November 2007


Thursday Thirteen

1. I was absent for so long but OK I’m back now with another Serbian story for cold Thursday (actually Wednesday) evening. This time I’ll write about one exclusively Serbian custom: Slava.
2. Slava is a religious custom and it represents the day of the home/family’s Patron Saint. It’s unique in Christian world and represents one of the greatest characteristic of the religious life of the Serbs.
3. Slava is actually celebration of spiritual birthday of Serbian people. Namely our ancestors have had accepted Orthodox Christianity collectively by families and in commemoration of their baptisms, each family began to celebrate in a special way to honor the saint on whose day they received the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
4. St. Paul said that each Christian family is church by itself and just as churches are dedicated to one saint (who is protector of the church), Serbian families place themselves under the protection of the saint on whose holiday they became Christians. 5. To that protector of their homes, they pay special homage from generation to generation, from father to son, each and every year.

St Arhangel Michael

6. The celebration of Slava requires the Icon of the family Patron Saint (mine is St Archangel Michael, you can see the icon) and several items that symbolize Christ and the believer’s faith in his death and resurrection: a lighted candle, žito, bread, and red wine.
7. Candle reminds us that Christ is the Light of world. Without Him we would live in darkness.
8. Žito represents the death and resurrection of Christ . Žito is prepared as an offering to God and also is to honor the Patron Saint and to commemorate our ancestors.
9. Bread represents Christ as the Bread of Life and 10. the red wine, of course, represents Christ’s blood.
11. As I said Patron Saint of my family is St Archangel Michael and we are celebrating his day every 21st November (so that was last Wednesday) and it is occasion to whole family and friends gathered.
12. I could say I’m a religious person I guess but I don’t like to express my religion publicly and also there are many things I’m not familiar with. for example I had to check symbolism of certain custom (that’s probably normal since those are become common part of my life).
13. However, in Serbia there are many atheists but they are also respecting institution of Slava as a beautiful part of Serbian tradition. There is such a strong bond between Slava and being Serbian so that people often forgets it’s actually religious celebration.

The People’s Act of Love
James Meek

The People´s Act of LoveWOW what a strange novel this is! This beautiful piece of historical fiction written in the best spirit of Russian classics is set in the coldest, isolated part of Siberia during the Russian Revolution. Place where common rules can’t be applied or can easily be neglected and therefore perfect (whatever that means) place to test your humane values and scruples.

I’ve read somewhere one comment about the book as if ”Anna Karenina meets Silence of the Lambs” and that’s pretty much true with the difference that somehow you feel oddly sympathetic with “this” Hannibal Lecter probably because he is breathtakingly convincing (and therefore much scary). His mission is so pure that you’re finding yourself how you almost ignoring the methods; through his words it sounds perfectly right:

 

“…he’s a man so dedicated to the happiness of the future world that he sets himself to destroy all the corrupt and cruel functionaries he can; till he’s destroyed himself. He’s not a destroyer, he is destruction; to hold such a man to the same standards as ordinary man would be strange, like putting wolves on a trial for killing an elk, or trying to shoot the wind.”

And indeed you simply can’t apply the same standard not only to that specific character but (as I said above) to the whole place where the novel is set in. Because just imagine the question like this: “under what circumstances is eating another human being justifiable?” Is there an answer on that question at all? OK maybe if you think now about that horrible true story about plane crash in South American Andes where survivors had to eat pieces of their friends who didn’t survive the crash to stay alive I should reformulate question: “under what circumstances is killing and then eating another human being justifiable?”.
Other question that emerges is “How far are you ready to go in dedication yourself to the God?” and I assure you, if I tell you the answer you wouldn’t believe!

So, the story is set in the middle of Siberia in the village of Yazyk and the characters is one the most impossible group of people: marooned legion of Czechoslovak troops; the members of the strangest Christian sect I’ve ever heard about; a shaman with spiritual “third” eye on his forehead; a strange widow and her son; an escapee from an Arctic gulag and of course the man who “is not destroyer but destruction itself”.

