No woman’s land – my mother’s homeland
(A short personal account of Yugoslavia and Macedonia from 1920 to 2020)
It was 1984 and I was a seven-year-old boy with long messy “Beatles-like” hair, as my doctor father used to tease, and a motherless “son-of-a-gypsy-woman” as my grandfather, a no-nonsense WWII veteran, used to say. Of course my hair was messy; I was being raised by two egomaniac father figures, neither of which told me to comb my hair or dress properly оr all the other things that a mother would normally say. My parents were separated by then, my mother, a descendant of bourgeois “traitors” and my father, a son of a proud socialist partisan warrior. I was living in the Marxist paradise and didn’t even know what my mom looked like, she was like a ghost figure, guarding me from a distance of a thousand miles, whispering in my ear not to worry, to leave my toxic home environment as much as I could and go outside to play with my friends. The street was a place of zen-like calm and eternal happiness. Indeed, it was a magical year – the 1984 Winter Olympics were being held in my city of Sarajevo, now just a collection of old shelled and bullet-riddled Austro-Hungarian buildings.
As I search through my memories like the pieces of a puzzle, I think to myself, “Damn, it could just as well have been Nineteen Eighty-Four!” People informed on others to the party, even their friends or relatives, who then often lost their jobs or, as my paternal grandfather, were taken to prison, although he was a socialist. In the meantime, my socialist country fell apart. We endured a hellish, pointless war. I lost all my childhood friends. But I gained a new transition-to-a-capitalist homeland. And, yes, a mother too. But let’s be fair. Living in Yugoslavia under socialism in 1984 wasn’t so bad. Later, some even called it “Coca-Cola socialism”. It was true that we had all the benefits of capitalism, even Coca Cola, although we preferred the domestic Cockta, which, to be honest, didn’t taste as good as the sweet dark American drink it aimed to replicate.
Throughout history, but also in any one particular moment of the Yugoslav past, there were many realities. In one of those realities, my mom was born in 1950. She was the granddaughter of an industrialist, who came from Czechoslovakia to Skopje in the 1920s with dreams of building his little capitalist kingdom. And he succeeded. Since then, Skopje has been part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (1918-1929), the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929-1941), the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1963), the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1963-1991), the Republic of Macedonia (1992-2019) and the Republic of North Macedonia (2019). It’s mind-boggling, I know. In 1938 my great-grandfather, the Czech capitalist, built a factory called “Kumanovo” on the outskirts of Skopje, that had an automated flour mill, by my mother’s account the first of its kind in the Balkans. He also bought a lot of land, built several houses, and gave each of his daughters a house as a gift. Little did he and other wealthy people know that the war and, later on, socialism was coming.
My maternal grandmother, Nada Korda, was a large and strong woman, but only by her looks. In all of the pictures I have seen of her, she is gazing in the distance because she was burdened by a weak heart. Unlike her sisters, she didn’t want any material possessions. She had one wish only – to study art. Her father couldn’t say no to her and paid her tuition and living costs. Since there was no Faculty of Art in Skopje, she went to study in Belgrade, Serbia in 1938. When she finished her studies in 1942, she came back to Skopje. And like everyone else, she survived by tenacity and sheer will to live. In 1944 she married a capitalist, a wealthy young man who rode motorbikes, greased his hair, and smoked expensive cigarettes.
Yugoslavia under the socialist regime was a wealthy country. There was no famine like in the USSR, and people were happy. Well, most of them, anyway. My paternal grandfather was imprisoned for five years in “Goli Otok” (literally “Naked Island” since there were only rocks and no vegetation). It was a hell on earth for political prisoners and he sure wasn’t happy. He was, however, a socialist and a WWII partisan veteran with thirteen bullet holes to prove it. But that’s nothing compared to the “traitor capitalist bastards” of my maternal grandparents. All the factories and houses they built were taken away from them by the legal processes of colonization, nationalization, and expropriation. That was the reality of socialism, not only for the city folk but for affluent landholders with a lot of livestock. The official story was that the socialist state took all of their possessions for the wellbeing of the people of Yugoslavia. But the reality was that all the private belongings that the state commandeered went into wealthy private hands of the communist leaders, which made the people poor. Like one of my mom’s grandparents’ houses, that was given to a general who, simply, passing down the street, saw the house and liked it! The family was given one night to move out.
In those circumstances, all of my family from my grandma’s side left Yugoslavia and went back to Czechoslovakia. All but my grandma. She stayed in Skopje with her husband and they lived a happy life… Of course, there are no happy endings in real life, but hey, there’s no fun and joy in life without difficulties! Her dream of becoming a professional artist was crushed by the war, the socialist nationalization of wealth, her illness, and her family leaving her. But she had a husband and, more than anything, she wanted to be a mother. The doctors advised her against having a child since it would be too great a strain on her weak heart, but to no avail – it didn’t matter to her. So, in 1950, my mom was born. There are not many pictures of my grandma from that period, but in those that I mentioned before, she always seems distant and looking into the future, as if she could sense that she wouldn’t be around for very long to see her child grow up. When my mom was nine years old, my grandma died. She left behind a husband without the love of his life, a house full of books that she read while confined to her bed, and many unfinished paintings.
And what about my grandfather? Well, he was crushed, of course, but this wasn’t the first tragedy of his life. His father was a Vlach (Aromanian), a people believed to have introduced urban culture to the Balkans. By the end of the Ottoman Empire, my great-grandfather was mayor of Kochani in Macedonia, a city famous for its rice production. In the 1920s he came to Skopje, already a wealthy man. He bought a house in the famous Skopje neighbourhood of “Pajko Maalo”, and opened a fabric store called “Simic”. His original surname was a Vlach “Sima”, but in the times of the Yugoslav Kingdom it was changed to “Simic”. Later, under fascist Bulgaria, it became “Simov,” in Macedonia “Simoski,” and finally back to Sima. That’s one of the wonders of the Balkans, changing your identity is quite a regular thing.
He and his wife had five children, two boys and three girls. The two boys went to university and graduated in economics, one in Paris and one in Skopje. After the death of their father, they ran the family business. The older one married a Bosnian woman and they moved with their two young children to Bosnia at the beginning of WWII. On the day of their arrival, the father and the little daughter, called Biljana, were killed in a Fascist ambush and died on the bus. The mother and the son survived and came back to Skopje. The grieving wealthy family gave the house in “Pajko Maalo” to the wife of their brother, and my grandfather called his first and only child – my mother – Biljana, in memory of the young seven-year-old daughter of his older brother.
As Socialism knocked on the doors of my family’s fortune, the “Simic” fabric store and all the possessions they had were taken. My mom lived with her family in rented flats and houses. But my grandfather, Jika Sima, didn’t give up. He opened a sporting goods store in Skopje called “Sport,” and then a furniture store called “Jugoexport”. He was part of the administration of the country’s best soccer club, “Vardar”, and was active in promoting winter sports, founding the “Mountaineering Union of Macedonia”. He was a tough capitalist nut to crack, but when my grandma died in 1959, he was devastated. Like all single fathers, he tried to fill the void of the maternal figure in the life of his daughter with strict rules, and he ruled his kingdom with a firm hand. Well, as you can imagine, that didn’t sit well with my mom. She was sent to live with her aunts in a village and had a seemingly pleasant rural experience filled with natural wonders before moving back to Skopje several years later.
My mother in socialist Yugoslavia
She was 13 years old when the new Socialist Republic of Macedonia, as a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, lived through a catastrophe. Skopje was destroyed by an earthquake. Most of the buildings were destroyed. All the citizens of Skopje were given temporary living barracks. As the situation settled, my grandfather donated his barracks back to the state. He bought a house from his wife’s sister, where my mom still lives today. He was maybe the one and only person I know who gave back his barracks, since all the other citizens of Skopje built houses on top of their barracks, and later apartment buildings. And that’s how the city of Skopje came to be after the earthquake. It seems to me that my family has always valued hard work, sincerity, and effort. A lot was taken from them, but they never took anything that didn’t belong to them. My mom was raised by that principle, one I also believe in. Skopje was rebuilt with international aid from the East and West, and this brought to life some of the interesting brutalist architecture that Skopje was famous for in the 1960s and later on. In those times our socialist youth wasn’t any different from the youth of the capitalist countries. We also listened to British and American rock music and shook our hips to the sounds of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
The new decade was on the rise and my mom was 20 years old. Finally, let off the hook by her strict father, she enjoyed her time with her friends in Makarska, a city on the Yugoslav Adriatic Sea. It was then and there, at a party with the sound of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix in the background, that she met the man that would become my father. She left Skopje, and her father relocated all her belongings to Sarajevo. One year later she gave birth to her first love child, my sister. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the 1970s was a different city from Skopje. It was a real mixture of Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman influences, and a mixture of nationalities and religions as well. In socialism, everyone was equal regardless of their beliefs. And they really were – under Marshal “Tito” the people used to speak his name as if he was the one and sole deity. “Brotherhood and unity” was the slogan of the Yugoslav nation and all the people lived by it, especially in Bosnia. The Bosnian people had a real sense of humour too, and in those circumstances, my sister was born and six years later, I came along. It was the great old seventies, hard rock, sideburns, modern homes, electrical appliances, orange, green, yellow and all.
