Balkan or Balkans is an odd word. The term “Balkanise” is familiar to everybody far and wide, being used to designate a social process in which not merely is there a perceptible economic decline but also a coarsening of relations between people. It seeks to imply some kind of deterioration, decay and renewed primitivisation, and it often flies from the lips of those who are themselves not distant enough, but at the same time haven’t the foggiest idea what lies at the back of it, where it starts and ends, whence the ominous expression sprang to their lips like a curse: Balkans.
Since an unequivocally damning significance has stuck to its rasp-like, pendulum surface, it’s no wonder everybody who can tries not to consider themselves – or their loved ones – as Balkan. Which really confuses the issue, making the question a sore point. Needless to say how hard it is to draw the physical borders of our slightly malleable Balkans, to say nothing about completely mapping its intellectual space. Yet inasmuch as many brilliant, complex minds come from there, it would be rather awkward to list them all since a good part of the very best of them would have to be creamed off from the giant loaf above the line bordered by the Rivers Sava and Danube: among them were the glittering, teeming, screaming intellects of Yugoslavia, as well as Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Albania and, not least, Turkey. And as yet no account has been made of all the milling and mingling peoples of the territory in question, varied as it is in relief, blessed with good and tall peaks, and good and speedy trout-filled brooks (broader than any nation).
As to just how big a task that would be, volumetrically speaking, let me give a sense of it by means of the example of a tiny village by the name of Mokrin in the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina in what, here and there, is laughingly called the North Balkans – on one occasion at a time when Yugoslavia was still thriving someone, in a fatuous spell of idleness which overtook him, counted them: on the occasion of a large shared state festival (most likely Mayday, the Feast of St Joseph the Worker) it managed to round up already at the outset somewhat squiffy inhabitants of over twenty different nations or ethnic backgrounds yet nonetheless, in the majority of cases, distant relations. That was the population of one single village!
No small number in itself.
For simplicity’s sake let’s just say that, albeit a fair number of exceptions are found, there in the “abominable, child-gobbling Balkans, which plays football with wolves and has bare-knuckle-fights with bears” – over and above the matter of who is and who is not a genuine mountain-dweller – people basically adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity which spread with Byzantium’s rule over the region and later, with the Ottoman Turkish conquests, the Islamic faith which became a sign of concrete national affiliation and across which, if needs must, they would cast a familiar unblinking stare at each other. For all that, provided they were not infuriated, they were quite capable of grazing their bleating lambkins peaceably alongside one another, of swapping feather-legged doves, in perfect harmony, even their finest falcons… Yet truly, as if the war-axe would never rest too long, and for very many even lying on their rifle entails no discomfort of any kind. Of course, it’s devilishly hard to avoid the clichés of Balkan mythology.
A bit too close to the truth?
Here is a gunpowder barrel commonplace, for instance, a lie and also a truth. The tart statement that “No one knows what it means to be born and to live on the edge of two worlds, to know and to understand both and not to be able to do anything to explain them and bring them closer to each other” came from Ivo Andrić, the Nobel Prize winner in literature hailing from the region. Andrić was a Serbian writer but had Croatian roots, and whose statue was badly damaged in the most recent events. That is why there is a constant worry of a spark coming from an unexpected quarter. It is a strange sense of helplessness, is it not, that the magic of words is of little use. At most a writer to write it out of himself what weighs on his mind, but even that can not be totally successful: it continues to lie heavy on his brain, the blister that came from scratching on the heart cons. Eternal fear is lurking there.
Whether seated or standing, a pen-pusher does need specs on his nose to see many naked ends of candle wicks dangling temptingly for suspect “cosmetic agents” hanging around by there. It seems at the same time the world’s other western and north-westerly part, which considers itself to the point of insolence to be more cultivated, fails to understand that men’s brains work differently there, in the East and South-East, as does the sun in the sky. From that the disparaging conclusion is drawn that the Muslim soul is blind to progress. A worthless interpretation as the Muslim sun also moves on. Even then, how far is that same Westerner from understanding those who make up the great bulk of the population of the Balkans, and within that, for example, of Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular. They may be Muslims, but originally they were not Turks but Slavs or Albanians, and they have just as much ancestral right to land as their Christian fellow men – or at least so they, for their part, feel. All the same, vis-à-vis newcomers they somehow feel collectively to be at a basic advantage like the fictional Chickasaw Indian chief Ikkemotubbe, living in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, in relation to the White settlers. That is the way they think, then, even if they would not choose exactly that example to illustrate it, and they would fight tooth and nail to defend that prerogative.
