THE BELL OF KOSOVO Georgi Grozdev (Excerpt from the book by the same name under press for Publishing House Balkani)
From the very first day I heard the bell ring, I thought it came from the Orthodox church with the dome with the gold cross. It turned out I had heard the bell of the Catholic church, instead, which is a little bit farther. The Orthodox one has naked domes that look black against the gold cross. The murals inside are gone, the walls have been plastered, but there are no paintings. It has been set ablaze and burned. It was easy to cross the green garden patch to get to the entrance. It is still black with the soot from the fire and smoke. Metal bars block the entrance. I startle a small dirty dog. In an instant, from the black ashes by the entrance another one emerges, and another one, and another one. I think there were five or six. This hollow church is a hang-out for stray dogs. Faith here has been punished for the deeds of believers. There has been controversy whether the building should be torn to pieces, burned down, or blown up. Regardless, in the end, after all the sides balanced each other out, it came to be what it came to be. Perhaps, a chance still stands that after time this church, too, could come to rise again, if Pristina has believers for it. In 1992, when the church was begun, there were forty thousand Serbs. Now, they are thirty, three-zero. Since 1999 the church has been frozen after being declared an ominous symbol of Milosevic's era.
The downtown Pristina bookstore is behind Mother Teresa's statue. I buy the book “Serbian Crimes in Kosovo, 1998-1999” in English. The author is Sanije Gashi, a renowned journalist and publisher of the only feminist magazine here. I read the witness accounts of two chance survivors, a mother and a daughter. They survived shielded by the bodies of all their relatives. I'm haunted by the words of an elderly woman, “Why should I live, when my whole family are dead?”
That genocide, so close to the heart of Europe, is akin to just one other demonstration of such insanity at the time – in Africa, in Rwanda. We often say Serbs and Bulgarians are brothers. I think no one knows anyone completely. This applies to family as well.
“Bulgaria has shown it is a true ally to the United States. You've proven it with your courage when you didn't let Russians create their own region in Kosovo and perpetuate the crisis.” Zbigniew Brzezinski said in November 2001 in Sofia. His gratitude was in response to Bulgaria's government refusing an air corridor to Russia in June 1999. By doing that, the Kostov Administration, together with the governments of Budapest and Bucarest, stood in the way of Russia's desire to create its own “occupational” zone in Kosovo which would have practically split the province in two parts.
Pristina has demonstrations regarding parliamentary decisions. There is also pressure from the US Vice President Joe Biden. He was recently here to remind Albania of the two-billion-dollar aid, thus far, and its obligation to reach an agreement regarding the borders with Montenegro and the Serbian municipalities. The dispute with the Serbian municipalities is severe and is about subterranean resources.
There is a concert at the Basilica di San Pietro in the Vatican dedicated to Mother Teresa shown live on TV. She has been declared a saint by the Pope. She is portrayed with a halo. Three local channels are showing the concert. The singers and musicians are Albanians from Kosovo. By doing this, the Catholic world is affirming her affiliation challenged by our Macedonian brothers. Mother Teresa is a Skopje-born Albanian.
The beautiful female and male singers are a pleasure to watch, children recite poems by Mother Teresa, operatic arias caress the ear under the high, very high dome of the basilica. The first rows are populated by the first men of the state and the churches. No one is ignored.
At the peak of the concert I hear a musical introduction, the sound of something like a mandolin. An unexpected and atypical sound for the large Kosovo philharmonic with its dozens of musical instruments. This small violin has two strings. I happened to see one like it only hours earlier on Mother Teresa Boulevard. The elderly salesman explained to me that it was called “chiftelia” or “chift” (a pair). He was selling several kinds. Under the strings, on the wood, there was a pyroengraved version of the Kosovo seal – a two-headed black eagle. The same eagle caught the camera's attention at the pompous basilica because of the gentle and tender sound of the chiftelia. At that moment it felt as if the whole of Kosovo set foot in that holy place.
The new Catholic church, whose bell ring I hear regularly at seven in the morning, is not complete yet. It is in the same awe-inspiring Roman style, with huge arch doors and vaulted ceilings. Its construction is almost finished. It is unlike the tiny-stray-dog-sanctuary of the Serbian Orthodox church which has lost its influence here. The dogs are tiny because of the tiny space between the iron bars to the torched entrance. Only the little beasts can sneak through there. The big ones have perhaps already been closed up somewhere else. A surreal picture springs up in my head: the blackened church entrance is mixed with the gentle rhythm of the chiftelia.
The sight of a beautiful woman distracts me.
I like one of the female singers. She looks more like an Italian actress with her perfect forms, with the magic in her eyes, with the mystery of her flesh. Her beautiful head is gently veiled in a black net headpiece in unison with her stylish clothing that sets her apart from everyone else. A true satanic temptation for the holy fathers. They are wearing small red hats, uniforms. The camera follows the living beauty, but doesn't fail to also show the murals of Biblical scenes. This combination of the fleeting and the eternal, the hymnody and the example of Mother Teresa, the tiny ash-stained stray dogs, stirs up a thrill of the human in me, of the human in my kin. Something so often forgotten and buried under everyday impressions and petty worries. Hidden and unknown for thousands of years. We are a mix of the earthly and the heavenly. Perhaps, a lot of the answers we seek with our minds are beyond them. Unattainable and impossible, regardless of how drawn we are to them because of the curiosity that urges us to look for them, to follow them, no matter the cost.