The 1980s arrived with a bang! Our Marshal on a white horse, Tito, died. That event in Yugoslavia was perceived by everyone as an apocalypse. From the child sitting at its desk at school, looking through teary eyes at the picture of Tito on the classroom wall, to the ninety-year-old man in his house, listening to the news on an old radio, pouring himself a rakija (a 50 proof drink made from grapes) in a small glass, and then spilling some on the floor – for the soul of the dead, possibly even crying “dear Tito!” Our saviour, who brought all the different nations together into one Yugoslavia, built bridges with Asia, Africa, Europe, and the USA. He met with all the important leaders of his time. He was a celebrity, and he was visited by numerous celebrities. Yugoslavia was a real player on the world map. At the time, his funeral was the largest state funeral in history.
But that year, 1980, was also a personal catastrophe for my mom. My parents divorced and she was alone in an adopted city. But all the friends and family that were dear to her now abandoned her since they all had been my father’s friends and family. She was left alone with two children, an uncertain future, and an unstable job in a city that suddenly became strange and distant. And then the legal struggles and hatred between the once young lovers began. She won in court. The legal system was still functioning. The mother had a right to her children, no matter if the father had many connections and was a big-shot doctor. But he wouldn’t accept defeat.
My mom was living with me and my sister in a rented basement, again as in the times of socialist confiscation. But now the tyrant wasn’t the state that the people loved, but the man she once loved, and who wanted to take back his son. She had to go to work and there was no one to keep her children safe. Many times my father would just come around and take me from the street or from school. My mom was a stranger in a strange land and the only way to get me back was with the help of the police. That was my life back then, being kidnapped by my father. Then the police would come banging on the door, my grandparents telling me to hide, followed by a forceful entry, police pulling me out of my hideout, and bringing me back to my mom. But why just me, why not my sister?
My paternal grandfather was a Montenegrin highlander, a soldier who came to Bosnia to fight with the partisans and who took part in two of the most decisive battles of WWII, those at Neretva and Sutjeska. What does that have to do with anything? Well, in Montenegro, when a little boy hops on a bus, if an elderly woman is sitting down, she must stand up for the boy to take her place. You would imagine that the right thing to do is the opposite. But no, not in Montenegro, because a boy is an heir to the family name, meaning a woman is important solely as the potential bearer of a little boy. That’s why my sister was left alone, while I was kidnapped over and over and over again. My mom decided that it was enough. She was doing enough psychological damage to her family. She packed her stuff and took us to the railway station. Then my father, a well-informed person, as it seems, showed up again and took me by force. I cannot imagine what went through my mom’s head in the moments before she got on that train to Skopje with my sister and left me with my father. But I can only imagine that, with her maternal instinct, she knew that if she stayed the situation would only get worse. She was in a foreign city with no one to protect her and her children. This way, her boy was with his father, who was capable of doing anything just to have him. It must have meant that he loved him dearly and wouldn’t let him suffer.
* * *
I was three years old and left with my father, grandfather, and grandmother. I was told to call my grandmother “Mom,” which I did, but deep down, I knew that wasn’t right. The ghost of my real mom that I couldn’t picture anymore always seemed to float around me. Sometimes it was a smell, a feeling of warmth, or a sound and I knew it was her, sending me messages from wherever she was. But I had no cognitive recollection of her even later, in 1984, when my grandfather called her “a gypsy-woman”. Firstly, “gypsy” was a pejorative word in Yugoslavia, meaning someone without a home, a wanderer, and a poor person. But my mom wasn’t poor. She was from the southern part of Yugoslavia that had—and still has—a large Roma population that is considered a part of the community. So, by doing that, my grandfather insulted two nations with one strike, Roma and Macedonian, but also my mom and me. He was a socialist warrior, and she was the daughter of an industrialist. Should I add more?
After that, she came to Sarajevo many times and asked to see me, but my father wouldn’t let her. Instead, he filled my head with fears that she was evil and was coming to get me and kidnap me. As the years progressed and I went to school there was always someone with me, my own personal bodyguard. Later on, when I was finally trusted to go to school on my own, I was always reminded of the possibility that someone was lurking behind me. Of course, my mom never tried to take me by force, but in my dreams an evil witch was chasing me, every night, ending with my falling into a bottomless well.
My mom never gave up on me. My paternal grandmother, who I loved, a woman with strict eyes and peach fuzz on her upper lip, ran the family as it became clear to me later. As soon as she died, my dad finally let me receive packages from my mom. Maybe he remembered what it was like to miss a mother and he felt sorry for me. Those packages were filled with the most interesting things for my school needs, some homemade cookies and sweets like those that I had never tasted before, and a letter from her and my sister, the two female figures, who I could only imagine what they looked like. I read the letter with awe and shame. Why shame? I was living in a manly world where the expression of emotions wasn’t allowed, and the letters were filled with emotions. They always ended with a plea for me to write something back, which I never did. My dad never forced me. Plus, I was a kid and just didn’t know what to write. If I could, I would, and I should have, as I learned later on in life. But as a kid – no way! – I was too afraid of emotions. They only meant one thing, that you were weak. And I didn’t want to be weak. My dad was also afraid, but he didn’t hide his angry emotions towards me. He expressed his anger in the form of ruthless beatings using his hands, his belt, his slippers, his foot… a really versatile means of expression. My granddad didn’t beat me but he had his own particular way of showing his anger, throwing things at me, like a cigarette lighter, his pipe, or a heavy glass ashtray. He was an avid smoker, what could I say. Anyway, beatings and throwing things at me were part of everyday home life, and luckily for me, I wasn’t at home for the most part of the day. Whenever I could, I escaped and visited my friends, played outside, hung out in the street, just like my mother’s ghost instructed me to do. I was a street rat, indeed.
It was then, like a bolt out of the blue, that my father decided to let my mom visit me. You know that strange feeling you get from meeting someone for the first time and knowing you remember them from somewhere? It was like that for me. Just weirder, I suppose, since her image and voice, her smell and feel was imprinted in a part of my brain that I couldn’t access consciously. She took me to the cinema, bought me ice cream, obeyed any and all my wishes. Never had anyone been so nice to me in my life. And as we stood in the hallway, before entering my house when our time together was up, she looked at me as if she never wanted to let me go. I felt awkward and insecure. What should I do? Should I go back and hug her? There had already been too many hugs for me in one day. Hell, no one had ever hugged me, ever! So I just said “bye” and went inside. I was in my toxic world again, and it felt like a relief. A man shouldn’t have emotions, right?
Break Rockin Beats of the 1990s
Several years passed and before I knew what was happening my father said to me: “Pack your things, you’re going to Kansas!” Well okay, it was Skopje, but it might as well have been Kansas or the Land of Oz since it was a whole new world for me. I got a new home, a sister and a mom, but lost a grandfather, father, and all my old friends. Was it a fair bargain? I don’t know. It was fair for my mom, for sure. She had both of her kids again, after ten years of battle. It was 1990 and the world entered into a new decade of Nirvana and grunge, MC Hammer and hip hop, break beats, and of course, a new catastrophe. This time my homeland was the target. Yugoslavia split in the most horrible and absurd way, by war. Sarajevo, my hometown, bore the brunt of it. It was under occupation for five years, and many of its inhabitants perished, while others fled to different parts of Europe or the world. Former professors, doctors, and lawyers were now cleaners, dishwashers, and garbage men. Life works in mysterious ways, right.
What did I do in this decade? Well, I was a teenager then. I studied a lot, listened to a lot of old and new music, learned the Macedonian language, exchanged my friends for my grandma’s large library of art and science books from the whole century, and spent some quality time with my mom and sister. It was indeed good when we weren’t afraid of the war that was banging on our doors. The 1990s for us were a mixture of good drum beats and bad rifle shots. My mom always kept a supply of non-perishable food, and energy sources like coal, oil, and wood as well as other things in the basement, needed in the case of emergency. She was always a single parent with a plan. Luckily, the war didn’t directly affect us in the nineties. But our neighbours, Serbia and Croatia, had a fair share of it. My homeland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, had it the worst. 100,000 people were killed, and more than two million displaced. But hey! – that’s the price of a senseless, brutal war that ended in 1995. It was time to change those Kalashnikov beats for the break beats of LTJ Bukem, Roni Size, Alex Reece, Goldie, Prodigy, and our own Kiril Dzajkovski. And damn, I liked those beats!
It was the end of the century, 1999, even the end of the millennium. I was a dishwasher in London, visiting my sister, and escaping another war in the Balkans, the Kosovo war, that could easily spill to my country of Macedonia as well. In the Asian restaurant where I worked, the main cook was a tall, happy-go-lucky guy, fond of drum’n’bass, and we bonded over musical stuff. The other cooks were an overweight black lady, a refugee from Africa, and a skinny guy from Wales. One evening, as we dined on rice with chicken legs and vegetables that the nice African cook prepared for us, the guy from Wales showed me some moves from the traditional dances of my country that he’d seen on TV. I was blown away! My mom came to London and stayed with me, but our visas were coming to an end, like the war in Kosovo. We went back to Skopje and life resumed in the old-fashioned transition-to-democracy kind of way. Living a prepper’s life. In the meantime people were simply hoping not to lose their job and become redundant workers in the workforce, like many.