That is the same Westerner who, in the wake of Agatha Christie’s crime novels, or even a Hungarian who fashions his own picture of the sanguinary Balkans, and more broadly of the East in general, from similarly reliable sources never stops to think that the bloody bit of it in large part stems from attempts by fire and sword to carry out changes, precisely from forcible attempts to transform them to his own image, from experiments with fast and practical human retailoring which discount his own useless prejudices not a little, a thicket which often conceals the horizon.
“However noble intentions with which even a speedy transformation is paved, including all its stones – that road also leads to hell.”
More culpable than most in that matter – that’s just how it is, and I have to hope that you will bear with me a bit longer– is the concept of nation, with the spread of which the small peoples of the Balkans – and the wider East – in the course of their history have landed themselves in equally insoluble contradictions, in seemingly irreconcilable, rowdy conflicts with their neighbours, with feathers flying and often clouding the sky. Cogent to the present day. Unresolved to the present day and not absolved from the duties and obligations. But of course, which god could say from which people a nation could rise, and from which not? And from whom should one rise at all? And in such a cracked shape: who ought one belong to?
In what follows one will strive from a somewhat subjective point of view to bring a little slice of the Yugoslav Balkans known as Bosnia closer for those who are unacquainted with it (though it is hard to imagine that after the reverberations of the latest turn of historical events, or rather that given that, our Europe is putting a serious effort into willing that, maybe stutteringly). One of the motifs will be the capital city, the other – the main food dish. Keywords towards an evolving dictionary.
“Between four cataracts of rock: a town / Peopled by sleepy eagles…”, writes Lawrence Durrell in a poem entitled “Sarajevo” continuing: “Where minarets have twisted up like sugar / And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on / Tinkling among the mule-teams and the mountaineers, / Under the bridges and the wooden trellises / Which tame the air and promise us a peace …
No history much? Perhaps. Only this ominous / Dark beauty flowering under veils, / Trapped in the spectrum of a dying style: / A village like an instinct left to rust, / Composed around the echo of a pistol-shot.”
A pistol-shot, huh? An instinct left to rust? A village? Promise of a peace? Whatever it may be, Sarajevo is a city. Towards the sea and a city backwards. Via Mostar, even towards Dubrovnik or the Bay of Kotor, where there had already been a “historical bash” or two. Sarajevo is quirky, though, It is an avlija, an entrance courtyard or backyard, and a Bosnian skittle. Fresh air and a lousy stink. Sarajevo is tobacco, silk and leather. A cracked and crumbing recollection of old skinning and impalement; then donkey-braying from down below, the yell of the muezzin from on high, the top of the sugarloaf. Richly patterned carpets and there’s the rippling, fair–haired Miljacka’s water carpet. Here, then, set in concrete is the footprint of the anarchist Gavrilo Princip, and the Islamist faithful discard their shoes, there’s a strong odour of smelly feet. And stone mushrooms in the yard, like club-ends of walking sticks thrust in the ground, and also somewhere there is the odd one or two concealed six-pointed stars. Behind untrimmed foliage quiet courtyards not far from which one day a circus elephant turned fierce, and during its mad dash blew such a wild trumpeting that all the many strains of jazz of diverse inspiration immediately came into some odd connection with history.
An ivory-tower puzzle and head-banger. Sarajevo. International circus. Fire-eater and fire-belcher. United Artists, European circus. Tug of war, tightrope dancing, Dajmi,bre! Don’t ever sodding give up! Sarajevo is minced mutton. Roast, or the twisting aroma of ćevapčiča among all kinds of odds and ends of low wood bazaars, everything from scimitars and woollen socks to amber cigarette holders. Guitar strings, a Kusturica film on video. The album by Sarajevo-based rock band Bijelo Dugme (the title: Šta bi dao da si na mom mjestu? which means something like: What Would You Give to Be in My Place? – a question which is currently a touch moot), then blue jeans, leather sandals, plastic flip-flops, a souvenir key ring from the XIVth Winter Olympic Games, a woman’s handbag with sketch on it of Marilyn Monroe’s face, crocheted knickers, a petrol cigarette lighter, a watch chain, a donkey’s bridle and a studded dog leash. All-in for next to nothing, or a fortune if it comes to that. The ćevapčiča at Ferhatović is the best to be had.
The striker Ferhatović the Younger, who once scored an important goal against Germany – or was it against Italy? Or who? Did he score at all? In any event, Tito himself is said to have been so delighted that he forthwith gave Asim a golden ball. To play with at home.
