g a s ta r b a j t e r slavic diaspora magazine
Table of Contents “Perpetuum Mobile” - Dara Zbaraska
“Daughter of a Refugee” - Edina Kuduzović
“The Decision” - Sulejman Dizdarević
“Наше Место”/“Our Place” - Sarah Elise Erickson
“Ringing Radiators” - Adela Chelminski
“Kladuškoj Raji” - Sulejman Dizdarević
“The Invisible Hand of the Artist”/“Невидимая рука художника” - Basil Lvoff
“Silentium” - Basil Lvoff
“Crawling Towards Daemonia” - Rebecca Travalja
A Note to the Reader
To live in the diaspora is to occupy a liminal space, one that gives and takes in ways that often lead to a diluted sense of self. It is the breaking down of something previously thought of as whole as well as a cultivation of questioning: What becomes of those in this transient state? What splintered image do the fissures of one’s identity end up creating? What can be made whole again?
Gastarbajter aims to provide a platform for those in the diaspora who identify as Slavic and who grapple with seemingly unanswerable questions. Some of these artists are more explicit in their exploration of identity and its nuances while others are more interested in how their identity informs subject matters beyond the self. With that being said, we are honored to present their work and excited to share it with you.
Slavic Student Alliance Mission Statement Slavic Student Alliance exists to provide a space for Slavic-identified individuals and others to meet and discuss pertinent cultural, political, and historical topics related to the Slavic experience. The organization’s goals include spreading awareness of the Slavic cultures and languages of Eastern, Southern, and Central Europe; holding panels/discussions and miscellaneous events informing people of Slavic issues; and emphasizing the growing role of Slavic people in the diaspora as well as Slavs’ growing role on the international stage in an increasingly globalized world.
Senior Editor ........................................................................... Ajla Dizdarević Design Editor ............................................................... Genevieve Cleverley Assistant Editor .............................................................. Asiya Mohammed Poetry Editor ................................................................................ Taylor Lopez Nonfiction Editor ...................................................................... Amela Musić Art Editor ........................................................................... Donavan Oberheu Cover art provided by Yaroslav Zbaraskyi
Want to submit? Contact email@example.com
Sponsored by the University of Iowa Student Government Left: Gornji Trg in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Photo by Armin Muzafirović
Perpetuum Mobile Dara Zbaraska
As someone who recently moved to America, I’ve had a lot of stuff to pack, a lot of stuff to throw away, and a lot of stuff to leave in general. Moving to another city, country, street, or apartment was never easy, because like every normal girl, I had a lot of things that I wanted to take with me. It was really sad to say goodbye to most of it; my favorite shoes and dresses, jackets and coats, my favorite fitness ball or even my big pink teddy bear that moved with me to Italy and never came back — I hope he is happy there. Moving to Kyiv wasn’t too bad; I had one suitcase and a shoulder bag. Moving out was much harder: 15 suitcases, a huge vase for flowers, and a brand-new dog. You may ask, “Where did you get all this?”, and I’d have a hard time answering. I was always curious about how people can move or travel with the bare minimum (three pairs of shoes, two pairs of jeans, and a jacket packed in one suitcase) when I always need ten pairs of shoes — you know, one for running, one for walking, one for rainy weather, one for the beach, one for a romantic evening… There was a lot of excitement when my husband told me that we were moving overseas, but it also brought frustration when I had to pack my whole life into one suitcase and a backpack. Up until the last moment, I was hoping it was a joke, but he was serious. It was a challenge to pick only the most important things to bring with me. The planning of packing took more time than the process itself; I watched videos on YouTube on how to tightly roll clothes to pack more in a smaller space, but still, it was impossible to pack the contents of 15 suitcases into just one. Saying goodbye is another chore of moving — goodbye to clothes, people, and places. My favorite dresses, sandals, blouses, sweatshirts, shelves with my favorite grandma’s fabrics, and, of course, books all went to friends, friends of friends, or just into the trash. But it was most difficult to say goodbye to my pets, because they didn’t understand where I was going, why I couldn’t take them with me, and for how long I would be gone. My new wardrobe in Iowa City consists of only eight hangers, three pairs of shoes, and some perfume and jewelry. My closet looks so small, but now, I don’t have any problems concerning what to wear, because I only choose from my select few favorite clothes that I wore every day in Ukraine. There is less mess; clearing my wardrobe also cleared my thoughts. Moving has in a way provided me a sense of relief and allowed me to see what is really important.
Above: Photo by Mirzet and Sidika Alibegić
A war-torn country where people were dying and a young boy who was trying to escape to a land that was free, where he later started a family. A daughter that loved him so deeply, looking up to him and considering him her hero. With that admiration came worry that one day her father would be forced to leave in a hurry. Before she knew it, it had been so long – she thought nothing could go wrong. But one day, that same boy who was pursuing the American Dream was now a man being forced back to the country he had fled. So many emotions filling his daughter’s head – angry at the people who tore him away, sad that he would never see the day when she made his struggles worthwhile or the day she’d have a child of her own with his same smile. I guess that’s just what it means to be the daughter of a refugee.
Daughter of A Refugee Edina Kuduzović Kolo by Emra Dizdarević
The Decision Sulejman DizdareviÄ‡
It was hard to think about the fact that just two days before, I was far from this hell. I was a free man waiting in line at the train station in Karlovac, Croatia, buying a ticket to freedom. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were dreaming of getting away from the fear, death, and destruction of a terrible war. Most of them never got that chance; those who had were now all over the world in places like Australia, the United States, Canada, and Germany. I had gotten that same chance but turned it down, although I already said goodbye to my family and friends. They were not angry; they were happy for me. They were happy that at least someone would get out. But I came back to Bosnia. Why? What I was looking at was the total defeat of our forces, the apocalypse. Finally, after two years of the siege, we could not hold anymore. More than a hundred thousand civilians were moving towards the Croatian border, a mere two miles away from my home, hoping that they would be let through. I hoped my family was there, too. This was a picture that tore my heart into pieces. I never cried, even as a child when my mother would punish my brother and me, I would not cry.