Story about first two groups (Czechs and Christian sect “skoptsy”) is based on historical facts. The year is 1919 and maybe it would be nice to explain historical background of the story (but I should stress that novel is NOT about this):

A turning point in the history of the Russian civil war was the rebellion of the Czech troops, surely one of its most curious episodes. The Habsburg monarchy, Russia’s enemy in the First World War, was like imperial Russia, a multinational empire. The large Slav minority within it felt oppressed, and at the time of the war showed little loyalty to the Habsburgs. A large number of Czech soldiers, for example, easily allowed themselves to be captured by the Russians. The tsarist government hesitated to play the nationality card. They refused to form an army from these prisoners of war and allow them to fight on their side. That situation changed in 1917: Czechs formed an independent corps and fight the Germans. The Czechs were enthusiastic soldiers, for they rightly believed that only the defeat of the central powers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, would allow them to form an independent state. When the Russian army fell apart, this tiny force alone wanted to continue fighting, but the Brest-Litovsk treaty made it impossible for them to continue their struggle. After long negotiations with the Soviet government, it was decided to allow them to travel to the Western front through Siberia, the Pacific, and the United States. The Czechs, however, never reached their destination, because while traveling through Siberia they started to fight the Bolsheviks.

And this is where/when the novel is set: In one Siberian village full of Czech soldiers on their way to Pacific but trapped by the Bolsheviks and their own crazy “cheef”.

This novel is extremely thought provoking with such incredible twists. Truth, the start is little confusing and slow with introduction to the characters; it’s kind of little stories about them which will be joined in one story and then the book becomes un-put-down-able. Honestly I can’t remember when was the last time I was so surprised with how the story goes in the book. It’s amazingly unpredictable with turns that leave you speechless. And in the end everything is about love, about many kinds of love and sometimes in quite weird way.

[it’s very hard to write about the novel and avoid the spoilers and I’m aiming to avoid them. I know I would be furious if I have found something that could spoil this great reading adventure. So here is little advice: Do not read comments on Amazon, they are full of spoilers (I’ve read them after I finished with the book)]

This book is definitively not for everyone but it was very enjoyable read for me. It’s not an easy read and (as one my friend said) “nor one that is easily forgettable”.

Probably you’ll get the best image of what can you expect from this novel, from this quote:

“Did you hear the story about the monk who arrived in a small town in Poland one time, rang the bell in the marketplace, gathered all citizens and told them that he had come to warn them of a terrible plague which would soon afflict them? Somebody asked him who was carrying the plague. The monk said: I am”

Last Friday (16th) I met great Spanish novelist Javier Sierra here in Belgrade. He was promoting his new novel “The Lady in Blue” (La Dama Azul) which has been just published in Serbian. I was so excited, well as I usually am when I’m suppose to meet someone with whom I already shared so many hours without knowing him/her in personal. That’s always tricky, especially if you have some image based on the novel(s) and then I’m always finding myself little surprised after discovering that writers are actually human beings. LOL

I really enjoyed in Sierra’s bestselling novel “The Secret Supper” (it was very popular among Serbian readers. I think it was 4th on the year list of bestselling novels behind Pamuk, Coelho and Braun), novel full of riddles, mystery, codes, history and the Great Leonardo! What I found fascinating in that novel is huge research which standing behind the book; you can think that writing a book is a huge adventure (probably that’s not the case. I usually think that writing a book is much closer to giving a birth!). That’s why I’m so looking forward to read The Lady in Blue, he wrote in dedication note “the secret is now mine for ever” I just have to read it!

We had nice conversation in Spanish (he was so surprised when I started talking in his mother tongue and he gave me lots of compliments for my pronunciation, as if I’m not stranger! That was really great to hear!)

About the book …soon.

