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.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
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.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
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.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
That winter the temperature dropped below -20 degrees Celsius, but it didn’t prevent my father from taking us skiing to Mount Jahorina.
The song “Where the Streets Have No Name” playing on the old cassette player of our green, 1982 Lada Riva sounded as if it was coming from afar. The rhythmic sound of the guitar mixed with the hum of the car going up the mountain road as the snow-covered evergreen trees sped past us. My father deliberately jerked the steering wheel left and right, causing the car to skid and spin toward the shoulders of the road covered with huge deposits of snow, while we nearly split our sides laughing. I was happy.
The next song that came on was “Don’t You (Forget about Me)” by Simple Minds, but forgetting was something inevitable and life went on. It was 2001 and once again, for the first time in ten years, I was in my old homeland. My aunt was waiting for me at the bus station. She was still quite plump and she didn’t stop talking, apart from when she took a deep drag of her “Filter 57” cigarette that was always dangling from the corner of her mouth. The green packaging and the small red dragon on the box of cigarettes—which as a kid I used to think was a little frog—irresistibly reminded me of a swamp surrounded by a cloud of smoke in which my aunt was always enveloped.
Had I known that that would be the last time I ever saw her, maybe I would’ve told her how much she meant to me. Even when she sewed up the holes in my deliberately torn jeans with brightly colored patches, after which I never wore them again. Yes, maybe I would’ve told her that I loved her even when she urged me to hang out with the “nerds,” who I found unbelievably boring and who I fled like the plague.
In 1987, the kids in my street were the faithful type more so than nerds. “Do you wanna make a bit of trouble?” asked one of those people who today no longer exist, who was killed by a Serb mortar shell fired out of sheer Balkan spite on the first day of the liberation of Sarajevo. We called him—aptly—Troublemaker. He was the embodiment of street life that was hard, but fair, governed by unwritten laws and rules that every kid followed.
“Now,” cried Hare, and with all our might we tossed lumps of dirt mixed with berries that released a red dye onto the white-haired man’s balcony. It was our revenge for the broken sled just because we made too much racket for him out the front of his apartment. Nobody wrote the natural laws of street life, but all the kids respected them in order to maintain the peaceful equilibrium between the residents.
In 2001 my streets had no name. They had different names that to me were unfamiliar. The people around me were unfamiliar too, apart from my girlfriend who held onto my hand firmly. “Why are your hands so cold?” she asked me, but she already knew the answer to that. From the moment she came on this uncertain journey with me, she knew that my heart was clenched so tight that it no longer pumped heat into my body.
“I dreamed of those streets every night for years, but they were more real in my dreams than in reality,” I said to her later on, after we had already left and my city that was not mine and my streets that had no name were far behind us. Maybe it’s better to leave them back there.
Before, we genuinely believed that we were moving forward. But, we also knew how to laugh at our own expense. In the ’80s, we compared the one-time success of our “Brotherhood and Unity” project with the then reality. Fitting perfectly with that comparison was the Yugoslav TV series, A Better Life.
My grandfather didn’t want to watch it because it insulted Yugoslavia for which he had taken bullets, lost relatives, and languished in prison on Goli Otok. And perhaps out of similar spite he preferred to watch the American TV series Dynasty that, however remote it was from the lives of ordinary Yugoslavs, still offered some sort of appeal—probably suggestive of what in the coming decades would become our dream too, the Pan-American dream.
But apart from the dizzying effect of the opening credits of Dynasty, we kids got nothing out of those TV series. We were interested in wild, untamed, and endless play; we were boisterous, energetic, and we needed an outlet.
When Guns N’ Roses entered our lives something resonated within us. The times were about to erupt. People didn’t know what the future held, but they still believed in the preservation of the old ways. My cousin was part of the in-between generation.
“Turn that racket off!” he came flying into his room once when I was visiting him, and turned off the tape at the best part of “Welcome to the Jungle,” just as the snarling menace of the song enters your world and fills the space with soaring guitars, smoke and fire, guns and roses . . .
“Listen to something better,” he said to me, putting on another cassette. And as the room filled with the sound of Idoli, a New Wave band from Belgrade who I found totally boring and too commercial, I went into another room, and there I continued to dream of my idols. I took out a pen from the backpack that I took with me on weekends whenever I stayed over at my aunt’s place, and started to draw the band’s skull and crossbones logo on my skin.