Some people argued that the new millennium started in 2001, but it didn’t matter to us, since that year, yet another war began, and this time it was our lives on the line. We fled our country to Belgrade. I tried to continue my studies there but instead went to Montenegro to visit my father. Didn’t I mention what happened to him? Well, he had also fled his country of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, and went to his father’s homeland, Montenegro, and started a new family there. So there I was, with his wife and three kids. Why the hell was I there? Well, let’s just say that one day I was planning to become a father myself and that I wanted to make my peace with him, just to be sure that I wouldn’t beat or leave my kids and become like him. That was the reason and I stayed true to myself. I made my peace with him and never saw him again. The Macedonian war ended on my birthday, August 13, and I went back home. My mom was happy to see me again, but there was some disappointment in her eyes. She never told me why, but I knew she was disappointed in me because I went to see my dad. I could explain that I did it for myself and for my future family, but I knew it wouldn’t matter. Maybe she was right.
The new Millenium and the new reality of the 2020s
Soon I became a writer, some might say quite a fruitful and inventive one that inspired some young authors, in my own country at least. My mom watched me grow, become an artist, finish my education, get a job, a family, a house, “a f***ing big television, a washing machine, a car…” and all that Trainspotting jazz. It’s another story of survival; a shift from socialist to capitalist values, numerous casualties in the process, and my country, now renamed North Macedonia, trying to fit in with the big boys. The only problem is that Macedonia is a she, and like my mom, nothing comes easy to her. She has to struggle and to fight for every right that should belong to her. She is proud, and a bit older now, and her kids are grown up, wiser, and more independent. Her fate remains to be seen. This year, 2020, my mom celebrated her 70th birthday. New challenges have arisen, a life of fear and isolation, but this isn’t only our problem, a problem facing my country or my people. It’s the way of the world and a new story that awaits to be told by the unfolding of an uncertain future.
The snow in March 2020, two days after the onset of spring, was not good news. What about crops, and how long will our closed, poor, and small country survive on its own food supplies, how long will we last?
These questions tormented me as I remembered the visit my childhood friend Hare in February of this year. We haven’t seen each other for exactly thirty years, since that 1990 when I left Sarajevo, my skateboard in the trunk of the red Lada Niva that my father had collided with years ago and then his neck was in plaster for a while. Sitting in the back seat of that car, on my way to Skopje, I saw the landscapes of my city that changed on the rear window like scenes from a movie. The girl that I liked on the playground playing tennis, the curved street and the big stairs we used to ride, the place where I fell and decided not to cry for the first time, Harris’s house on the corner between Leze Perera and Logavina Street, the former Cinema in the local “Local Community” where the shouts of Bruce Lee, the blows of Rocky and the shootings of Schwartzie from the movie Commandos still echoed.
The world of my childhood ends there and the world of adults begin. The screen becomes black. The cries of the people, the cries of the children, the shelling on the houses, the bullet holes on all the buildings, the mines hidden on the mountains to this day is a horror movie that I did not watch, but it is well known to my friends and their families who stayed there to guard their homes.
Some taxi driver now lives in my apartment, but did that apartment ever belong to me? My grandfather got it as a prominent fighter in World War II, a “medical phenomenon”, as Hare would say. Rambo and Commandos can’t even catch a glimpse of his thirteen bullet wounds, several taken out, most of them left in his body, so that I, in my childish wonder, could touch them and admire his stories from the war. Let’s play a game? Name a significant battle from Bosnia and Herzegovina from World War II – my grandfather was there!
Today, thirty years after I left that apartment and that city, Hare brought me a book. “Logavina, a street under siege,” about the experiences of an American journalist living in Sarajevo, the personal destinies of people who lived under occupation. “Our friend Beljo is also mentioned,” Hare told me. Yes, the Beljo, who constantly got into troubles and thus got the name (“belja” means trouble), a storky, blue-eyed and a boy that always was smiling who survived the war, the years of famine and occupation, burning books and all the furniture from home in the cold Sarajevo winters and then died on the first day of liberation. But I have told you that story, as well as all the other stories that have already been told. I don’t know if I will be able to read the book, although Hare read it, and my childhood friends, Grebo, the good, cheerful, and honest Grebo who survived the siege of Sarajevo, read the book.
Hare is my oldest friend. I know him since my birth, even he admits that I have given him the nickname that is still stuck with him. Today he is old, with a white beard and a bald head, but he has the same smile and joker eyes with which he made us laugh as children. Aren’t people’s eyes really the same all their lives? Except in old age, when they are obscured, it is as if they are putting a protective layer between themselves and the world because they have seen too much, they have survived everything, and everything is already clear to them.
We talked about the old days and how it snowed so much in Sarajevo in the winter that the snow surpassed our children’s heads. We left our homes and jumped straight into the snow. But you are also familiar with that story.
I commented that there have never been such snows in Skopje and that most winters are without it. “It’s the same in Sarajevo now,” he said, “global warming.”
Looking at the snow outside in front of my building, as it stayed on the trees and the empty playground without the usual children’s chatter, I think about why right now, when there is no one to cheer for it, the snow has decided to come back. In one of my stories I told that snow brings joy to children and anger to the elderly, now everyone is in the second category.
Hare was here and left. I didn’t tell him anything I wanted to tell him, and I waited thirty years to do so. I had a flashback again at the meeting with my father, in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, in 2001, while there was a war at home in Macedonia. I wanted to meet him and to get him out of the system, to tell him that I would not be a father like him, that I would not leave and forget my children. And I really didn’t do that. But in the act of caring too much for my children, I made them unprepared for life. I understand that now. The rest of us who have been mistreated or left alone have learned to fight and to succeed. Did my father inadvertently do me a favour? That thought bothers me and disturbs me. The feeling that all you have done out of goodwill turned out bad. But, as I often say, “Whatever you do as a parent, you will make a mistake.” I hope I have also done something good!?
I left Hare in front of his hotel in the centre of my city, Skopje. “Thank you for letting me talk,” he told me, and I replied “Eg … wh … zr …” and that was it. The last thing I said at our first meeting in thirty years. Thousands of thoughts in Macedonian and Serbo-Croatian competed in my head, and none of them made sense. “You live here now,” my mother’s words from thirty years ago when I moved to Skopje were repeated. Indeed, my thoughts are not speaking in my mother tongue, for a long time.
Could I have done something different, say, tell something I didn’t say in my books? Would there be a difference? What would have changed? Whether the writer lives to write or writes to live is an eternal dilemma that I still cannot unravel.
It’s time to get back to reality. I’ve been here for a long time, I’m not what I used to be, that kid is left somewhere there, on the corner between Lese Perera and Logavina, laughing inside Hare’s home and watching TV with him, playing with the turtle in his yard, running out and gathering friends, and then all together running to our playground with a ball in hand and so on all day! Let him stay there.
We are here and we are watching the snow that brings us worries instead of joy. Childhood is over.
Vlado is the bravest man I know. No, Vlado is the smartest man I know. “Never let emotions overwhelm your logic,” he said in a Spock, from a planet Vulcan, manner.
It was March 2020 and the whole world was in a panic. Except for Vlado. Let me tell you a few words about him.
In 1996, I fell in love with a girl who was taking an Italian language course with me, and instead of telling her, I wrote her letters that I never gave her. What today’s Americans would call a classic “bitch move.”
That 1996 we were finishing high school, I was attending “Josip Broz – Tito” highschool, named after the former Marshal on a white horse, the pride of every Yugoslav, from a seven-year-old child who put Tito stickers all over the furniture in his home, to a seventy-seven-year-old man who kept a picture of Tito on his TV. Vlado was in his fourth year at the “Marija Sklodovska-Kiri” High School of Chemistry. One of these two characters will be remembered in history, you decide who.
Vlado was sitting on his couch in the small kitchen on the fifth floor of a socialist building in Skopje’s “Karposh” neighbourhood and listening to my stories about my unfulfilled love, that I have told him I don’t even know myself how many times. He did not comment on anything and occasionally responded with his standard “a-ha”. My place – the chair next to the small dining table, and above it a shelf with a radio cassette player and next to it cassettes of rock and hard rock bands from the seventies to the nineties of the last century.
The end of the last century was the time of cassette players, TVs with cathode-ray tubes, turntables, records, tape cassettes, video recorders and VHS cassettes, walkmen and CD players and other technology that is unnecessary today, but it seemed fantastic to us as futuristic as the Marty Mcfly’s hoverboard from the movie “Back to the Future”. Times have changed, but some things have not. Vlado’s eternal “a-ha” and his views on life and people.
The kitchen was no more than two meters wide to three meters long, but it was Vlado’s world. There I tried to unite my world with his and poured out my soul, while Vlado silently witnessed that cosmic act.