My city was in the valley by the hills where we were dug in as a last line of defense. From there, my city looked as if it were an ant colony. Long lines of cars, trucks, and tractors overcrowded with people were heading towards the border. I looked through my binoculars, wishing that I would be able to recognize somebody. I could not; I was too far, and the best I could see were muggy silhouettes. They looked like a convoy of ghostly creatures without faces, sitting on top of what they could take with them on tractor trailers and cars. I remember the surprise and then the anger on Naca’s face when I got out of the emergency vehicle. “You idiot!” she cried. “Why did you come back? Don’t you see that everything is falling apart? We’re all gonna die.” I asked her where Edo was, my best friend and her boyfriend. She said, “He should be in the city’s communication center, but who knows now with all this chaos where he is.” “Tell him I’m back,” I said. “Go home and take your parents to the border. Good luck!” She then asked, “What are you going to do?”
“If this is my last battle, I’m going to give them a hell of a fight.”
When I knocked on the door of my house, my mother opened it. She did not say a word. I could see tears coming down her wrinkly face. “Mom, I met uncle Edhem in Karlovac,” I told her while hugging her. “Pack only necessary things, and let the neighbors know that our only hope is crossing over the Croatian border.” The next morning, I cleaned my machine gun while putting on my boots. I could sense my mother standing behind me. I turned back and told her, “Do you really think that I could live there if something happened to you and everyone else?” She did not say a word, but I saw pain in her eyes, a pain that all mothers who sent their sons into battle felt throughout centuries of war and violence on Balkan land. This place was always the border between two totally different worlds, the border between the East and the West. Besides the endless pain in her eyes, I could see how proud she was that she did not raise a coward. On the way to the command place, I saw military police chasing deserters, trying to keep people in their homes. The enemy was already bombarding the city. People were hiding under balconies and in hallways, but there was no place to hide for everyone. Their belongings were scattered all around. Right across a high school, a grenade hit a truck. It was burning; two covered bodies were placed by the curb. Blood was everywhere. Nurses were helping three others just behind the burning truck. One of them was a child. Her arm was cut by the shrapnel just below the elbow. She did not cry. Her eyes were staring into the sky, as if telling God it was not fair. What had she done to end up like this? What was the crime of a six-year-old child to deserve this kind of punishment? Just before I reached the command building, I saw a white horse dying across the street on a playground. A childcare center used to be there. The building was in ruins, but the playground was untouched.
Left: A soldier signing off from his mandatory service in the Yugoslav People’s Army circa 1986. Photo provided by Bakir Hajdarević
I had been told to report to my unit immediately. The enemies were progressing towards the city. Their army wanted to cut off people so that they could not reach the border. The order was simple; we were to hold on until civilians crossed the border. It was the first time I heard officially that we had lost the war. The first time I heard unofficially was from my uncle Edhem two days before in Karlovac. I ran into him at the train station. He was surprised to see me. We went to the station restaurant for coffee. He asked me what I was doing there and how I got out of Bosnia. I explained that I got out with the convoy of our wounded soldiers and that I planned to go to my father’s cousin in Pula. From there, I would find a way to get to the West. Uncle was so excited that I caught the last chance to get out of the country. “It was a matter of time until our city fell into the enemy’s hands,” he said. “It will happen for sure in the next couple weeks.” I was stunned at his words. “You must be kidding me,” I said. “There are peace talks between us and the government. It’s almost a done deal. We will keep our territory after the peace agreement is signed. That’s the reason why I got out. When there is peace once again, I will be more helpful to our family from the West than being over here. I will hopefully get them all out of the country in a couple of years.” He looked straight into my eyes and said, “How naïve you are? The government was just buying some time so they can reorganize their forces and finally take the city. They were lying to you, to all of you. Everyone outside the country knows that. Just you do not have a clue what is going on. You will probably see in the next ten days or so that government forces will take the city, and only God can help our people. God help them all.” I was not listening to him anymore. His words were echoing in my head. God help them all. What am I doing here, then? I thought. My place is there together with them, with my family and my friends.
“I am going back,” I told him.
“Back where?” he asked.
“Back home. My place is there. I will fight with them.”
“Do you really think that you can change something if you go back?” he asked. “Uncle,” I said, “you’ve lived in Slovenia since you were sixteen, and now, you are what, sixty years old? You were never really one of us. Sometimes, once or twice a year, you would come over for the weekend. For your vacations, you would usually go to the Adriatic Sea, Spain, or France, not to us. You do not understand us, like everyone else in the West. I bet you see a bunch of barbarians in us who enjoy slitting each other’s throats. You are wrong; tell everyone there that they are wrong, too. We love, we care, and we die for each other. I might not make any difference by going back and fighting together with my friends for our homes, our city, and our families. I will probably die like most of them defending our families, but I will die happy knowing that I have done everything I could trying to protect them.”