My appetite for destruction was overwhelming.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
I saw them on TV, and from that day on, the song went round and round in my head. I decided to buy their cassette, but kids back then didn’t have their own pocket money. I’d heard of the term “an allowance,” but believe me, in socialist countries something like that was just a myth because it was unthinkable for a kid to possess money. We were given no more than a bit of loose change to buy some chewing gum or a soft drink. Asking my father for money seemed out of the question. So I decided to skimp on the chewing gum for a few weeks and try to save up the money that way.
I stood at the counter of the cassette shop with the money in my hand. When they handed me the cassette, I felt as if they were giving me the Holy Grail. The cover depicted the band members leaving planet Earth, and to me it seemed as if they were flying directly into my mind. The cassette player resounded with unprecedented force, fueling dreams within me of something bigger and grander. I replayed the first song over and over again and . . . that afternoon, while sitting in my father’s room that was his private world—so remote and inaccessible—I saw it as conquering new territories of the mind, my own personal “Final Countdown,” a dream of togetherness, unity, and mutual understanding, something that eluded not only the two of us, but the whole country as well.
But the world kept going, the clock was counting down: 10, 9, 8 . . . we were getting ready.
“What do you need this for?” my mother asked me upon discovering a switchblade in my backpack.
“For self-defense. Everyone in our group’s got one,” I replied, puzzled, as if she had asked me why I needed a soccer ball or a bicycle.
“This is dangerous,” she said, and to this day I’m not sure how she managed to hide that switchblade without my knowing, stashing it somewhere I never found it again.
. . . 7, 6, 5, 4 . . . we got into the car. My sister and I sat in the backseat that was covered with the obligatory bed sheet as was customary on the long journey to the coast.
. . . 3, 2, 1 . . . we set off for the coast! My mother couldn’t keep her eyes off me. I was embarrassed, but I knew how much our first summer spent together since I was three meant to her, the first vacation my father agreed we could go on together.
It wasn’t that long ago I had “met” her, maybe a year before that vacation. Prior to that I knew her as “the woman who sent me packages,” which I awaited with joy and a sense of guilt in not replying. All the wonderful crayons and pens, delicious cakes, toys and letters that were a mixture of both joy and sorrow for me, but which I couldn’t associate with any face. And so that’s why I substituted it with my aunt’s or my best friend Hare’s mother’s face, and when I went over to his place, I fantasized that his parents were mine, that I was part of a whole, rather than divided in two . . . My mother was also divided in two—now that I’m a parent, I know that. But what we didn’t know was that the country was also divided between those who believed in it and those who wanted to separate from it. To those in the former group, the idea of separating was akin to condemning oneself to being an orphan, something that was unthinkable to them.
We in Bosnia were part of that half of the people who believed in Yugoslavia. In no other republic did people swear by the name of our “Dear Tito!” and in no other republic had the spirit of togetherness developed in the way it did in Bosnia.
“Let me take over now,” I said to Maher. I was turning the lamb on a spit in his yard for the end of Ramadan feast. We took turns, and whenever an older member of his family would come outside, he would give us a few coins. We’d be beside ourselves with joy, and we’d turn the spit even harder and faster. After a job well done, we were rewarded with a bit of flatbread and a piece of lamb that we ate with relish. We had full stomachs and full hearts; we were happy and content, just like at Easter when we cracked red eggs with each other. We shared and celebrated everything together, both Christmas and Ramadan, always with one another, until they separated us.
Every evening, in the year of “our lord and savior Tito,” 1986, we sat in the yard of the house belonging to my mother’s aunt on the island of Hvar, playing cards.
Only thirty feet down below us, the choppy sea was gnawing away at the rocks, and providing an abundant breeding ground for the mosquitoes. The noise of the crickets was outdone only by the song “Orion” by Metallica from our little cassette player, beginning softly and mysteriously, and then blasting the heavy air saturated with the smell of bug spray.
“You plays good,” my best friends from Hvar—two Hungarian brothers from Vojvodina—said to my cousin, a drummer from Belgrade, while we were listening to the demo tapes of his band Revolt.
Summer came to an end, and after just managing to load all our things into our Zastava 101, we turned back to look at the house that farewelled us with graffiti scrawled on it reading “Faggot House.” Quite simply we were the wrong people in the wrong place.