To the left of the kitchen – a magical space called “pantry” in which on a shelf were arranged all the necessary groceries for the family and of course the jars with domestic products characteristic of our environment – ajvar, pickles, lutenica… The barrel with the sauerkraut, of course, was stored in Vlado’s basement and his task was from time to time, especially when his mother decided to make sarma, to go there, to open it, to take one sauerkraut, to mix the “swamp” water as Vlado called it and to close the barrel properly. Vlado also had other household chores, such as vacuuming at home. All my friends and I had the same responsibility. In the Balkans and in that way the gender equality was maintained. The boys cleaned with a vacuum cleaner. Personally, I had other homework assignments, to scrape the bathtub, because “it’s a man’s job and requires strength”, and like all friends, I participated in family washing carpets (except Vlado who washed them himself and for a fee that seemed a cruel move from his parents, but eventually led to Vlado’s financial independence and success in later life), then painting the house and constantly moving furniture for different seasons.
Sometimes I washed the dishes not because I had to, but because I wanted to since the time I lived with my father and grandfather and I was often left alone at home. Then my greatest pleasure was to bring the chair to the sink, soak the sponge in water and detergent, and start rubbing. The foam that was collecting on my hands like sugar wool and disappeared with a jet of water seemed magical to me. Again alone and without choice, I sometimes fried eggs for myself, but then I realized that it was not enough to mix it, leave it in the pan and go to watch the cartoons. If you don’t want them to be “raw on the top, burned on the bottom”, you need to turn the egg while frying it, I learned early, maybe at the age of nine without the help of Jamie Oliver!
The smell of flour and home-made products went into my nostrils after Vlado opened the door of the pantry and took the bread out. He took out the board, cut a slice of bread and ate it like that – without anything. Such a simple and so practical act. No wasting time on opening jars and smearing unnecessary salty or sweat layers, just cut-out and eat!
As a continuation of “our” world was the terrace, no larger than a half-meter and maybe two meters wide, where in addition to the various wooden objects that Vlado’s father constantly cut and shaped with the knives he made and sharpened himself, there were standard building jardinieres with flowers, a small coffee table and two chairs. There we continued our conversation in which I forgot my fear of heights fueled by excursions through the narrow mountain roads across Bosnia and Montenegro where buses defy the laws of gravity.
In those extensions of our minds, we passed a part of our youths, my later unfulfilled loves and the only great love of Vlado that happened and disappeared without him sharing a word with me. That’s why Vlado is the bravest man I know.
In March 2020, the world was in a panic over what I called a “war with an invisible enemy.” Hidden at home and isolated from each other, as was the case in my hometown of Sarajevo, in a real war in the early 1990s, we lived in uncertainty. Vlado lived in the most affected country in Europe, Italy, and stoically endured everything that happened, with a rational approach and a cool head.
Then I remembered one of our conversations from the “time of the kitchen” in which we talked about his grandfather who came during the Second World War with the fascists in Macedonia, as a doctor, and fell in love with Vlado’s future grandmother, with whom he gave birth to several children. However, he never recovered from the war and, tormented by his own demons, returned to his home country, leaving his wife and children alone.
“I would go crazy in a war,” Vlado commented, identifying with his grandfather, and I saw it as a sign of weakness in him, someone I considered the most mentally stable person I knew. That conversation remained somewhere in the annals of the four walls between the kitchen table and the chair next to it, the couch and the cassette player, the bread-cutting board and the smell of flour. The life went on in a frantic paste that swallowed memories and experiences by the fear of the war and the uncertainty of our little country that always struggled to survive.
Returning to that conversation, after many years, in that terrible March 2020 (and all wars begin in the spring), I reminded Vlado of the conversation about his grandfather who did not remarry after the war, experienced deep old age and left all his property and money. of the church. However, he left to the descendants of Macedonia citizenship with which everyone left for his home country.
“You said you would go crazy in a war,” I said, “but what we’ve been going through this “kind of war”, and it seems to me that you would have endured the real thing quite well.”
“No, war is taking lives, and today it is about saving lives. Now it is most necessary to have a rational approach to things, “Vlado explained to me and continued:
“I am relatively calm because I have studied things in detail so that I can make an informed decision. I don’t want to be hypochondriac and live in fear all my life. Of course, one should be careful and responsible for one’s health. For immunity, take vitamins, keto diet, intermittent fasting, exercise, information from scientific sources, protection with masks and most importantly – not visiting the elderly people, we must protect them. My general preoccupation is not to infect others and that is why I am isolated, “Vlado concluded.
That is why Vlado is brave, but not like some “I will not be affected by this” people that live in our environment, and not only that – he is virtuous, because his preoccupation is with others, and then himself. That is why Vlado’s “madness” in the war would be not because of fear for himself, but because of the obligation to hurt others, I understood that in these times of war. It is a lesson that in difficult times we should all learn and repeat. I think that then the world would be a better place to live.
In December 1995, we were in the middle of the fourth year of highschool, and Skopje was filled with alternative youth, god almighty – it really seemed to be part of a parallel universe, because an incredible event from the other dimension – T-Festival happened!
Even before they were globally known, however, in the midst of popularity, The Prodigy came to our little forgotten city in the Balkans, which even the war avoided! But, of course, its shadow lurched over us, as we trembled daily under political insecurity, or under the pressure of an economic embargo from Greece, unemployment and technological surpluses were accumulating, we were shut down from all sides, a real powder keg in which one word, wrong gaze or act could have been a real “Firestarter”.
But then Firestarter did not exist yet, and “our” albums were for me “too much rave” album “Experience” and the favorite breakbeat “Music for the Jilted Generation”. I was headbanging my head on the song “Poison” because, as a metalhead, it was the only way I knew how to dance. Prodigy was somehow perfect for me, and “Voodoo People” was magical music for our “thrown-away” generation.
The Prodigy’s performance began and before I realized I found myself in the mosh-pit that turned me around and took me as a breathtaking river towards the whirlpool in which I sank. I got kicked in the mouth by Dr. Martens in all colors, and someone played a harmonica with his fist across my ribs, and finally someone threw me with a karate kick out of the whirlwind like a rag. As I regained consciousness, I realized that this was something different, I wasn’t at an ordinary mosh pit in Music Garden, this was a beast no one could control – and it was ready to swallow us!
We graduated from high school and the world was in front of us. We were young and filled with hope for a better future. I was getting ready to go to Italy for studies. Damn Informatics for the next millennium in la bella Italia. “You will find a job for sure, optics is the future,” my mother’s friend convinced me. What could go wrong? Well that’s another story.
We agreed with a friend of mine, Sandra, to celebrate our birthdays together and at the same time to say farewell to our friends. Everyone had to go their own way. She was born one day before me, on the 12th, me on August the 13th. Two years ago she appeared in our school as a powerhouse, she has lived in Africa, was educated who knows where in the world, she spoke better French than our professor, the methusaller Boshko who instead of teaching us “J’e sui” through tears in his eyes told us about the adventures of “pour Cosette” by Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”. Every class, from beginning to an end, to his end, God rest his soul.
We did the party at my home. The wall in the living room was a masterpiece made of my sister, with uneven gypsum and light from underneath which gave the look of a cave, and in the kitchen, crates of beer were emptied faster than I could refill them.
“It looks like in a caffe,” said Bojana, the indescribable love of my best friend from the highschool, and a friend from the bench, Vla. But the living room was empty at the expense of my room, where I had put all the unnecessary things from other premises, and right there against my will, my friends got together away from the music and the party. Boyana told Vla about her boyfriend, a dangerous biker and faculty student with whom an insecure high school student could not compete. Both of us were disappointed, I from the party, and he from the girl he was longing for. In fact, I had a similar diagnosis. Only my was in the Music Garden with her boyfriend and I had to see her right away!
We flew out in the warm August night and before we knew we passed in front of the youngsters piled on the benches in the city park where Skopsko, Kavadarka and Smederevka were drunk in plastic cups. We greeted with metalheads, punk and alternative kids and we were ridiculing the snobs who were directed to the discos in the park and found ourselves in front of the Music Garden.
“ID card,” pronounced the mouth under the doorman’s bald head, and I, with my on that day full, nineteen years, was insulted and publicly protested how he could not believe me about my age. “You may be forty years old, but the law is a law,” he said with a mockery, and I pulled my ID card in my back pocket and stepped into the garden of music.
From the speakers roared Ratamahata from Sepultura, popular at the time and a furious mosh pit took place before us. Several nights earlier I performed my trans-dance, I headbangered as if I wanted to get my head off my shoulders, and I jumped everywhere, while others looked at me with astonishment, and some of them with rage. Then I went out and headed for the quay and vomited into the river Vardar. But tonight in me there was no alcohol or joy, she wasn’t there, nor did I have a desire for a mosh pit.
We went back to the party, Bojana was gone, and we both were depressed. Ariton, a friend from school was putting on the records, now a famous DJ, the sound was familiar, but an unknown version of the song. The refrain went: “I’m going to send him to the outside space, find another race”. Music completely overwhelmed me; sadness was no longer there, only the present and the rhythm, like the pulsing of the heart that requires knocking, the breath that breathes, now and right away!
“What is this,” I asked Ariton as he searched through the vinyls to play next.
“Prodigy,” he answered me, “singles.”
Soon I went to Italy, the tape with the singles that I downloaded from Toni’s vinyl became my favorite music along with other pleading bands from those 1996-97, and later through the years and decades, Prodigy made the undisputed blend of electronic and punk- rock music, with a garage sound that merges my greatest musical love into an unrivaled whole, like no one until then … and forever!