In an old photo snap you can see with some ćevapčiča the footballer Ivan (“Ivica”) Osim, by a long shot the lankiest and best player of FK Željezničar Sarajevo, the railway workers’ football club. A midfielder, Osim was capped a dozen or more times for the Yugoslav national team. He had a reputation for having completed the school of hard but skilled football up on high, in some mountain glade among growling bears. Who time and again would be taken in by a bicycle-kick trick (in itself a nice piece of Bosnian self-irony). Osim turned to be so brilliant that you could not have found anything better with a lamplight. “Beside the glittering Shining Red Star, he was a star in the dark tunnel.” It is hard to find out what he does nowadays, but anyway his shelf-life as an active player, a can of beans who had risen through the ranks, has expired.
Sarajevo is both Ferhatović, Osim and the city’s rowdy Koševo Stadium (now officially Asim Ferhatović Hase stadium), bursting with strength, with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chickpeas (lebleblija), not forgetting those tiny, juicy bits of goat droppings. Or those sesame seeds with roasted sugar, Turkish delights and goals thudding in like firecrackers. With the Yugoslav national anthem and the other song: Druže Tito, mi ti se kunemo… We swear, we swear, Comrade Tito, we shall never go awry! As a falcon brood-hen, Josip Broz shepherds his mountain brood under his extended wings. Shotguns under the bed, tanks in the hayricks and straw stacks. Smile for the camera. Sarajevo delight. A 6,000 percent concentration of sugar and honey, plus broken hard nuts. Turkish coffee grounds, in their sweetshops – by now under a portrait of the Great Dead Leader – bulging cream cakes, tarts almost bigger than chairs, heavy-duty baklava, the ridged lumps of deep-fried batter soaked in batter known as tulumba, and so on. Fly-catcher rice with sneezing cinnamon. Turkish delight is known in Bosnia as Rahat Lokum, or Ratluk in Serbo-Croat. Ratko Mladić in preparation. A crescent moon in the sky. Over the mountain. The blasé rover of the skies sparkles in the waters of the river.
Plot: Rasim Effendi, the confectioner, sits down beside you and asks if it’s good. Sometimes one has to take a sip of water so that the sticky globs should go down. The principle is just the same as with bitter pills. What did you say, anyway? That you are a Hungarian from the Vojvodina in Serbia? Never mind; there’s all sorts of us. God helps those who are straight (the question has not yet been posed specifically which god does not, and which does – God or man; straight or curved), meanwhile outside in the bucketing rain, dragging his lousy limbs in the direction of the Zetra Olympic Sports Hall, King Richard bawls at the top of his voice that he’d give the whole sodden kingdom for a dry horse, and then, with the rain having stopped, he arrives to nowhere with his umbrella. Later the performance is awarded a prize, meanwhile Rasim Effendi asks what all the fuss was about. I tell him: it was a review of Yugoslavian theatre.
“Theatre?” he had never been there in his life up till then, but no doubt it was like life itself. “Isn’t that so?” “Nearly”, I said, lacking the will to plunge into a longer disquisition.
Later, Slovenian actor Janez Škof stages a horrific bloodbath in the award-winning performance of Scheherazade. He slays all the women then accepts the prize. Before the final results were announced, weighing up the chances of winning for the performance I turned in, somewhat dozy, for a sleep at the Europa Hotel in Sarajevo, on one of its uppermost floors, but I was unable to sleep because a couple were making love very persistently, loudly and exulting at length, in the room next door. (Bless them! Are there any cartridges still left for the soda siphon?) A goodly time after that it was as if a gigantic Balkan bear had ripped off the top floor of the Europa Hotel together with its occupants. But at the time neither I nor Janez was asleep: neither I in my room, nor him in the room next door.
What about Sarajevo later on? We have seen how it was. A bombed library, dead people. Burned children. Dead Sarajevan Romeos and Juliets, and so forth. A punched tramcar, trailing cable, ticket to nowhere. No words are appropriate for it. Only the banal, feeble and slipshod. A Sarajevan director acquaintance of mine arrives in Budapest and says that if we had happened to be pandas, the world would have moved sooner to help them.
P. S. Here, at the end of the abridged story, I learn that a significant fraction of the women remaining in Sarajevo now go around in such loose-fitting skirts and head scarves that they are barely visible. That’s what gives – in liberated Sarajevo. And there’s a butcher in Sarajevo, who during the whole war period was breeding in what, given the circumstances, were relatively large numbers, Pit Bull Terriers trained for dog fighting. Allegedly he devoted to charitable purposes any profits that were made. One wonders how he fed the animals.