“If you want to kill yourself, just go and jump under a train,” he said. “It will be much easier for your parents; at least they will not live long enough to find out.” “I already made up my mind, uncle, and there is nothing in the world that will change it. You do not have a clue how thankful I am for running into you. I can still get back to the hospital and return with the medical convoy.” As I sat in the trenches above my city waiting for the enemy to attack, I envisioned how they would carry it out. First, they would use their artillery on us for hours followed by a special forces assault. It would continue until they broke the frontline. This might take hours, days, or even weeks, but eventually, they would succeed. We would either run out of ammunition or suffer too many losses, unable to hold the lines, but who cared anymore. I hoped only that we would hold long enough until all civilians crossed the border. Thinking of that girl who lost her arm and thousands of other children, women, and elderly, I knew that I made the right decision to return.
Below: Yugoslav soldiers guarding Josip Broz Tito’s tomb in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo provided by Edo Šabanagić
Poem and photo by
SarahElise EliseErickson Erickson Sarah 10
Ha e Mecto
Место, где мы впервые встретились было заросшим. Было диким, неухоженным, неопрятным. Трава былa высокой, крапива была густой, и листья лежали там, где хотели. Место, где мы впервые встретились было заросшим. Было диким, неухоженным, неопрятным. Ветер был счастлив создать беспорядок, и он украсил землю листьями. Место, где мы впервые встретились было заросшим. Было диким, неухоженным, неопрятным. Деревья обнимали друг друга так близко, что между ними не могло проглянуть даже солнце. А сейчас место, где мы впервые встретились, – чисто. Оно открыто, освоено, и покорно. Трава больше не обнимает тело, и листья убраны. Место, где мы впервые встретились, - сейчас чисто. Оно открыто, освоено, и покорно. Деревья стоят далеко друг от друга, ветер их не посещает, а крапива ушла вместе с листьями. Место, где мы впервые встретились - сейчас чисто. Оно больше не пышное, не свободное и не дикое. И вот я сижу здесь на свежей траве, под недавно обрезанными деревьями, среди заново посаженных цветов… И спрашиваю себя, люблю ли я ещё тебя?
The place where we first met was overgrown. It was wild, untamed, unkept.
The grass was high, the nettles were thick, and the leaves lay where they wanted. The place where we first met was overgrown. It was wild, untamed, unkempt. The wind was happy to make a mess and decorated the ground with branches. The place where we first met was overgrown. It was wild, untamed, unkept. The trees hugged each other so close, not even sun could come between them. Now the place where we first met is clean. It’s open, tame, and kempt. The grass no longer embraces the body, and the leaves have been put away. The place where we first met is now clean. It’s open, tame, and kempt. The trees stand apart, the wind does not visit, and the nettles have gone with the leaves. The place where we first met is now clean. No longer lush, free, and wild. And as I sit here on fresh-cut grass, newly trimmed trees, and recently planted flowers… I ask, do I still love you?
Koschei the Deathless by Natasha Andersen
Ringing Radiators Adela Chelminski *rap rap rap* A tapping sound is heard coming from the grey radiator in the second-floor dining room. The radiators in our four-story house are all linked together. We tap them with a flyswatter or pen to make the pipes ring in order to get the attention of people on other floors. This tapping is coming from above where my mom’s sister and her family are staying.
Then come shouts from outside.
I go to the balcony to see what the commotion is. The dark sky is illuminated by a nearly full moon calmly perched atop the mountain range that towers over our suburb in Sarajevo. Apart from the shouts, nothing stirs in the warm night; even the crickets seem to have gone to sleep already. “They caught him! They caught him! Turn on the TV!” my uncle shouts in a sheer moment of exultation. My dad is on the balcony with me, and we both lean over the railing, illuminated by the moonlight. Who is he talking about? My mom runs down the stairs, opening the front door that only gets locked once we settle on our floor for the night. I stare at my uncle as he charges up the stairs and into the living room, fumbling with the remote to turn the TV on to the main public news channel. UHIĆEN JE RADOVAN KARADŽIĆ reads the screen. My mom yelps as she hugs my uncle. In the light of the TV, I see her eyes glimmering as she settles down on the couch.
My heart pounds as I feel the excitement in the air. I try remembering who exactly Karadžić is; his name is a household staple for any Bosnian or Serb, but I can’t figure out which face from memory his name corresponds to. Is he the politician whose speeches I’ve seen played in small segments over the years? I don’t think so; he doesn’t have the same eyes. Is he the man I constantly see in grainy footage from 1995, dressed in military fatigues, telling hordes of people that they shouldn’t be afraid, that anyone who wishes to be evacuated will be? I think that might be him, but I never truly learned the difference between Karadžić and Mladić. The news channel displays Karadžić’s photo. He appears to be about 80 years old with long grey hair and a bushy, grey beard, sporting huge 80s-style glasses perched on his nose. He doesn’t look like anyone I know. According to the reporter, Karadžić had been living in disguise as an “alternative medicine doctor” for the past 9 years, evading arrest. As a photo of pre-1996 Karadžić appears on the screen, I think to myself that he looks quite like my uncle: short but coiffed salt-and-pepper hair (more salt than pepper), dressed in a grey suit, an aura of intellectualism about him, and a cold gaze on his face. He looks familiar, but I am still not quite sure what his crimes are. A video of a man in a grey suit standing next to a group of men in military fatigues appears. I recognize the man in the middle who is talking and pointing; it’s Ratko Mladić, the man from the infamous video that I see every summer where he talks to the large crowd of people. Karadžić is the man in a suit standing next to Mladić, holding on to his every word.