Comparisons are haunting me. By comparing with others a man learns about himself, sort of. Accumulated thoughts, impressions, images and faces come to life after years of dormancy within me. The domino effect. One image brings another. They have to do with me, alone, at the moment. Maybe I owe them to introduce them to each other, to speak them out and think them over as much as I can. Otherwise, these worlds and people would never meet again in this manner.
Similarly, my hope for Publishing House Balkani some twenty-five years ago - to be a spiritual bridge. The fate of the Balkan bridges is problematic. I found that, on the way there, some bridges may stand, whereas, on the way back, they are gone. And that is when you may go wild!
Behind the seemingly provincial and at the same time European and cosmopolitan Pristina, like sleeping dragons, lurk the fundamental problems of the world, Europe and the Balkans. The world is here – America is here, Russia is, Europe, and China, too. The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by the super-accurate US rockets launched from submarines in the Adriatic. The Chinese still remember the humiliation. Just recently, in Shanghai, their writers associated the Balkans with exactly that not-so-distant incident. The millennia-long opposition between East and West is here, between Islam and Christianity, which is taking on new dimensions and new levels of rivalry. The neuralgic point on the maps of geopolitical strategists who know why the Ottoman army reached as far as Vienna, and why the West, just fifty years after the fall of Constantinople, looked for access and expansion even farther west, across the ocean with Columbus's discovery. Because it was under pressure! Just as it is now, under the pressure of the waves of migrants.
Bulgaria has always been connected to Europe and has always remained sandwiched between Russia and Turkey. In the crossroads that our land is, just as Kosovo is, we have never been completely integrated with just one of the rivaling powers. Swaying back and forth between them, in modern times, Bulgaria has always chosen the losing side.
Kosovo is part of the grand story about the world, about Europe, about the Balkans, about Islam and Christianity which are in fact similar religions turned enemies by history because of ambitions and greed. These eternal paradoxes of the multi-faced complex human nature where the sin of fratricide is hard-wired.
When Cain killed Abel out of envy a beautiful turtledove fell from the sky broken-hearted. That was the beginning of the human fate, wasn't it?
Poverty always goes hand in hand with wealth. Last night I was startled by a homeless person who had a flashlight in his mouth that was so small that I initially thought the dot of light to be a cigarette. Thus facilitated, he dove head first into a dumpster. Just moments later came another noise. It turned out a fellow dumpster-diver was in there as well, only he was unequipped.
In the meantime, the hungry husky by Sultan Murad Mosque (who died at Kosovo Field) was hungry. For the first time I see a husky in such a sorry state, scrawny, grimy, just its blue eyes unchanged. It stuck its nose in the garbage bags on the sidewalk; the dumpsters are not enough for each street. It was looking for its own tasty bite, surviving according to the market economy principle.
Money? Money! Money... It has always had more importance than it deserves. When you have the expensive cars, the riches, the properties, the influence, and everything is within your reach in your earthly world, you might decide that the unearthly one is yours too... According to Allah, children and property are a test, and the biggest test for man is woman. Allah values most of all good deeds. He does not give his grace to a community if it has even one hungry person. And only when you are hunting, he doesn't keep track of your days. (or so the saying goes).
When the days meant for you are gone, the money and its traces are erased much more easily than your good deeds. Muslim nobleness and goodness made themselves known to me when I was just a kid in my favorite town of Peshtersko, where I lived with my grandma and grandpa for some time. It was summer, or lyatos, as my grandma said. I remember the dirt road. I'm barefoot. The sun is beating down. I'm thirsty. She's holding my hand and we're coming back from somewhere through the woods. Cold and crystal clear water gushes out by the road. I will never forget it! When I drank myself full and washed my face she explained, there was a sign too, that this fountain was built in this desolate place for travelers like us by a Turkish person, a Muslim. Back then, there were only few of them in the town. Now the whole town is theirs. The fountain was made to bring khair. I didn't know what khair meant, but I still remember the sweet gulps of water under the scorching sun.
Will what happened in Kosovo happen in Bulgaria? Some Macedonian friends of mine say that is what we are heading toward. Serious and responsible people in Macedonia are concerned about where their children and grandchildren will live and how. That too is part of the incendiary mixture that the Balkans are. Mutual fears and suspicion.
The demographic domination of Muslims which is accelerating in a geometric progression only makes the mixture more flammable.
If people in the US thought like that, there would already be several separate countries – one of them would inevitably be Chinese. Thirty percent of the population of San Francisco are of Chinese descent. In the US people unite by language and citizenship.