Ćevapčiča, or ćevapi, looking from the much brighter side, for people who are not too well informed most likely sounds like something chichi made by the Czechs or Mexicans. Thanks to the attraction the Adriatic Sea has for Hungarians (among others), a lot of them are familiar with its smell and taste, and, along with its name, also its history which stretches back to the Persians, but where it goes further back is lost in the billowing mists of time and even the most dogged researchers can not find a precise explanation. According to one myth of origin the first ćevapčiča landed from heaven on a Persian carpet – with a modest phut! Since then the divine gift has been traditionally held in extraordinarily high respect in the Islamic world and not before long in the non-Islamic world as well. A devotional object, and one that into the bargain can be eaten. Prayers can be said for it, supplications; one may even wait a long time for it. Threaten on pain of death anyone who burns it, to report to the authorities anyone who fries it in a skillet of tired oil, or to pour deep scorn on anyone who leaves it raw. Surrealists painted wings on it as a hint at its angelic nature, while under Communism socialist realism strove to arrange it in star shapes in order that those who followed later would have something to deconstruct. How Freud regarded it from a psychiatric point of view, what he ascribed to it, goes without saying.
The name, not surprisingly, comes from the Persian word kebab, or possibly kebap, kababad before long kibob, and denotes an item of food which is composed of tiny, baked pieces of meat. In the times before the use of mincers people who possessed ascetic patience would chop up the pork, beef and lamb with a kitchen knife, and in connoisseur circles the opinion continues to be upheld that this is the authentic way of doing it because ćevapi stay a lot juicier after being baked in that manner. Though it is obvious that in the case of a larger banquet that procedure entails Sisyphean labour.
From external appearance it takes two forms: one the one hand, that of a dumpling, the other, that of a sausage, with the latter type the one which spread most widely throughout the Balkans. There are malicious tongues which suggest that is because its ballistic properties are better that way, but that does not hold up in the light of strict reality as there were more practical considerations which played a part in the espousal of the little sausage form as that way the ćevapi can cook more easily. To say nothing of the inestimable advantage that they can be swallowed without having to chew them, whether that is because you don’t have either the patience or the teeth to do that.
Kebabs aside, ćevapi grew roots in the Balkans thanks to the Turks, which confirms the truth of the proverb that u svakom zlu ima nešto dobro, which is to say: every cloud has a silver lining. Some people are of the opinion that when a lot of soldiers of the Sublime Porte appeared at the gates of Bosnia, already familiar with ćevapi, the locals supplied it with a diminutive and put in the plural, and they somehow escaped being impaled – they jested that is was marvellous, so that from then on there was no need for them to make a pilgrimage to Istanbul for ćevapčiča. They did not have enough sense of humour to glimpse their historical fate in the cubes of meat originally speared on a sharpened wooden skewer known as ražnjići, or meat shish kebabs, which often go together with ćevapčiča. But ražnjići bring up another story which belongs elsewhere.
Anyone who can see further than the end of their nose will be able to notice
– no need to be downhearted – that others have also their ćevapčiča, even if there are lesser or greater deviations from that, but that is so with other things. Of course, they may turn out to be similar as with the Bulgarians for example, where, somewhat closer to its original name, it still answers to the name of kebapche
– a “little kebab”, then there is the Romanian mititei, “small things”, which are ostentatiously bigger than anyone else’s – but then again specimens of Romanian ćevapčiča measuring over six inches have long been spotted. Apparently, Ceauşescu himself ordained years ago that mititei might be less, but under no conditions could they be smaller, and ever since then that is a custom which has endured – even after the darkness of the Ceauşescu era. Even today there are some Serbs who pose the question in the form of: what is it that still binds them to Turkey? Apart, that is, from Turkish soap operas. Well, what?
Translation by Tim Wilkinson
Bosnia. November. And the mountain roads
Earthbound but matching perfectly these long
And passionate self-communings counter-march,
Balanced on scarps of trap, ramble or blunder
Over traverses of cloud: and here they move,
Mule-teams like insects harnessed by a bell
Upon the leaf-edge of a winter sky,
And down at last into this lap of stone
Between four cataracts of rock: a town
Peopled by sleepy eagles, whispering only
Of the sunburnt herdsman’s hopeless ploy:
A sterile earth quickened by shards of rock
Where nothing grows, not even in his sleep,
Where minarets have twisted up like sugar
And a river, curdled with blond ice, drives on
Tinkling among the mule-teams and the mountaineers,
Under the bridges and the wooden trellises
Which tame the air and promise us a peace
Harmless with nightingales. None are singing now.
No history much? Perhaps.
Only this ominous
Dark beauty flowering under veils,
Trapped in the spectrum of a dying style:
A village like an instinct left to rust,
Composed around the echo of a pistol-shot.
From Lawrence Durrell’s Collected Poems and reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London on behalf of the Estate of Lawrence Durrell – Copyright © Lawrence Durrell 1960