As the news story shows images of Karadžić from the 1990s, the telecaster begins to talk about what Karadžić is known for. He was the president of Republika Srpska between 1992 and 1996. I remember asking my mom what Republika Srpska was every time we drove out to the countryside to my grandma or grandpa’s family. We weren’t in Serbia, that’s what my mom made clear. But then how was there a Republika Srpska in Bosnia? I thought all countries were just one country. My mom said that it is one country, just a little bit more complicated. The writing also changed as we drove. The road signs were spelled out in familiar letters, or Latin script, and in code, or Cyrillic script. It was a perfect game of decoding. C was actually S, but the As were the same. The Ps were actually Rs, but the Js and Es were the same. The Bs were Vs, but the Os were still Os. Сарајево spelled out Sarajevo. I always snickered at the Сарајево; jebo means fuck, but not in the
code, apparently; everyone in Republika Srpska finds it normal to say capa jebo. I’m getting sleepy now. The clock reads 1:05, but I need to stay awake. I want to learn more about Karadžić so I can follow the conversations of the adults tomorrow. The telecaster is still talking about Karadžić. She says the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has wanted him since 1996 on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. And he has finally been captured, 12 years after he disappeared. Along with Ratko Mladić and Slobodan Milošević, the three were responsible for numerous “joint criminal enterprises,” as told by the ICTY. The telecaster says Karadžić, apart from his role as president of Republika Srpska, is best known for his involvement in planning, running, and condoning the Siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica Genocide, and the taking of over 200 UN peacekeepers and military observers as hostages.
I know about Srebrenica; I learned about it a couple of years ago. I remember sitting upstairs with my uncle and cousin, watching TV as a special report was being shown. It was the same videos that come on every summer, but I didn’t pay them much attention before, only catching glimpses of them as I wandered in to get water during our hide-and-seek breaks. This time, I wanted to ask what the videos were about, but my eyes were glued to the screen. The voiceover outlined how in July of 1995, Serb forces entered Srebrenica, a UN safe-area. The whole time, grainy videos from that summer played. One video came on showing an old man calling out at the top of his lungs, “Nermine, hajde dole. Evo, ja sam dole, slobodno kod Srba.” The voiceover said the man was calling for his son to come out of hiding, to come to his death.
My throat tightened, but I didn’t want to cry because I wasn’t the one who had suffered. So this was what we commemorate every summer; the rape of thousands of women, the terrorization of over 20,000 refugees, and the genocide of over 8,000 men and boys over the span of five days. Now, as I watch the Karadžić reporting, I have a list of what he has done forming in my mind. I hope I will be able to keep up with the conversations tomorrow. As I sink back into the couch with my uncle and dad next to me, I feel a buzz in the air. It is no longer a still summer night – it is filled with the excitement of long- delayed justice, as though the country is allowing itself to take its first gasp of air in years.
Below: People skiing at the Olympic ski resort in Sarajevo, Bosnia before the war. Photo provided by Bakir Hajdarević
Kladuškoj raji Sulejman Dizdarević Ako se ne vidimo nikada više, ako me progutaju magla i mrak, i ako hladne jesenje kiše speru sa zemlje svaki mi trag. Jednom kad ovo ludilo prođe i vrati se ljudima miran san, hoće li staro društvo da dođe makar na vikend ili na dan? Hoće li na Dubrave otići moći dal’ će se sjetiti druga svoga tad samo na nadgrobnoj ploči imena već davno izbledjeloga? Ja ne želim da osuđujem nikog jer čudni su sudbine putevi. Volio bih da svrate do Piramide i sjećanja dobro da zaliju. I onda kada se vrate tamo u zemlje strane i bogate neke, šta li će reći klincima samo kad pitaju ih za frendove daleke?
Right: Soldiers in the Yugoslav People’s Army circa 1986. Photo provided by Bakir Hajdarević
THE INVISIBLE HAND OF THE ARTIST Basil Lvoff
Art is about selling, sometimes the artist just as much as the art, but
more often than not, the artist is with the reader, and the reader buys. Yet whatever purchase the artist makes, he makes it from himself.
He may suspect it but is so taken by his creative work that he ends up
taken in a different sense—taken as a naïve customer to the reader’s benefit and to the art’s ultimate one. Were the writer not gullible, he would hardly be so willing to return to the market; without him, the market would shut down. That is why, should the writer realize the truth of the matter while bargaining, he had better turn a blind eye to it and let his previous self finish the work. Such bargaining is the pendulum that gives art its aesthetic momentum. When the author knows everything, he buys nothing, and the art sells just as much.
But what does art sell and the reader buy? Art sells rhyme, and the
reader buys reason. Art sells coincidence, and the reader buys destiny. Art sells void, and the reader buys freedom. One sells form, and the other buys meaning. Unintelligible water crystallizes into a snowflake, too perfect to say nothing; one seizes the snowflake and brings it home, but nothing is left of it save a moist memory.
In his urge to buy, the reader is driven by the philistine desire to own, to
hoard. The common man is interested in possessing something permanent for two reasons: firstly, he is mortal, and secondly, he lacks the lofty and destructive fanaticism akin to the infatuation of those who consented to sacrifice their lives in return for only one night in Cleopatra’s arms.
Furthermore, the common man wants not only something permanent
and of his own, but also something useful, something that concerns his life. He does not wish for things either detachedly eternal or transitory. Meanwhile, both of these attributes—cold perpetuity and fleetingness—reflect the ethereal and inhuman nature of art—not of specific works, which do burn only too often, but of art as such, i.e., the incessant play between our meaningseeking imagination and the shape of snowflakes and celestial bodies.
