Letter from Serbia September 2011

By Myrna Kostash | October 19, 2011




September 2011: my umpteenth visit to Belgrade since 1982. That first one, launched from Greece where I was spending the winter, was focused on getting to know the boyfriend, and his family, of a Yugoslav-Canadian friend back in Edmonton. Our lingua franca in Belgrade was French – the boyfriend and his sister had elected to study it and not English. With those in Belgrade who spoke neither French nor English, I cobbled together – and still do – a Slavonic mishmash, hoping for the best. Eventually, I would catch on to the particularities of Serbian – for example, the word for “head” which in Ukrainian is holova becomes glava in Serbian. Change the “h” sound to the “g” sound and drop half the vowels, and voila! You too can speak Serbian.

Back in 1982, the language was called Serbo-Croatian. That’s what my 20-year-old pocket dictionary calls it (and it is represented on the cover by the Yugoslav flag) but all that was before the blood-letting, and the rhetorical hysteria which preceded it, tore Yugoslavia apart in the vicious wars of the 1990s. Now, it appears, there are 4 languages where once there was one: Serbian, Croatian, Bosniak and (the latest entrant), Montenegrin. According to an informant in Belgrade, the Montenegrin government secured two linguists who, after due diligence, discovered that the language spoken in their part of ex-Yugoslavia has two additional letters not included in any other language-previously-called-Serbo-Croatian. “Of course,” said my informant, a writer and publisher, “no one knows how to pronounce these letters: they seem to have appeared by some sort of Divine Revelation.”

In March 1982, a mild season as I recall, Miki the boyfriend in Belgrade took me on my first stroll through the great urban park, Kalemegdan, which now surrounds the Turkish-era fortress on top of the promontory overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. (Not so long ago, ruined bridges bombed by NATO in 1999 cluttered up the waterways but all that is now removed along with any mention of it – no hard feelings? Or just political pragmatism? – and a beautiful new bridge suspended from a web of steel filaments soars in a graceful arc over the Sava.)  From one of the peddlers in the park Miki bought me a red heart on a string, fashioned from dough (I still have it). At the end of my visit in Belgrade he asked me to take back to Edmonton an engagement ring for his girlfriend, Nena. And that is how I came to be deeply entwined within their two families to this day.(Much of my subsequent travel in the Balkans and east central Europe is narrated in my books, Bloodlines: A Journey to Eastern Europe, The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir and Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium.)

So, my umpteenth trip. I’ve seen the Belgrade of late-flowering Titoism, of nascent Serbian nationalism and its attendant cultural, moral and spiritual cruelties, of the wars, of the end of the wars and of Milosevic, of the resistance of civil society, and now of Belgrade the European aspirant with its subcultures of corruption, the black market, sex trafficking and Porsches parked outside Giorgio Armani shops while the percentage who are unemployed or living in poverty or eking out their old age on a small pension keeps growing.

But this is also the Belgrade of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (which is hosting a Balkan Security Forum this week), of bookshops stuffed with books including an impressive number of translated titles, of chamber concerts in the basement of one of the oldest houses in the city’s oldest street, of the active 16th century mosque in Stari Grad, “Old City,” of experimental theatre and galleries of modern art, and of cafes where coffee still means Turkish coffee….

Belgrade in September is the venue of the International PEN Congress (under the presidency of John Ralston Saul), which is why I’m here, not as a delegate but as a participant in the parallel literary festival (paid my own way). Festivities opened with a launch of the Serbian translation of Saul’s The Collapse of Globalism: And the Reinvention of the World, and Saul’s feisty lecture to a packed crowd in the auditorium of the downtown Cultural Centre: his verbal assault on “management” was received with particular enthusiasm.

Two nights later it was my turn – I shared the bill with three other writers, from Slovenia, Croatia and Denmark – in the reputedly hot, new cultural venue known as GRAD (“city”) which is located , I was told by way of directions, under a bridge. It took me some time to find it in the dubious neighbourhood of rail tracks, emptied-out warehouses and erotic shops all lit murkily in the deepening dusk but there it was, indeed under a bridge not a stone’s throw from where the Sava was slapping quietly in the dark. I arrived 15 minutes late but I had missed nothing. Not counting the people who had to be there – Mladen from the Ministry of Culture who was MCing, Olgica from the Canadian Embassy, two young PEN volunteers and we four writer-readers – there were two audience members.

Except for my reading – an excerpt from Prodigal Daughter – and the poems of the Slovenian poet, the entire evening proceeded in Serbian. (Even the Danish writer, a linguist, has had a book translated into Serbian and could read from it herself, something about the matriarchal cultural context of the figure of Artemis at Ephesus.) So I am at a loss what to tell you about what was being said and read.