Javier Sierra and me

You would think that the sport is on the very last place in minds of Palestinians with all hell they live in. Oh but that’s very incorrect! They will drop everything they are doing to watch they national football (soccer) team and instantly forget all problems. Palestinian sport commentator has described their bid to qualify to World Cup 2006 as “one of our most beautiful dreams.”

Goal DreamsGoal Dreams, lovely film directed by Maya Sanbar and Jeffery Saunders is telling us the emotional path of the Palestine national team while its players are gathering from all over the world to play under the same flag and represent their nation on the international stage. It is quite unique story and is showing in very untraditional and very original way Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its effect on the lives of Palestinians.

The team is on the preparation in Ismailiya in Egypt for the crucial match against the national team of Uzbekistan which supposes to be held in 30 days in Qatar (because of obvious reason it can’t be in Palestine). The team’s coach, Austrian Alfred Riedl is having numerous problems.“We are unique in the world; we don’t even have a country! We have to practice here [Ismailiya]… we don’t know what we are, who we are?” said Mr. Riedl but that’s hardly his only problem. Namely 30 days before the match the team is short several players (mostly the ones from Gaza). Players who are there aren’t speak the same language; there is one New Yorker who speaks English only of course; few from Santiago de Chile among them one speaks English; one from Madrid, Sweden, a few from Egypt who speak Arabic; later is coming one from Lebanon who speaks Arabic as well. And there are missing players from Gaza (Arabic). Coach is speaking English (and is cursing in Serbian which was such a huge surprise and the whole audience has burst of laughing. We asked Mr. Saunders who was guest of the festival does he have an explanation but he didn’t) so it was kind of Babylonian Tower in small. Just imagine the final version of coach’s words after passing the process of three translations!

The basic idea with gathering players for the team was their origin. They had to be Palestinians in any (even stretched sense) so many of them were for the first time in the region (not in the land) where their ancestors were born many, many years ago. Naturally all of them were bringing different way of thinking, different mentality, different cultural heritage but also very different style of playing soccer.

So the story follows the days in Ismailiya but also we are moving in New York or Chile or Lebanon to see lives of expatriated Palestinians and how they are preserving that core of who they really are. The player from Lebanon introduces the audience to the reality of life in Palestinian refugee camps, with the scarcity of work and opportunities as well as the daily struggle for survival.

Naturally the worst situation is with the part of the team which supposes to come from Gaza. Israeli part of the border is closed and no one has idea when it’ll be reopened. They are trying several times to cross the border and each time they (along with hundreds of other people) had to go back. Once there were gun shooting at the frontier and guys didn’t even raise their eyes to see what’s going on; they were sitting and joking like nothing is happening around them. One of them said “Oh this is nothing unusual; this is part of our everyday life. We could have a training drill here while waiting”. I must say that I recognized Serbian mentality in these words.
And the time is passing. So 10 days before the match the team still doesn’t have enough players and the ones who are there are in linguistic mud.
So the coach’s mood is in one moment filled with determination to make a strong team capable to win qualifying match and in the next moment is like broken under incredible obstacles his team is facing with.

“Goal Dreams” is a testament to the power of the Palestinian dream and to the Palestinian people’s ability to hold onto the hope in spite the horrifying reality in which are living.
One of the last scenes in the film is showing player from Lebanon and behind him huge Adidas billboard with David Beckham and the message Impossible is Nothing.

Yesterday was the opening day of my favourite film festival Free Zone. It is festival of involved film (probably my favourite genre, because it’s (the only one?) without boundaries, because life is its boundary. The industrial production of moving pictures inevitably led to an overabundance of film heroes, to the banality of their missions and to the commercialization of their idealism and to the indifference of the audience. Casual meaningless heroism dominates most of today’s films.