Nostalgia by Izudin Dizdarević
Я верил, я думал, и свет мне блеснул наконец; Создав, навсегда уступил меня року Создатель; Я продан! Я больше не Божий! Ушел продавец, И с явной насмешкой глядит на меня покупатель. Николай Гумилев Искусство – продавец. Бывает, продавцом оказывается и художник, но чаще всего он заодно с читателем – читатель же покупает и только. Однако, что бы ни купил художник, покупает он у самого себя. Он может об этом догадываться, но настолько увлечен творчеством, что попадается как самый наивный покупатель – зачастую к вящей выгоде читателя и в конечном счете самого искусства. Не будь писатель столь доверчив, он едва ли приходил бы на этот базар, вновь и вновь, и без него базар бы закрылся. Если писатель ни на что не купится, он ничего и не купит, а искусство останется не у дел. Потому, приведись писателю осознать, что к чему во время торга, лучшее, что он может сделать, – посмотреть на все сквозь пальцы и дать прежнему своему «я» довершить начатое. Ведь этот торг – маятник, не дающий искусству остановиться. Но чем же торгует искусство и что приобретает читатель? Оно продает ошибку, а он покупает традицию. Оно продает случайность, а он покупает рок. Оно продает пустоту, а он покупает свободу. Искусство продает форму, а читатель покупает смысл. Невнятные воды затвердевают в снежинке, совершенной настолько, что она обязана что-нибудь да значить; читатель берет эту снежинку в руку и приносит домой, где от снежинки ничего не остается, кроме влажного воспоминания. Стяжательство читателя мещанское по природе. Простому человеку хочется владеть чем-то неизменным по двум причинам – во-первых, он смертен; во-вторых, у него нет той возвышенной и деструктивной одержимости, как, например, у тех, кто согласился пожертвовать собственной жизнью ради лишь одной ночи в объятиях Клеопатры. Не только неизменным желает обладать простой человек, но и чем-то полезным и касающимся именно его жизни. Ему не нужны вещи абстрактновечные или мимолетные, тогда как оба этих свойства – холодная вечность и преходящесть – несут нa себе печать эфемерного и бесчеловечного искусства – не отдельных рукописей, которые, увы, горят, и даже слишком часто, но искусства как такового, т.е. непрестанной игры между нашим ищущим смысла воображением, с одной стороны, и с другой – узором снежинок и небесных тел.
HEB N NMaR PYKA XY O HNKA Василий Львов
Nostalgia by Izudin Dizdarević 21
And there — the cloudlets’ haven, and the membranes of a god’s dreams,
S i l e n
and our silence… Gennady Aygi I. When the protagonist has shuffled off this mortal coil, “enter Pause.” In theater, nothing splits one’s ears like silence. To hearken to it, Beethoven went deaf, and so did the poet Sosnora. The absence of quiet is perhaps the greatest flaw of silent film. Here is a kōan: can a tree falling on a deserted island be overheard? More important, does silence exist when not listened to? This we cannot tell, but every poet knows that it is of silence that the word is born. Is it perhaps that God is not the word but silence? It was Tyutchev’s perfect pitch that let him catch silence: forestall the word and live in its wake. Pushkin’s strongest lines are the ones omitted; Rus’ is the loudest when it gives no answer. Silence answers when questioned, and petty are the attempts of those like Cage to speak on her behalf. We write in the name of silence. Augustine said that we are mortal because a phrase cannot live if one word does not die giving way to another. Linguists have found out that the most frequent sign is space. It is in the interval, Tynianov says, that new vision is born. The interval between paragraphs, Shklovsky demonstrates. The closest friend is the one you can be silent with. That is why the churches unforsaken by God are so quiet. In their silence, the voices of our beloved are calling us. Let us commemorate them with a moment of silence.
t i u m Basil Lvoff / Василий Львов
А там – убежища облаков, и перегородки снов бога, и наша тишина... Геннадий Айги
I. Главный герой не выходит на подмостки; он появляется, когда затихает гул. В театре, в музыке ничто так не оглушает, как оглушает тишина.Чтобы внимать ей, потерял слух Бетховен, потерял слух Соснора. Отсутствие тишины являлось, пожалуй, главным недостатком немого кинематографа. Известен коан – слышно ли, как падает дерево на необитаемом острове? Но важнее – существует ли тишина там, где мы ее не слышим? Этого мы не знаем, однако любому поэту ведомо, что именно оттуда, из тишины, рождается слово. Не значит ли это, что Бог – не слово, но тишина? Что тишина предшествует слову и что тишина должна оставаться от него, как нельзя чутче чувствовал Тютчев. Самые сильные строки у Пушкина – пропущенные. И именно тогда зычней всего говорит Русь, когда не дает ответа. Тишина отвечает тогда, когда ей задают вопросы. Жалки – такие, как у Кейджа, – попытки говорить от ее имени. Мы пишем волею тишины и ради тишины. Августин говорил, что мы смертны, потому что не может жить фраза, если не будут кончаться одни слова и начинаться новые. Лингвисты выяснили, что самый частый знак – это пробел. Именно в промежутке рождается новое зрение, говорит Тынянов. В промежутке между абзацами – показывает Шкловский. Самый близкий друг тот – с которым можно молчать. Потому так тихи не оставленные Господом церкви. В их молчании взывают к нам голоса тех любимых, которых уже нет с нами рядом. Помянем же их минутой молчания. Above: Looking up at the Bled Castle in Bled, Slovenia. Photo by Armin Muzafirović
II. ти ти ты слы ты сни вы сне
ти ти ти ты ты
ши ше ши щи
же ши же ши жи
ши ше ше же
на на на на
sism uff led steppes igh lanc e lost ace turn oct al ma ma ter ray in ter vale qui
tu Right: Bear by Vitaly Ievlev
Crawling Towards Daemonia Rebecca Travalja
I did not realize I was dreading seeing my grandmother until six hours before my bus was supposed to leave. “I am afraid of my grandmother,” I thought while sitting at work, and I began to cry. I saw my grandmother every year of my life when I was a child, but the visits stopped once I started college. I still remember my grandmother’s face even though we cannot video chat. I see it every time I see the deepening wrinkles on my mother’s face.