Like any musical orthophone, after the era of mobile phones began, to date, I only had two ringtones, “Out of space” and “Voodoo people”. Therefore, today I am not writing with sorrow, but with gratitude for the sounds that from our little blue dot in space travel with the speed of light to the famous galaxies and unknown civilizations and carry the sound of our youth, our history, love, fears, falls and victories . Perhaps Liam is the brain, but Flint is the heart! It remains to be seen whether the brain can survive without the body?
“I’ll take your brain to another dimension …”
“Let’s go to Bagdad Café,” said Kečer.
“I don’t feel like going,” I replied.
“C’mon, we’ll head over to Džadžo later,” he added. That sounded OK to me. We took off.
I didn’t like Bagdad Café, until it turned into the New Age Teahouse, which became my favorite hangout later on. But Džadžo and 21 at the Trades Center were perfect venues for me—grungy, authentic, and alternative, minus the tea and intellectualism, and minus the philosophers and mystics, everything that was abhorrent to my heavy metal and punk rock mind at the time. But a person changes over time and may even mature, as long as he’s not chewed up and spat out by the daily grind and turned into something that no longer resembles himself, but rather everyone else—in one huge pot of ajvar.
Former Yugoslavia was mired in upheaval, in contrast to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which had managed to peacefully separate. The world didn’t care one bit about the war in Yugoslavia, because to them we weren’t part of Europe, but rather an outpost. We were “Balkanites,” a bit of dirt on their shoes that should be wiped from their consciousness. But why would they care when there were at least a dozen other civil wars going on in the world, which they also weren’t concerned about. Guatemala, Angola, Afghanistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Algiers, Tajikistan, Burundi . . . to name a few.
Recipe for Hate by Bad Religion sounded like the perfect name for an album for that time, but I didn’t like it. It felt to me as though hardcore punk was dead. But it was resurrected in a different way by the songs of the post-punk bands such as Fugazi or by the grunge sound of Mudhoney, who I listened to until it almost drove my family and my neighbors crazy.
“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston was wailing from the TV and I turned it off in disgust. I liked a different kind of howling—loud punk screaming and the rattling sound of the cassettes, which was sometimes even louder than the music itself. Nirvana’s follow-up album to Nevermind wasn’t like that and their performance on MTV Unplugged disappointed me. It seemed as though grunge rock was in crisis. Nevertheless, alternative music did not stop after Nirvana’s popularity declined. Primus’s My Name is Mud introduced a new sound and a new awareness in my life. So did Disciplina Kičme and other unusual bands, which I discovered on my weekly pilgrimage—walking all the way from Debar Maalo to the new railway station, where the cassette shop, Pop Top, was located.
Despite the objections of my music buddy, Vlad, music could be both heavy and fun at the same time, which I liked as a concept. “Buka u modi” was blaring from my stereo. I was in 10th grade and it seemed as if the opportunities before me were unlimited.
Trotoar, the local magazine dedicated to the alternative scene, appeared at the right moment, just as Ace of Base’s All That She Wants or Snow’s Informer were assaulting our ears daily. We could finally learn more about our idols at a time when we didn’t have the internet and things weren’t just a mouse click away. We had to order books from overseas and go to the university library to copy out texts by hand or photocopy them, but we didn’t mind because we were hungry to know more.
Heavy metal was evolving. After the death of Metallica, there weren’t many bands left that would blow us away—with the exception of Sepultura, who continued singing about socially relevant topics on their album Territory, something that was quite uncommon for metal bands. Meanwhile, in former Yugoslavia fierce territorial battles were being fought. In the old days people used to ask, “Who are you? Where are you from?” with an interest and desire to get along with you. Now the standard reply was just, “I’m a nonentity.”
The guitar on U2’s “Numb” roared, catching the world unprepared. Music became a thumping heartbeat, a machine propeller, a car engine . . . I listened to it and thought about “my” Einstürzende Neubauten, who’d been making music like that for years . . . It seemed that pop-rock music was evolving and catching up with rap, which was always experimenting. Insane in the Brain by the timeless Cypress Hill and Bacdafucup by the short-lived Onyx breathed new life into the scene, while Body Count blended metal with rap in a completely new way that I liked. Headbanging to rap was a challenging concept. My heavy metal friends teased me for doing it, but hey, that’s a completely different story.
This is a story in which tennis star, Monica Seles, was attacked with a knife, after which her career would never be the same, while her attacker received a minimal sentence. But that was just another one of the many injustices of 1993 that the world turned a blind eye to. Another reason for people to keep their heads down and withdraw into themselves.
“Sober” by Tool was playing on MTV. I wondered to myself, “Are we all just puppets trapped in the containers we put ourselves in?” It seemed as if the whole country was stuck in a world of its own. Spurned by others, we fought hard to survive, but the fight wore us down. And as if that wasn’t enough, the period of economic transition then just finished us off. People right and left were losing jobs. And songs such as “Human Behavior” by Björk and the album Into the Labyrinth by Dead Can Dance seemed like soundtracks that perfectly matched this kind of atmosphere. We had entered the labyrinth of transition from which there has been no escape.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Another world of sound was slowly but surely entering my life. While hardcore punk forever remained on the sidelines, garage rock broke out of the underground and directly entered the minds of millions of young people around the world, changing the music scene forever. Taking a cue from Nirvana, we wore plaid shirts and short T-shirts over long-sleeved ones, while Pearl Jam, with their more melodic sound, epitomized the American reality of the 90s.
“Do you know that you look like the lead singer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” my classmates teased me. I was crazy about their album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Alternative funk rock with shades of rap was a revelation to me.
The eclectic 90s had begun. “Give It Away” was rocking from my cassette player. I copied down the lyrics, even though I didn’t really understand them and nor did I read too deeply into the words that preached altruism and selflessness. To me they signified rebellion and a “don’t-give-a-damn” attitude. The times were mean and nasty. The war and the siege of my birthplace began.
May 9, 1992. Victory Day, commemorating the end of World War II and the defeat of fascism. We had to write about the same topic for an assignment in primary school and I couldn’t restrain myself. Risking a good grade, I wrote about fascism and my sense of loss, about the death of Yugoslavia built on the skeletons of those who’d fought against fascism, which in former Yugoslavia had become even more pronounced than it had been in 1942. I wrote about my friends and the fear of never seeing them again. I got an A for my assignment, even though I digressed from the topic a bit, but what else could I do when the times were going awry?
Timur was attacked. He’d been getting harassed for some time by the nouveau riche kids—real turncoat nationalist bastards—who burned the teachers’ grade books and scrawled graffiti over the school and yet who somehow excelled as students. Classes had ended for the day, and just outside the schoolyard—a mob had gathered. They followed Timur, teasing him. He bore it stoically, but then they began shoving and hitting him. He tried to defend himself but he couldn’t stay on his feet. He fell to the ground and the others jumped him. At that moment, I forgot that they were all two heads taller than me and twice as heavy as my 80-odd pounds—including the denim jacket covered with heavy metal patches I was wearing—and I threw myself into the fray, swinging wildly at everyone around me.
Timur got up and, not realizing that I was next to him, began to run off. A few of the others gave chase but he was a lot faster and they never caught up to him. Someone shouted “You effin’ Serb!” which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. Some of them came back and turned on me. “This guy was sticking up for him!” they shouted, and in that moment time stood still. Moving toward me was a force of nature in the shape of a crowd thirsting for blood.
“Don’t lay a finger on him!” someone next to me said. They froze on the spot, put their tails between their legs, and left. I turned around to face a metalhead who looked dangerous and evil. He gave me a wink. To this day I don’t know who he was—maybe my heavy metal guardian angel—but I’m grateful to him because he saved me from a lynching. I’d always known it, but that day I received indisputable confirmation—music connects us regardless of ethnic, religious or regional differences.
Timur never forgave himself for leaving me alone, despite the fact that at the time and amid all the confusion he didn’t realize it was me in there, trying to defend him. Since then he’s been trying to make up for it and has always been there when I needed him—to this very day. But then, I reckon it’s because I helped him when everyone else abandoned him, and because we were different from all the others—prejudged and misunderstood. Maybe that’s why we were inseparable in good times and in bad. And the bad times were yet to come.
The next day Bobby and his brother came to school with me and hung around the schoolyard in case they needed to defend us. Both of them were big and burly, unshaven, long-haired guys. The Principal called us to her office.
“Who are those criminals hanging around the schoolyard?” she yelled at us. We were taken aback.
“M-my sister’s boyfriend,” I stammered.
“Tell them to leave at once!” she thundered.
“But yesterday Timur was beaten up, and we—“
“I’m not interested. I don’t know anything about that. And you two will be punished . . .”
Of course she knew. Of course she was interested. But not in justice. She was interested in the parents of those kids who were beating us up, in their support, their money, and their power. We were worthless insects who, squashed or otherwise, made no difference to anyone. We were punished, while the bullies got off scot-free. That was the beginning of a new era.
I was checking out the cassettes at Bagi Shop, the music store in the Mavrovka mall, when all of a sudden a thunderous sound from the speakers shook me to the core. I was electrified. I asked the owner what he was playing and before I knew what was happening, Rage Against the Machine entered my life like a tornado, lifting me up high and slamming me back down again. I felt as though I were riding a wild horse that I couldn’t control. The times were making us all feel that way.