Excerpt from the book “3 Minutes and 53 Seconds” (Goten, 2015)
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
I was eight years old and Africa was in trouble. The world was mobilizing itself. At the helm, one of the biggest stars—Michael Jackson—led a chorus of other stars with the song “We Are the World.” It was unforgettable. Anyone born in the late seventies remembers this as a magical moment when the world came together to do something to help those less fortunate. Live Aid followed later. The West collectively laundered its conscience through music.
The images of malnourished black children with distended bellies and protruding ribs left a deep impression on us throughout our childhood. We felt ashamed, guilty even, because we had enough food and water, we enjoyed free healthcare and school, not to mention all the major amenities of life. But, were we also “the world?”
The 1984 Winter Olympics ended and Yugoslavia finally earned its deserved place in the world as the culmination of a dream—the dream of our Marshal Tito on a white horse, who led us to a brighter future. But he passed away, and the future began to look a lot less bright. After the Olympics, it was as if all our dreams had been shattered. And the germ that brought with it inflation, ethnic hatred, territorial claims, and war began to sprout. The bobsled track, which world champions once whizzed down, became virtually covered with moss.
But none of us children felt any of that. In the tradition of the Olympic Games, we continued to uphold the positive spirit of sport and unity. Each of us had a hockey stick, and we used a tennis ball instead of a puck. We had a real blast.
The first snowfall of the season piled up high along our street, reaching above our heads. We spent the whole afternoon tirelessly and eagerly stamping it down. And in the morning we would go outside and plunge headlong into the snow.
One day, the team from the next street played against our street. The needlessly rough visitors physically dominated us on our home turf. One of our opponents was particularly aggressive. He tripped me up several times but I kept quiet. He was bigger, stronger, and more aggressive than me. And then he tripped me up again.
At that moment, I remembered the story that my father had once told me. “I had just been enrolled in a new school,” he said. “At recess, all the kids went out into the yard. Even though I was a bit shy, I forced myself to go outside to try and make a friend. But that wasn’t easy, so I sat down alone, feigning indifference. Then some kid came over to me. The conversation began innocently enough, but he quickly asked me why I’d beaten up his brother. I made it plain that I didn’t know who his brother was and told him what he just said wasn’t true.
“‘Hey Grami, this dude’s calling me a liar,’ he yelled out, and some big lug, who looked as though he’d been ripped right out of the side of one of the surrounding mountains, stepped menacingly toward me. I got the fright of my life. But at the same time, I realized there was only one way out of my situation. When the big lug approached me, I knew that I had only one chance to strike. I slugged him in the mouth without warning, so hard that he dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. His friend turned as white as a sheet. He quickly picked him up, and they both fled like headless chickens. From that day on, no one ever picked on me again at that school.”
I lay sprawled on the pavement, and in that moment my father’s story flashed through my mind. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew that I had to. I leaped from the ground as if jolted by lightning and kicked him hard in the shins. He was stunned. Then the tough boy that everyone was afraid of all of a sudden began apologizing profusely to me. No one could believe it. From that moment on, even the other team members began to tread carefully with us, and every time they ran into me they apologized. That day I became a hero among the group.
But not for long, because the group had more important heroes. Located at the end of our street was a local community hall that had pinball machines and a cinema. Every Saturday they showed films with Bruce Lee, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, and other idols of our childhood. One Saturday they were showing Rocky IV. Excitement and a sense of expectation about Rocky’s latest adventures steadily mounted.
At that time, the Cold War was coming to an end, and in the film the Russians were being portrayed as fanatics thirsty for American blood. But in the end of the film, they were presented as humane in their recognition of democratic values and human rights. However, we weren’t concerned about politics. We just cared about Rocky’s victory. He always took his fair share of punches, but was able to come back after almost being beaten to death to deliver his crushing blows. The archetypal movie character who rises up at the end of the film and heroically fights on behalf of the downtrodden exceeded all our expectations.
“Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor began to play. Rocky came back and landed one blow after another . . . the hulking, invincible bully began to totter. A wave of excitement swept through the hall and I began pounding the chair in front of me with my fists. My hands were hurting, but I didn’t stop because I wanted Rocky to win. I wanted the big bad Russian to go down, to be defeated for the sake of the poor, the hungry, and the dispossessed. In mid-trance, I raised my head and glanced around in the semidarkness of the cinema-hall. Everyone was doing the same thing. Everyone was pounding the seat in front of them. We were united, as one, carried along by a common desire, a common idea, a common dream.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
A dark hallway with stairs made of large blocks of stone worn down over the years by the quick tread of thousands of children’s feet, kids with heavy thoughts on their minds and with even heavier backpacks almost bigger than themselves. At that time, the school was named after the Croatian poet “Silvije Strahimir Kranjčević,” but that was a mouthful and everyone just called it SSK.
The schoolyard was cracked from the large tree roots that poked through the asphalt, spurning the urban prison in which people agreed to be chained. Later on, the school became famous for its high wall that surrounded the yard. The wall also featured as a backdrop in a famous sketch filmed by the comedy troupe “The Surrealists’ Top Chart” depicting a fight between two different clans of garbage collectors—one from East and the other from West Sarajevo—throwing rubbish at each other. To be sure, Sarajevo soon afterward became a divided city, but in a different, more serious, and more tragic way.
That school held many secrets, like the secret of my grandfather’s fall down the stairs as he hurried to attend a parent-teacher meeting, the surgeries that followed, the blood clot, my departure to Skopje, his telephone call from the hospital, his death, and his not having the chance to ask for my forgiveness . . . but all that happened later on.
In 1984, the song “Thriller” by Michael Jackson was a popular hit. I was alone at home with my grandmother. She was ironing and I was watching TV, while the neighbors invited one another over for coffee by tapping on the radiator pipes. The music video started out innocently enough, but then got increasingly scary. As a hint of what was to happen to him in the years to come, Michael Jackson’s face transformed into the face of a monster and I froze with fear. I hid my face in my grandmother’s lap. She was a strong woman who had endured war and deprivation, cold and rheumatism, diabetes, and years of waiting for her husband’s release from the notorious Goli Otok prison. And her appearance not only filled me with admiration, but with a sense of security too.
“What’s wrong?” she asked worriedly, not waiting for my reply because she must have seen what was on the TV. “Now, now, don’t be scared. It’s just a film,” she said, ruffling my hair.
I closed my eyes and turned my head away. The glow from the chandelier produced a bright yellow light behind my eyelids. I saw the sun quite clearly above me, big and warm. I heard the sound of the sea waves, and the quiet, gentle breeze blowing through my hair . . .
When I opened my eyes, she was no longer there. She had gone, leaving behind two men and a young boy with unresolved mutual problems, torn apart by divorce, disputes, courts, and even child abduction. I lived in fear, and not because of “Thriller” or Nightmare on Elm Street, a popular horror film at the time. They of course did scare me, but what I was even more afraid of was the image of my mother imposed on me by the people I lived with and who I loved dearly. In my mind and in my dreams, she was the evil witch who chased me, while I foolishly and desperately tried to get away, only to end up falling into a bottomless well—every night. I would wake up screaming beside my grandfather, who slept so soundly that nothing ever woke him.
Then I started seeing apparitions, things that didn’t exist, and yet they were right there before me. Waking up always brought with it new and mysterious figures that I could almost touch until they would just vanish. I knew these figures wanted to tell me something, but I never worked out what it was because I didn’t really give it much thought. Yes, kids want to live, not to think, especially when right outside your door something magical and unforgettable is taking place—the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.
One of the rare childhood photographs that I still possess, that didn’t get lost in the whirlwind of the war, is a picture of me with Vučko, the Olympic Games mascot, who was something much more than just that. Vučko was a friendly image of a wolf. The wolf found in the forests of Yugoslavia, a proud and courageous animal that lives in a pack to which it owes its survival. Without the pack, he’s just a lone wolf, doomed to living out his days in anticipation of the end, as we ourselves would soon come to do.
“Get up now, kid,” the photographer said to me. “Come on, let go of Vučko. There’re others waiting to have their photo taken with him.” My grip on Vučko remained firm. I didn’t want to let go of him. I wanted him to be mine because he felt like something stable, something reliable that I wanted to hold on to. He was something positive and cheerful, something I could be happy about. And not only that, he brightened everything up at the kindergarten. Because of him, the instant mashed potatoes that smelled like detergent, the macaroni cheese baked beyond recognition, the rice swimming in oil, the physical bullying by the bigger kids or the painful smacks of the teacher’s ruler over my small hand all seemed almost bearable.