This was the first time I would be going back without my mother to act as a barrier, without me being able to crouch behind her even though I have been taller for years now. From what I remembered, I had never been good at dealing with my family on my own.
I could not remember a single recent summer. I remembered snippets of arguments, the smell of a bottle of rakija I spilled. I knew I had been there, but I could not remember being there.
Trauma is a funny beast. It beats you bloody, ruins your emotional stability, and when you think you’re done, you realize it took your brain. I remember my grandfather sticking his hands down my pants. I remember nobody in my family doing anything about the fact that he liked to stick his hands down my pants. I remember being forced to go back every summer after that and crying so hard that I would throw up. But I remember nothing else. I did remember the stilted awkwardness of being with my family. Here was this secret, which was not really a secret because everybody knew about it, but which I was not supposed to mention. I wanted to scream about it for days, but I couldn’t. In many ways, I am now a completely different person from that girl who I remember was at my grandmother’s. Most of her had been buried along with my grandfather, shortly after “the incident.” I often think about how my life would have turned out had he had the decency to die a year earlier. I have not spoken to many of my childhood friends in nearly a decade, have not been close with my cousins for just as long. As we say, “vrijeme čini svoje.” I had rebuilt myself so many times, patched myself together, and here I was, still vulnerable and small but standing somehow. I did not know where I would stand in my family. Deep down, remnants of that sensitive child with an attitude problem were still there.
Before I leave, I draw a tarot card. “Death.” Not very promising.
I arrive at the bus station half an hour early, very unlike Balkan people. Lately, I’ve been arriving to things late. My friends say the Balkans are finally rubbing off on me. I realize I’ve forgotten my St. Christopher’s bracelet and instinctively cross myself even though I haven’t seen the inside of a church in months. You can take the girl out of the Balkans, but you can’t take the Balkans out of the girl. I arrive at the bus stop platform and am surrounded by Croats. “Where are you?” I want to cry. I have not found any in Prague yet. I long for other Balkaners, long for home, but I fear home. I step onto the bus. The bus drivers with their broad Slavonian accents are playing Serbian turbofolk. So much for national pride. On the bus, I dream that I cannot speak to my family. Every time I try to speak Croatian, Czech comes out of my mouth. “Mluvim chorvatsky!” I scream.
Left: Split by Samra Dizdarević
I do not remember my grandmother’s mother’s name. She was always called “nonica” – little grandmother. It was from her that I inherited my small stature and birdlike wrists. Later in life, her skin was so fragile that even a cat’s tail brushing against her leg would open up deep cuts. But she was not fragile. She raised her two daughters alone during World War II after her husband was killed on a merchant ship. To the end of her life, she refused to eat fish because they fed on her husband’s body in the watery grave she could not visit. I step off the bus groggy, my neck stiff from trying to sleep against the bus window. My cousin is waiting for me. He tries to give me a handshake until I glare at him, and he finally hugs me. I realize he is with his girlfriend. I did not realize they had gotten back together. I also did not realize they were keeping it a secret from most people until I accidentally blurted out that I had seen her at family dinner.
There was a lot I did not know.
I kept quiet in the back seat on the drive home, using my tendency to be carsick as an excuse. In reality, I had no idea how to speak to my cousin who I’d been so close to when we were young. I wondered, childishly, selfishly, if he even loved me anymore. My grandfather’s mother was named Milka, and she hated my mother because she resembled my grandmother’s side of the family. Many years later, my father’s family would despise me for the same reason. She lost two sons at a very young age – one was sick, and the other was a Partisan fighter who was captured and killed in Dachau. In our local cemetery, there is a young Italian soldier who was killed during the war and buried here, unidentified. She cleaned his grave until she died, even though he represented the occupying forces that had killed her family, in the hopes that somebody, somewhere, would do the same for her son. It is sacrilegious to leave your loved ones alone in the Balkans, even in death. We drop off my cousin’s girlfriend and the rental car and wait for his mother, my aunt by marriage, to pick us up. We stand in a supermarket parking lot for half an hour. Across the street from us is a freshly painted building on which somebody has already graffitied “Džaba si krečio.” You painted in vain. My aunt and cousin argue the entire ride home, one whole excruciating hour, the worst of my 16-hour journey. They have been doing this for as long as I remember, delighting in airing out their dirty laundry and showing the world how dysfunctional they are. I like to avoid my own family’s arguments, but here, I am an unwilling participant in theirs. I remember when I told my Bosnian friends the name of my village, and they all started laughing. Over there, “Belaj” means a disturbance of sorts, a fight. Bit će belaja. My aunt always wanted a daughter and has never recovered from the pain of having two sons cluttering her house with their masculinities. She has chosen me as her surrogate daughter, overlooking my deficiencies: introverted, tomboyish, and rebellious. She yells at her son for not being me. Even though I know he’s used to this after 25 years, I cannot help but fear that he will resent me for being the favored child. “If only he were a girl,” my aunt sighs. Do you really want to raise a girl in this environment, where men do whatever they want? Where half the girls are pregnant before 18? Where most girls dream of being hairdressers because that’s the only thing they’re told they can be? Do you want a girl as broken as me, as tainted by this toxic culture, as damaged as me?
I say none of these things, because if there is one thing I learned from my grandmother, it is silence.
My grandmother uses tears and food as a weapon. Any line of questioning she does not appreciate, she shuts down with tears. So ended all my attempts to confront her about my grandfather. Any conversation she does not like, she interrupts with offers of food.