It was the end of the school year and we were getting ready for the holidays. The physics teacher hadn’t arrived yet. The bell rang. Timur and I were arm wrestling. Even though I was leading 13-3, I still wanted to keep going. “If you bend your body, you’ll use the deltoid muscle,” we’d talked about our arm-wrestling techniques many times before, and we knew the Latin names of all the large muscles, because we lifted weights every day after school. Timur pumped up quickly and he didn’t plan on stopping. In the years to come, he became a dangerous guy who defied the bullies, the bared pistols, and the security gorillas outside the nightclubs. In the end, those who used to beat him up would run a mile as soon as they saw him.
As we were arm wrestling, I twisted my arm around awkwardly, so when Timur pressed his fist with all his might, my arm had nowhere to go and a bone snapped—just like in the movies. I lost consciousness but then came to, and saw my arm dangling. I grabbed hold of it and ran outside. And thus, the saga of my humerus fracture began.
Waiting several hours with a broken arm at the City hospital, and then being saddled with a poorly fitted plaster cast. Removal of the crappy cast with a pair of old-fashioned pliers, because the hospital’s drill wasn’t working. Broken bones that hadn’t healed properly. Vain attempt at separating them. An operation and a metal rod inserted in my arm.
Then, a damaged nerve, slow recovery, and atrophied muscles after the removal of the cast. The whole summer holidays spent at a rehabilitation center in Kozle. Every day. Massaging muscles. Hot paraffin wax therapy for a stiff elbow. Nerve stimulation, physical therapy exercises. Infrared heat lamp. All in vain. The top neurosurgeons in Macedonia advised me to travel to Slovenia for an operation.
“Listen, son, if you want to get better, you’ll have to work at it,” said a middle-aged man who attended the physiotherapy sessions with me.
“But the nerve isn’t responding. It’s dead.”
“Take a look at my arm,” he said, and raised it. “Can you see that? It moves.”
“Listen to what I’m telling you. I know all about it. My case is the same as yours—radialis nerve injury,” he smiled. “Just keep exercising and don’t stop. You can rely on either a machine hoist to lift your arm or on yourself to lift it.”
“But I can’t lift it, not even half an inch!”
“Lift it with your brain! Lift it in your mind. And put a splint on your arm before going to bed at night and sleep with it on.”
“Killing In The Name” by Rage Against the Machine was roaring through the speakers. The walls were shaking. They’re being killed in the name of who?! Suffering, death, misery, hunger, and disease . . . Are my friends OK? . . . Are they alive? . . . And my dad? Do I really care about him? . . . Has he been able to escape? I wondered to myself. But the only sound that came out from deep within me was a wild and primordial cry: “Aaaaaa!” as I tried with all my strength and mind power to lift my arm.
The sweat was running down my forehead, but I just kept repeating, “The power of the mind! The power of the mind!” I needed all the pent up anger and frustration, the noise and rage of all those fighting against the machine—grunge rockers, gangsta rappers, and metalheads—so I could defeat the metal rod in my arm; fourteen stainless steel screws that went through my bone and pinched the nerves that had previously been removed from the muscle tissue and held in the assistant’s rubber-gloved hands during surgery to bind the bones. And then finally it happened—my arm moved—a fraction of an inch.
The distance between zero and a fraction of an inch is greater than the distance between one inch and a yard. Then everything sped up. And preparations for the entrance exam for high school went smoothly. But the intricate movements of the fingers that allow one to hold a pen and write were still far from my abilities. “Everything’s in the mind,” I remembered. I learned to write with my left hand and that’s how I got into “Josip Broz Tito Senior High School.”
Had comrade Tito known what was happening to the land that he’d built, he’d be grateful that he wasn’t alive. Or maybe not?
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Teen spirit ruled our lives and I lived for the weekends when we’d have jam sessions with our friends from junior high. Kečer introduced me to hardcore punk and bands with weird names that were borderline funny, and with that necessary dose of the rejection of society’s norms that perfectly matched my own rebellious spirit.
A chewed-up cassette was spitting out a refrain from “My God Rides a Skateboard” by German band Spermbirds. This was followed by the screaming vocals of “Americans are Cool—Fuck You!” a song that protested against the spread of American-style democracy all over the world. The Americans themselves didn’t give a damn about any of it.
The Gulf War was taking place at the time. The adults watched the unfolding events on TV as if they were part of an evening thriller, completely removed from the lives of the Iraqi people—who, by the way, weren’t dying at the hands of the dictator from whom the Americans wanted to liberate them, but from American bombs. But in reality something quite different was taking place, both globally and locally. Unrest began to stir in Yugoslavia. All of a sudden, the present turned from being precarious to completely uncertain, and no one was even contemplating the future.
“Why shouldn’t I wear this T-shirt?” I protested.
“Because it’s wrong,” said my mother.
“According to who?”
“Not to mention it’s dangerous.”
Our argument went on. In the end, I decided not to wear the Bad Religion T-shirt with a crossed-out cross printed on it. I’d borrowed it from Kečer for Easter “celebrations” at the main Cathedral. I decided against wearing it, not out of fear, but so my mom would quit worrying. But what did I know about religion? To me it was a sign of conformism and an inability for people to think for themselves. Besides which, religion could in no way be reconciled with science, the thing I really venerated.
“Big Bang” by Bad Religion was playing in the background. I was thinking about the origin of the world, the universe, and our place within it. Everything seemed perfectly fine to me, but at the same time completely meaningless. Science, with its laws and principles, provided some comfort, bringing order to the chaos we’d found ourselves in.
Religion found a place in my life, but only years later, when I realized that atheism is just another form of fanaticism. At the same time, I wasn’t interested in “isms”—neither religious nor political. Unlike me, our country was overrun by chauvinism; one wrong word, one bad look or even just having the wrong surname was enough to get you beaten up.
Snuff’s song “I Think We’re Alone Now”—a cover of Tiffany’s song from the happier and slightly more serious 80s—was a track that was often played on Maximumrocknroll, an alternative music program on Macedonian Radio 2. Standing by in readiness, I pressed “record” on the cassette player. Soon our small country would be alone too—but also sovereign and independent. And then our struggles would be just ours.
I played a few chords on the guitar and Fatty seemed to like them. Kečer tapped the cymbal suspended from the light fitting because, as in true DIY punk rock style, there was no stand. Then he tapped the single snare drum and the familiar hardcore “bupp-u-dupp-u-dupp” beat filled my bedroom. Fatty was recording us on an old cassette player. He plucked his acoustic guitar as if it were a bass, while we kept playing madly. We had no focus, no guiding message or vision, and our songs were made up on the spot. And in the spirit of parody and social consciousness that characterized the punk movement, we were called Social Imbecility. Like true punks, we had no idea how to play, but we loved it—more than anything else.
As a kid, I’d hated guitar lessons at the Sarajevo Music Academy. But later, as a teenager, I was glad that I’d learned to play an instrument. Soon, though, all I had left was my classical guitar. I had to return the electric guitar I’d borrowed—just when Kečer bought himself a great big drum kit, and just when a bass player joined our rehearsals. Those two kept on playing, and later formed the band Superhicks. They’re probably the only band in Macedonia today that dares to engage in any intelligent social criticism, while those who are the actual object of their critique bop along to their songs.
The thing that Kečer didn’t like was my soft spot for heavy metal. But what could I do when Metallica released their last good album that year, and the sound was heavy—heavy and slow—too slow for hardcore punks. In the end, the only thing that I have left from my punk period is a demo cassette tape of our songs with a homemade cover and the “SK-HC” (Skopje Hardcore) graffiti tag on my garage wall.
However, many years later, when I began to write seriously, that ideal of the perfect hardcore punk song came back to life in my writing—something fast, furious, short, as short as possible, that says everything and leaves nothing unsaid. I’m still chasing that ideal.
We were in the front rows at a concert being held outside the former Central Committee of the League of Communists of Macedonia, now the government building. Bobby lifted me onto his shoulders and I was right there—a few meters away from Goran Tanevski from the band Mizar. The sounds of “Svjat Dreams” floated over the sea of people around me and we were united by his heavy, serious voice and the heavy drums that echoed in our ears and that reverberated through our bodies, proud of “Macedonia, our motherland.”
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Toto Cutugno won the Eurovision Song Contest with the song Insieme, while we were farther away than ever from being “together.”
I was living in Skopje. Summer break had ended and I was preparing to return to Sarajevo. Although it was strange my dad hadn’t called me all summer, not even for my birthday, I decided not to think about it. I had work to do—I had to pack my clothes and, yes, my skateboard too. I couldn’t forget that. I didn’t have many other things.
I sat there in readiness to hit the road, and waited for my mom to get home from work. She was stunned when she saw me. She didn’t understand what was going on. I told her that I would be going to Sarajevo for a while to see my friends, but that I would return at the first opportunity.
“Where will you stay?” she asked me, as if in shock.
“Well, at home,” I replied, confused.
“But, you live here now . . .”
Most of the words we hear in life are meaningless and forgettable, but some words change your life forever. “I live here now” became my mantra in the coming years and I did everything I could for it to truly be the case.
