “from us.” meaning from the schools and universities, the hospitals, the culture ministry, not to mention from the next generation and the one after that…. “And they call us old socialists ‘komuni,’” said one old friend, bitterly. In this charged nationalist environment – the bombast directed as much at the resident Albanian, Moslem minority as at the neighbouring Greeks – the generation whose patriotism was linked with the achievements of socialist Yugoslavia are now derisively dismissed as Commie pinko finks.

While walking along the river promenade, I take a good look at a piece of Soviet-era public art, a monument commemorating the liberation of Skopje in 1944. The style is pure Socialist kitsch, but not quite Realist: its figures are just too muscle-bound and their faces depersonalized.  And yet, however idealized these fighters are, you can still see in the group something intensely lived – the young soldier slumped in the arms of a comrade, the half-naked dying man , the barefoot peasants wielding weapons from earlier wars, the grim-faced leader launching a grenade, the big-shouldered woman for once not holding a baby or sheaf of wheat but her own rifle. They, or people like them, lived and died in such actions right here. But Philip and Alexander?

What is happening to Skopje? It’s always been an unlovely city, or at least since an earthquake in 1963 devastated most of it.  Rebuilt, it entered the modern age of Brutalist Socialist architecture, even its Orthodox Cathedral.  Yet these edifices did not quite overwhelm the public space. There was still that other city left over from the quake, ramshackle perhaps, but still proportionate and mindful of Macedonia’s historical mixture of Slavs and Vlachs, Greeks, Jews, and Albanians, Bulgarians and Armenians…or am I being romantic in the face of a capitalism that is eating its own young?

Of a Sunday, summoned to Divine Liturgy by the peals of the bells of the church dedicated to St Demetrius, I crossed the river on the lovely Ottoman stone bridge (the leaders of the Karposh rebellion had been executed here back in 1689)  into the old part of town once occupied by the Turkish bazaar. (In fact, it remains the market area, with its winding and twisting cobble-stoned pedestrian streets.) The church was full, and this being an Old World Orthodox church there were no pews. People shifted their feet every couple of minutes or, in the case of the men, left the church periodically to go outside into the little courtyard for a sit-down and a smoke. As with my church in Edmonton, a choir of enthusiastic amateurs warbled from the loft at the back while the priest and deacon officiated in the sanctuary, the rest of us having very little to do except light slender beeswax tapers and make the sign of the cross at every mention of “The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” I deduced that  the language of the Liturgy was Old Slavonic not Macedonian, as the words I recognized had case endings [nominative, genitive, dative, accusative etc  etc) whereas modern Macedonian has none.

The service  was homely (even the clerical vestments seemed homemade) and it was a deep pleasure after to stroll into the market area and seat myself under the vast branches of a chestnut tree in full, luscious foliage, next to a chortling fountain and to be served a cappuccino by an elegant Albanian man in a suit and lavender shirt with whom I exchanged pleasantries in French.

As with all substantial towns in the Ottoman era throughout the Balkans the market or bazaar had once been enormous, with shops in the thousands, but even in its reduced state it still presents an impressive topography of narrow streets twisting every which way, with shop windows displaying idiosyncratic collections of wares, whether bolts of ornate (synthetic) fabrics, gold  bangles, antique Turkish coffee sets, shoes or sinister-looking machine parts, with the proprietor sitting in a stool in the door frame, his small cup of coffee on a box before him, not visibly concerned whether anyone was buying. A few women in hijab walked together arm in arm and I saw a few old men in round white skull caps, but if there is a majority Albanian or Turkish Moslem presence in the market area I could not discern it. There are still Ottoman monuments here – some working mosques and disused hamams and hans – and my friend Slavica, an instructor in the Faculty of Fine Arts, is lucky to work in a renovated han or inn called the Suli-An, a graceful structure from the 15th century: Monday morning we sat in the sunny courtyard with tiny cups of Turkish coffee and admired the harmony of the arcade.

Then back I drifted across the Stone Bridge, remembering how a decade ago it was lined with Albanian and Roma men, women and children selling little piles of cheap goods – socks, alarm clocks, plastic toys they wound up and demonstrated how they jumped around – but now the bridge has been swept clean, as it were, the better to appreciate the looming proportions of the Warrior straight ahead. By the sixth or seventh encounter with Himself, I had to admit my resistance was weakening: here on a Sunday afternoon le tout Skopje was out in the enormous square, licking ice creams cones, taking pictures of the roaring lions and the dancing waters of the fountain, and posing for the friends back home as they pointed up, way up, to the noble head of the ultra Macedon.  (Judge for yourself from this CNN clip: When my friend the poet, Alexander “Sashko” Prokopiev, suggested we meet “by the lions” for a coffee date, it began to seem unsporting to keep on complaining about them. Nevertheless, when we were shortly joined by a senior poet (b. 1933 so he’s seen it all), I felt vindicated when he asserted unambiguously that the historical panorama on the Square was “inauthentic,” a word he kept repeating, while Sashko added that there had been citizens’ protests against the “development” to no avail. He was particularly incensed by the erection of the new Court House, a building of such stupefying proportions that its only rational purpose is to remind the sniveling citizens that, summoned there, s/he will be shortly crushed. To lighten the mood, Zvonko, the Senior Poet, kissed my hand then ordered large pieces of cake to celebrate his grandson’s birthday – the young man is studying clinical psychology in New York and wants to stay there. Mnohaia lita!