Half-awake I hear the morning namaz at 6. The voice coming from the tall and lean minaret flows easily and gently. From a distance, it resembles a thin white woman's cigarette. There are no shrieking tones. The voice seems quiet, focused, like a father waking up his children. I mean, it's not rough. After a while it is gone. Then come the shrieking black birds I call crows. They are noisy in a hooligan manner. In the evening they fly eastward, in the morning – back, westward. The terrace attracts them with something, some of them fly straight into the stretched out clotheslines. Maybe the birds fail to see them. This morning, they didn't manage to wake me up either. I made a mental note that they had taken their turn at trying. Gradually, the hum of the cars down the boulevard appears. It picks up little by little and grows to brutality. At 7 the bell of the Catholic church rings – clear and brazen, but also short, moderate. I'm still not awake. My eyelids are glued shut and sleep has me in its grip. The Christ the Savior Cathedral of the Orthodox church is silent, its cross glistening in the clear Pristina sky lit by the generous sun. That I get to witness live. I'm up. Maybe the only living tenants of this unfinished church, the tiny feral stray dogs of Kosovo, are still in bed. I'm reading about a protest by the Serbian patriarchate who owns the building. Two kids climbed the domes as a dare of height. There is a photograph of them in the paper. Why aren't the police doing anything? The Orthodox fathers ask. Why was the building allowed to become a public toilet? Obviously, these are questions in the past tense. The sieve allows for no such suspicions.
My sleep was good and sound. My thoughts follow the circumstances, but where the truth is and where the illusion lies I still can't tell. And everything is first created in the mind, in our thoughts, before it becomes circumstantial. Everything starts with thoughts, then words, then deeds. We, like God, make our human world beginning with the Word.
What words have stayed locked for twenty-five years since Milosevic's era that it is so hard for everyone to unlock this church, to honor this God who is not guilty for the sins of those who falsely swore in His name, be they honest communists or nationalists from the Yugoslav communist party.
Albanian intellectuals wanted to demolish of the church with unfinished interior by use of explosives, a destruction of leveling it to the ground. And they were probably right, since its meaning was abused. Despite that, the desire for revenge was overcome.
We have been taught to look for logic and reasons. But the world is logically imperfect.
The question Why? the Chinese answer with There is no why! And that's where they stop, whereas the European thinking of the Enlightenment and the Reformation keeps digging and digging. That's what happens to Europeans sometimes: they go in a meaningless circle, like a dog chasing its tail without ever being able to catch it.
In the reference book Islam (2007), right from the beginning it stresses the fact that today's world is not what it was expected to be according to the ideas of the European Enlightenment. Religious “prejudice” hasn't been relegated to history but continues to be a factor. The stronger Islamic presence in the public and political life of Europe, not only in Western Europe, poses many dilemmas and is a cause of new concerns. A conflict is brewing whose scale may be more dangerous and increasing than it meets the eye. There are situations when no one knows what will happen in five minutes. Like the twin tower attacks in the US broadcast live on TV like a show.
Radichkov has a story in which he talks about a Muslim man. He helps a friend of his climb down a well by lowering him with a rope. I quote from memory, I can't even remember the name of the story. However, as soon as the time for prayer arrives, the Muslim abandons everything and goes to pray. It doesn't seem credible.
Ivailo Petrov created a whole gallery of images of Turks from his childhood about whom he speaks in his final interview, one given to me. He describes them with such love and respect. He was one of the important public figures who decisively opposed the Turks renaming process instituted by the Zhivkov regime in Bulgaria.
Gencho Stoev left the following question not only to tomorrow’s writers and politicians but to the Bulgarian and Balkan residents coming from the future, Should there be and how far should there be a stepping back in order to avoid bloodshed and fire on the Balkans? His masterpiece, The Price of Gold, dedicated to the April Uprising, to the heroes of Perushtitsa, is the most beautiful monument to Bulgarian self-sacrifice after Grandpa Vazov's pages.
Vera Mutafchieva, who studied the Ottoman language and whose academic career is dedicated to Ottomanism, gifted Bulgarian culture with a series of historical novels, among which is the most translated Bulgarian novel Jem's Case, about Sultan Jem. The book has received acclaim and respect in Turkey itself, too.
These names are not only in my book entitled The Disappearing Kind. Meeting the Masters (2013, second and extended edition, Publishing House Balkani). They are with me to this day.
They often repeated they were not worried about their work as long as Bulgaria existed. I treated their fears with irony. The more time passes, the better I understand their fears were not in vain.
The Sultan Murad Mosque is usually opened five times a day for prayer. Starting as early as 5am. As soon as I entered in search of some little details about those times six hundred years ago an elderly Albanian man who was sitting nearby spoke to me. There were jars of hand-made honey, a kilogram each. He sold them for ten euro a piece. He found English unfamiliar, but spoke some Macedonian. He explained to me that the lighter color was linden honey, whereas the darker was from the fields. He pointed to my shoes, and also, because there was a drizzle outside, I was a bit wet.