I gave up my language, my customs, and the person I used to be. My natural sociability turned into a desire for solitude. My dislike of books into a love of books. My slack study habits into obsessive studiousness. I turned from being one person into another. I don’t know if that was a good thing or not, but what I do know is that it was necessary.
After several months spent in self-imposed “isolation,” I began to go out again. There was a Goth club in Debar Maalo called “Doors,” a mystical and magical place. Candles burned inside and it smelled of incense. There for the first time I got to know the Macedonian alternative music scene, which wasn’t well known in Yugoslavia. Apart from the famous rock group Leb i Sol, we didn’t know anyone else. Macedonia was generally fairly marginal within Yugoslavia, and as the years passed this began to piss me off.
My life turned into a struggle for the rights of the disadvantaged, the victims, the silent and unobtrusive ones, the condemned ones, the abandoned ones, the forgotten ones, the neglected ones. I wanted Macedonia to be recognized and respected, but that wasn’t often the case. Me and my new homeland were pretty much snubbed by everyone, and all we could do was to work on ourselves—obsessively, and with great sacrifice and devotion. And if others recognized us for this, then good for them.
One night, my sister and her boyfriend, Bobby, decided to take me to the movies to drag me out of my self-imposed isolation and away from my negative thoughts. The film was called Green Card. It was playing at the small theater on the first floor of the Mcedonian Cultural Center. The lights dimmed and the movie started. Comfortably seated, with popcorn and drinks in hand, we were suddenly startled by the sound of loud drumming. On the screen, a boy in the subway was pounding away on a plastic bucket with this incredible drumming skill. The film continued and, even though it was supposed to be a romantic comedy, it exposed many social truths about America. Maybe it just wanted to erase white people’s guilt of racial and social tension in America. Nevertheless, it was a great example of the films of the 90s, a time when the entertainment industry still cared about its audience and not just their money.
In seventh grade, they placed me in what was called the “Serbian class” because my knowledge of Macedonian wasn’t good enough. I came from Sarajevo, a city that fostered a spirit of unity. I didn’t even know which of my friends was a Serb, Croat, Muslim or Austro-Hungarian. So I found it especially strange that a class made up of people of all sorts of nationalities—just like a mini-Yugoslavia—was put under the label of only one of those nations. There were nine of us in total. And it was hell!
t my new school in Skopje, I felt a sense of fear and dread in every class. You could be given a test at any moment, on any day of the week. And to my amazement, everyone knew the answers to everything. In the first SC, CS or Serbo-Croatian class (and every other variant title), the teacher introduced herself and immediately proceeded to test my knowledge.
The teacher was an elderly woman with pink lipstick smudged above and below her lips. She was an old-school Soviet-style teacher, but without a rod in her hand. She interrogated me thoroughly, while I remained close-mouthed and silent. Exasperated, the desperate woman began to sweat and to squawk, with steam coming out of her ears and nose.
My throat clenched and I looked down at my seat. I covered my face with my hair, which even back then was long, as tears dripped from my eyes. Drip, drip, slowly and quietly . . .
People say “still waters run deep.” Those tears etched grooves in my brain, which suddenly at that moment snapped to life. I became infuriated, wanting to break, smash, destroy, burn—not the teacher or the school, but me, myself.
The fact that my father had made his own life easier by getting others to help me study and worry about my grades so that he wouldn’t have to do it himself was rather shameless on his part. But what about my own sense of shame? From that moment on, I decided that things had to change. And so in seventh grade I began to study: “A, B, C, D . . .”
Round the clock, without going out, without sleeping, without playing—I studied until my head hurt. And suddenly I realized that I could do it, that I knew how to, that I was worth it . . . and that’s the most important realization a young mind can ever come to. You don’t need others to believe in you, as long as you have faith in yourself.
At school I had a friend who looked a little like Vanilla Ice—tall and blond, with a pompadour hairstyle. Physically we were total opposites, but we soon became best friends. We sat together in class and were rarely apart, even outside school—either he was at my place or I was at his. Sometimes he got teased because he was tall and awkward, and that would make me blind with rage. His name was Timur and he was my best friend. And more than that, most probably he was a substitute for all the friends from Sarajevo that I’d lost and that I would never see again. He was my own personal superhero.
At the time, “Ice Ice Baby” was a popular hit that was driving people mad—some with joy, others with despair. I remember that several of us from my neighborhood were together at my place, and when “Ice Ice Baby” started playing, we just went wild. Timur was doing his famous arm-flapping dance. That is, he would open and close his denim jacket with his hands while throwing his head back and forth like a bird.
Timur was a boy who dreamed of building lasers, airplanes, spaceships, and who wrote science-fiction stories. He used to buy Galaxy, a magazine dedicated to science and technology. I started collecting new and old editions of the magazine too. I can honestly say that I learned all the basics of science from those magazines, because the content of them was expert and objective. Even today when there’s excitement or furor over some kind of natural phenomenon, and everyone goes half-mad with fear, an old logical and scientific article from Galaxy comes to mind, and I just smile to myself.
We talked about astronomy and the universe. We knew which of the planets had rings and satellites and how many they were, what the maximum and minimum temperatures were, whether or not it rained sulfuric acid or there was any evidence for the existence of water on them. We knew everything about the universe. However, we knew nothing about girls.
But who needs girls when you’ve devoted yourself to science . . . and with some good music playing in the background, of course. But music was also changing. MTV Unplugged was born, and I bought my first record—The Razors Edge by AC/DC. The song “Thunderstruck” and the sound of the records themselves hit me like a real thunderbolt. I was addicted.
I didn’t have the money to buy records, but I desperately wanted them. My mom gave me money to buy my lunch from “7” the fast-food place because she thought that would make it easier for me to fit in. But I kept the money instead. Going hungry each day was a small price to pay to buy a new record each week.
“Where did you get so many new records from?” Mom asked me, and that put an end to me “buying” my lunch. That’s how the legend of my lunchbox pies began, for which I became famous in both junior high and middle school.
Some of us lived for music and progressive ideas. Smiki was one of them. He was the future founder of the band SAF and he wore Doc Martens and listened to noise metal in seventh grade. A rumor circulated about him that one time, when he was in hospital with a broken bone, out of boredom he read the Bible from cover to cover in just two days. And on occasions, he would recite verse in English from a Shakespeare play.
But Smiki was one in a million. And our country wasn’t interested in progressive children, but in really retrograde ideas. People began talking openly about ethnic conflict. To us kids, the idea of a nation being torn apart was unthinkable (because for us Yugoslavia was one single nation). We were a single united entity. But the older people, who recalled a different Yugoslav past, knew otherwise. And they were proven to be right.
We rode the wave of carefree youth while we could. But not for long.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Yugoslavia finally won the Eurovision! But why? If you believe the conspiracy theories, the fact that Yugoslavia won the Eurovision—a politically and ideologically motivated event—just before its collapse, at a time when the country was in a shambles economically, socially, politically and interethnically, there’s some hidden meaning . . .
Even so, the winning song “Rock Me Baby” was not as popular as the following year’s entry, “Let’s Go Crazy” by Tajči. But it was enough to secure our victory and for national joy to erupt in the midst of difficult times.
I wasn’t interested in the Eurovision. Though, like everyone, I still watched it. But there was always something about the gaudy colors and lights and the shallow song lyrics that stuck in my mind like a mantra that turned me off. In contrast, “Epic” by Faith No More appealed to me from the first time I heard it.
Who can forget that scene in the music video with the all-seeing eye in the middle of the hand shooting out blood? What was that for? Nobody knows. But the eye is there, and it sees and knows more than us. Faith No More would eventually come to be known as pioneers of rap-metal. By temporarily uniting these two genres, it made me feel less self-conscious of the fact that sometimes I really liked rap.
The unforgettable riff ripped through my ears and I stared at the scenes of a dying fish and an exploding piano with wide-eyed amazement. At the same time, the words rang inside my head: “What is it? It’s it. What is it . . .?” The question remained unanswered as random music videos came on the screen with the famous logo in the corner.
MTV was still a channel that played just music videos, and the most shocking program it showed was Headbangers Ball. Everything that was loud, controversial or outrageous to older people was shown on that show. But then in the 90s, when eccentricity became mainstream, the show lost its edge, and the alternative scene entered everyday life. However, we still weren’t ready for that.
We started going to discos. I didn’t know what to do there besides just sit in a corner and watch. I didn’t like the music they played. It was some sort of funk-rap. The vision of the future at that time was robots moving to a breakdance beat. Our group of friends became obsessed with dancing to prearranged steps and it all just looked fake to me.
I was sitting with arms folded next to Jasmina—my first crush as far as I can recall—and drinking Coke, when the thought hit me that I had to do something. I leaned back and stretched, and, as if by accident, put my hand on her arm. A surprise awaited me. My hand brushed against someone else’s hand. I turned around and saw that Skip was trying to do the same thing as me. We locked eyes for a moment and quickly pulled our hands away. Jasmina ended up without a date, and the disco went wild to the robotic rap of Grandmaster Flash.
The realization that I had a crush on the same girl as my friend, who I considered the leader of our group, the key decision maker, the one who was always in the right, really messed with my head. After that, I tried to keep away from her, tried hard not to stare at her black eyes, which was difficult because I was constantly out on the street—the first one out, the last one in.