Sashko’s daughter lives in Barcelona where she edits a bilingual Spanish-English magazine. She is unlikely to return to Macedonia, either.

But what of these younger ones we see as we leave the Square? Into the Sunday afternoon hubbub have erupted hundreds of exuberant teenagers (mostly girls) dancing a choreographed routine set to the explosive music coming from a stage set up at one side of the Square. Sashko explains that the song is about the need for young people to respect each other; no surprise, then, to learn that the kids are part of a UNICEF project (Sashko introduces me to the co-ordinator) aimed at the eradication of “violence in education.” That’s what their big, colourful banner says: Young People Against Violence in Schools. They come from various Macedonian cities and include a couple of Albanians (most Albanian school kids now go to separate Albanian-language schools) and the main point they want to make is “for tolerance.” I cannot get a direct answer whether this refers to bullying or racism or sexual harassment or…? Perhaps all of these. Inspired by a Dutch project, One Minute Videos, school kids are being supplied with video cameras and invited to compete for a place with their own one minute videos. I am mesmerized by the dancing, by the youthfulness of bodies and souls that have no memory of a Macedonia that belonged to any other world. They are gloriously lovely.

Speaking of other worlds, I have heard nothing of Canada through the usual media – CNN and BBC World News on hotel televisions – and there are no foreign language newspapers for sale in Serbia, Bulgaria or Macedonia, at least not the places I frequent. Canadian headlines pop up when I open up Yahoo or Telus home pages so I know that women now are premiers of Alberta, and PEI and Newfoundland. I know that the NDP has been returned to power for the fourth straight time in Manitoba and friends in Athens are bringing me up to speed about the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the call for similar actions around the world on October 17 (including at the Toronto Stock Exchange). I’m missing everything! On October 17 I will be in Istanbul and will keep my ears open for any action there. So, for me no hockey scores (no loss there) but instead, a television interview with Michael Moore. (Clearly, I am not reading Canadian papers on line, mainly because internet cafes supplied with computers are so hard to come by that when I do find one, I catch up with mail and plug away at a blog post.)

When I decide to spend a day outside of Skopje; several people advise me to visit Bitola, known to the Ottoman Turks as Manastir, in the deep  south almost on the Greek border, and redolent of Balkan history to the nth degree.  The bus passes through Veles and Prilep so that by the time I return to Skopje that evening I feel I have been on a whirlwind tour of Macedonian geography, history, architecture, and linguistics. (Speaking of linguistics, I have been depending on my Berlitz Bulgarian phrase book to get by in Macedonia, but each of these languages has its peculiarities: why is it that in Macedonia you do not get on the bus at a “sektor ”(bus bay) as you do in Bulgaria but at a “peron,” as in Serbia? ) As I watched the landscape roll by – rolling hills staggered against each other, stretching out in dry, red plains before plunging into the clefts of river gorges – I could imagine the partisans and troops and militias and guerrillas of all descriptions who have negotiated this coveted terrain, leaving the graves of slain comrades and the ashy tumuli of scorched villages in their wake.

As with all such landscapes, this one too has been normalized, so that what we see now are fields of late summer red peppers, grape vines, corn, cabbages and tobacco, the stuff of the Saturday farmers’ market in Bitola. I watch one exhausted woman with her strings of dried peppers, her jars of preserves, her plastic bottles of I don’t know what, I watch her try to entice customers to her offerings but really they are neither more nor less attractive than all the others on view, and I ache for her: how will she make her living if we don’t stop and buy her apples? Or what about the elderly man with a single small sack of walnuts, the elderly woman with a single bunch of withering flowers from her garden going to seed?

As with all the Balkan cities I have visited, Bitola provides the single most civilized amenity of Balkan urbanism, the pedestrian street. I approach it through a large city park (another such amenity) its walkway flanked by busts of young men and women who all died in 1942, in their twenties, as “national heroes.” What happened in Bitola in 1942? Perhaps a sacrifice to the Communist state that was being born, for here is the pedestrian street, named for Marshall Tito, a hero that Bitola is not ashamed of, and here is his well-tended bronze-headed bust. The street opens into a square where, against the frame of a large and handsome mosque, an equestrian statue of Philip II, Bitola’s founder, is a gathering point. All roads eventually lead to the market place or bazaar, which first opened for business in 1389 when the Turks became Bitola’s new landlords. Wholesalers from Bitola – Turks, Vlachs, Jews – traded with Venice, Trieste, Vienna, Leipzig and east to Constantinople and south to Alexandria from their 2500 shops and enterprises, a reminder of just how “globalized” earlier empires were. Until 1920, the mosque property alone included 11 shops, 18 tailors, 7 gunpowder magazines, a bakery and a tambourine shop, among others, and its income supported fountains, a dervish residence, the kindergarten, and primary and high schools.

