Tuesday, May 24, 2011

With their backs to the world

This is the title of a collection of stories/interviews Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist, conducted and compiled to create “Portraits of Serbia.” To be honest the book didn’t quite hold my interest but the author does a remarkable job of capturing the mentality, character, indignation, perceptions, habits, thoughts and feelings of Serbs. For this reason I’d recommend it to anyone interested in understanding the Serb.

It was written during the final years of Milosevic, the Serbian dictator from ‘89 to ‘01 succeeding the totalitarian Tito, and the journalist went back after Milosevic was taken down by the people and fair elections were held to report the changes in spirits. This comparison draws out the way people react to getting by in an oppressive state, to the woes of society, to the bringing down of a dictator, and to the problems that have persisted or emerged since his ousting. I didn’t witness the crossover of during and after Milosevic so I can’t verify the before phase but every character/interviewee in the book bears similarities to Serbs I’ve talked to in the past eight and a half months so I trust her .

These are a few quotes that stood out while reading it:

“‘I was sitting on this very balcony, watching the bombs drop. Bombs from America, a country that has more people in jail that any other on earth, a country where only five per cent of the population have an education, a country that put the Indians in reservations.’”
This interviewee was a typical, middle-aged man. It’s very common to hear these “facts” spewing out of Serbs of all ages and we’ve learned to deal with it without putting much of an effort. That’s the safest response, from judgment and/or hostility, and it’s tested our humility and restraint.

The book mentions a collection of essays entitled “Why I’m Still in Serbia, and What My Hopes Are” and one journalist who refused to write for it was “as if it is abnormal to live in one’s own country”
Good point. Most everyone I’ve met has shown interest in leaving for the US or Western Europe but they justify it with a shrug or what can you do sort of response. But no one has ever questioned the reasons one would question wanting to leave in the first place. It’s just taken for granted that reasons exist since the Western world is thought of by many as the place to go for better and fairer opportunities. It might not be the best reason but nationalism carrying some weight makes sense.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this aloud but Serbia is not ready for democracy. I don’t think it’s good for us. Look at the prices – they’ve quadrupled since the coup [to take down Milosevic in 2001], and my pension has gone up by just ten per cent. Serbia needs a new Tito. A firm hand. Only then will we get any order in this country. We can’t manage ourselves. We’re just not ready for it”
I appreciated this interviewee the most because she made the least drastic claims and most sense. Serbia’s democracy is trying, and to me it’s not really the government that’s to blame but the citizens who – for the most part – don’t bother with fueling the democracy with their votes, opinions, and interest. Now playing the devil’s advocate, why should they? They’ve witnessed far too many corrupt and failed administrations and a person only has so much hope and optimism which, for most, petered out after Tito died. Now quite a few people I talked to long for another charismatic totalitarian ruler to take their troubles away, or at least hide them. However those Yugo-nostalgic seem to overlook the less favorable qualities like how he imprisoned anyone who spoke against him, even if it began and ended with words. Ceca, our program director, has personal experience with this because her own father was put in jail for an entire year for saying something negative about Tito. Those evoking Tito are usually of the generations who lived through his reign since the youth of today are experiencing the debt and problems he’s indirectly causing by not having invested in the future. I’ve already discussed the apathy of the youth and if it’s true that those of past generations have grown apathetic longing for the days of Tito then you more or less have an apathetic society, futile soil for a democracy.

One of the most common Serbian traits I’ve observed this year is well-displayed in this book and that is their habit of taking every decision, however petty or insignificant, seriously and engaging in passionate argument/discussion for each. Misunderstandings are not simply brushed under the rug for courtesy’s sake, they are thrown against a wall and not removed until the matter is cleared up for all parties. There’s no room for bashfulness at a dinner table, or anywhere really, in Serbia.

Dark humor, sarcasm, and mockery present themselves in the quotes of all interviewees and in most Serbs I’ve met. They claim to rely on those to pick themselves up from the sad state of their country.

The author also does a nice job of illustrating the reliance on food (the process, symbolism, and tradition). A major cultural difference between the Balkans and the States is the common occurrence of children living with their parents until they’re into their 30s. This can partly be accounted to the high unemployment rate throughout the Balkans but it’s also cultural in the way they regard family. Youth here don’t leave home for college like many do in the States and if they’re coming from a village or town without a university they generally live with family or friends in the college city because housing isn’t offered at universities. Most parents I’ve met bring up how impossible it would be to let their children go to another part of the country right after high school, virtually moving out, even if it’s for further education. And they sometimes take discomfort when imagining their children taking a gap year or going to another part of the world at 18 for nine months. Jelena, my 29-year-old host sister in Nis, wanted to study in Belgrade—Serbia’s capital—right after high school but her parents talked her into staying in Nis. After one year she couldn’t stand it so she insisted on moving to Belgrade and studying there. For the first four months after she left her mom wouldn’t talk to or visit her because she felt so betrayed by her daughter leaving. Jelena is still studying and working in Belgrade and even now it’s a sensitive subject for the whole family. Milena, my 24-year-old host sister, still lives in the same room she grew up in and she’s studying at the University in Nis. Though from a western point of view, Jelena’s actions seem normal, moving out at 20 is basically unheard of and it’s very heard of to live with and rely on their parents through their 20s and 30s.

These quotes and thoughts highlighted various characteristic bits of Serbian/Balkan culture that I’ve been meaning to put down. Sorry for the potentially scattered approach. Like I said the book does a fine job of showing the feelings of Serbs so for that reason I would recommend it.

Further reading: Bridge on the Drina—Ivo Andrić won the Nobel Prize for Literature this book and Emir Kusturica (Drvengrad mastermind) is directing a feature film based on it
Documentaries: Whose Song is This—about the disputed origins throughout the Balkans of a particular folk song
Bringing Down a Dictator—a great documentary about the political group Otpor who lead the resistance against Milosevic from ’99 to ’01

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