I know very well that you enter a mosque after you’ve removed your shoes and even performed a ritual washing. I’ve entered many times. This mosque seemed like a kids’ pen compared to the huge and pompous Sultan Selim Mosque in Edirne. I thought it would have a parlor where you could leave your shoes. Instead, upon crossing the threshold you set foot onto a red carpet, so your shoes literally remain outside. The carpet completely covers the whole round floor, which can accommodate about a hundred people. The two young and handsome lads, university students, who were already inside the sultan’s mosque told me it was always full. There are stairs leading to the imam’s minbar, a balcony which is exclusively for women, and two framed signs in Arabic. There is also a little room like a niche for the imam, as well as a speaker that plays the invitation to prayer, instead of a live summon. All the elements of a mosque are present.
To this day, the battle at Kosovo Field has been controversially interpreted. Was it a victory for the Christian troops, was it a defeat, was Murad killed by Milos Obilic or did he find himself in the heart of the fight where he was surrounded by several brave Christian horsemen. Was Milos Serbian, was he Albanian. Does the name Kosovo come from the steep incline of the field? I had a look at the field from a distance, it really is sloped. Or does the name come for the widely spread local bird, kos, even that is not established.
Reference: On June 15, 1389 (old style) at Kosovo Field, northwest of Pristina, between the River Lab and the River Sitnica, a historical battle took place between the Ottomans flowing into Europe and the defending Christians of the Balkans. According to Serbian historiography, the Ottomans were challenged only by Serbians. According to Ottoman annals, however, Prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic’s army consisted also of Bulgarians, Hungarians, Albanians, Vlachs and Czechs. The number of troops on either side is not mentioned. It is hard to estimate. Different sources quote different numbers, the Christian army ranges between 12 and 30 thousand people, while the Ottoman – 27 to 40 thousand.
The first clash between the two armies was successful for the Christians and led to the retreat of the left wing of the Ottoman troops.
After that the outcome of the fight remains unclear for quite some time. Then the Serb nobleman and knight Milos Obilic snuck into the tent of amir Murad and killed him. Another version suggests he came under the pretense of negotiating hostility cessation.
Official Ottoman chronicles say Bayazid was the first to learn about his father’s assassination and rushed to his tent ahead of everyone else. Having immediately figured out the situation, and in keeping with the traditions of the sultan’s court, he murdered his brother Jacob as soon as he arrived.
The same Bayazid who will later cut down our Bulgarian King Ivan Shishman (July 17, 1397, Turnovgrad falls) whose son Alexander, the heir to the throne will convert to Islam, the religion of the winner, something common at the time. He will later die as Iskender bey, an Ottoman subject and military leader. There are no songs about Alexander, just about Ivan Shishman. Since the break of dawn, oh dear mother… The same Bayazid who, after King Boris I, now after reverting back to Christianity, will behead the aristocracy of Turnovgrad and send Patriarch Evtimiy into exile at Bachkovo Monastery. The next massacre will be after Sep 9, 1944. Thus, to this day, there will be no trace from which to reproduce an authentic Bulgarian spiritual and political elite. The same Bayazid the Lightning who will not long after lose yet another of his battles and will meet death at the age of forty-three not before being thrown into a cell. The empire, in turn, will remain sultanless for eleven years.
The September morning is rainy, again. The clouds over Kosovo's sky are slowly drifting apart. They are cirrus clouds and the blue color seeps from behind them. The hills across are regaining their green color. The sun sets their round tops on fire. Another bright day is relentlessly setting in. Without looking at the watch I learned to tell the time perfectly by looking at the sun and by measuring the regular car noise ten floors down.
The Battle of Kosovo for this land was in June. Probably back then, in September, the sun was as indifferent, the flocks of birds as regular in their migration. The carcasses of men and horses must have attracted wild animals. We know that after the battle near Anchialus, on Aug 20, 917, between King Simeon the Great and the Byzantine armies, white bones could be seen and flesh consumed. It was the biggest medieval battle with a hundred and twenty thousand people fighting. Only there was no roar from the automobiles of commuting Albanians and beach-going Bulgarians.
The blood which the land of Kosovo is soaked in, and which the land of Bulgaria is soaked in, is not just an empty word.
We, modern people, have forgotten what it is to fight for a spot under the sun. What it was to bleed in such a battle, what it was to die for your land. What it is to die for something or in the name of something. In his interesting analyses, Zbigniew Brzezinski recognizes the lack of selflessness in young Americans. The hedonistic way of life, the game of life, avoiding its real cost turns whole generations, and societies, into infantile clowns.
Until the time for blood comes!
The moon is half lit. It resembles a young lady's face, round, white, attractive and mysterious. It transported me again to Zhongshan Park in Shanghai, where it shines with the same soft light over the white-barked trees. The moon attracts not only the Muslims, the lovers, the poets, but also the Chinese of ancient times. As I wrote in my book about China from this year, according to legend the Moon is home to the frog. Did Djibril, the angel who descended from the Moon and who spoke with Muhammad before the Koran appeared, see the Chinese frog up there? What could it have said to him or he to it? These are my thoughts on the eve of the Kurban Bayrami. And I smile to myself.