Free Zone offers a different kind of film hero in feature films and documentaries. These heroes are different in their constitution, origin, geography, their burden and, perhaps most importantly, in their existential quality. They are ordinary people who have made, daringly and fearlessly, the hardest choice – to take life in their own hands. Weather by refusing to accept the fate chosen for them by the society, challenging injustice, questioning establishment and traditional relationships and taboos in societies they live in, or truly believing on the possibility of change and the creation of better world, the directors and heroes of these films realize that the belief in choice is what differentiates civilization from barbarism, that civilization means involvement and choice means responsibility.

In next few days you can expect my reviews about movies I’m going to see on the festival.

 

PersepolisFirst film was beautiful Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud; adaptation on the acclaimed graphic novel based on director M. Satrapi’s own life.

This breathtaking animated film is a poignant story of an outspoken young girl coming age in Iran during Islamic Revolution. Hope that revolution has had and disappointing changes it has brought. It is very personal and very emotional story with magnificent portraits of her family members. One might be surprised with modern language and modern look on life. It’s strange to see girl with black headscarf jumping and screaming with “Iron Maiden”. Political struggle, repression of the regime, foreign involvement in producing that misery is so clear and sharp.

This is statement of Marjane Satrapi about her film:

“This isn’t a politically orientated film with the message to sell. It is first and foremost a film about my love for my family. However, if Western audiences end up considering Iranians as human beings just like the rest of us, and not as abstract notions like “Islamic fundamentalists”, “terrorists”, or the “Axis of Evil” then I feel like I’ve done something”

Well, I’m not the one who will change my view about Iranians after this film. After years of learning Farsi and knowing many Iranians I never thought they’re “terrorists” or whatever. On the other hand I’m not sure could I be considered as a member of “Western audience” either.

This is French submission for the next Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and don’t be surprised at all if it wins the Oscar.

Infidel
Ayaan Hirsi Ali

InfidelIf I ever decide to make a list of the most important books I’ve read “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali would surely find its place on it.

First time I’ve heard about Miss Hirsi Ali it was after murder of Theo Van Gogh because of his film “Submission-part one” which he made in collaboration with Hirsi Ali. Theo has been shoot and slaughtered in the middle of the day and the letter for Hirsi Ali (in which assassin is promising the same to her) was staked with knife in Theo’s chest. It was really a huge shock with big impact across the Europe.
Later “Submission-part one” was in the program of the Free Zone Film Festival here in Belgrade and among the guests was Belgrade’s Imam and the conversation after projection was very interesting (I wrote about that evening HERE). Sadly I would have much more and much better question now after reading this book.

Anyhow Infidel was one of the most wanted books on my wish list and you can’t imagine my thrill-ness when I saw in Belgrade’s bookstores that it has been translated in Serbian. I’ve read book in one swallow and then reread it slowly but it raised the same emotional reaction.

It starts with the life of her grandmother and later mother in Somalia with such a vivid description of very strict life in Muslim community. Her grandmother was an incredibly strong woman capable to accept the destiny and justify it as an Allah’s wish. You might think that her actions might be quite brutal with her granddaughters (and also comparing with the treatment with her grandson) but she was following tradition and was believe that she’s doing right.

There in first part we are introduced how important is to know who your ancestors are. It is actually fundamental to be familiar with entire family tree hundreds of years ago because in Somalia first question when you meet someone will be “Who are you?” and then they are starting to recite all ancestors until they find a mutual one. That can save your life (it saved Ayaan’s) because the whole population of Somalia is divided in several clans and everything there is based precisely on that. Any kind of help: health care, shelter, financial helps … etc. It’s horribly tight bond between them (and horribly huge risk if you disgrace your clan).

Later we see first “rebellion” in the actions of Ayaan’s mother but still she was women who followed the rule and also was able to accept her destiny because that was Allah’s will. Ayaan’s family was a kind of nomadic ones because due to her father’s political activism they had to hide and run away from one place to another. Therefore she lived during her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

While reading those pages it was as if I’m reading some fictional story from another dimension. Of course accent was on the women in Islam. Obligation to be covered, obligation to not leave the house without a man, obligation to accept (everything), obligation to not argue, obligation to bear, obligation to be sexually available to her husband whenever he wants to “plough his field”, obligation to be obedient, obligation to submit. Because word “Islam” means “submission”. Moreover she was unfortunate enough to belong to the Muslim community where girls must be circumcised (I wrote about Female Genital Mutilation HERE). So indeed that part was like something from another world.