My grandmother died. For the first time in my life, I saw my father cry. The second time would be six years later when he would be saying goodbye to me. The Winter Olympics finished. I became a first-grader. But none of that was important because all my thoughts were of just her—my first great love.
Translated by Paul Filev
Copyright © Branko Prlja, 2015
The books of the series “Small Factopedia” are aimed at younger (and, why not, older) population and their acquaintance with some of the most important figures from the world of science, art, music, culture and the influence that they had on the humanity, but also on our lives. Explore the “Extraordinary Facts” of their lives and be inspired to find out more about what makes these people special, and you may want to do something more about yourself, the people around you, and – why not – change the world!
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Extraordinary Facts From the Life of Nikola Tesla
1990. I’m leaving Sarajevo forever. Soon after my departure, the war will begin and I will never return there again. Those who know me know that for me my comrades are the most important thing in life. “First outside. Last back home.”
In my new home, Skopje, I have no friends. But that’s why I have my skateboard with fluorescent plastic brakes, as Josh Browlin from the film Treshin’ and the famous brightly colored 80s. “I’m trashin'” in the streets of my unfamiliar and new city for me, although Skopje is the city of my ancestors. The first thing I notice when I grate the asphalt is the endless plain, the great boulevards and the bicycle paths that allow me a smooth and long, long drive. This is unusual for someone born in Sarajevo and accustomed to steep hills and narrow streets.
My lonely journeys through Skopje on a skateboard or my BMX with stickers led me from Debar Maalo, by the quay, through the Stone Bridge to “Kultura” in the building of the Music School. The child who loved people became a boy who loves books. I spend hours and hours in the big bookstore “Kultura” in it’s big dark hall, while the middle-aged ladies behind the cashier and the house plants next to the book shelves are silent to my presence.
Outside, my bike is waiting for me, and then with the new book in the backpack, I head to the MNT to the curved side surfaces, excellent for the speed launch and the countless stairs that break the plain and bring me into new adventures.
In Sarajevo, from my street towards the former “Hajduk Veljkova”, large and long stairs led downstairs and were a challenge for every good biker. Immediately after that we descended to the Music Academy and the Catholic Cathedral and we ended up in the old-bazaar where we skillfully avoided the people. In my new city, the stairs before the MNT offer the same excitement, but this time without a faithful companion next to me and his common smile, the purchase of ice cream and Coca-Cola in the local grocery store after the 1985 Olympic Games.
Again in Skopje, its endless flat space, the old Stone Bridge, the bookstore “Kultura”, the plateau in front of the MNT and then, a new discovery, Tabernakul, the new bookstore in the premises of MNT, and inside – the new world of alternative literature, comics and art, “Margina” number 2, a magazine that changes my worldview forever.
Soon in my life, new frinds will enter, and they will slightly diminish the pain of the newly emerging situation in my former city, the metal rains, shocks and shouts, the ignorance of the fate of my former comrades.
With my new friends, Timur and Vlado, we are constantly challenging and proving who is braver, stronger or better. Regardless of whether we are on Vodno and we are racing to the top, or we are behind the Zoo and climbing the wall that surrounds the wild pigs, with a plan to catch them with spears, like Rambo in 1982’s eponymous movie.
Agaian in front of MNT.
“Who will go first?” I ask.
“Timur is the tallest, he will hold his hands and we will climb up on him, then we will help him,” Vlado says.
We are soon on the roof of the MNT and we are heading up. Those who know me know that I have fear of height from childhood, but Timur and Vlado still do not know me well and I have to hide my fears. We are at the top and we lie down the edge. I look down and I don’t feel my legs. However, I soon relax and enjoy the view from the height of my new city, satisfied with the lost of fear and the achieved “mission.”
In our childish naivety, we imagine the winter that is coming. We will take my plastic skis, which each member of my former company had in the cold and snowy Sarajevo, and we will descend down the roof of the MNT down … and then when we reach the edge … nobody knows.
But one thing I know – in front of us is the infinity of fantasy!