At nighttime, the Christ the Savior Cathedral disappears into the shadow of the well-lit and graceful Catholic cathedral. It seems to be competing with the muezzins’ regular calls by striking the clapper. It sounds to me like a musical marathon of sorts that goes on for days on end, for years, for centuries.
Islam demands obedience and dedication. Its fatalistic determinism turns some Muslims and their society into a flock of sheep. Why should they change anything or dream of changes when Allah's design will happen one way or another: God giveth, God taketh away! Contemporary Islam, not the radical one, not the terrorist one, but the Islam of thinking Muslims who hope for and want progress and prosperity is facing its biggest challenge. The distant roots of Islam from the time of Muhammad and the challenges of the information era cross paths in people’s everyday need for love, faith, sustenance, safety, justice. Muslims are people like us. These needs are universal. The world expects to find a common language with Islam, and Islam with the world, through dialog and cooperation, in the sense of Saint Francis of Assisi. Or in the sense of Jelaluddin Rumi who says love is a journey from which no one returns unchanged. Not through violence.
Jeton Neziraj, 42, the Kosovar dramatist famous in Europe and America, gives me an advertising annotation of his new play. I relate to its main idea. From our very first meeting we started talking about the subject without me knowing he had written such a play. Our inner vision brought us closer than any external formalities. Here is what the play is dedicated to. It is called A Play for Four Actors and Several Pigs, and Several Cows, and Several Horses and Several Prime Ministers, and a Milka Cow, and Some Local and International Inspectors. Written by a local cynic, this is part of the advertising annotation of a play that is a panorama of today’s Kosovar and European reality. A story of the sincere strife to be united with Europe and of the perplexing and ridiculous euro regulations and requirements. Of the cunnings of bureaucrats whose sole concern is to make things look OK on paper.
Further on it says: after the tragic-comical UK Brexit the void was quickly filled so the EU didn’t collapse. Europe turned its eyes to Kosovo and unexpectedly came across a historical opportunity it had to use. But, as always, big challenges appeared. Together with Kosovo, Serbia also wanted to change and enter the European Union.
People and animals of Kosovo are preparing to meet the standards of Europe put forth like prerequisites for entering better and faster than Serbia. The main European documents sent to the Kosovar authorities are about three thousand easily fulfillable requirements to make it into Europe.
Tony Blair’s slaughterhouse in Pristina was already looking into the future; it had to start selling meat which had to be well controlled. Because of the slaughterhouse’s efforts to meet these requirements, the owners are organizing a Kafkaesque journey through state bureaucracy exposing those authorities and bureaucrats who are unhelpful and corrupt. They even steal a giraffe from the Skopje Zoo to make a birthday meal for the Premier of Kosovo.
And when some people and countries naively betray the new challenge, the Orwellian world of animals gets mobilized. They want to exploit the political moment and give voice to their demands for a more dignified slaughtering process at the Tony Blair slaughterhouse.
I slightly shudder at the word “slaughter”. Don’t talk about rope in a hanged man's house. Obviously, twenty-five years later, theater can joke with this.
Today I passed by the Christ the Savior Cathedral and what do you think I saw? As if God had sent me there so I didn’t miss the event. Two Kosovar policemen were walking around in the little garden in front and were guarding something. The whole area surrounding the church was being de-weeded. There were several monks but no one else. Several cargo vehicles with hoses and cisterns were parked in front of the burned entrance. Next to them, a priest in black cassock was giving an interview to a young lady. The camera was following him closely. I immediately produced my International Federation of Journalists card. I showed it to one of the officers and asked to be let into the opened building to find out what was going on. He answered me not in English but in very good Serbian. I was surprised. Is he a Serb policeman; he laughed, He is from the Kosovo police and access is “free”. I can go. Then I surprised him, too, by paying him and his colleague a compliment. You have very nice hats, I say, they look like the hats of US policemen. And that was true. They laughed sincerely and contently.
The first person I struck a conversation with is an elderly man with a hat and a camera. He was a reporter. It was he who suggested I first go in and look around and then we talk. And so I did. And I looked and took pictures of about a dozen young men in cassocks and two nuns who were washing the floor in a quick pace, and washing some of the walls, and then throwing the water out of the church. You could tell they were pressed for time. They had to hurry. Someone was welding a piece of metal across the bars to prevent those little stray dogs from entering. I got to meet the female journalist who was with the Kosovska Mitrovica television. She really wanted to put me in the program. I didn’t mind, but there are a lot of things I don’t know and I can’t be useful to her. With a smile on her face she followed my conversation with the photojournalist Nikola. When I quickly explained to him that I was a Bulgarian writer who happened to be passing by, but who had been watching that Orthodox church for days, he quickly interrupted me, Brother, how are you? No one else in Pristina would phrase this question like that.