We can see how she was growing up physically and religiously. How she wanted so badly to be a good Muslim woman who follows all the rules but in the same time she has had many questions in spite the fact that questions are forbidden. It is one breathtaking image of immense mental struggle between her believes, what she has been taught it’s the only truth and the life facts which were quite opposite. It was literally painful to read, emotion was quite similar to claustrophobia.

Eventually she started to talk with criticism about her own religion, she was loud in her statement against position of women (that especially refers in Muslim communities in European countries i.e. Holland) and naturally pile up the anger of Muslim world on herself.
It is a breathtaking story of a woman who (in her own words) was lucky. Once she was a child from the desert with extremely limited possibilities but who became elected member of a Dutch Parliament.

But what has the biggest impact on me is that I “found” myself in the book. Namely I realized that I belong to the huge majority of European (say) Christians (I guess) who are trying to avoid speaking with criticism about other religions because that might be connected very easily with racism (nationalism, fascism, etc). Since I lived in the country that has fallen apart in undoubtedly religious war (it was civilian war of course but in first place it was religious one) I’m trying to be very tolerant and to understand the point of views of the “opposite” side.
I realized that I do have very (say again) “Christian” look on Islam and religions in general. I honestly believed that all religions (therefore Islam as well) are good, are love, peace, tolerance etc. Right? Wrong!

Ayaan Hirsi Ali in this book is telling us that Islam is love and tolerance (in very limited sense) but ONLY inside the Muslim world. For all others who aren’t belonging to that world it is a threat because it gives a strict order to all believers to convert or kill the rest of us who are considered as nonbelievers. Another amazing thing is that many inside the Muslim population are not aware of that because the Holly Koran is written in Arabic, language they don’t understand. What a paradox!

What is written in Koran is not only religious message but an absolute constant that is defying every singe aspect in believer’s life. It is quite unbelievable that it is expected from nowadays believers to strictly follow the rule (and apply sanctions) of desert tribes of Saudi Arabia in the 7th century! But still if they’re not following those rules (or even if they think of theirs reasons) they’re not good believers and deserve to be punished. And those things about unbelievers are written in Koran.

Now I really don’t know what to think? That’s why I’d love if I could have another opportunity to speak again with Belgrade’s Imam who is a very dear man, but I’m wondering if he’s not aggressive toward Christians and doesn’t call his believers to be aggressive; if he doesn’t think that he lives in the country of nonbelievers; if he preaches love, peace and tolerance he must be considered as a bad Muslim from the point of view of the followers of traditional Islam about whom Hirsi Ali is writing because that is not what Koran demands.

This book, her entire life is a monument of freedom of speech. Her criticism has arguments. Europe is also criticized with every right. Remember Danish cartoon scandal? A cancellation of theater plays which has the theme Prophet or even include Prophet together with representatives from other religions etc? That culture of self-censorship will completely ruin European values. That is not our heritage; that is not heritage of modern world! Allowing speech of hatred which is targeting people who are not Muslims (that can be heard in the mosques across the Europe) we here are accepting and justifying it with freedom of speech; When Muslim communities in the Europe are practicing traditional Islam that violates numerous human rights, we here are justifying that with religious freedom! Is female genital mutilation performed on young girls on the kitchen table in the middle of Europe religious freedom?

As I said I’m quite confused (this book is so enormously thought provoking); I’m not paranoid person, on the contrary. Moreover my contact with Islam is not nearly like this. I studied Farsi for several years and have many Iranian friends and I adore their cultural heritage; I know members of Muslim communities here and they aren’t nearly fanatics, they are my friends and I can unquestionably rely on them. I guess we [Serbia] are not rich enough to be interesting for refugees from much more rigid and traditional environments.