There was something poetic about the fact that she was the last person I saw from our group of friends as I was getting into my dad’s car with my skateboard.
“You’ll have to go live with your mom for a while,” said my dad, after coming to blows with my grandfather, who then stormed off to the War Veterans’ Club. “Until I find us a new place to live. I’ll pack your clothes, you pack a couple of your favorite things, I don’t know, a toy or something . . .”
It was all so confusing. I loved my grandfather, but I had to obey my dad. I took the first thing I laid my eyes on in my room—my skateboard. “I’ll be back here soon enough, anyway,” I thought to myself, not knowing that what I was holding in my hand was a one-way ticket. Because after my departure the war would begin, my father would flee to another country and start a new family before we would ever saw each other again.
Jasmina was outside, playing tennis. She turned around and waved at me. After that her face, along with the image of my city, disappeared forever in the rear window of the car. Fade out. The end.
The 90s were in sight, a new decade was upon us. However, it held no hope for a better future. Black clouds gathered over our heads, a prelude to leaden rain, explosive thunderstorms, and children’s screams deep in the night. I was saved from the storm, but some of my friends weren’t so lucky.
That decade was the most exciting in my life, but at the same time the loneliest. The feeling of guilt that I had left behind my friends would not let go of me. All the music in the world couldn’t change that.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
Nineteen eighty-eight was a year of heavy metal. I’m not talking about the quality of the local drinking water, which probably no one in Yugoslavia monitored at that time. We trusted everything we consumed and everything we took in through our five senses, there was no doubt it was good—as long as it was ours. But, okay, I admit there were those who didn’t believe quite so blindly in Yugoslavia. And with good reason too—the times were heavy, and getting heavier, just like the music.
At the time when heavy metal entered my life, wearing patches was popular. I didn’t know the names of half the bands, but their logos—skeletons, skulls, guns, guitars—seemed to me sufficient reason for them to find their way onto my denim jacket. However, I did know Iron Maiden and I liked them. Their epic themes, rousing rhythms, and soaring vocals speak perfectly to young souls who are insecure and looking for their place in the world. Those patches often brought me trouble.
“Hand over your money!” The members of the gang known as “Korea” that operated in the area around the World War II memorial and the Sarajka Shopping Center ambushed Hare and me. I gave the impression of being a tough guy, which I actually wasn’t, and that’s probably what provoked them. But maybe they attacked me because they didn’t take kindly to the idea of my having satanic heavy metal logos and standing near the war memorial. It insulted their almost Oriental sense of propriety. But unfortunately, they didn’t reveal their political leanings—pro-communist or pro-American—as they were busy kicking my teeth in. Jokes aside, they beat me up for money, and when that’s up for grabs, all sense of propriety becomes secondary.
There were many times I wanted to believe I was a street kid, because in one sense I think I really was. After the death of my grandmother, my grandfather withdrew into himself and I lost my most loyal companion. He spent most of his time at the War Veterans’ Club, a sacred place for those who’d served in World War II, where they played bowls and cards. My grandfather would almost inevitably lose these games. Much later, I found out they could see his cards in his photochromic lenses, the type that darkened automatically beneath the bare bulbs in the club’s smoke-filled rooms.
Who knows, maybe that was just something my father made up out of envy, because everyone knew my grandfather to be a “human calculator”—he could multiply large numbers quickly without batting an eye, and he could spot a mistake in rows of digits without the aid of a computer. But above all, like a magician, he always managed to find four-leaf clovers, which he would then give to me. All he needed to do was look in a clover meadow and he’d find one!
However, after he ended up alone, he was only a shadow of his former self. This new grandfather got angry at me for no reason, threw ashtrays at me, but he also knew how to protect me from the wrath of my father, who was disappointed at being twice divorced, and whose children were scattered God only knows where.
He smoked three packs a day, while for me it was like smoking one pack a month—taking into account the passive smoke I inhaled. But every now and then, I would light one up as well, if only to try and capture its luring effect. One day I was sitting alone, in front of me a cigarette and a lighter, beside me an empty glass. I lit up and took a drag. The taste, which I couldn’t define, but which I’d later compare to burning metal and rubber, made my mouth fill with saliva. It just began to secrete like crazy. That’s what the glass was for. I spat and puffed. It was disgusting, but I had to go through with it. It was a necessary part of growing up alone.
I grew up on the street with all of its rules. Although, I wasn’t a lout, I never have been. My gentle exterior prevented me from becoming one; besides, I was fiercely loyal to my friends and to the group. I’d never betray them, not for anything in the world. I’d give them everything I owned—and sometimes I did. Every leather soccer ball my father brought back for me after attending medical seminars in Europe, I unselfishly shared with the other members of our group, every tennis racket, every tennis ball—and I always ended up with nothing. All of them got lost in the bushes on the slopes of our street in hilly Sarajevo. And sometimes the shiny, colorful leather soccer balls quickly ended up just becoming plaid patchwork. But that’s how we all lived—not recognizing private ownership and dedicated to the common good. And if anyone violated that unwritten rule—well, tough luck to them.
The group went silent and the dancing stopped immediately. We were celebrating Vedo’s birthday at his place, and everything was going great. The capitalist Coca-Cola went perfectly with the socialist pretzels that we mixed in our glasses, producing an exciting, frothy chemical reaction. We were listening to music, and then as a counterpoint to the seriousness and epic greatness of my favorite song, “Seventh Son”—“Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa came on the cassette player, a plain, simple, infectious, playful, sexual song . . . everything that heavy metal wasn’t was in that song, which I thought sounded totally wicked, and so I was ashamed of myself. But that wasn’t the reason for the shock. The silence came after one of our friends looked under the bed to retrieve a pretzel, and dragged out a brand spanking new tennis racket, unused tennis balls, uninflated soccer balls, and God knows what else! The spirit of sharing had been betrayed. I never looked at Vedo the same way again, and from that moment on I was quite reserved toward him.
But the group as a whole didn’t change. It always found ways to move forward, to forget, to restore its energy through games, through coming up with new rules and new ways of playing. Vedo decided to share some of his tennis balls with us. We welcomed his initiative by gathering a few potato sacks and tying them together into a tennis net. The game continued.
It seemed that the group as a whole always lived according to the spirit of another popular song at the time, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” while at the same time the world was slowly preparing for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of socialism. Yugoslavia was trying to maintain its own self-governing socialism, and failing miserably. “Be Worry, Don’t Happy,” as Rambo Amadeus would say many years later. Everything became more pressing.
The economic reforms of 1988 as a last-ditch effort for recovery of the virtually collapsed Yugoslav economy did not succeed. Even then signs began to appear that the nationalist and socio-economic uncertainties in Yugoslavia would lead to a state of emergency, but we were completely unaware of it.
To us kids, Yugoslavia was indestructible and more powerful than ever before. As for the economy . . . we knew how to deal with that as well.
Yasser was celebrating his birthday with a circus theme and, in the spirit of the new socio-capitalist times, he invited us to take part by performing some sort of an act. As the most jovial and the most inventive member of the gang, Hare immediately accepted. He put on a clown act in which he stumbled about, performed a pantomime, rode a bike hands free while falling over multiple times. We rolled around in hysterics.
“And now,” Yasser announced theatrically, with a look of pure satisfaction on his face at the success of his self-organized circus (which at the time Yugoslavia itself actually was), “I invite you to take part in a competition!” We were all flabbergasted. The word “competition” echoed in our heads like a promise in the form of a sweet delicious lollipop, a shiny new toy, or the soccer and tennis balls we dreamed about. Instead, Yasser explained that we had to buy a ticket to win. We cried foul.
On every ticket,” Yasser continued without hesitation, “there’s a number. And each number corresponds to a toy.” Hope returned to us. Wary, but tempted by the chance of winning something nice, we gave him the money. The first few tickets had no winners, but we’d come to learn that all games of chance were like that—you win some, you lose some.
And in fact, Hare won a shoddy toy truck that badly needed a new coat of paint; Fatty was delighted by the half-used notebook with Smurfs on the cover; and I won a toy Red Indian with one of his arms broken off. Several of the others won similar prizes, but then again, it was better than nothing—which is what a lot of them ended up with. The group wasn’t happy. Serious arguments erupted over who got what, and whether Yasser had cheated us. He defended his entrepreneurial spirit, and told us that such was our luck.
Then his mother appeared, a strict but fair-minded woman of whom Yasser was deathly afraid, like fire. When she found out what he’d done, she gathered up all our old, shoddy toys, and brought out a box with newer and much nicer toys. She marked them with numbers and made tickets where there were no losers, bar one—her own son, who for the whole time sat with arms folded and a frown on his face, while the group thanked their lucky stars.
Yasser was ahead of his time. He was the embodiment of what many years later would become commonplace in all the former-Yugoslav republics—brute capitalism, a transition without end in which all are left to fend for themselves and survive as best they know, lying, cheating, doing whatever necessary.
The state no longer protected us, and it didn’t actively discourage those who wanted to do harm, it didn’t put a damper on their dirty dealings, and it didn’t give the losers a second chance.
I fared better than my friends—I survived the breakup of my home and, with the death of Yugoslavia, I got a mother. But, overnight, people became orphans abandoned to the winds of time.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015