Nikola is one of the thirty Serbs currently living in Pristina. That is how many are left from the forty thousand back in 1999 as I mentioned earlier. He promised to send me the picture he took of me in front of the church. I learned that a while ago an Albanian female singer sang inside, and rock climbers climbed the naked domes for fun. I asked him if this was a church or not yet. Why is the church mute and I point to my tongue so he can understand me. Why isn’t there a bell? Ring-ring! He interrupts me again; I know what you are asking, it is voiceless, but I tell you, within five years it will speak again. How will it have a voice again? It will be completed with our work, with these two hands right here. He showed me his big geriatric palms. Is it possible? Yes, yes, he’s not worried. Here, we’re cleaning the inside now, and trimming the shrubs. Nikola turns to face the beautiful Catholic church named after Mother Teresa. It is younger than ours, he says, even though you hear it sing every day. It, too, was unfinished, I said to him. I already went inside, it’s beautiful. Let it be! Nikola adds. Ours will be beautiful too. I went on. I read it was blocked because of Milosevic back in 1999. He fell silent and wisely answered: It’s not Milosevic’s and he hasn’t given money for it, it is ours and we will finish it.
I learned from him that there was another Orthodox church which was open. The St Nikola Church, located near the Kosovo Parliament. This is news to me. I hope to visit it. It was set on fire and blown up during the unrests in 2004 by Albanian extremists. It was rebuilt using EU money in 2010 and was later visited by Hillary Clinton in 2012.
That is how God teased me and perhaps rewarded me for my terrace observations. Did providence send me there at the right time? If I had passed by a couple of hours later I wouldn’t have seen anything and wouldn’t have had an idea about what had happened.
When I came back from Gracanica, nine kilometers from Pristina, I took a closer look at the ghostlike backs of the Kosovo mountains from my terrace. Ever fading hills, one after the other, one after the other. These mountains dissipated and disappeared at the horizon in a cloudy blue haze. I was enjoying a sense of spiritual fullness and harmony that I didn’t think Gracanica could reward me with. The strange town got its name from the cawing of the crows or the blackbirds which I see most regularly in Pristina too. Caw, caw, caw. Definitely not blackbirds; these ones are much bigger. How many did there used to be and how long had they lived in this town together with people and their inconstant fates to get the town named after them? It happened at least about seven hundred years ago.
The town is remarkable with its Serbian Orthodox monasteries, with its compact Serb population. In the words of the driver of the quite cheap taxi everything outside of the Gracanica municipality is Albanians. The Monastery, Church of the Assumption, is the easiest to reach, located in the town itself. The others are about a couple of hours’ drive away. An imposing stone wall surrounds the monastery’s courtyard. The souvenir shop is at the very entrance. A female university student runs it. While we’re trying to introduce each other in English, I say my name and the moment she hears Bulgarian her face lights up; the moment we switch to russkiy she is delighted. She is a junior majoring in the language. Generous, cordial, welcoming – she recommends the best of her souvenirs. I also buy a very mellow grape rakiya from the monastery cellar. A liter for just ten euro. Fifty-nine degrees. I called it grapava when I tried it. It has a peculiar authentic aroma to it.
When I crossed the threshold of the place of worship, I was greeted by a tall fragile woman with an expressive elongated face with big blue eyes. She is my discovery of the day thanks to which I’m now so calmly gazing out the terrace at the Kosovo eternity in the distance. She is very different from the beautiful Sahadete Sadikaj, director of the Prizren Library. Prizren is where the deep roots of Albanian identity lie. With Sahadete the flesh somehow dominates, the flesh accentuates, tempts you with its whiteness and plumpness. This comparison springs up in an instant, I didn’t even think about it. This woman of calling is another breed.
The church was built around 1315. Its walls painted between 1319 and 1321. In 1359 the monastery’s first printing press was created. The first printer was named Dimitar. The architecture of the building is late Byzantine. It was during the reign of the Serbian King Milutin Nemanjic (1282-1321).
Reference: The history of the Bulgarian Cyrillic book printing has only one original Incunabulum (from Latin: cradle, beginning. These were the first printed books.) We are talking about a partial biography of Stefan Decanski by Grigorij Camblak, printed together with the Book of Psalms. Bulgarian incunabula, regarded by Serbian historiography as Serbian too, number a total of five. They were printed by Bozidar Vukovic in Middle Bulgarian.
Bulgaria has just one printing press during the first half of the XVI century – in the Gracanica monastery where they printed palaeotypes of books for religious services. Jakov Krajkov worked there too. Back then Bulgarian books were printed in Italy, Western Herzegovina and in Serbia. There were printing presses for books in Cyrillic in Vlachia, Moldova and Transylvania. The books of the time were not just in Middle Bulgarian, but also in a Serbian and Vlach-Moldavian edited versions of Old Bulgarian.
The church is different from the contemporaneous churches of Tzarigrad, Thessaloniki and Serbia itself. It surpasses them. The poetess Desanka Maksimovic writes: “Gracanica, if you weren’t made of stone, you would have ascended to heaven.”
The church suffered damage from Turkish attacks in 1379-1383. It also sustained damage from the Battle of Kosovo. There is a wrongful rumor that Prince Lazar was buried inside. After the fall of Novo Brdo in 1455, Gracanica survived many more sufferings. The expensive construction could be afforded by the ktetor King Milutin because he was richer than the Emperor of Byzantium. He had seven gold and silver mines.