I sometimes wonder if she loved me because she always complained that I could not cook, clean, or mind my brother like the neighbors’ kids. But she always fed me. When we reach home, I bolt away from the car, forgetting my fear of seeing my grandmother in favor of getting the hell out of the escalating argument. My grandmother hugs me and cries, like always. This time, I cannot hold back the tears. I realize that she is still wearing her wedding ring. He was never good to her, my grandfather. He was an angry drunk, always yelling and breaking things. He tried to beat her once, luckily when my uncle was already grown and could beat him back. Later in life, my grandfather became more needy, wanting her to tend to him all the time when he was sick. She was barely allowed to leave the house for her own doctor’s appointments. Yet she still loves him. My grandmother made njoki, and my cousin and I stuff ourselves silly in silence. For dessert, she offers me mandarin oranges from her tree outside, and I am too overwhelmed to refuse, even though I have hated citrus my whole life. My uncle helps me peel the tenacious fruit. I bite into it, tangy juice dripping down my chin. I taste the distant heat of summer’s memory blended with the cold, biting promise of the upcoming winter – I’m in heaven.
What else have I been missing in my own home because I wasn’t willing to see differently?
While my uncle cooks medica, I take a quick shower - the quickest of my life because my grandmother’s old stone house does not have heating. Before I take my clothes off, I check that I have locked the door exactly six times – my ritual ever since I found out that my grandfather would spy on me while I used the bathroom. For good measure, I throw a towel over the keyhole. My cousin takes me out for a drink and his brother meets us there. They are both smokers, apparently have been for years now. I did not know. I was shocked to realize that I do not know such basic things about them. They ask if I mind if they smoke around me, and I say no, it comforts me. I realize that I am comforted by cigarette smoke because most of my friends in Bosnia smoke. I also realize that I know my Bosnian friends better than my own flesh and blood. I ignore their talk and daydream instead. I wonder if I’ll ever live here. If I do, I will have to clamp down on parts of myself, hide the voice I found so recently. I wonder how my relatives will behave at my eventual wedding with my friends who are openly gay, of different races, even Serbian. Will that cause problems? Then I also realize: will my friends, raised in insular liberal surroundings, not understand the way a poor education affects you? I envision the fistfights at my wedding and shudder.
Photo provided by the Pomagrin Family
We sit in periods of long, uncomfortable silences, and I realize we do not know how to speak to each other, be people with each other. Maybe we never did, but when you are a kid, you can be distracted by play. When you are an adult, you cannot be distracted from the fact that you are vastly different people. I begin to wonder why I came. My grandmother, at least, tried to act like I had never left, but she had still given me the guest coffee cup. When I come home, my other aunt is already back from work. While I was gone, she picked up my purse from the floor and placed it on the dresser, upholding the Croatian superstition that putting your bag on the floor will cause you to lose money. That is true love. The next morning, I wake up with my stomach in knots. I cannot remember why. I think it might be something I ate. Then I remember that I was supposed to see my grandfather’s grave today. As I shove some bread down my gullet, the phone rings. It is my aunt Ljiljana, my father’s sister. She is probably schizophrenic, but we do not know for sure. There is that lovely Croatian euphemism, “bolna na živci” – her nerves hurt – used to shut down any talk of mental health or treatment. She terrorized me as a child – sweet one minute, then screaming about how we were all out to get her, especially my mother and me, her fat niece. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to understand her. It is lonely to live in a crowded village where everybody despises you and nobody tries to understand you. Sometimes I, too, feel like screaming. Our conversation is pleasant for once. But her calling brings up my father and my mother’s divorce from him. “Why is she divorcing him?” my grandmother begins to wail. “Everyone always said how good he was to feed all of you, to let her come visit her parents so often.” We’re always made to feel grateful for it not being worse. He could have hit us. He could have groped us. He could have withheld money, food, freedom. You’re never supposed to think about how it could have been better. You’re not supposed to think about how you deserve more from life than the absence of death. How it could be better. My mother left her home when she was young. She was only two years older than me. She left her home for a man who controlled her every move – how well she learned English, what she wore, where she worked. He put her down, told her she was ugly, stupid, could never amount to anything without him. She decided to try life without him anyway. I’ve never seen her happier. I’ve never been prouder of anybody in my life.