June 21, 2016
(the text is published as part of the book for the exhibition “Heroes for a Day” at MOB)
In Eastern philosophy and Buddhism there is a concept called “impermanence”, and in ancient western philosophy we identify the same with “Panta Rei” of Democritus “the dark” that we translate with “everything flows”. In the modern pop-mythology on these two concepts, the popular “Seize the Day” or “Carpe Diem” is added. All these condensed philosophies that have found their way into the popular culture through the so-called “one-liners”, contain the same Buddhist root of constant change, unrest, and inherent feature of the universe to be in constant motion. Man needs to adapt to such a nature of things and do as much as he can, which is to use these instant-philosophies for his own benefit and to get the best out of it, or in the true modern spirit, seize the day.
But despite such an intention of the modern man to adapt these philosophies to everyday practical life, there is something deeply unsettling in their essence. In the ancient Western philosophies that laid the ideological foundations of modern Western civilization, the world came from chaos, which is a state of utter restlessness, and from it came the “order” or the so-called “cosmos”, the world we know, which relies on the principles of causality and clarity, a world we understand and can be clearly defined. This clearly identifies the roots of Western spirituality, which are based on simple rules for action that we must respect if we want to live in a harmonious and meaningful world, rather than in chaos, internal or external. Science, especially physics, superficially seems to agree with this view. We live in one seemingly mechanical world of Descartes, in which each cause has a consequence and every part works according to the whole. Newton’s and even Einstein’s view does not offer a fundamentally different image of law-led space, although are formally different from those of Descartes.
So, there are clear laws governing the world, but if we look more closely, like in the scene with the garden in the movie “Blue Velvet” by David Lynch , where the idyllic representation of the American suburban life framed in the stage of the father who waters the grass in the garden is disturbed with his death and introduces us to the reality of the “not so idyllic” green garden where there is another life of insects, a constant movement, an untamable nature in which there are no rules, emotions or harmony, in one word, if we look closer, we see chaos.
Such an insight into the true state of nature is provided by quantum physics (and the more exotic theories of chaos, strings, etc.), which shows that in the basis of nature there is no order and logic, but chaos, paradoxes, the existence of the same particle in two places, spontaneous disappearance and appearance elsewhere, the binding of particles with a “spooky action at a distance”, and it seems that in this theory the light itself cannot be considered either as a particle or wave, so it refers to one or the other way, depending on… be careful – do you observe it or not! I will not pretend to understand quantum physics and I’m not a physicist, but its concepts fascinate me deeply. Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum physics, said: “If you think you understand quantum physics, you do not understand it,” so I hope that in this context you will allow me to convey my fascination without questioning my expertise.
But the question arises, how did we come to quantum physics from the Indian philosophy? First of all, the most important scientists in the study of the atomic and quantum world, Schrodinger (Nobel Laureate, also known for his cat), Heisenberg (the uncertainty principle, Nobel laureate and famous in the pop culture from the series Braking Bad), Oppenheimer (the father of the atomic bomb) and finally, but not the last, Niels Bohr (Nobel laureate), every one of them read Indian texts like the Vedas and Upanishads, Vedanta, Bhagavad gita and others, and some of them even read in Sanskrit. According to certain findings, the roots of key concepts in quantum physics can be found in these works that provide a deep insight into the nature of reality that is not shown in the ordinary observation, but only by means of meditation or mathematical concepts in the case of science. But quantum physics is not just philosophy, hypothesis or theory, it is the most tested and verified theory in the history of science.
Once we have found the connection between Indian philosophy and science, we come back to the concept of inconsistency in everyday life, the idea of transience that, whenever you try to catch your slip from your hands like a moist soap. All of these above-mentioned questions were imposed to me when, in an attempt to make an archive of texts in the media about my works, after actively publishing prose, with my name for several years, and under the pseudonym Branko Prlja, for 15 years. For years I have been trying to do this, but every time I said “another time”, partly because it’s a boring, archival and somewhat self-serving procedure. Who am I to do an archive of texts about myself? But let’s say, for practical reasons, I needed such an archive.
To my surprise, I soon became aware that much of the texts I previously seen online now were nowhere to be found. Some of them disappeared with the extinguishing of newspapers such as “Utrinski vesnik”, “Denes” and the like, but another part that should exist in other media like “Nova Makedonija” were also missing. Probably, by updating their sites and bases, they also disappeared in that process. After all attempts, even for texts from just a few years ago, I had to quit. I found part of them in print format, which made me think about the impermanence of the digital world, the world made up of units and zeros, laser, magnetic, electronic records on the medium, and hence the impermanence of the world in general, composed of electrons and protons, neutrinos, and quarks.