On to Thessalonica, my first visit in ten years to the city where I began the “Demetrius Project” in 2000, the city of the Demetrian cult from where it spread out into the Slavic Orthodox world eventually getting to the Ukrainians too. And ten years ago, the first thing I did once I had unpacked my bags in the small hotel a few steps away from the Basilica of St Demetrius was to rush over to the church and down into its crypt for a Vespers service. But this time I first make my way down to a bookstore in the city centre down by the Old Port. I have been invited by Despina, a friend of a friend in Belgrade, to her book launch.

But this is not a literary event. The book is the product of a human rights project organized with representatives of Thessalonica’s migrant (immigrant) communities who are having a very hard time of it as the economic and political crisis deepens in Greece. (It’s difficult for them at the best of times, and how the Chinese migrants with their trays of knickknacks and household gadgets for sale make a go of it, or the young African men with their handfuls of pirated DVDs, or the Philippino teenagers with their blankets spread out to display orderly and colourful rows of sneakers, how they all survive is beyond me.)

As the book launch event, with a panel of speakers, is going to be conducted in Greek, I do not linger longer than to arrange to meet Despina the next day, in the café of the new Photography Museum in the Old Port. (It is characteristic of Despina and her politics that she chooses this café with its view onto the cranes of the new port where workers are working, rather than the chic café bar that faces the other direction from the other side of the wharf, onto the picturesque scene of Thessalonica’s seaside promenade. Despina once lived in South Africa, “in struggle.”) I learn that the book launch the night before had been disrupted by an “industrial action,” a crowd of shouting protestors outside the store. Their “action” was ostensibly linked with the on-going national protests against the austerity measures imposed by the government during the economic crisis here but in fact, says Despina, they were friends of a disgruntled employee of the store who claimed he was owed vacation pay. She is incensed that this protest took place without any thought or care being given to the fact that the public inside the store were supporting a human rights initiative.

She is incensed again a couple of nights later when, at the official opening of the Youth Art Biennale in the forecourt of the new city hall, a very loud and persistent group of protestors attempts to disrupt the proceedings. The protestors are municipal employees, afraid for their jobs (reasonably enough) who are misdirecting their wrath, Despina feels, at this hopeful and co-operative event, the Biennale, at which young artists from around Europe are gathering in solidarity with each other if not with their governments.

As an outsider to all this, I find it difficult to judge the efficacy or even the purpose of the public agitation and indignation in the streets of Greece as the Greeks I have talked with are agreed that the cause is lost, that the European Union and its banks are already imposing “solutions” on the Greek economy, and that Greeks will just have to “suck it up” until the economy is put on a sound footing.  (In the meantime, a retired professor has had his pension reduced by 1000 Euros a month  and a young waiter has had his hours reduced to part-time, even though the cafes, bars and tavernas all seem to be doing a roaring business. This will all change, he says, when the weather changes—and when even these middle class patrons will be feeling the pinch on their wallets.) Even those very sympathetic to the protests, especially to the young whose “actions” have been peaceful, are disgusted by the general passivity to the pervasive and profound corruption at all social and political levels that is being exposed. My friend Stephie, a Greek-Canadian who has been living in Greece for twenty years, describes her encounters with the driving instructor who demanded a bribe to pass her driving exam and the land titles officer who declared  that her file was “missing” an important page which would cost her 3000 Euros to replace but that he could expedite matters if she gave him 500 Euros. The building in which she owns her apartment seems neither to have any elected council nor to come under any formal regulation such as a Condominium Act.  People with grand lifestyles apparently have no taxable income. It goes on and on. Stephie has been photocopying a year-old article from Vanity Fair which says it all, she feels. Read it and weep.

For a very readable account of the economic crisis and the options open to the Greek government, read John Lanchester in the London Review of Books.

But I came to Thessalonica to deliver copies of my book to two scholars whose assistance at the beginning of my journey proved to be very enlightening.  Prof. Anthony-Emile Tachiaos, whose work has focused on Slav-Byzantine relations, and  Prof Aris Mentzos who is a historian of Byzantine archaeology: it was he who had guided me through the ruins of the Roman Agora and around the splendid interior of the Basilica of St Demetrius which dates back to the 7th century (those parts of it that have survived earthquake and fire, that is). Mentzos gave me copies of work of his own, including a monograph that established that a celebrated mosaic in the basilica, so long mis-identified as St Demetrius or St Sergius, is actually St George. Here he is and he is beautiful:. A Saint by any other name…


December 18, 2011, 3837 words 



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