My aunt and I go to the little church in the cemetery to clean it for mass tomorrow. The tombs are bright with marigolds. I’ve never been here so close to All Saints’ Day. I’ve never seen graves look so beautiful. We stop and clean my grandfather’s grave. I think back to the mandatory family visits to the graveyard when I would sit in the car screaming because I refused to go to his grave. My family chose to pretend it was because I was so close to him, that the grief was just too much for me to bear. Somewhere under the stone is a letter I had dropped into the grave, railing against him for what he did to me. Today, I feel nothing. I realize that without the picture on the gravestone, I would not be able to even remember what he looked like. While my aunt finishes cleaning, I go to the castle nearby. When I was a child, it was hard to see through the tangle of greenery and impossible to visit, threatening to collapse at any moment. The Croatian government recently renovated it and added a pair of stairs to reach the top of the tower. I climb to the top and look at the view. I can feel something different in the hills than in any other landscape I’ve seen, a sense of something old and powerful. It is not hard to believe in God in the face of such beauty, or at least in fairies. “This is why I come here,” I think. “This is why I cannot stay away.” My grandmother makes us karbonara, my favorite food. After dinner, my aunt offers me a glass of homemade wine from our cellars. I have never tasted it before, even when I was considered old enough. It reminded me of my grandfather, of the overpowering sweetness always on his breath. Today, I take a sip. It tastes strong and sweet. It tastes of home. After dinner, I go for a walk just up and down the road. Already cars are headed up to the nearby manor house to prepare for that night’s party. I see my childhood best friend, and we chat awkwardly for a few minutes. I think about walking through the forest to avoid traffic, but I cannot remember which fields ours are, and it would not do to trample the neighbor’s crops with my clumsy American feet. Soon, the memories come back to me. My grandfather herded goats here, I played soccer with the cows here, played grasshopper with my cousins here. I am beginning to remember. Later that night, I go with my two aunts and uncle to the village party. We get there at nine, and I do not know anybody else. I start walking over to the bar, but my aunt stops me. “That’s really rude here,” she whispers. “You have to wait for everybody in your group to get drinks and get a round together.” I excuse myself and go outside to cry. Here I was longing for my culture when I cannot really call it mine. I don’t even know the drinking customs. I am also crying because I realize that I am relying on alcohol to get me out of an awkward situation – just like my grandfather. I go back inside, and mercifully, we have begun drinking. I do my first ever shot of Jager with my aunt. My cousin finally comes and buys me two more. “I want to see you shitfaced,” he cackles. Half an hour and seven Jagers later, his mission is accomplished. At some point, I lose sight of everybody I know. I don’t know what to do, so I stumble outside, lean against a barn building, and, to continue the theme of the weekend, begin to cry. I start crying because I am lonely, then continue crying because I had spent the entire trip tense and afraid of my family because of my grandfather’s memory. Even when he was dead, he was ruining my life and separating me from the people I loved. A woman I do not know wordlessly brings me water and tissues. After I have calmed myself down somewhat, I turn back to find my family who have just realized I am gone. I keep trying to explain why I was upset, but nobody is listening, choosing instead to dismiss it as drunk crying. “Why won’t you understand me?” I scream.
Above left: Photo provided by the Pomagrin Family
They all hug me anyway and walk me to the car. I realize in that moment how loved I am. I had been angry at these people for so long because of their association with my grandfather, but they all loved me anyway. They may not understand me, but they love me. They express it in hugs, tears, and excess amounts of food instead of words, but we all have our own language of love. They had hurt me, but don’t we always hurt the ones we love most? I begin to sob again in the car. “Let it out, honey,” my cousin sighs, patting my back. I spent years hiding the story of my abuse from other people. I did not want to bring shame to my family or to bring shame to my culture. I did not want to validate all those people who think of all Balkan men as primitive and evil, so I threw my own healing under the bus. Then I spent years shouting my story of abuse at people, trying to make up for all those years of silence with hatred and anger. Now, I am not silent or angry. I just am. I wake up the next morning still drunk. “Jebem mater Jageru al’ mu jebem,” I text my cousin. Mercifully, I am not hungover. I never am – my body’s gift from my alcoholic ancestors. I step outside with no jacket on to breathe the chilly air, knowing it is the first and last moment of silence I will get all day. All I hear are the dry leaves rustling as they fall, a new sound to hear here. I have only known the summers. We go to church, and after the service, we go to the cemetery to say a quick prayer for the dead. We stand in front of my grandfather’s grave, but I pray for the grave next to him, the four men killed by Ustashe in the war. I am not ready to pray for him yet. I can barely pray for myself. There is a community hangout in the courtyard. My cheek is soon wet from all the kisses. Everybody seems genuinely happy to see me and asks when I’m coming back. “For carnival,” I say, spontaneously making the decision. After mass, we eat cake and drink medica in the church courtyard. My uncle smiles when he sees me covering my cup after the first round and fending off the overzealous neighbors pouring drinks. “Too soon?” he whispers. The banquet passes by in a blur, an orgy of food. I am emotionally overwhelmed and tune out everything, although I do hear my uncle explaining the village history to the new priest. “Fifty years ago, this was full of life – there was even a bar! Now it’s just us.” I wonder what will happen once my grandmother dies and my aunt becomes frail. Will my home fade away? The guests leave, and my mother calls. It is strange to have her back with us. She tells me she was receiving pictures of me all weekend, so she felt like she was there. I am not sure whether to feel happy my family wanted to reassure her that I was safe or upset that I was being spied on. There is no privacy in the Balkans. I wake up three times in the night to pee. “You caught a cold in your kidneys because you weren’t wearing an undershirt,” my aunt says sleepily. “There’s no such thing,” I retort, but sure enough, I wake up the next morning feeling stuffy. I remember all the times I ran around drunk with no coat on in the Vermont winter. I never got sick. Here, the power of my family’s superstition is stronger than the logic of germs. I cry when I have to leave, not the heavy sobs of childhood or my drunken weeping, but a deeper kind of cry expressing a weariness in my soul. I wonder how many goodbyes I will have to say in my life. After only twenty-one years, I have grown sick of them. I am almost sad that I went home. It was easier when my grandmother’s house was just an unhappy memory, a source of trauma. Now it is again a happy place, my other home. I realize no matter where I live in the world, I will always be missing somewhere, deeply. Others go through the same: saying goodbye to friends and loved ones who move away, but for us diaspora kids, it is much more intense. I will spend my whole life longing.
Right: Photo provided by the Pomagrin Family
I went to my grandmotherâ€™s house expecting to confront my demons, hoping to talk about them with my family, hoping for an apology. I forgot that my family does not talk and most certainly does not apologize. We shout, we argue, we cry, and we eat, but we do not talk. Maybe that is why I find it so difficult to share, why my throat closes up when I want to confide in my friends. Maybe that is why I overshare in my writing, exposing all my traumas for the world to see, because I grew up forced into silence.
I went home expecting to find my demons. Instead, I found my family.
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