The spot where the Church of Assumption was erected and preserved was not random. Another church stood there before it but the remains didn’t disclose whose or what kind it was (I read this in the book I bought at the souvenir shop at the monastery). I know it was a Bulgarian church. As it often happens, our Serbian brothers, and not just them, like to omit certain details. Before the Bulgarian church, an early Christian basilica stood there in the VI century. These lands were part of the Medieval Bulgarian State, but we, Bulgarians, have no such claims as Serbians have. I say that with a smile.
I don't discuss these details with my new acquaintance. She seems to have come out of a movie (not a Hollywood one though) dedicated to this time and place, or simply carries the spirit of the past and spirit of the future in her soul. We talk about God with her.
Ever since I was a kid I've known there is a God and he is the mysterious power over us, in the heavens. This power is a good power. That is God! She says out loud.
A thin ray of light is peering over the church dome. Under the dome it is dark, there is a painting of Christ Pantocrator. The light and the shadows make Christ's image surreal at that moment.
She listens to me talk about Boyana Church with great interest. The female silhouette of King Milutin's wife in the church here greatly reminds me of Desislava's (the wife of Sebastokrator Kaloyan) silhouette there in the clothing, the detail. However, here the face has almost been completely erased. The frescos of Boyana Church are from different periods: XI-XII century, 1259 (the most precious ones), XVI century, XVI-XVII centuries and 1882. It turns out our church was created a century earlier but it's far smaller in size.
Words fly out of this woman's soul like white doves. She is gentle and at the same time she is not that fleshless that I am not attracted by the sparkle in her eyes, the rhythm of her heart that I subconsciously sense. A little untactful, I offer we get a picture to commemorate the moment; not inside, outside, in front of the church. She explains she doesn't like to get pictures. Here is a young woman who is not greedy to seize the moment and boast and decorate herself with it, to collect selfies. Her modesty and mind impress me, I don't see this every day. When, in fact, her behavior is so simple and natural. How have I and my environment depraved me? I keep thinking. Without intending it, she reminds me how sinful I am. At that instant I unwittingly remember that if you don't admit your sin, you can't renew yourself and have self-respect. You can't be self-worthy!
After our meeting I keep wondering how insightful she had been with her words, but also how quickly she responded to my spontaneity and sincerity with the same unconditional sincerity and spontaneity. The Russian language was the bridge between us. At one point she said, You are an interesting and kind person, how come you haven't been baptized? I don't know, was my embarrassed answer. Whether I am what she so generously described me to be, that's another matter.
She is a nun, she has no children. I heard her speak excitedly over he cell phone with her nephew. I could hear him saying Auntie! Auntie! She answered, I will come back soon!
This meeting and this conversation are my reward. I couldn't have guessed that Jelena, that is her name, has been expecting me for so long. She is a vibrant and lambent soul.
I told her about the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Pristina which I had recently witnessed open its doors and get cleaned up. I turned up there at that important moment. She was really captivated and wanted to know what happened and if it were true. I had also heard something, sisters from the monastery were there to clean the church, but I wasn't sure. Thus, it was from me, the traveler from Bulgaria, from whom she learned the news she'd been waiting to hear for over 25 years...
Through the centuries, and through the hilltops of today's jagged times, we, I, Georgi, and she, Yelena, end up side by side. We can talk for hours or for centuries. I told her my mother's name was also Elena. An ancient name, dating back to Homer and the beautiful Helen. She laughed.
I felt like writing a single sentence in third person about Jelena and me.
Jelena and Georgi were speaking in a whisper in the church with such joy as if it had been only for a brief moment that the thread of their previous history had been severed and today, once again, their souls are the fountains of shared thoughts and feelings...
She gave me her address to send her books. Will I see her again? There are such creatures of whose existence we cannot even guess trapped in our absurd labyrinths. For example, while we find distraction in films of endangered animal species on television.
Night fell unexpectedly. When I turned over to look at the terrace I found the big round full Moon had taken the Sun's place from this morning. Literally at the same spot over the hill. The black cawing birds were flying over in the early morning just like thoughts – sudden, purposeful, swooping, diving sideways. Could it be they were heading to Gracenica because of me?
Tonight the central Mother Teresa Street is again full of young Albanians. They do their regular rounds, smiling, fresh, dressed up – as if they are walking down LA's boulevards and cafes. I catch a glimpse of a couple of young men wearing white shirts and black ties cut as if by mold; in the crowd I can see them offer a fat book in a black cover. It crosses my mind they are Americans and maybe this a Bible. I'm not that far off. My curiosity is disappointed, however: the book is in Albanian and the young American missionaries are offering Mormon's teachings. No one from the crowd is interested. I've accidentally gotten the bait and I'm promised an English version within minutes, if I only wait. No, thank you, I'm in a hurry right now.
The story surrounding the Christ the Savior Cathedral, whose cleaning up the other day was supposedly done with the permission of the municipality of Pristina, is getting interesting.
Tracing back the news I discover that not too long ago there were digging machines around the church in search of missing Albanians from Milosevic's time. There are telling pictures of excavations. There are still over sixteen hundred people missing. In the presence of Serbian and Kosovar experts no remains were found.
