Contemplations on the forgotten, the lost and the new Balkans
In the first half of the eighteenth century, the wife of the then British ambassador to Constantinople, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu “noted that in the capital ‘they speak Turkish, Greek, Hebrew, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Russian, Sclavonian, Walachian, German, Dutch, French, English, Italian, Hungarian; and what is worse, there is ten of these languages spoken in my own family’” (Mazower 2001: 51).
Nome est omen? Perhaps. But, it might be equally unimportant if etymologically the term Balkans alludes to the mythological king Haemus, to the Greek word for blood (Аιμοσ, Greek/Haemus, Latin), the Balkan mountain range, or indeed to the Ottoman syntagm evoking honey and blood. In fact, the Balkans have a thousand different faces – to be found in the social sciences, in literature, in the national mythologies, or in the most intimate understandings of its inhabitants. It probably has more faces than one could imagine.
Not long ago I read that on the streets of the Charshiya1F in Korcha, Albania one can hear people conversing in Albanian, Turkish, Roma, Macedonian, and yet they all manage to understand each other. I was surprised. I read that once many of the old Orthodox temples in Kosovo were visited as sacred places both by Serbs and Albanians. And I was surprised. I found out that the father and the grand-father of my great-grand father spoke fluent Ottoman. And I was surprised. I found out that the local Ottoman land-owner by the name of Alim Bey helped the people of my grand-mother’s village in Strumica build an Orthodox church and a vernacular school in the late nineteenth century. In Prizren I saw an old Orthodox, Catholic and an Islamic temple, only few minutes from each other; in Szentendre (St. Andrew) in Hungary I encountered an oasis of Slavic/Serb culture, while in Skopje, Prishtina and Sarajevo I heard that the baklavas or the coloured Easter eggs shared with your neighbour have a special taste. And that did not surprise me.
The building in which I grew up is right next to the Charshiya and from my window I can see the minaret of the Mustafa Pasha Mosque and the bell tower of the Church of the Holy Saviour. Everyone who grew up or has worked in the Charshiya would tell you that the Skopje Charshiya also signifies a world-view, a moral code, lessons that one could learn only there. Still, it is the only place in Skopje where the shop-keepers can address you in at least two or three different languages. The Charshiya opens up itself only to those who have the courage to look through and beyond the daily political games; to those who without any fear would come after sunset to hear what the old sokaks have to say to them; those who will walk the cobbled stone streets all the way to both the Church of the Holy Saviour and the Mustafa Pasha Mosque, with the simple curiosity of a child or the innocence of a lost tourist…
In my building at the edge of the Charshiya lived:
– one Roma family;
– several Albanian;
– several Serbian;
– one Bosniak;
– several Macedonian;
– several Croatian;
– several mixed;
– several undefined…
I cannot remember in which language we managed to understand each other with Semra, Nardi, Marko, Jelena, Verche, Aca, Bajram… but, somehow we would always manage to agree on the rules for playing our different games. I don’t know why, but also the slice of bread covered with chocolate spread or jam was always much more delicious when eaten outside, together with the others; like the act of buying freshly baked sunflower seeds from the Charshiya shops or spending an entire summer day on the dusty playgrounds, together. While our parents’ vocabulary was missing the word “multiculturalism”, but they drank coffee, shared meze, conversed, washed their cars which resembled one another. Together.
This would probably always remain my intimate image of the Balkans. The Balkans as it once was. Perhaps it would be an ideal example for what the theoreticians of nostalgic discourses call reflective, affective or restorative nostalgia. Today, my street is empty, the children no longer have their own dusty summer afternoons; the wars scattered the different languages in myriad directions… The church in Prizren is right next to the mosque, but stands often locked and empty. Sarajevo is only a shadow of its former self. Salonika was termed a city of ghosts (Mazower 2004), where the ghosts reflect the different cultures, the extinct examples of “ethnic osmosis” (Malcolm 1998), of porous identities, a city – palimpsest…
But, the Skopje Charshiya is still here. If we try to listen in, it will reveal its hidden heart-beats and it would reveal to us that it is there that the common core of the city is to be found – the forgotten stories, the different languages, the cultural layers. Is Skopje the last bigger truly “Balkan” city, where these layers are still visible and alive in all their complexity and beauty? It probably is. Probably every act of destroying and building commences as an intimate event, in our own heads, and not on the barricades. I want to believe that our Balkan emotive and mental maps will always be more fluid, more colourful, more inclusive, more heteroglossic. For every example of hate speech there could always be a counter-example of a friendship, a bond. Of a shared Charshiya. Both the historian who recounts an ethnic cleansing and the theoretician who analyses the shared Balkan figures of memory would have equally strong arguments.
Yet, the new image of the Balkans would neither be conceived in the academic contemplations of the sociologists or the political scientists, nor in the political discourse. The Balkans with a smell of freshly baked sunflower seeds, of warm burek, freshly grounded coffee, the Balkans reminiscent of old cobbled stone pathways and lightly painted terraces and facades, the Balkans that sounds like our common rhythms and instruments, that speaks in dozens of languages and that provides space for ALL – the Balkans we all secretly desire and dream of can only be conceived by the wise man/woman within us. Only at the moment when we could feel the seemingly foreign and different as deeply close and ours, only then this and all the charshiyas and colourful cities will be able to welcome us, in a warm loving embrace.
• Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: a short history (New York: NYU Press, 1998).
• Mazower, Mark. The Balkans: from the end of Byzantium to the present day (London: Phoenix Press, 2001).
___________ . Salonica – City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950 (London: Harper Collins, 2004
This essay is part from the project “New Image of the Balkans”, organized by the Office of the Vice President of the International PEN in Skopje (Poetics), and the project Diversity.
1. The Ottoman ‘business’ quarters, a traditional market neighborhood of shops, cafés, and artisans’ workshops in the ‘old town’ of many Balkan cities, where people from different religious and ethnic background congregate(d) on daily basis