When I was a child, I felt a great fear between 6 and 9 years old, prompted by the knowledge that everything is not going to last, that every moment of happiness I experience is only an illusion that is transient and will soon be replaced with another, as an unstoppable and transient experience. Looking from today’s perspective, maybe that’s why I decided to write, and shift into eternity that moment that is slippery and refuses to be obeyed. But the “record” itself is not eternal, and maybe the nature of things is to be transient, like the mandala that the Buddhists, again from the movie “The Little Buddha,” make it from the sand, carefully and for a long time, and then it is destroyed by one move.
In the field of digital and virtual, it seems to me that this principle is even more present than in reality. Millions of words, pictures, videos that we believe “once they have gone to the internet there will be there forever”, and are created in huge quantities at any moment. But regardless of whether you consider the Internet to be a “cloud of data” or an ether, it is not a non-physical form of existence, it is located somewhere on a hard disk in a database and at best a case in a silos shielded from a nuclear attack in the Scandinavian countries of Europe. But it’s more likely that your data is stored on a local server and as soon as you stop paying for the service, or the media stops running, they will be deleted.
But, physical writing of the data is not eternal, your precious archives on a CD or DVD have a 25-year run, hard drives are even less durable, and flash memories are more permanent, however, provided you do not write or delete too much, one error and all data are irretrievably lost. The film “Blade Runner 2049“ mentions an event called “blackout” that erased all electronic records for replicants. One of them tells how his mother still complains about pictures of him when he was a baby and concludes that it was funny that only paper survived. The inconstancy is in the quantum nature of things, and this is the main obstacle in the creation of quantum computers and the next computer era, otherwise we would live in the future as foreseen by the science-fiction novels of the past.
The real, macro-world is fortunately somewhat different, and here with a reserve you can accept our initial theses about the transience at least when it comes to data archiving. In the macro-world we represent only the realization of the possibilities that exist in the micro-world, according to which in some way these precepts do not apply to our world. What does that mean? First of all, it means that the newspaper where you gave an interview 12 years ago will not spontaneously combust itself, and the book that you have printed in hard copy will probably be preserved for 100 years. Of course, all these things are not eternal, they can be lost or destroyed in countless ways, but they will not spontaneously disappear. So, occasionally remind yourself to print your pictures, write something on paper, and save the newspaper that contains a fond memory or important information. And in the meantime – “Carpe Diem!”.
Dec 13, 2018
 If we trust the movie “The Little Buddha” (1993), as a good popularization of the theme of Buddhism.
 Popularised in the film “Dead Poets Society”, 1989, with a famous replica whispered by Robin Williams.
 Latin aphorism from the Roman poet Horace.
 Blue Velvet (1986)
 Taken from the interpretation of the movie “Blue Velvet” according to philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in his documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006).
 According to Albert Einstein, a quote that shows that Einstein himself was suspicious about quantum physics, and in this context his statement ” God does not play dice” is known.
 Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961)
 A mental experiment that shows one of the fundamental aspects of quantum physics, i.e. quantum superposition (as in the example with light, at the same time particle and wave), transferred to everyday life. For more, visit the link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schr%C3%B6dinger%27s_cat
 Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901–1976)
 Breaking Bad (2008-2013), the main character Walter White is also represented as Heisenberg, according to the German scientist.
 J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967). His quotation from Bhagavad-Gita is known on the occasion of the first successful nuclear bomb test on July 16, 1945 (“Now I am Death, the destroyer of the worlds”)
 Niels Henrik David Bohr (1885–1962)
 According to estimates in the middle of 2018, 2.5 quintillion (2.5×1019) are produced every day in the world, and only 90% of the total amount of information in human history has been created in recent years. Of course, not all information is top artwork or quantum physics, but nevertheless both are information.
 The truth is that no one can accurately predict how long a CD will last, and that depends on its quality (and most often we bought the most innocent “Nenayum” media), the way they are stored (most commonly in bells, what are bad conditions ), the conditions in which they are stored (for example, the easiest way to destroy them if you store them in a cola exposed in the sun), whether they are used much and the like. In ideal conditions it should last more, but there are no such conditions in the home.
 Blade Runner 2049 (2017)