Body remains in the garden by the University?! The bony hand of the terrible past has not disappeared, the hand of Death and Revenge. The memories are fresh, the victims' relatives – alive and devastated.
Tracing information further back, I find successful dig sites in different locations around Kosovo. Including the stealing of bodies by Serbian authorities who then reburied them so there would be no traces left from the committed murders. The Balkan Insight website is full of such information about crimes for which there is no accountability in Serbia.
Going even further back brings me face to face with the countless monuments and lies which each of the countries in the West Balkans have come up with and immortalized. Arkan's Tigers in Belgrade are beyond justice's reach. Downtown Pristina, downtown Prizren, there is a man, with a rifle or a machine gun in hand, a cap, and a grenade and pistol. That is the way of immortalizing the respective resistance leader during the time of the Kosovo war. The statues are stylistically almost identical with the monuments of partisan fighters from the time of socialism. The problem which Kosovo authorities themselves are acknowledging is that the relatives of each dead person want a monument to commemorate that person. I even came across a quote: If Kosovo has a population of two million, the requests for monuments number two million and one.
I see no more than a dozen Albanian students from the University of Pristina in front of the Christ the Savior Cathedral. They are sitting on the grass – a sitting protest. They supposedly wrote an angry letter to all the media in Kosovo. Thirty police officers are guarding them and the media coverage is provided by almost as many journalists with cameras and microphones. The students want the church building to become part of the university and be used for other things. They also claim the garden surrounding it. Or have the building finally destroyed! The official authorities look at the events surrounding the mute church as a form of democratic self-expression. They reserve the role of a well-meaning referee, at least in words, for themselves.
Was I too hasty to cheer Jelena up with my piece of news?
A few days later I had to travel to the center of the metropolis – Brussels. The French edition of my novel Prey is going to premiere in the newly-opened Balkan library of the Italian Antonio Parodi. He has also come up with a title of the meeting: Be Bulgarian, be Balkan, be European! I tease him, be, be, but it's not easy. He takes the joke. I like to talk about serious things using a sense of humor.
Comparisons between the periphery and the center are self-imposing. I had to come to Brussels to see so many covered and burqaed Muslim women in keeping with medieval traditions. I didn't see any in Kosovo.
Brussels Is a City of Morroccans. This is not my claim, but a book title. The city center has been abandoned by the locals. They live mostly in houses near the capital. The offspring of yesterday's colonial slaves have populated the Downtown. That was the case in Los Angeles. Exactly where I have to pass by right now, the street by the stock exchange smells of urine. A black man with an injured head, wrapped in bandages like an extra in a movie gives us a long and sad sappy look while we are drinking our beers. He's also drinking, sitting on the sidewalk. A young-looking bearded Arab covered in a yellow blanket has claimed a spot right there on the tiles too. He's not begging, he's just resting. Farther down, a newly-arrived family of three – husband, wife and child, are also sitting on light-colored blankets, hands extended, begging. A three-tier bench has accommodated gawkers from several races and nationalities. They are laughing and shouting. Or maybe, they are finally enjoying what for them is civilization. Like in a sci-fi Hollywood movie, they don't care that aliens might land at any moment now. Mediocre theatricality, impunity, filth.
A hundred yards from the building housing the European Council, in a niche on the street itself, at about nine in the evening, I witness an elderly man preparing to overnight right there. He's taken his shoes off and is standing barefoot on a laid down piece of cardboard. His belongings are in a tall backpack. This Council has for years been fighting poverty and unemployment in Europe while serving the Europe of the rich. How deep is the sleep of bureaucrats who are in love with their own irreplaceability? A Bulgarian representative in the European parliament declared she had saved a quarter of a million euro from her two mandates there. The question Who's flying the airplane? doesn't seem to bother anyone anymore.
I am still under the influence of Rubens's, Rembrandt's, and especially Bruegel's paintings whose originals I saw at the Art Gallery. I have this illusive feeling that some of the live pictures of the streets of Brussels remind me of Bruegel's style. The great artist uses irony and sarcasm to show the human labyrinth. He combines the depiction of very clear cut, familiar details with unexpected and absurd images which alter the context of the seemingly easy plot. In that sense, Bruegel comes to my rescue. Behind the dry black branches of a winter tree I notice the familiar red discus of the sun. This is the same sun that perched on the hills of Kosovo and rolled over Sofia Airport just before I took off for Brussels. The sun in the painting is from 1566, but it witnessed the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.
Farther down is Jourdan Square. The surroundings are different. Young people sitting at the tables covering the street, beer pouring, talks, jokes, and smiles galore, warm Brussels potatoes served in cone-shaped wraps make the perfect beer garnish. As if on cue, a nice-looking elderly accordionist starts a playful tune.
The noise doesn't seem to bother the wild geese and ducks of the beautiful lake at the nearby Leopold Park. They are early to bed, like chickens. What if there are stray dogs? I find out that tonight the stray dogs have stayed back home, on the Balkans.
Pristina – Brussels – Sofia