Hirsi Ali speaks with arguments and with statistic data of (mainly) women victims of Islamic fanatics inside their own families here in Europe. Many are victims of self combustion with gasoline (because they had sex before marriage) in a front of their fathers and brothers. If she refuse to kill herself they [father or brother] would kill her. That’s not, that can’t be religious freedom!

It’s high time for us to realize that tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.

Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunShe did it again. And she did it (again) masterfully! (click to read my review for her debut: Purple Hibiscus) While reading this novel I was often thinking of García Márquez’s words: The worst enemy of politicians is a writer” and I would amplify that with not only of politicians. Now, I’m not sure if Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has had intention to accuse (probably not) but you cannot avoid truth and, as always truth is hurting so badly.

Heartbreaking Half of a Yellow Sun (related with Biafran flag) is a story about birth and short life of Biafra, life that ended in one of the worst possible way while “the world was silent when they died”. Before reading this book I didn’t know much about Biafra, I didn’t even know it was an independent country (*blush* I should know that!). For me Biafra was a synonym for starvation, for hunger, misery, I was always picturing children with huge bellies and limbs like toothpicks. Now I know the word for that: ”kwashiorkor”, difficult word isn’t it?

Everything started 1960 when Nigeria independence from British colonialism; few years later there was a coup d’état led by Igbo tribe. Since Nigeria was the country with many clans ethnic tension started to sparkle between Muslim Hausa and Christian Igbo clans and eventually resulted with ethnic cleansing of Igbos that were living in the north of the country with Muslim majority. Because of that atrocity Igbo clan has proclaimed independence of theirs own country named after Biafran Bay in the southeast of Nigeria (the problem was, as one of the characters said was the fact that Biafra haskwashiorkor huge oil reserves). Few countries have recognized new country, however the most powerful ones (i.e. United Kingdom and Soviet Union) supported Nigeria with military supplies and after three years (1967-1970) the war of Biafra secession ended in a humanitarian catastrophe as Nigerian blockades stopped all supplies, military and civilian alike, from entering the region. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) people died in the resulting famine.

The story has been told through the lives of three very different characters:
Ugwu,13 year old boy from some remote village who is starting to work as a houseboy in the house of university professor with revolutionary aspirations. Ugwu is a magnificent source of Nigerian (African?) folklore and mythology. His superstitious-ness is beautiful, pure and incredibly authentic. Being uneducated his provincialism and thinking of everything authentically African as inferior comparing with everything British is very strong! (I sound as if I’m justifying his attitude with that “being uneducated”, well it’s really hard dislike Ugwu)
Olanna, young women with university diploma from London, member of Nigerian aristocracy who rejected privileged life and follow her heart. Strong, modern, enthusiastic woman with strong vision of her future life liberated from the chains of her family’s expectations.
Third one is Richard, man I identified myself with. He’s an Englishman who came in Nigeria because he fell in love with the ancient piece of local art (I think I could do the same). Man who being white has had to put much more effort to prove himself as true Biafran and was doing this in the best possible way.
What I especially like is that all three main characters are real humans; they are not flawless. On the contrary, they are making horrible mistakes which might be even unforgivable under different circumstances.

But this is not only story about the war. War with its horror is scenery for the story of love, loyalty, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness about fight and survival. It is very universal story placed in one precise historical context.

Truth, some of the scenes are so graphically described that I had to close the book and take a deep breath before continue. But of course why should she use euphemism for truth? In spite that this is really page turner. I was little afraid after warning from the back cover “I wasted last fifty pages, reading them far too greedily and fast, because I couldn’t bear to let go…” but I’ve done the same (and of course then reread them). This is one testimony of the things that mustn’t be forgotten! And oh, don’t be surprised if you find your eyes filled with tears. In spite the fact that last sentence wasn’t surprise for me, that I expected that, I couldn’t help myself…

Flag of Biafra