The next night I was in Novi Sad, a charming, multicultural city (Serbian, Hungarian and German) an hour north of Belgrade on the Danube (and a NATO target too in 1999, for its bridges and oil refineries). I was on the stage with 17 other PEN writers (only two of us were women and the youngest writer was perhaps in his 50s: where are the women and the young?) Three were Egyptian, three were Greek, the Slovene and the Croatian were there again, as were an Israeli, a Kosovar, a Bangladeshi, and the venerable and enfeebled Gyorgy Konrad, veteran Hungarian writer and conscience of dissent. There was a full house in attendance (it helped that there were two busloads of us from Belgrade), and I received an appreciative chuckle or two in response to my reading (I chose an amusing anecdote from a conversation with a Serbian Orthodox priest-theologian) so I knew there were some English-speakers out there but the untranslated readings in Hungarian and Albanian remained unfortunately completely obscure.

One afternoon I invited fellow Canadian scribbler Charlie Foran (recently-installed president of the PEN Canada Centre) to wander around “my” Belgrade with me as I revisited places and streets that I find evocative. We began at the head of the “walking street,” ulica Kneza Mihaila (Prince Michael Street), a superbly-successful because enormously-popular and beautifully-restored street lined with shops, cafes and galleries; but what I pointed out was the second-floor windows of the old Press Club restaurant in the City of Belgrade’s Cultural Centre, where I had stood in 1984.

I was at lunch with a professor involved in the teaching of Canadian Literature (the now-retired Dr Ileana Cura, still reading Alice Munro) when suddenly a great blast of siren from the street interrupted our conversation. “Go to the window and have a look out,” she said. What I saw was a streetscape of Belgradians stopped frozen in their tracks. It had happened this way every year since 1980, the year of Tito’s death, and at the exact day and time of his death, 4 May, 3:05 pm: the great blast of siren, the frozen gait, the minute of silence. Within a few years as Yugoslavia was disintegrating, all mention, representation and commemoration of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, “father” of Yugoslavia,  disappeared in Belgrade– his photographs from offices, his name from streets, his birthday, uncelebrated – to be replaced in public awareness by the names of kings, queens, princes and princesses, patriarchs of the Orthodox Church and now that perennial favorite of the depoliticized public space, the scientist Nicola Tesla.

However, in the Belgrade City Gift Shop on the ground floor under the Press Club – as I showed Charlie – one can now buy Tito’s Cookbook, souvenir photographs of Tito and a glass paper weight with his image inscribed. And just outside on the street, at kiosks selling postcards, newspapers and cigarettes, I have seen buttons for sale brandishing his image alongside those of Che Guevara and Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia who died while on trial as a war criminal at The Hague.

Next stop: Dom Omladine, or House of Youth, by its very title a leftover of socialist Yugoslavism but unashamed of it. In 1988 it had still been the epicentre of youthful counterculture – commemorating the heady days of protest in June 1968 known as The June Days when students accused Tito and the Party of having become a “Red bourgeoisie” – and in 1991 it had been the collection point for European youth activists descending from their “peace buses” in support of local anti-war actions. (By 1995 these had included Women in Black, lesbian groups, some media, intellectual circles in the universities, the artists at the Centre for Cultural Decontamination, Open Society supported by the Soros Foundation, among others.) In 2001 Dom Omladine had retooled itself again, described in Prodigal Daughter as a café bar with sleek furniture and track lights with a billiard club up the stairs. Now, as Charlie and I stood in its front lobby, these too have disappeared to be replaced by a bank of computers and a banner announcing this as a Europe Information Centre.

Upstairs in this building the alternative radio station B-92, which had never not once slackened in its in-your-face cultural and political programming during the era of yawping nationalism and grievous war, has been bought by a Greek media company and moved to chic headquarters across the river in New Belgrade, its programming  under redesign as we speak.

Next stop: 7 Francuzska Street, home of the venerable Serbian Writers Association from which dissident writers had split in the 1990s, leaving – according to one account – only an aging coterie of writers who feel nostalgic for the good old days, by which they mean the days of Yugoslavia, conveniently maintaining a silence about their own role in aiding and abetting the Serbian nationalism of politicians that led directly to war. Three years ago, the back garden of the building was under reconstruction; now Charlie and I stopped for ice coffee under an enormous umbrella in the shade of plane trees – very elegant, and an enterprise of some private company that pays the Writers Association to lease the space.

We walked one street over into Skadarlije, the curvy and cobble-stoned street that leads through a vintage neighobourhood still associated with the bohemians who used to be its denizens – artists, writers, actors, musicians-  and turned into Gospodar Jevremova Street where we came across the 19th-century home of the celebrated Pavlovic family and a City of Belgrade cultural monument. The current Pavlovic – 7th generation – opened the gate and in we walked into a lovely garden with fig and quince trees and a fountain, into the world of privilege unbuffeted by war, strife and want but also a world of accomplishment in diplomacy, visual art and literature. As Charlie commented, the main message from our host seemed to be: “We also are Europeans, we who have picked up the ropes of civilization broken by Communism and nationalism, and kept the faith with the West.” Well, good luck to them, who live up the street from the mosque where a group of young men sat in its forecourt and eyed us suspiciously.

Finally, we walked past leafy and elegant Student Square which had been occupied by protestors in June 1968 who had spilled out from the Faculty of Philosophy across the street, and into Plato Bookstore, once a chaos of books, journals and office supplies but now nicely rearranged a la Ikea.



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